Alan Alda, the actor, director, screenwriter and author who helped establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, gave a lecture titled “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” on Thursday, Feb. 19 to promote the center’s mission to teach scientists how to effectively connect with audiences about their work.
The talk, which was open to the public and sponsored by the School of Journalism as well as the Alda Center, featured a slew of anecdotes from Alda’s history in science and acting, pressing the importance of his goal to make better communicators out of future scientists and medical professionals.
Alda hosted “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS from 1993 to 2007, where he interviewed over 700 scientists.
“As far as the public is concerned, we’re really on a blind date with science,” Alda said. “We want to get the public out of that uncomfortable situation of being on a blind date and get them to fall in love with science.”
Sticking to the theme of love, Alda explained the theory of the three stages of love as a metaphor for how audiences listen to scientists.
“You might not even know about the theory of the three stages of love, because I made it up,” Alda said.
He said the three stages are attraction, infatuation and commitment.
“If we don’t see a thought process going on, we don’t really believe we’re being spoken to,” Alda said. “Real people try to make a connection not only to one another, but to what their inspiration is for their next sentence. And if you see that going on, if there’s real contact with the people you’re talking to, they’re going to pay more attention.”
Alda also spoke about the curse of knowledge, which he believes is the major problem for scientists trying to engage the public.
“Knowledge is a curse; when you know something so deeply in all its complexity that you forget what it’s like not to know it,” Alda said.
To demonstrate this, he called up an audience member to the stage to tap out the rhythm of a song on the podium. The audience had to try to guess what the song was, based solely on the tapping. The volunteer guessed that most of the audience would be able to identify the song prior to the experiment.
“I think we got like 20–25 percent tops,” Alda said, following the experiment. “Don’t feel bad because most people say 80 percent will get it. When we tap it out, we hear the melody in our head. We’re undergoing the curse of knowledge.”
Another demonstration Alda performed exhibited how telling a story is not enough to connect to an audience.
He asked a volunteer to carry an empty glass from one side of the stage to the other. He then filled the glass to the brim with water and said, “Now you have to carry that glass back across the stage and put it on that table, but don’t spill a drop or your entire village will die.”
The audience member successfully carried the glass across the stage.
“OK so which trip across the stage was more engaging?” Alda asked. “Everybody knows there’s no village that’s going to die, but just saying that puts that virtual risk in our heads. It’s enough to make you say, ‘I hope she doesn’t spill that. Is she going to be able to do it?’”
Alda said he also believes humor can be effective in communicating science, “as long as it’s not forced or mechanical. As in all communication, the more spontaneous, the better.”
He emphasized how far the Alda Center has come to completing its mission since its inception in 2009.
“We’ve made so much progress in the last four, five years, we’ve gone way past where I thought we’d go way after I was gone,” Alda said. “I didn’t think I’d see this progress until I was dead. We are working hard to establish a network of universities and institutions around the country collaborate with us in teaching the communication of science to both graduate students and senior scientists.”