Alan Alda speaks at 31st annual Distinguished Speakers Series

Alda emphasizes importance of communication and science education

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Actor, director, screenwriter, author and science communicator Alan Alda spoke about the importance of effective science communication Wednesday night in Alumni Arena, as part of UB’s 31st annual Distinguished Speaker Series. Alda was the final speaker in this year’s lineup.

Alda is best known for his role as Captain Hawkeye Pierce in the television series “M*A*S*H.” He has also appeared on “The West Wing,” hosted “Scientific American Frontier” and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in “The Aviator.”

He has published several New York Times bestselling books including “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned” and “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.” His most recent book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” focuses on science communication, the topic of his Wednesday evening speech.

Alda said he learned the importance of clear and empathetic scientific communication while traveling in a remote part of Chile. He was hiking a mountain when he developed the “worst pain” of his life in his abdomen. Fearing appendicitis, Alda was rushed in an old, dilapidated ambulance down bumpy, mountainous roads to a dimly lit Chilean E.R. nearly two hours away.

The E.R. doctor was warm and patient and described Alda’s condition in a calm but clear way, Alda said.

“The doctor said to me, ‘something has gone wrong with your intestine, so we have to cut out the bad part and sew the good parts back together.’ And I said, ‘So you’re going to perform an end-to-end anastomosis?’” Alda recalled.

Alda said the doctor was surprised and confused and asked Alda if he was a doctor.

“I said, ‘No, but I did dozens of them on M*A*S*H,’” Alda said, and the audience erupted with laughter.
This moment was life-changing for Alda, he said. It opened his eyes to how important it is for scientists to communicate complicated information in a way that’s easy for the layperson to understand, and do it in a manner that is empathetic.

“Patients are 19 percent more likely to take a doctor’s advice if they feel the doctor is empathetic,” Alda said. Since his experience in Chile, Alda has become an advocate for science communication. After pitching the idea of a science communication center to dozens of colleges, Stony Brook University was the first to take Alda up on his pitch, and in 2009, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science was established within Stony Brook’s School of Journalism.

The goal of the center is to help scientists learn how to communicate more effectively with the public, including policymakers, students, funders and the media, according to the organization’s website. The center offers communication courses that have been taken by more than 200 graduate students in the sciences and health professions at Stony Brook. The center also conducts workshops at colleges and laboratories across the country.

“The public and science have a not so great relationship,” Alda said. “It’s like a blind date.”

He believes good scientific communication follows a similar pattern to a romantic relationship, and getting past that awkward blind date stage is key. In order to do that, Alda explained, during presentations scientists need to use body language and an engaging tone of voice to pique the audiences’ “attraction.” The next step is infatuation. In this stage, the scientist needs to make an emotional, empathic connection with the audience. In order to do this, it is critical for science communicators to move beyond cold, hard scientific facts and above all, avoid inaccessible jargon.

“Jargon is not communication and in most cases it is actually ex-communication,” Alda said.

The last step is commitment, Alda explained. The scientist needs to help the audience connect what they have learned to something in their personal experience –– this helps audience members commit the scientific topic they have learned to memory.

Alda said he thinks empathy is especially crucial when discussing controversial science topics like climate change or whether vaccines cause autism. He said in order to have effective conversations about these topics, science communicators need to make sure they do not dismiss the other party’s feelings and concerns outright.

“Science communication has got to be personal. It’s got to take into account the feelings, you can’t just say no, you’re wrong, stop thinking that, stop feeling. You wouldn’t do that to someone you cared about. You have to listen,” he said. “Science has to listen to the public just as much as the public has to listen to science.”

Maddy Fowler is the editorial editor and can be reached at maddy.fowler@ubspectrum.com and @mmfowler13.