Event Recap: Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science

On May 19, 2017, the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute hosted actor, director, and science advocate Alan Alda.

Alan Alda learned the hard way the power of clear scientific communication and connection. While on a trip in remote Chile, he developed excruciating pain in his abdomen. Assuming it was his appendix, he was rushed to the nearest surgical facility, 90 minutes away down twisting, bumpy roads. After examination at the clinic, two things were clear: it wasn’t his appendix, and it was life threatening. The surgeon told Alda they could fly him to a hospital two hours away, a distance he might not survive, or they could do the surgery there.

Calmly, the surgeon explained, “Something has gone wrong with your intestine. We have to cut out the bad part and sew the good parts back together.”

“Oh,” Alda said. “So you’re going to perform an end-to-end anastomosis?”

Puzzled, the surgeon responded, “Are you a doctor?”

“No,” Alda replied, “but I did dozens of them on M*A*S*H.”

The acting legend draws much of his approach to communicating science from his experiences on stage and screen and interviewing more than 700 scientists during 11 seasons as host of the television show Scientific American Frontiers.

For Alda, communicating about science is all about connecting with the person you’re talking to — watching their reactions, listening and adapting to add clarity and context. It’s easy to see how he equates good scientific communication with getting beyond that first blind date in a dating relationship.

He describes effective science communication in three stages — attraction, infatuation and commitment — and argues that scientists need to seek these kinds of intimate relationships with the public. In the first 1 to 2 minutes of a presentation, Alda says, body language and tone of voice are critical to engagement. Then, the scientist needs to make an emotional appeal to the audience, moving beyond cold, hard science to bring life to abstract topics. Finally, scientists should evoke empathy in their audience by relating science to something they have likely experienced and will commit to memory.

When an audience member asks him why science has captured his imagination, he says, “It seems normal to me, like being moved by a piece of music or a work of art. Science and art are long-lost lovers waiting to be reunited. It’s normal to question why things are the way they are. Why isn’t everyone more interested in science?”

He’s dedicated much of his time to ensuring they are.

At the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, students take improvisational acting classes to learn how to be present in the moment and how to bring their personality, passion and stories into discussions of complex scientific concepts. They critique videos of their presentations and refine their skills through practice and feedback.

Alda wonders aloud why science should be set apart from the traditions of good storytelling, held in the prison of academic language. According to him, science is rife with the drama and obstacles that make for the best hero stories.

He cautions, however, not to oversimplify science.

“Headline writers are part of the problem,” he says. “Coffee will kill you one year and save your life the next. Oversimplification is not the answer.”

Instead, scientists should tell the story in a way that makes people want to go deeper, using analogies that anyone can understand without losing key conditions or details that make the research useful.

“We’ve learned you have to be transformed,” he says, about scientists. “It’s not an intellectual process. You have to be habitual about connecting with other people. It’s something that needs reviving, over and over again.”

Education Events Johns Hopkins Kavli