Alan Alda (aka Hawkeye Pierce) on Communicating Science

Link from Dr. Chris Simpson:

Here’s an excerpt:

While Alda is best known for his role on  M.A.S.H  , the 78-year-old is also a science enthusiast who has spent more screentime hosting a PBS show called Scientific American Frontiers  than portraying Hawkeye Pierce. On that fateful day ten years ago, he was at a mountain observatory in Chile for Scientific American Frontiers, preparing to interview some astronomers, when he felt a sudden pain in his gut….

Alda recounted this [near-death] story…in Chicago, where hundreds of scientists from around the world crowded into a packed conference hall to hear him talk about science communication. Alda was one of       four plenary speakers     at the       2014 AAAS meeting     , the world’s largest annual general science conference.

His plenary speech was about communicating science, a subject Alda has become intensely passionate about over the years. He has described his stint at Scientific American Frontiers as “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera” — but it also showed him that many scientists have incredible stories but lack the tools to describe their work in a way that most people can understand.

This is a very real problem, one that journalists often struggle with when interviewing scientists. But for scientists, learning how to describe their work is not only a necessity, it is also a responsibility.

“Communication is essential to science,” Alda said. “It’s essential to the funding of science and even in the doing of it.”

So nowadays, Alda devotes himself to helping scientists discover their inner storytellers. He is a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and has also created an improv class for scientists. A few years ago, he also started an annual competition challenging scientists to explain a scientific concept — for example, “what is a flame?” — in terms that would make sense to 11-year-olds, who actually judge the entries. This year’s challenge: “What is colour?”

(Last year’s winner, by the way, was a       PhD student from the University of Ottawa     who made this       video     to entertainingly answer the question “what is time?”).

On Saturday, Alda said he is often asked for tips on how to communicate science better. But there are no shortcuts, he said— becoming a storyteller is something that takes training, practice and commitment to improve.

But his speech left the audience with one general rule of thumb: storytelling is a powerful tool for helping people understand science.

“If you don’t begin with a story, or some kind of introduction to the hard words, we’re suffering from something awful that a couple of people have called the curse of knowledge,” Alda said. “It’s a curse when you know something in such depth, and with such a level of complexity, that you forget what it’s like not to know it at that depth. That’s a curse.”

Related blog post:

Why I have always liked Arthur Caplan… | gutsandgrowth

3 thoughts on “Alan Alda (aka Hawkeye Pierce) on Communicating Science

  1. Pingback: NPR: “Should You Trust That New Medical Study?” | gutsandgrowth

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