Professor Alan Alda Teaches Scientists How to Speak

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Who knew that doing weird-looking acting class exercises could help science students become better communicators?


And who knew that Alan Alda would be their teacher – and that it's all his idea?

At 77, Alan Alda the actor has become Alan Alda the real-life professor, teaching scientists how to relate to people in ways they can actually understand.

"You don't think of knowledge as a curse, but it's a curse if I think you know everything I know and I talk to you in ways [where] you can't understand me," Alda said. "So that's not only the public, that's policy makers like Congress, who have told me over and over again they cannot understand scientists who come in to talk to them."

"So a scientist comes in, testifies on Capitol Hill, Congress doesn't know what he or she's talking about?" said Smith.

"Why would you give money to somebody whose work you don't understand?" Alda asked.

He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience, so instead of speaking what we might hear as scientific gibberish ("I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stake holders"), we get this: "I study ways oceans are used."

"If scientists can't communicate with the public, with policy makers, with one another, the future is going to be held back," Alda said. "We're not going to have the future that we could have."

That notion of straight-talking scientists became a mission. Alda approached New York's Stony Brook University to let him teach their science students to talk, and the idea caught on.

Written By: Tracy Smith
continue to source article at cbsnews.com

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  1. Or, you know, we could elect politicians and officials who are literate. A better educated public in general might also help. I’ve never had any trouble understanding any scientist who was addressing a general audience, and I’m no scientist.
    That being said, helping scientists express themselves better is certainly a laudable effort.

    • In reply to #1 by MahouShoujoMaruin:

      Or, you know, we could elect politicians and officials who are literate. A better educated public in general might also help. I’ve never had any trouble understanding any scientist who was addressing a general audience, and I’m no scientist.
      That being said, helping scientists express themselves bet…

      Here, in America we don’t elect politicians who are more literate because they simply say things the illiterate populace doesn’t like.

      I believe it’s primarily the education system that is the culprit. However, I have no idea how to fix it- I wish I did. ;(

  2. “”Why would you give money to somebody whose work you don’t understand?” Alda asked.”

    Well, of course scientists should be able to explain themselves to their funding agencies. It is also worth pointing out that all fields of endeavor have their own jargon that is not useful when addressing an uninitiated audience. I have a PhD and write myself, but still often read articles full of terms that seem to obfuscate rather than explain, and that leave me frustrated.
    The English language is enormously rich and while new discoveries require new names, explaining what things do should be possible given the language at hand and this does not have to mean dumbing down. Writers in the area of popular science generally know this, but many of my academic colleagues do not
    .

    • In reply to #2 by justinesaracen:

      Well, of course scientists should be able to explain themselves to their funding agencies.

      I just wanted to point out that there are scientists working at the funding agencies.

  3. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this problem addressed. I’ve seen several other articles online pointing this out, that plenty of scientists so not seem capable of ‘dumbing down’ their work. There’s a culture in acedemia in which scientists are encouraged to make their writing as intelligent as possible, thus alienating all those who did not study in their field.

    • In reply to #3 by Seraphor:
      There’s a culture in acedemia in which scientists are encouraged to make their writing as intelligent…
      I think you mean unintelligible. Intelligent people can figure out how to present complex science to those not familiar with their subject.

    • In reply to #3 by Seraphor:

      This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this problem addressed. I’ve seen several other articles online pointing this out, that plenty of scientists so not seem capable of ‘dumbing down’ their work. There’s a culture in acedemia in which scientists are encouraged to make their writing as intelligent as…

      Dumbing down speech is really not the issue. Effective communication also involves emoting a concept or idea to make it appeal to others. Not knowing how to promote or put your view in a positive light is like going on a date without taking a bath or wearing clean clothes. You may be OK with your stink but it doesn’t mean others will find it acceptable. Presentation can sell or kill an idea. People want to know “what’s in it for me and my community?” Having social intelligence is as important as factual intelligence. Speaking facts AT a person creates an immediate wall between you and the person you are conversing with. You may think global warming has to do with facts and statistics, but to the non-scientist it really is about the person’s relationship with the environment and the affects (not completely the effects) of that dynamics. In personal relationships, speaking WITH the person is key to building a bridge. The key is to set a stage in which you create a connection with the person first and then drop in facts and statistics to support your view – relating the information to the people’s needs and considerations. The superior presenter knows how to incorporate thought along with dynamic emotive speech. (Maybe add in humor.) You may hope to encounter another person comfortable being spoken to like an encyclopedia, try this to a mate and see how it works out for you. To see this process as dumbing down is incorrect. It is utilizing an ADDITIONAL skill to enhance information. It is actually a skill in and of itself which is why someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson is so effective.

  4. Albeit this is only a captured fraction in time and this may be their first session, but only one student is relaxed, and she’s smiling nervously.

    However, it’s high time this was done, not all scientists possess the gifts of Feynman, Dawkins, Krauss, de Grass Tyson and the like.

    • In reply to #5 by Stafford Gordon:

      Albeit this is only a captured fraction in time and this may be their first session, but only one student is relaxed, and she’s smiling nervously.

      She won’t be smiling when that punch lands!

    • In reply to #5 by Stafford Gordon:

      Albeit this is only a captured fraction in time and this may be their first session, but only one student is relaxed, and she’s smiling nervously

      Also, just knowing you are being filmed/photographed changes the dynamics to some degree.

  5. A few years ago, I was privileged to work with a group of scientists – from all disciplines – who worked on US government projects. My colleagues and I were from different educational backgrounds and it was amazing to see how these top scientists were able to ratchet up and down the complexity of their answers to questions by estimating the scientific literacy of the questioner. These scientists were top-flight in every way with no need to display their knowledge by using jargon and obfuscation. Everyone should learn to think clearly, not just scientists, and follow the examples of Dawkins, Krauss and the like. I particularly like A.C. Grayling for the clarity of his prose.

    When I was at school – a very long time ago – we were told that, if we want to imitate the best prose, we should read anything by George Orwell. That still applies, but for modern English I would add Grayling.

  6. There are so many examples in the UK where science has lost the argument because the uninformed have out-communicated us! MMR, GM foods, climate chage: to name but three. We created the Science Media Centre to combat this but there is no doubt that enabling scientists to communicate better is a very important goal! Well done.

  7. In reply to #4 by FrankMill:

    In reply to #3 by Seraphor: There’s a culture in acedemia in which scientists are encouraged to make their writing as intelligent… I think you mean unintelligible. Intelligent people can figure out how to present complex science to those not familiar with their subject.

    No I mean intelligent, big words, long winded explanations going into as much detail as possible, but I supposed that also makes it unintelligible.

    • In reply to #8 by Seraphor:

      In reply to #4 by FrankMill:

      In reply to #3 by Seraphor: There’s a culture in acedemia in which scientists are encouraged to make their writing as intelligent… I think you mean unintelligible. Intelligent people can figure out how to present complex science to those not familiar with their subjec…

      That’s not intelligent that’s esoteric or pedantic. And yes there is some of that but the best coaches I had in writing science and engineering papers always stressed being concise and not using big unfamiliar words unless they make a point you couldn’t use easier with common language.

      • In reply to #20 by headswapboy:

        In reply to #10 by sbooder:

        I nearly missed this story, good job I have eyes like a hawk!

        I agree I had to look for it 4077 times before I found it.

        I spose if you potter around the site long enough you will pick it up on your Radar!

        • In reply to #22 by sbooder:

          In reply to #20 by headswapboy:

          In reply to #10 by sbooder:

          I nearly missed this story, good job I have eyes like a hawk!

          I agree I had to look for it 4077 times before I found it.

          I spose if you potter around the site long enough you will pick it up on your Radar!

          where is it- Toledo (deep MASH trivia)

          • Max Klinger’s hometown?

            In reply to #23 by KRKBAB:

            In reply to #22 by sbooder:

            In reply to #20 by headswapboy:

            In reply to #10 by sbooder:

            I nearly missed this story, good job I have eyes like a hawk!

            I agree I had to look for it 4077 times before I found it.

            I spose if you potter around the site long enough you will pick it up on your Radar!…

          • In reply to #24 by crookedshoes:

            Max Klinger’s hometown?

            In reply to #23 by KRKBAB:

            In reply to #22 by sbooder:

            In reply to #20 by headswapboy:

            In reply to #10 by sbooder:

            I nearly missed this story, good job I have eyes like a hawk!

            I agree I had to look for it 4077 times before I found it.

            I spose if you potter around the…

            B I N G O !

  8. Communication skills are not enough. Science illiteracy, advocated by ones politics, is like traveling a one way street, or, to use another cliche, a slippery slope, because once momentum is gained, there’s no turning back. I can say this with confidence because of our current political situation where science denial is rife, despite the myriads of opportunity to learn and understand nature and how it works. I’m not a scientist, but I know science and the scientific process, mainly because of an overwhelming curiosity and inadequate answers from non-scientific groups. A political group with the Incuriosity of G. W. Bush is condemned to remain in the twilight until it is able to snuff out the last candle of knowledge.

    • In reply to #11 by esmith4102:

      Communication skills are not enough. Science illiteracy, advocated by ones politics, is like traveling a one way street, or, to use another cliche, a slippery slope, because once momentum is gained, there’s no turning back. I can say this with confidence because of our current political situation…

      Of course it’s not enough- but it’s part of the equation. Should we not teach scientists how to communicate better to lay people because it’s not a complete fix?

      That said, I (also as an American) constantly complain about the level of science illiteracy of our elected politicians. It’s morbid. It seems like a death spiral. The uneducated public elect the uneducated politicians because they explain the world like they want to here it- wrongly!

      Move towards the coast (if you’re not already there). :) Middle America, which has much more climate change denialism is where a lot of natural disasters are, and will be occurring with ever more regularity. The human folly of it is very sad. It’s poetic justice in a dastardly sense.

    • In reply to #11 by esmith4102:

      Communication skills are not enough. Science illiteracy, advocated by ones politics, is like traveling a one way street, or, to use another cliche, a slippery slope, because once momentum is gained, there’s no turning back. I can say this with confidence because of our current political situation…

      Concerning G.W. Bush- I don’t think he was exactly as stupid as he appeared (although not a genius!). But he was frighteningly incurious. It always amazed and saddened me when he was in office.

      • Poor old Dubbya- recipient of a superb Hitchslap-

        “He’s a man [George W. Bush] who is lucky to be governor of Texas. He is a man who is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things.”

  9. This is (in my opinion) as discussion of two separate types of intelligence. Some people possess both; some have one or the other. The good news is that, as Alan Alda is showing, communication skills can be polished and learned.

    Off the topic, I have long admired Alan Alda and his passionate approach to his projects.

    • In reply to #17 by alaskansee:

      Good idea and what university would turn him down, shit I’d even take Cleese!

      People like John Cleese and Brian Cox who know how to play to, and communicate with, an audience as entertainers , as well as having an understanding of reason and practical applications of knowledge, often show how well it can be done at a popular level.

      At the bottom end of the scale, there are some politicians who are just too arrogantly small-minded, thick, ignorant, bigoted, innumerate, illiterate, and know-all, to understand any scientific or other large scale or long-term issue, no matter how simply and clearly it is explained to them!

      Their sponsors select them as reliable stooges and lobby-fodder, because of these “qualities”!

  10. Alan Alda is the gift that keeps on giving…♥

    Way beyond M_A_S*H, I think of Alan Alda as host and participant in PBS’s ‘The Human Spark’ and ‘Scientific American Frontiers’.

    *trivial – his father, Robert, was a popular Hollywood actor.

  11. When I was in an industrial R&D lab one of the things the guy in charge decided (after getting lots of negative feedback from business people sitting through research presentations) was that we all needed to be better communicators. He hired a small company made of theater people to give us a one day class on effective presenting. It was rare for any two of us to ever agree on anything but one thing we all agreed on was that the class was a waste of our precious time. “Who cares about HOW its presented what matters is the content!” and things like that. I was amazed at how useful the class was and I still use much of the stuff I learned at the time when presenting now. So my advice to all STEM people is take an Improv class along with calculus ;-)

  12. “So that’s not only the public, that’s policy makers like Congress, who have told me over and over again they cannot understand scientists”
    Well, why can this be? Well it’s because a huge proportion of Americans are not sufficiently educated to be considered scientifically literate. I don’t mean educated to graduate level but to a level that we in the UK used to call ‘O’ Level. ‘O’ levels were exams taken by 16 year olds. The pious have fundamentally undermined scientific education in the USA in the fear that well educated scientifically grounded young people will overthrow the power of the religio-political classes. Its not scientists that need to dumb down – its the average American that needs to sharpen up. The USA has to change to a system of mandatory scientific literacy for those who aspire to public office. Modern world crises need solutions engineered by rational thinkers not those who think clasped hands and muttered platitudes will solve everything.

  13. The lawyers. politicians MBAs and so forth are controlling the budgets and passing out the money. They need to be spoon fed, their constituents need to be bottle-fed and scientists need the money. What must be down is clear and it needs to be done well.

    We had a Nobel Prize-winning physicist as Secretary of Energy; how much difference did that make? He was a trophy pick for Obama’s cabinet and Asian-American to boot. To my recollection, he contributed absolutely nothing to public awareness, understanding or acceptance of global warming and the environmental consequences. Al Gore’s movie and Hurricane Sandy moved the needle more and those memories are fading or gone for most people.

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