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Science: Lost in translation

Originally published in UCLA Today
By Judy Lin

"There’s nothing more beautiful than [watching] a smart brain working," said actor Alan Alda of the thrill he gets from interviewing researchers on everything from black holes to environmental issues as host of PBS-TV’s "Scientific American Frontiers."

Alda offered this observation Wednesday to an auditorium brimming with smart brains — scientists from UCLA, USC, Caltech and other Southern California research universities gathered at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) for a July 13-15 workshop about how to better communicate the importance and excitement of their research to the public and various constituencies.

A director as well as a writer, Alda is probably best remembered for his TV role as Capt. "Hawkeye" Pierce, a U.S. Army hospital doctor in "M*A*S*H." Since last year, he has been a visiting professor at Stony Brook University School of Journalism, where he is a founding board member of the Center for Communicating Science. With support from the Kavli Foundation, the center co-hosted the workshop with CNSI.

In his keynote address, Alda urged scientists to communicate clearly, vividly and even passionately about their work with everyone from the general public to policymakers who control funding dollars. He also drew laughter with humorous anecdotes illustrating his message. 

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For his PBS show, Alda combined his lifelong fascination with science with his experience as an actor. Relying on his improvisational acting skills, he convinced the show’s producers to throw away scripts in favor of informal conversations with his subjects. Early on, he recalled, he quit trying to "look smart" and instead let scientists "tell me from the ground up what they do" — sometimes to the irritation of his subjects.

"A look would come over their face. ‘I told you,’ they would say. ‘What do you mean you don’t get it?’" Alda would continue to push and prod "until I understood," which, in turn, led to interviews that TV audiences could also understand.

He recounted a lively and friendly TV conversation he once had with a woman scientist. Suddenly, Alda said, "she remembered that this was a lot like a lecture she had given, and slowly she turned away from me and looked right in the camera and started lecturing. Her tone of voice changed, her vocabulary got stiff and it was pretty much unintelligible to me." And while Alda managed to "coach her back" to the informal conversation they were having, she reverted back into lecture mode several times.

That experience, Alda said, "was a real turning point" for him when he realized "what a tremendous difference there was between a real conversation and the lecture mode" scientists often fell into.

"You scientists," he told his CNSI audience, "are doing such important work that’s going to feed us, keep us healthy, help us understand where it all came from. And we’re (the public) not getting it. We’re not hearing it. We’re not understanding it."

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The three-day workshop, which Alda and his colleagues from Stony Brook have given at several locations around the country, included a training session in improvisational skills along with one-on-one coaching in making a presentation. Alda showed a brief video of engineers delivering presentations about their work before and after the training.

In one video, a woman engineer said, "I study a group of compounds called cyclohexane diacids esters. They’re basically a plasticide. So what that means is, fusing this compound to a hard plastic like PVC — PVC is polyvinyl chloride — so it’s then enabled to be pliable, and it can then be turned into a variety of products that we use in our everyday lives. Examples include baby toys, IV bags …"

After coaching from Alda to help her convey her commitment to this research, she began again: "I have a baby. He has tons and tons of toys, and all of them are plastic. In this plastic a lot of times is a compound called diacids esters, and when he sticks that squishy toy into his mouth, those diacids esters go out of that toy into his mouth. … And that’s where I come in."

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Alda’s talk was followed by a lively Q&A, with many scientists expressing both excitement and trepidation about changing their approach to communicating.

"As I’m thinking about this wonderful opportunity … to learn these techniques, I’m also aware that it’s not a skill that would be rewarded in academia," said Amy Parish, a visiting professor in biological anthropology at USC. "If your research is understandable to the public, then your colleagues question you in terms of whether you really have the academic rigor. There’s a very, very high premium placed on being obscure."

Alda conceded, "It’s a really serious problem," citing what he called "the Carl Sagan Effect," when the late astrophysicist, cosmologist, author of the book "The Cosmos" and host of a hugely popular 1980s TV series was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences because his peers "felt he was too popular." Yet, Alda added, "I think this may be changing," pointing to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking as a scientist who enjoys both mass appeal and the respect of his peers.

Another researcher asked, "Do you have any thoughts about how scientists can communicate without overselling their research and creating a false impression? Because then the public thinks, ‘Oh, why don’t we have this yet? The scientist told me that it’s right around the corner.’"

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Alda agreed that "scientists are often encouraged by the press to claim more than is" and said that he is grateful when scientists put evidence and accuracy ahead of all else, demonstrating "that what you’ve discovered in the lab is true. You want the evidence to be the deciding factor."

But, he added, the broader problem is that "the public doesn’t really understand how science happens — that when somebody does a research project, they don’t arrive at an unalterable truth, but that it’s one step along the way in a complex process."

One way to overcome this, he said, is to tell the stories behind science — and not just about what worked in a piece of research, but about what didn’t work. "Don't gloss over the things that don’t work, because that's what makes it human. Say, ‘We tried this, and we had high hopes for it, and it failed. It didn’t work … so then we tried to figure out why it didn’t work.’ People are with you on a story then.

"Telling a story is the way we communicate," Alda said. "It’s the way we’ve communicated for eons. Why do we drop that when we’re talking about some of the most important things in our lives? Our lives now run on science."