Monday, September 30, 2013

Review of the Alan Alda Lecture - "Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science”

by: Vineeth Varanasi, PhD, PDA steering committee member

On Friday, September 26th, the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Physics hosted a lecture by Alan Alda on communicating science, entitled "Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date with Science”.  The idea behind the lecture and the associated workshop was to enable and encourage scientists to communicate clearly and succinctly with the public.

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word Communication merits a revisit, since I think it conveys to a large extent the essence of the lecture.
Communication: The act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings to someone else.
It is the meaningful exchange of information between two or a group of living creatures.

Alan Alda
Why Alan Alda?  Isn’t he the actor from West Wing, the Woody Alan movies or M.A.S.H?  What is an actor doing preaching scientific communication?  These were some of the questions overheard in the audience and I am sure some of the readers have the same questions!  Well, besides being a fantastic actor, Alan Alda hosted “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS from 1993-2005.  The premise of the show is that Alan Alda talks to scientists from various disciplines and tries to understand their work from the perspective of an informed layperson.  Stemming from his experiences talking to scientists over the years hosting the show, he became “convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories to tell, but some need help in telling them.”  A result of this effort is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.  Here’s some of what Alda had to say.

Tell a story, with passion.
Start with a simple take home message that you want to convey to the audience. Then tell a story and engage the audience instead of narrating a bunch of facts or data. Alda also highlighted that scientists are the most passionate people that he has met. They are not the most highly paid or the most famous people in the world, but survive on a deep passion for their chosen field of study. However, this passion does not come forth when we present our work. Alda suggests it is OK to project some passion when presenting your work. If you were thrilled to get a result, share the excitement with the audience. If a result crushed you, it is OK to admit that it was unexpected or upsetting. The idea is to make a personal connection and get the audience involved in your “Story”. In the words of Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 minutes, the secret behind a good program (and good communication), is "It's four words every child knows: Tell me a story." The key to good communication is to tell a story and keep it simple.

In order to keep an audience engaged, the speaker has to be “spontaneous” to tailor the message in keeping with the expectations and level of knowledge of the audience.  This also comes in handy in collecting oneself after a challenging question from the audience or other interruptions.  Alda suggests Improv as a tool to increase spontaneity.  Improv or improvisational theater is a form of Performance Theater where most of the script is created at the moment it is performed.  An example of this would be the television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?”  Alda runs courses in improv for scientists at the Alda Center, with promising results that he shared with the audience in before and after testimonials.

Curse of Knowledge
This brings us to what I thought was the highlight of the seminar. Alda argues that the main hurdle to effective scientific communication is the “Curse of knowledge”.  Coined by film and TV composer Robin Hogarth, the curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias because of which better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.  In other words, we forget what it was like before we gained all the knowledge that we now have.  This cognitive gap not only appears between scientists and lay people, but also between scientists from different disciplines.  Alda ran a simple experiment to demonstrate this.  He asked an audience member to drum the words of a song without the tune.  Most of the audience failed to recognize the song based on the beats of the words, without the tune.  Due to the curse of knowledge, the presenter has the complete song with both the tune and the words in their head, but end up drumming out the words without a tune.  Therefore the message is lost on most of the audience.

Alan Alda touched on some really interesting points on scientific communication during his lecture.  The Kavli institute at the University of Chicago has just started a collaborative program with the Alan Alda Center, raising hope that there will be more such lectures and workshops in the not so distant future.