Alan Alda lends much more than just his name to The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, an institution at Stony Brook University that uses improvisational theater principles to train scientists to better convey what they do—and why those outside the scientific community should care.
He is responsible for the inception of the center, which was founded in 2009 but didn’t take his name until 2013, and he continues to serve as a visiting professor, and to help grow the center’s reach and develop new programming ideas.
Mr. Alda, who shares a Hamptons home with wife Arlene—they are active in the local community: the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton named a meeting room for the couple in appreciation of their support—said in a recent interview that the need for better science communication is a “slow-burning emergency” that must be addressed.
“There’s probably never been a time when so much science has been coming at us so fast, and we have to understand it so we can make decisions that affect our existence,” Mr. Alda said. “There’s a need for people to raise questions about science as it piles up. But there’s a great need for them to raise questions that are helpful, are useful, are based on a basic understanding of the science, and not just fear or misinformation.”
For his science advocacy through the center, and throughout his career, last month Mr. Alda was awarded the Public Welfare Medal by the National Academy of Sciences, and he was the honoree at the World Science Festival’s “A Performing Arts Salute to Science” at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Though many will always remember Alan Alda best as Army surgeon Hawkeye on the television series “M*A*S*H,” others most associate him with “Scientific American Frontiers,” the PBS show about new discoveries and advances that he hosted from 1993 to 2005.
In interviewing scientists and inventors for the show, he observed the trouble that many had explaining their work in a way that anyone could follow.
“What I found was that I could help scientists break through that barrier with things I’ve learned from acting, especially the way that an actor has to connect to another actor,” he said. “The reason that that’s useful is that when you connect to another person the chances of your helping them understand what you have to say are greatly increased, because you’re listening to each other. And you’re not spraying information at them. It’s not a lecture. It’s an exchange, and you know where they are—you’re following whether or not they’re understanding you.”
Specifically, he’s found that improvisation, or improv, is effective at heightening the ability to connect. “It’s mainly because it puts you in a state of wanting to be aware of what’s happening in the other person’s mind while you communicate with them.”
Mr. Alda’s introduction to improv came when he was a young actor. He had two experiences in a row, starting with the Compass Players. The company put on cabaret shows in the basement of a hotel in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts—the same hotel where President John F. Kennedy would hold press conferences during his summers on Cape Cod. Compass would re-stage comedic versions of those press events.
“I would play John Kennedy in a press conference at night downstairs, and the same reporters who would ask him questions in the morning would ask me those questions,” Mr. Alda recalled, explaining that he had a tough time because he often didn’t know what they were asking about until the news came out in the next morning’s paper. “That was what I would call ‘guts improvising.’ We were just thrown out on stage and had to make up a show on the spot. There was not much training behind it. And, also, it was for the purpose of making the audience laugh. It was comedy improvising.”
What really helped Mr. Alda was Theater Games, a series of acting exercises invented by Viola Spolin, the mother of Paul Sills, one of the founders of Chicago-based improv troupe The Second City.
“Joke-making and deliberately reaching for comedy was really discouraged,” Mr. Alda said. “It was a much pure kind of improvising.”
There is still laughter from the audience, but a different kind, he explained. “It’s the laughter that comes from being in the presence of spontaneity. It just elevates you to see something totally unexpected come out of a person—and it’s delightful.”
To date, 7,000 scientists and medical professionals and 700 graduate students have been through Alda Center training and workshops, and 24,000 have attended presentations.
“We help them in specific ways to talk to a lay audience, to talk to funders and policymakers, to speak in a televised interview, to write op-ed pieces—pretty much every kind of communication they might be called on to take part in,” Mr. Alda said.
He quipped, “They are also grateful because the tools they learn help them explain what they do to their grandmothers.”
Most Alda Center workshops offer two tracks: one for graduate students, and one for senior scientists who are already out communicating.
“It’s really a long-range plan and a short-range plan to deal with the emergency that we have of the need for better science communication,” Mr. Alda said. “The long-time plan of teaching graduate students will produce a generation of graduate students who are both accomplished scientists and accomplished communicators. We now have people out there already who are senior scientists who are communicating and actually understand that—as good as they might be—they can do better, and usually are very eager to take our workshop.”
New training ideas are tried out at Stony Brook University, and the best go on the road. Workshops travel to universities, medical schools, national laboratories and research institutions, while an affiliate program helps schools make their own programs.
“The reason for the workshops is partly to spread the word, but it’s also to get other schools interested in starting their own centers for communicating science,” Mr. Alda said.
Laura Lindenfeld, the new director of the Alda Center as of two months ago, said she fell in love with the training when she took it herself three years ago. When she learned of the affiliate program, she brought it to the University of Maine, where she was the director of public policy research.
“It really teaches people to connect—to show up as genuine human beings,” she said she said of the training.
Workshops offer guidance on both phone and television interviews. Trainers record mock interviews, and play the video back to offer advice.
“It’s fun and transformative for the scientist to go through that part of the training,” Ms. Lindenfeld said.
She noted that the center and affiliates also offer ongoing support for scientists planning op-eds and television appearances.
“One indication that we’re successful is the demand that we have,” Mr. Alda said. “Last year, we did 70 workshops and presentations at universities and medical schools around the country, and we have 18 universities and medical schools that have affiliated with us, including the latest one in Australia, the National Australian University.”
He also points to examples of how the center has made a difference.
For instance, Cornell University professor David Muller and graduate student Pinshane Huang made a breakthrough—one-molecule-thick silica glass, which they dubbed “2D glass”—that initially did not get the attention it warranted. The invention was published in a scientific journal, and a couple of other journals picked up the story. But the attention soon petered out.
“That’s where it sat, until he took a workshop with us a couple of months after he discovered it,” Mr. Alda said. “He realized in the workshop that it was unusual for a lay person to hear—and interesting for a lay person to hear—that he had discovered it by accident, which is the way it happened.”
Mr. Muller learned to begin interviews by sharing the fact it was an accidental discovery, and that it is officially in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the thinnest glass.
“It’s not just that it’s ear-catching that you discover how to do something that’s never been done before, but he had a story that the people can follow—and we love story, we communicate in story,” Mr. Alda said. “The next time he did an interview, it was picked up not just by the local paper, it was picked up by newspapers and websites across the country and all over Great Britain.”
Next, calls came from investors wanting to commercialize it.
Another way the center had expanded its reach is the annual Flame Challenge, which poses a question and asks scientists to explain the answer in a way an 11-year-old can understand.
The contest began in 2012 with the namesake question: “What is a flame?”
“That question came from a real 11-year-old, who was me,” Mr. Alda said. He was discouraged as a child when his teacher could not offer an answer that he could comprehend. “I started the contest to give scientists the challenge of really bringing clarity to a complex question—but not dumb it down, just make it really clear.”
Subsequent questions—“What is color?” “What is time?” and “What is sound?”—were submitted by today’s 11-year-olds, who also serve as the judges.
Submissions are screened for scientific accuracy and whittled down to four or five entries in two categories, written and video.
“I didn’t realize that the kids would benefit so much from it,” Mr. Alda admitted, saying he was impressed by their seriousness of purpose as they came up with reasons why an answer is good, or could be better. He recalled that one student exclaimed, “I wish we could learn everything this way!”
Mr. Alda said his friend Carl Safina, a science writer and host of PBS’s “Saving the Ocean,” pointed out that if scientists don’t explain their science, somebody else will—and it could be somebody who is mistaken, or who has an ax to grind.
“I would call it a slow-burning emergency,” Mr. Alda said of poor science communication. “For me, it’s a little scarier than it looks on the surface.”
It’s hard to tell while looking at the internet if information is real, or somebody’s opinion, or somebody’s ideology, he noted. “We need to be able to parse what we’re hearing. We need not only the information about what scientists are up to, but it would be very helpful if, in the process, scientists could communicate to us a sense of how they think, how they arrive at conclusions. So that we could think a little bit more reasonably, so that we could base our decisions on evidence a little bit more—or a lot more. That would be a lot better.”