Alan Alda Brings Passion for Communicating Science to Brookhaven Lab
The science of climate change and even the scientists themselves are under attack from a well-orchestrated and well-oiled misinformation campaign. The best defense against this anti-science offensive is to make sure that the correct message reaches a wide audience. Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future explain that scientists have failed to get their message across for a variety of reasons but mostly because we are not engaging the public on their turf. After reading that book, I became a climate change science education advocate with my Global Warming: Man or Myth? Website, this blog, and more recently a Facebook Fan Group called Global Warming Fact of the Day. I have two small children and I do not like the future that I see for them or for their children in a human-driven warmer world. As I travel the blogosphere and as I watch television, it is quite apparent that Moody & Kirshenbaum are on to something. Scientists have fallen quite short of being the expert communicators that they must be for no less a reason than our future is at stake. Obviously we have much to learn.
I was fortunate enough to recently attend the Communicating Science Workshop sponsored by Stony Brook University Center and Brookhaven National Laboratory where Alan Alda gave the keynote address. The agenda for the workshop can be viewed here. Participants were able to attend three breakout sessions. I attended the following: Distilling Your Message, Using Newer Media, and Interacting with the Media. I came away from this workshop with many valuable tips and tricks to be a better science communicator and I will use this blog post to share these gems with you.
Well, we all know he is a famous actor. He won six Emmys for his role as Hawkeye on M.A.S.H. and he has starred in countless film and television movies. What I did not realize is how passionate he is about communicating science.
According to the Center for Communicating Science Web site:
Alda, the longtime host of PBS’ “Scientific American Frontiers” and a passionate advocate for solid popular science, has been leading an innovative effort to help scientists connect better with the public. Through the Center for Communicating Science, Mr. Alda has been teaching science graduate students to play improvisational theater games. The goal is not to turn them into actors, but to free them to talk about their work more spontaneously and directly, and to connect personally with their audience. Early reports from students say the workshops helped them in teaching, defending a thesis, and simply explaining their research to people outside their fields.
Alan spoke to a packed house and began his story by telling us that he used to sneak into his neighbor’s garage as a kid to build motors. When he went to high school, it was understood that one could either go into the sciences or into the arts. These areas were thought to be mutually exclusive ala C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. Because he chose art he was not exposed to the “language” of science even though he always had the curiosity for science. While in his 20’s he began to read Scientific American and started to learn this language. In his words he said “the magazine spoke to my curiosity.”
One day, he was asked if he would like to host Scientific American Frontiers, the television companion to the magazine. Alan told the producers that he did not want to just introduce the scientists but he wanted to instead have a real conversation with the guests. The show was a huge success because the audience saw Alan really trying to understand the science and Alan was not shy about saying “I don’t get it.” Because the show was essentially a conversation with an “ordinary person”, the scientists were more relaxed, spoke in a simpler language, and their true passion for the science was observed by all. Alan remarked that he did his best work on that show! Quite a surprise given the long track record of Alda’s accomplishments in acting.
Alan then segued into how to effectively communicate science today in three major areas:
1. Public at large: He stated that “The public is on a blind date with science.” Neither side really knows much about the other and both need to put their best side forward right away or the date is over. He lamented the fact that twice as many Americans believe in the devil than in the theory of evolution. Evolution needs to be presented as more compelling than the devil if we wish to keep “dating”.
2. Policy-makers: When requesting funds or summoned to explain the science that may drive policy, scientists often forget that their audience does not understand science jargon. Science cannot progress if these folks do not understand the value of the science and therefore nix the funding that drives it. Alan said metaphorically that it is typical for these scientists to “tell us who the killer is before we even know that there has been a murder! Talk about the murder, the blind alleys along the way and how the murderer was finally apprehended. Tell us the story and not just about the data!”
3. With other scientists: Scientists all have jargon specific to their discipline and often forget that when speaking to other scientists from outside their arena, they are likely losing their audience in the discussion. (Climate science is probably the best example of where we need to communicate better between the hundreds of disciplines that supply the missing pieces in the climate change puzzle.)
Alda then told the audience that his greatest dream is that communication skills, both verbal and written, become a core part of every science curriculum instead of an “extra” that gets little merit. He used a wonderful analogy to highlight the problem. When humans speak, we look at each other in the eye and ask “look at me, do you get it, do you get it?” When a mother chimp teachers her child how to get bugs out of a hole in a tree, she sticks in the tool, gets a bug, and then eats it. All the while the baby chimp watches what she is doing intently but never looks at the mother. Alan told the audience “be less like chimps and more like humans!”
Alan then wrapped up his talk by comparing science to “the three stages of love: lust, infatuation, and commitment”. Lust is what humans feel immediately when viewing somebody attractive. We send signals and pick up on body and voice tone. Nobody is ever in lust with a “lecture”. Alan wants scientists to get out of our lecture mode and begin showing their passion by telling our story. Next is infatuation. He told us that research shows that anything that evokes emotion will cause remembrance. Again, scientists need to reveal their passion in order to evoke emotion with their audience to get the science “sticky”. Finally there is commitment – recognizing the value of information. When this point is reached, listening to one other becomes second nature and we are able to figure out what the other person is thinking. For science, this is the long-term goal. Can the public and scientists become committed to one another? This can only happen after the first two stages are achieved.
Q&A: “Who Cares What the Public Thinks about Science?”
Following Alda’s talk was a panel discussion moderated by Howard Schneider, the founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University and co-Chair of the steering committee of the Center for Communicating the Science. For more than 35 years Schneider was a reporter and editor at Newsday.
The panelists included:
David Conover, Dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook, fellow of the Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, which provides communications training for scientists. Conover is co-Chair of the steering committee of the Center for Communicating the Science.
Cornelia Dean, former science editor of The New York Times, author of the new book for scientists, Am I Making Myself Clear, seminar leader in science communication at Harvard University.
Joanna Fowler, Director of Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation and Biological Imaging Program at Brookhaven Lab, and 2009 recipient of the National Medal of Science.
Earl Lane, senior communications officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and former science reporter for Newsday.
Christie Nicholson, contributing editor to Scientific American online, specialist in new media, faculty member of the Banff Centre Science Communications program.
Schneider began the Q&A session by telling the audience about the George Mason University study A National Survey Of Television Meteorologists About Climate Change: Preliminary Findings that found that most television weather forecasters and many meteorologists are skeptical about climate change and some even believe global warming is a hoax. (I blogged on this topic back on February 26, 2010 with my post You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows so it was no surprise to me but the audience let out an audible gasp!)
The first question was “So who is at fault?”
The panel concluded that scientists need to engage the public more and they need to connect by using the correct language. There is no incentive for scientists to learn communications skills and these skills are not part of the curriculum, reinforcing Alan Alda’s unrealized dream. Many children and young adults have enthusiasm for science early in their education but these brightest of students often end up becoming lawyers, getting MBA’s, etc., essentially following the money instead of their early passion. Therefore the attitude about science must be changed so that it can compete. The panelists also noted that with a shortage of excellent science teachers there are fewer opportunities to “spark” interest in children. In some cases in more rural areas, science teachers are often plucked out of other disciplines due to a staffing shortage.
The second question was “Is the news media at fault?”
Cornelia Dean replied that the NY Times had some of the best science writers in the world and they often struggled with the science. If these folks do not get it, then how can the general public? Conover replied that although journalists are very good at distilling the message, scientists need to make clear, concise statements when speaking to the press. (See my last blog post and scroll down to Chapter 5 where author Foster laments how Dr. Phil Jones and Mojib Latif got into trouble because of choice of words.) Dean also commented that there is no reward for speaking to the press and often scientists can become “Saganized” by appearing too mainstream. (Astronomer Carl Sagan was snubbed by the scientific community after he became famous for his television appearances and his writing. This was a central theme in Unscientific America.) In a recent survey, only 3% of scientists routinely speak to the press and 75% state that they never speak to the press. Conover mentioned that when a few of his marine scientists began publicizing their work, they were somewhat ostracized by their science peers. Unfortunately, the Sagan Effect is still alive and well.
The third question was “So what can we do to get the correct message out?”
The panel concluded that scientists must respect the public more and that people are generally smarter than we think they are. Although smart, many have some pre-conceived prejudices that we must understand in order to effectively communicate. One of the best techniques is to have more town hall meetings and other types of face to face outreach. (Excellent examples include the S.C.C.C. Earth & Space Sciences Lecture Series provided freely to the public on a monthly basis during fall and spring and by Ammerman astronomy faculty collaboration with The Montauk Observatory.) The public needs to see that we are humans before we are scientists and that does not always come across on mass media, especially Web sites and blogs. Nicholson noted that with the Web, there is too much information for the average person to distill. She concluded that by telling an engaging story and using effective moderation perhaps the quality will rise to the top so the public will hear the correct message. (Are you getting the point yet that we need to be better storytellers?)
The last question was “If you had $50 million to spend how would you use it?”
Conover: Teach the teachers! This is the most effective way to reach the largest audience and where we can reach those that still have a wonder for the sciences.
Dean: Scientists must be required to assess the public impact of their research grants. She also would require communications training in curricula.
Lane: Organize an online site for science journalism similar to that of ProPublica to get the correct message out there at all times.
Fowler: Fund science education starting as early as kindergarten. Invest in science teachers and how to teach science courses so that their students and the general population will become a curious, innovative population.
Nicholson: Fund 3-4 day f2f sessions in the Bahamas using perhaps a lottery system. These sessions would bring ordinary citizens together with scientists similar to the TED talks. (This was my personal favorite and I volunteered to be one of the scientists!)
David Conover then presented a slideshow of bulleted items that will help scientists better communicate to the public. I tried my best to get all of his points here but I am sure I missed a few.
Distilling Your Message:
- Start with a take-home message. Let them know why they should care.
- Avoid the science jargon but do not “dumb it down”.
- Use drama and tell a story (déjà vu anyone?)
- Emphasize the discoveries and not the caveats.
- Connect it to people’s lives somehow.
- Do not be modest – be proud of your work and show it.
Beware the Curse of Knowledge:
- Once we know it, it becomes hard to imagine anybody else not knowing it.
- Experts use jargon without even realizing it because it is everyday language for them.
Beat the Curse:
- Know the audience.
- Wear their shoes.
- What is their world-view? (I tried this technique in my blog post How to Talk to a Conservative about Climate Change v.2)
- How do I connect?
- This is very hard and takes advance preparation.
How to Connect & Engage:
- Keep the message simple.
- Find a few core points/ideas and stick with them.
- Capture attention by emphasizing the unexpected.
- Display emotion.
- Use metaphors, analogy, stories, etc. (I use this technique often and I find it very effective. See A Conversation at a Poker Game and Consensus Isn’t Science? for a few of my examples.)
Conover then ended the slide show by showing a video where Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report tried in vain to derail physicist Brian Greene. Green remained on message because he was well-prepared, showed passion, had a few points to make, and was committed to making these points despite the constant deflections of Colbert.
Session #1: Distilling the Message
The first breakout session I attended was hosted by Rick Firstman, a veteran science journalist from Newsday and currently teaching at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism and at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Rick asked each person to describe what they do and why it is important. He then asked us to imagine that we were in an elevator with one other person. “Tell the person who you are, what you do, and why it is important and do it in 30 seconds or less.” Here is what I came up with:
My name is Scott Mandia. I am a meteorologist who has been teaching weather and climate courses at Suffolk County Community College for nineteen years. My current passion is educating the general public about the dangers of climate change. Humans are causing global warming, every credible international scientific body supports that view, and most experts believe that global warming is the greatest threat to humanity in this century and beyond. I am the father of two small children and I see a bleak future for them if I do not help to make people understand that all of us are in this together and we must all do our part to solve the problem. The beauty is that saving the planet is also going to save us money, so it is a win-win scenario!
Session #2: Using Newer Media
This session appealed to me because I realize that it isn’t enough to have a Website or a blog. Those avenues require that visitors come to you. I want to be able to “push” the information to them. What is easier? Going to the store to get milk or having it delivered to your door? Websites and blogs are like going to the store. I have already set up a Facebook group called Global Warming Fact of the Day to deliver the “milk” but I figured there were more avenues to explore.
Christie Nicholson hosted this session. She began by showing us The Conversation Prism, the Art of Listening, Learning, and Sharing.
I never realized how many ways there are out there to tell the story!
Here is what I took away from this exciting session:
- Google has tools such as Google Blogs to search blogs and Google Trends to show what is hot right now.
- When getting the message out, write “visually” – paint the picture. For example, describe rolling up the sleeve before taking the shot instead of just taking the shot.
- Audio, especially a pod cast, is a very effective tool for getting out the message and the science area is very thin right now. I will be looking into pod casting.
- Twitter is probably the best way to quickly get information to many people. Before this session I resisted Twitter because I thought it was just people telling other people about mundane aspects of their lives. Now I realize that this is another way to deliver the milk! I signed up to Twitter the next day and am now twittering my Global Warming Fact of the Day factoids and other bits of climate change information. Twitter me at http://twitter.com/AGW_Prof
- Interactive sites are desperate for data. They need scientists to provide that data. We have an opening if we take it.
The highlight of this session was that John Cook of Skeptical Science was hailed as somebody who was doing science messaging the right way! I have been a huge supporter of John’s work and it is nice to here a new media expert brag about him. Kudos to you, John!
Session #3: Interacting with the Media
This session was hosted by Leandra Reilly, adjunct professor of communications at Hofstra University and the first woman to have done play by play at an NBA game. Each participant was treated to a crash-course in “the television interview” followed by a five to six minute taped interview. We then watched the tape back and Leandra offered constructive criticism. I have to say that my group did very well which gives me great hope. After this session, I feel much better prepared to be interviewed on television.
Here are some of the many take-home points from this session.
- Expect discomfort at the ear piece, wiring, and other technical equipment and forget about it. Worry comes across on TV.
- Make sure that you look presentable before you get “strapped into the chair”. Check for “bad hair” because hair that is sticking up will be all that the viewers will be looking at.
- Solid colors for wardrobe to avoid the Moiré pattern.
- Relax, sit on jacket so shoulder pads do not rise up, point knees slightly toward the side, shoulders always forward. Ladies wear sturdy blouse so weight of the microphone doesn’t result in cleavage being revealed.
- Always have a pleasant, natural smile – do not force a smile.
- Opening mouth wider when speaking forces one to talk more slowly. (Try it!)
- Keep answers to 15 seconds!
- Always look at the interviewer regardless of camera position.
- Avoid silence fillers such as um, ok, well, etc. Editors can remove silence easier than fillers.
- Always ask these questions:
- What is the topic?
- Who else will be there?
- How long is the interview?
- When and where will this be airing? (Results from your research that are now unavailable may be available later)
- Who is doing the interview? (Do the research on this person so you may know what is coming regarding tactics and style of the interviewer.)
I need to work on keeping my eyebrows from rising every time I make a point. Leandra called that “eyebrow hiking”.
The few die-hards that remained for the post-workshop wrap-up were told that Alan Alda thought that the people in the sessions he visited were already very involved in getting out the message and their excitement about learning to become better communicators was readily apparent. The next workshop will be hosted by SUNY at Stony Brook on May 14 with the next workshop on May 24 at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Howard Schneider left us with this pearl:
Remember that you are like sports writers whose readers don’t understand baseball.
I would love to hear your thoughts about how we can become better communicators.
Do you have a 30 second elevator ride distilled message? If not, make one now. If so, please feel free to post it in the comments below.
What innovative ways are you using to get your message out to the public in a language they understand?