How Alan Alda, neighborhood bars and mime fit into an ongoing campaign to get scientists to tell it like it is
Author Jon Marcus Illustration Sébastien Thibault
“I’ve been using Dioscoreales as a model system,” says the botanist at the front of the room, describing her work in exploring the diversity of leaf forms, “because Dioscoreales are vining monocots, as you probably know.” Judging by the looks on their faces, the people in the audience probably don’t know this—which is pretty much the point of this exercise. The challenge for this scientist is to make her diverse leaf forms easier to digest.
The setting is a workshop at the State University of New York at Stony Brook called Improvisation for Scientists. The aim is to find ways to make science more accessible to the masses. Alan Alda, for whom the University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is named, is emceeing.
Alda, a frequent host of scientific television shows, has long been at the forefront of a campaign to encourage the use of plain English in the sciences. “If scientists can’t communicate clearly,” he says after the workshop, “the rest of us lose out on the beauty of science, the intrigue, the great detective story it is, the poetry of it.”
For all his zeal, Alda is not entirely without sympathy for the targets of his crusade. “We shouldn’t be too rough on scientists,” he says. “I could give you a string of show-business jargon you wouldn’t understand either. If you’re talking to somebody who understands the lingo, and you have one word that can stand in for five pages of words, why wouldn’t you use it? But you have to be aware of whether people are getting it or not.”
This has become a hot topic in the scientific community, mostly because, quite clearly, a lot of people aren’t getting it. A study by the National Science Foundation found that only half of American adults surveyed understood that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, and fewer than one in 10 could define a molecule. In an age when science and technology play an increasingly central role in everyday life, that kind of ignorance has troubling ramifications.
Beyond being incomprehensible, say some critics, giga-syllabic scientists come across as elitist. Jargon, says Elizabeth Bass, a science journalist who now runs the Alan Alda Center, “can be worse than silence. It sends a message of ‘I don’t care if you don’t understand.’”
Alex Mayer, a professor at Michigan Technological University, argues that there’s an element of self-interest in the plain-English campaign. “We need the public on our side,” he says. “They write the checks, they pay the taxes and they elect the people who make the decisions.” With the aid of a National Science Foundation grant, Mayer trains graduate students to communicate by sending them to teach in middle schools.
But it’s not only Jane and Joe Schmo who are alienated by science-speak. In spite of the old joke that IT guys inflate their salaries by deliberately using arcane terminology—thereby making themselves indispensable—there’s actually a growing demand among employers for technical staff who can communicate clearly. The Keepers of the Knowledge, as it were, are being asked to share with the rest of us.
Accordingly, engineering students at institutions like Syracuse University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, both in New York, are required to master the art of the elevator pitch (describing their work in the time it takes to rise or descend a few floors). At Villanova University, in Pennsylvania, engineering students describe their research in front of discriminating panels of retirees and 12-year-olds.
In 2010, Ireland’s Trinity College began sending its scientists to local pubs to explain their work to patrons in three minutes or less, an idea that has grown so popular it’s become a national competition held in a Dublin theater. Then there’s PHD Comics, a humor website for doctoral students, which runs a video competition in which contenders get two minutes to describe their doctoral theses.
Alda would approve. “Our hope,” he says, “is that all science education will eventually include the study of communication skills, so that when we turn out a capable scientist we’ll also be turning out a capable communicator.”
To this end, the event Alda is hosting today involves an exercise adopted from improvisational theater, in which scientists use an even more basic form of expression than simple language—namely, mime. “This is really hard,” says one participant, flapping his arms in an attempt to convey something meaningful about his research. “It makes the whole science thing look really easy.”
JON MARCUS, a Boston–based writer and editor, is still grappling with Dioscoleares.