Alan Alda’s Challenge to Scientists: Explain Color. To 11-Year-Olds.

The state of the universe.
Feb. 17 2014 11:55 PM

How Can You Explain “Color” to an 11-Year-Old?

Alan Alda’s challenge to scientists: Let kids be the judges.

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Still, Alda argues, when it’s important, scientists can speak to laypeople. “Interestingly,” he notes, “when Marie Curie wrote her paper on radioactivity, any layperson could follow it. And it was on an issue that was not at all simple, but it was written in a personal way, and you could follow it as though it was a human activity, which it was.” It’s not just that scientists sometimes carry jargon into their conversations with the public or policymakers, he says, it’s that “sometimes fancy words are used in an effort to be precise, but in fact precision can actually be lost through confusion.”

Alda was about to go speak at the annual conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I asked what he would be saying to all the scientists gathered there. He says it’s not about shortcuts or tricks for talking to regular people. “The thing is, scientists really want to do better at this. I see it in graduate students and senior scientists who are stars in their field. They understand what’s at stake,” he says. “When I talk about it, and when we do workshops, it’s not to impart a few tips. That’s the way communication is handled by a lot of books and programs. But I actually think we have to habituate ourselves to a different way of expressing ourselves. And it’s not about expressing ourselves so much as it is about really making contact with the people we are talking to.” He adds: “We give a lot of thought to how to say things, when in fact, how it’s being received is much more crucial. At the center, we start with getting scientists focused on the person they are communicating with; to be aware of what’s happening in their brain. I think getting the audience to want to know more might be more valuable to them than getting them to understand a fact or two. For that to happen, you have to have a connection with them. You have to know how to reach them where they are.”

I suggest to him that maybe he should be using these same techniques to train experts to discuss civics or politics or the Constitution. “We almost never do a workshop,” Alda laughs, “where we don’t get someone getting up and saying, ‘Why don’t you do this for economics and other disciplines?’ … But I can’t change the whole world.”

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I ask what it is about the age of 11 that creates the most accurate judges of clear scientific explanation. “That’s the age I was when I asked that question, ‘What’s a flame?’ ” he replies, “and I think by accident we stumbled on an age that seems just right, and maybe that’s why I asked that question at that age. Because at 11 there is not only curiosity, but an increased level of critical thinking,” he pauses, “and also a tremendous sense of dignity. We have videos of them discussing the entries and voting on them. And I hear in these conversations at least the level of maturity of some boards that I’ve been on.” I muse that 11-year-olds also really don’t tolerate being talked down to. “Oh yeah,” he says. “The memorable line was the one kid who said, ‘It’s OK to be funny. But it’s not OK to be silly. We’re 11; we’re not 7.’ ” He laughs. “They want information. I have seen them turn down a lot of entries because the kids think there wasn’t enough information.”  

I ask whether he has to translate himself when he talks to a roomful of scientists. He replies: “I love science. But I am very aware that I am not a scientist. So I make it clear that my contribution is to ask questions rather than translate. One of the things I am working on in the center is to help scientists communicate in their own voice and not have to be translated at all. I know something about communicating; I spent my life communicating. So this is what we do.”

This conversation brings me inevitably to the creationism-vs.-evolution debate earlier this month between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. He is careful to say that he didn’t watch it: “I have only seen clips of the debate,” he cautions, “so I can’t really say anything intelligent about it.” He asks what they said about the fossils and then says, “I once had a conversation with a teenager who had been trained in creationism and I asked him about the fossils. He said, ‘God put them there to test our faith.’ That’s a really wonderful circular argument.” Then he asks whether I think it’s a mistake to ever engage in debates about science and creation, and asks how my sons responded to watching the Nye/Ham debate and what the audience seemed to think of the arguments. Suddenly I realize that he is interviewing me, which is precisely what he is trying to teach scientists—to ask questions, to understand your audience, and to focus on the person you’re talking to. Lucky scientists, I think. You’re in excellent hands.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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