Communication key to making science more accessible, Alda says

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MARCY — Alan Alda, the actor who played Hawkeye in the popular television series “M*A*S*H” more than three decades ago, made a pitch Wednesday night for scientists to be better communicators to help them speak better to nonscientists.

“The art of communication is so important,” said Alda as he talked passionately, and at times humorously, about his love of science at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Wildcat Field House.

His appearance was part of this week’s Project Fibonacci STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, math) Youth Conference.

He’s deeply committed to the notion that accomplished scientists should also be effective communicators.

His objective is not to make them funny, like his famed M*A*S*H character, but to help them talk about science in understandable, jargon-free terms to people who are not scientists.

“I’m very interested in communicating science,” the 80-year-old actor and speaker said. “Science has so much to offer.”

Alda said too many scientists are afflicted with what he called the “curse of knowledge.”

By way of explanation, he said, “They think what you know is what they know.”

Alda said there needs to be an emphasis on telling stories, making a “natural personal connection” and communicating emotion.

“Wonderful things can happen if you communicate and pay attention,” the actor, director and writer told the audience in the neighborhood of 450 to 500.

There’s even a bottom-line angle.

Alda suggested that the ability to describe science effectively could prove key to winning research financing in the future.

For more than a decade Alda has hosted PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers,” informing the public about new technologies and discoveries in science and medicine.

In interviews with hundreds of scientists, he sought to draw out engaging explanations.

“We were just having a conversation,” he said of his sessions. He said he didn’t go in with a list of questions.

He remembered one scientist who would switch from conversing with Alda to lecturing and speaking to the camera.

He said the tone of voice changed along with the person’s vocabulary.

He helped create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook to train scientists and medical professionals.

The center is known for its annual Flame Challenge, an international competition in which scientists are challenged to answer a question in a way that is most appropriate for 11-year-olds.

Warm applause from the standing audience greeted Alda’s conclusion after nearly an hour of his observations and personal stories, including several references to “M*A*S*H.” He did a meet-and-greet” afterward.

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