Communicating Science

You know the old parlor game where everybody tells which three people- living, dead, fictional, real life- they would invite to dinner? My answer changes regularly among five or six people. But one guy just earned a permanent seat.

I’ve always admired Alan Alda for the way he used his TV roles to do more than entertain. Although M*A*S*H was set in the 1950s, it addressed social issues that were relevant in the 1970s and 1980s. And indeed when I watch it now, it hasn’t aged one bit. In West Wing, he showed how a presidential campaign can move the national debate forward.

Now he’s outdone himself. He’s the energy behind the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The center is dedicated to working with scientists to make their messages clear to non-scientists (i.e., most of us). The idea is that if scientists are better at communicating with the public, public officials can make policy decisions with better knowledge and the public can take a more active role in policy-making.

The Alda Center website can explain what they do better than I can:

The center addresses one area that is crucial to society as various systems struggle with health care delivery. They have specific programs for communicating health care issues. In all societies these days, the patient is given more and more responsibility. Gone is the day when we went to a doctor, got a prescription and went home to get better. Parents have a choice whether their kids get this shot or that shot, for example.

The role of doctors and nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical companies and hospital administrators is now to support patients in choosing the right health care strategy from a number of options. Communicating risks and rewards is a task that has life and death consequences.

My favorite Alda Center program is the Flame Challenge. Scientists are challenged to answer questions in a way that engages 11-year-olds. What is a flame? What is time? What is color? Eleven-year-olds vote on the winners.

The reason I like this so much is that it applies to more than just scientists. We are all experts in something, but what good is it to know everything in the world about something if we can’t talk about it with non-experts?

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