May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”


Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

That human, personality-mediated connection to science is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in part because it’s increasingly relevant to the audience research work we’re doing with science museums and public media, and in part because it’s central to a conference I’m co-organizing with MIT and AAAS about how science engagement works in contemporary culture. The pleasure of, say, attending a Science on Screen event or listening to a Story Collider podcast doesn't lie only — or even primarily — in learning about something cool. People don’t usually choose these activities because they have an interest in the scientific topic at hand. They choose them for reasons that boil down to social and aesthetic reward. The pleasure lies in the experience of connecting to the mind and heart of someone else for a while, seeing the world through their eyes. Ideally, that person will be sufficiently like us, so we have an entry-point, and sufficiently different from us, so we’re transported out of ourselves.

It happens every day in other domains, of course: think of plays, movies, novels, or just talking with friends at a restaurant.

If all this sounds psychological or touchy-feely, it is — which may be why neither scientists nor the science communication field talk about it much. Far more practical to focus on what’s being communicated and how much the audience learned.

But what if that human connection is a prerequisite for a certain kind of learning? What if engagement with science, for most people, is premised on engagement with the communicator, or at least one’s fellow audience members? We don’t know whether that’s the case, because the research hasn’t been commissioned yet, least of all in the casual settings where some contemporary science communication takes place. But the tidbits we have from our own audience studies, and the reports I’ve heard from other researchers, suggest it’s worth looking at head-on.

Meanwhile, I hope Alda's deeper point isn’t lost in the conversation about the Flame Challenge and the need for explanatory clarity. Communication is a social act. Scientists should be thinking not just about their explanations but about themselves, and about their role in the human exchange.

That’s something Feynman understood perfectly, by the way. He made something of a specialty of explaining everyday phenomena without jargon but also without sacrificing complexity. One of those phenomena, as Alda and his colleagues point out on the contest website, was flame. Watch the 1983 intervew below, and notice how his face breaks into a boyish, thrilled smile when he says, “That catastrophe is a fire!” Or rather, notice what your own face is doing in response.

Top photo of Flame Challenge judges Ricardo and Paloma: Stony Brook University School of Journalism, via Flickr.

1 Comment »
Katelyn Sack — May 23, 2012

Brilliant. Feynman here looks so much like Alda cutting up, or Gene Wilder in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," or Skip Lupia jumping off the NAS auditorium stage while telling a story.

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