There's a joke Elizabeth Bass hears over and over again, each time by a different type of scientist—first from an electrical engineer, although she has heard it told, always self-deprecating, by a mathematician, a chemist, and others. The quip goes: How can you tell an extroverted engineer? He's the one staring at your shoes.
Bass, director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, told me the joke on the grounds of Columbia University, where she had instructed a science outreach workshop to 60 scientists May 7-9. The Alan Alda Center, founded by the actor most known for the role of Hawkeye Pierce in the television show M.A.S.H., aims to help scientists better communicate with the general public.
Directly educating the general public about research is something the science community has struggled with. At the same time, science outreach is crucial, especially in a nation where many dispute the large body of scientific literature on human-driven climate change, the theory of evolution, and the benefits of vaccination.
"When only a small percentage of our populace—including our policy-makers—has a firm grasp on the science behind the debates, we are doomed to make grievous errors in our decisions on a wide variety of issues," scientist and writer Christie Wilcox wrote in an editorial with the Biological Bulletin.
The Alan Alda Center's workshops feature improvisational acting exercises, which urge scientists to explain something complex, like baseball, without losing their audience. Workshops have been known to include catching imaginary balls and explaining smartphones to a hypothetical time traveler. Although they signed up for the workshop, many among the scientists, Bass said, were skeptical at the day's beginning.
Being good at engaging people is all about feeling comfortable and flexible, Alda says.
Many researchers feel the biggest problem they have when communicating to the public is a lack of support. According to a 2012 survey of researchers published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, more than half said a lack of time was the biggest barrier to doing science outreach, due to constant pressure to publish, a tenure process that does not often account for outreach in tangible ways, and little support for outreach from departments and advisers.
Some scientists also believe in the "Carl Sagan effect," or the belief that spending too much time speaking to the broader public will decrease the quality of one's research. According to the PLOS One survey, about 5 percent of scientists do not see public outreach as part of their goal, and 25 percent of respondents believe the central barrier to effective science outreach is the public itself. Of this group, 70 percent believe the public is simply too ignorant to understand, and 30 percent believe the public simply doesn't care.
Bass, who worked at Newsday prior to the Alan Alda Center, found the scientists in her workshops often had never talked about their research in non-technical language. Over the course of a workshop, scientists learn to get to the point sooner, be conversational, to have a goal when speaking, and to allow their passion about their work to enter the discussion.
Bass hopes the Alan Alda Center's workshops teach both communication skills and the desire to work with one's audience to understand the issue, instead of retreating in the face of ignorance. "The ideal outcome would be the ability to read an audience and make a connection and speak at a level that's appropriate to that person," Bass said. "It's not like following a script or having talking points; it's about perceiving the other person who's there with you and speaking in a way that resonates with them."