Sunday, March 8, 2015

Bad things

Actor and science popularizer Alan Alda feels that America’s scientists should learn “how to present their research to the public.” He also feels that the best way to do this is through improvisational acting exercises. Here’s one example, described in an article in this past week’s New York Times Science Section:

Martha Furie [a professor of pathology at Stony Brook University] stormed into the room and huffily sat down in a chair.  
“Well, you know, I’ve been working really hard, studying Lyme disease,” she said, her voice tinged with disdain, to the woman sitting in the next chair. “It’s been a long process. It’s hard to talk about it.”  
The other woman, Bernadette Holdener [a professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Stony Brook University], was somewhat befuddled. ”How does it make you feel?” she asked.  
“Lyme disease?” Dr. Furie sneered. “It can have all sorts of bad things.”
As the Times’ Kenneth Chang explains
The exercise, called “Who am I?,” challenges one of the participants — Dr. Furie, in this case — to convey an unstated relationship with another, and everyone else must try to deduce the relationship. “She sounded very angry,” Dr. Holdener said.
Why was she angry?
People guessed variously that Dr. Furie was a Lyme researcher who had contracted the disease, that she just been denied tenure and was venting to the head of her department, that she was expressing passive-aggressive anger toward her spouse.
Facilitating the exercise was none other than Alan Alda:
“You’re so close,” Mr. Alda said.  
Dr. Furie explained that Dr. Holdener “was my long-lost sister who stole my husband away.” The other participants laughed at the convoluted, unlikely setup.
Though no one guessed this set up, Alan Alda was pleased with how things went:
Mr. Alda said that Dr. Furie, focusing on her role as a wronged sister, intently observed her audience — Dr. Holdener — and the effect of her words. “What I find interesting about this is you’re suddenly talking about your work in a way you’ve never talked about it before,” Mr. Alda said.
How pretending to be aggrieved, long-lost sisters helps scientists present their research to the public is unclear to me. But Alda, who has no difficulty whatsoever presenting his ideas to the public, was able to convince Stony Brook to set up a Center for Communication Science in 2009, renamed the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in 2013. Despite initial skepticism that “improv would be a distraction”
two graduate programs now require students to take the center’s classes. All medical school students receive 10 hours of training.  
… In addition, four organizations — Dartmouth College, the University of Vermont, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey and the American Chemical Society — have become affiliates of the center. Other universities, inspired by Stony Brook, are considering setting up similar programs.
Given all the teaching and grant writing that scientists do, and how easy it is for experts to forget the perspectives of outsiders, I’m sure that many can and should improve their communication skills. But I’m wondering whether, just maybe, a verbal coach might be more effective than an acting coach. Were I advising Martha Furie on how best to communicate the effects of Lyme disease, for example, I would focus, not on her ability to play an aggrieve, long-lost sister talking about Lyme disease, but on her actual words. “It can have all sorts of bad things”: perhaps my verbal expectations are unreasonably high, but I say it’s those words, first and foremost, that need work.

“Despite the paucity of evidence, even medical experts can fall into marketing traps.” This sentence isn’t from the Alda Article, but from an adjacent article discussing skepticism about vitamin supplements. Yet, paucity of evidence and marketing traps are equally afoot chez Alda.

How can scientists, whose stock-in-trade is (or ought to be) skepticism, particularly about correlation vs. causation, and basic logic, fall for pseudo-syllogisms like these?
Alan Alda is good at improvisational acting exercises.
Alan Alda is good at communicating science
Therefore requiring scientists to do improvisational acting exercises will make them good at communicating science.
Or, perhaps, like Lyme disease, it can have all sorts of bad things.


Anonymous said...

I am so sick and tired of everything being reduced to a gimmick. Why can't the scientist just talk about her experience studying this disease? I would take offense to someone trying to explain a highly technical subject by doing soap opera acting. Give me a break.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I help students learn to present their science every day (actually, only 4 days a week this quarter).

Some would benefit from improv classes if only to help keep them freezing when they make a mistake.

Others need to work on voice and intonation (suffering from the low-volume mumble or monotone that ruins so many academic talks). Again, acting classes could help (I take the grad students out into the woods once a year to practice speaking loudly.)

But most of the students need help in structuring their talks—in figuring out what the audience already knows, what they need to know, and what order to put the material in for smooth flow. That is not something that improv classes would help much with.