June 15, 2013
Say What? Science And Communication
Science and technology are becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives. Twenty years ago, hardly anyone even knew what a cell phone was. And those that we saw were huge, clunky, heavy, ugly, and used by secretive government types in science fiction movies. Today, almost everyone has one. Computers were the size of rooms and now we have one in our small handheld phones. Science has brought us to the point that we can now transplant organs, detect life threatening illnesses much earlier, and we have even developed and begun to use nano technology, the stuff of the future! We have sent a giant telescope into space and a rover to Mars. Yes, we have come a long, long way. We still have so much to explore and learn in these areas. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to do get people interested in these areas.
I could be wrong, but one of the reasons I think people aren’t as interested in these subjects as we should be is the simple fact that they are difficult to understand. Say you read an article on the use of nano technology in medicine. If you are like most of us, you only understand a small portion of the author’s words. We’ve all come across this; techo-babble, medical jargon, scientific gobbledygook. It’s not that the writer or speaker wants to bore us to death; it’s more a matter that they haven’t got any idea how to put their subject into words that everyone can understand so that we stay interested. And so you wonder, why can’t these obviously intelligent people say this in layman’s terms? You are not alone thinking this.
Enter Alan Alda, actor, director, screenwriter and author and science aficionado. He is most well-known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the television show M.A.S.H., along with the numerous movies and plays he has done over the years. For eleven years, this award winning actor also hosted a PBS show called Scientific American Frontiers. According to an interview he gave to the NY Times last year, he often wondered if there was a better way for the scientists he interviewed to communicate. It was such a good idea that he suggested to several universities that they teach communication skills to science and graduate students. Officials at Stony Brook University liked the idea so much that they opened the Center for Communicating Science, recently renamed the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (AACCS) in honor of the man. The purpose of this center, the only one of its kind in the United States, “is to enhance public understanding of science by helping scientists and health professionals learn to communicate more effectively with the public, including public officials, students, the media, and colleagues in other disciplines.”
Established in 2009, “AACCS offers a range of instructional programs for science graduate students and scientists, including workshops, conferences, lectures, and coaching opportunities, as well as credit-bearing courses offered through the School of Journalism. We are working to develop new approaches to curriculum, assess our programs, and establish a clearinghouse for best practices and a supportive network of institutions working to improve public communication of science.”
Personally, I think this is a simply fabulous idea! While I may not have any desire to become scientist or doctor, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the changes that are constantly going on around me. I truly believe that most people, myself included, would be more likely to weigh in on subjects if we felt we understood them better. The AACCS is working towards making those in these fields more adept at explaining the things they are working on and what is in store for our future.
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