Hello, and welcome to Episode Twenty-Five of Multiple Sclerosis Discovery, the podcast of the MS Discovery Forum. I’m your host, Dan Keller.
This week’s podcast features a special interview with actor and science advocate, Alan Alda, whom you may remember as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. But to begin, here’s a brief summary of some of the latest developments on the MS Discovery Forum at msdiscovery.org.
Positive thinking may lead to positive clinical outcomes, according to a new meta-analysis. The investigators found that interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy helped patients deal with physical symptoms like fatigue and pain. They suggested that psychological well-being should be assessed and treated along with physical disability in people with MS. The researchers also called for studies that examined the connection between the psychological and the physical more directly.
Moving from the macro to the micro, we recently published an article about axonal transport. Axons rely on motor proteins to carry cargo across long tracks of microtubules in order to survive. A disruption in this process is associated with neurodegeneration. Recently a team of researchers discovered that axonal transport is disrupted in mice with EAE. In this animal model of MS, even normal-appearing axons failed to transport organelles as quickly or as effectively as healthy axons. But the researchers were able to reverse the process, suggesting a potential new therapeutic target for drug development.
Now to the interview. Alan Alda is an actor known for his television roles in M*A*S*H and The West Wing. But he’s also a longtime advocate of science and scientific literacy and the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He met with MSDF recently to talk about the art of good science communication.
Interviewer – Dan Keller
What, at this point, would you say are the one or two biggest pieces of advice you could give to any technical person or a scientist trying to get his point across to the general public?
Interviewee – Alan Alda
I think the most important thing to remember is that it’s not nearly so important to worry about what you have to say to the other person, as it is to think about how the other person is receiving what you have to say. We know this intellectually because everybody knows that you want to know your audience, everybody knows you want to start where the student is, you know, find out what they know and build on that, that kind of thing. We all know that.
But one of the things that I think that we’ve found at the Center for Communicating Science that I helped start is that you need to get in the habit of doing that; you need to really go through the experience of actually opening up to other people, getting their feedback, being able to read from the signals that they give you on their face and their body language – all the various signals you can get – whether or not they’re really paying attention and really following you. If you miss one of the crucial words I say at the beginning of a paragraph, the rest of the paragraph is dead; you’re spending most of your time trying to figure out what I’m talking about.
As an example, say, in Scientific American Frontiers, you elicited great storytelling; I mean, I assume part of that was picking the right speakers, but how do you coax it out of them in an understandable way? I mean can you essentially guide people without saying, “Hey, come on, bring it down, bring it down.”?
I think Scientific American Frontiers worked as well as it did because in a way it was a rare thing – I hadn’t seen it done before and so maybe it has, but I hadn’t seen it – where you had a naïve person – ignorant, played by me – and I wasn’t acting. I made use of the natural fund of ignorance that I came in with. I didn’t aspire to an ignorance I didn’t possess, it was real; I really didn’t know what these people did in the laboratory, and I really did want to know what it was. And I wanted to understand it, so I badgered them until I understood it, and I didn’t pretend I understood it if I didn’t. That step where they actually had to come to terms with this person standing right next to them looking up in their faces where they had to actually make it clear to this one person, that changed them in some way, that brought out the human being in them. And they forgot about the camera, they forgot about the millions of people that they might have gone into lecture mode to explain this to. They were talking to one individual and that made a big difference, because they became much more human.
So, yeah, I think that we had people who were comfortable being in front of a camera, but regardless of how comfortable they were in making their language plain-spoken, they had to get even more so when they talked to me because I really, I just tugged at their coat until I understood it. And something happened between us, there was some kind of connection between us that was very watchable, very interesting. I think that helped draw other people in. After we did that, I really wondered if a scientist didn’t have this person dogging him or her to get the information out, but to get it out understandably, what would do it? How could they get accustomed to speaking as though they’re talking to another person who really wants to know? And that’s when it occurred to me that I bet we could teach them improvising and that would help them get more personal, and it has.
To envision one person.
Well, when you improvise, at least the way we improvise with scientists, it’s not for the purpose of getting them to be comical, or to make things up on the spot, or to be clever. The whole thing is designed to get the scientists to be accustomed to observing the person they’re talking to, because you can’t play these improvising games unless you’re tuned into the other person in a very powerful way. Once they get used to that and when they turn and talk to an audience, they carry with them that same ability to talk to the people and not over their heads and not at them. They don’t spray information at them anymore, they actually engage the audience, and that’s a tremendous difference.
Let me switch gears a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, I’ve certainly noticed it, between different closely related scientific disciplines – I mean, I cover medicine mostly – and people in just very closely related things, there’s no cross-pollination. They’re surprised when they hear something that’s going on. Oh, you know, that could be applicable to me. And I think there’s even a lack of communication between the disciplines between scientists. They can certainly speak in the same jargon, but I don’t know if there’s a barrier or if they’re just so wrapped up in their own stuff.
It seems to be a really serious problem that scientists need more and more to collaborate across disciplines, and the problem is that they often – I think I could say often – don’t understand one another much better than a layperson understands a scientist in a specialized field. So at a certain level, at a certain distance from one another’s work, they’re really in the position of an interested layperson rather than a collaborator, rather than a colleague. And we have to bridge that gap if we’re going to get the benefits of collaboration. And I’ve heard some horror stories of scientists getting together and not understanding one another. And on the other hand, I’ve heard these really heartbreakingly wonderful stories.
When we have a workshop with a range of scientists, scientists from several different fields, one of the wonderful things they say is this has been great, I got to understand, I got to hear about this guy’s work and I never knew anything about it before. They’re hearing an explanation of another person’s work in terms that they might say it to the lay public. It’s acceptable to the other scientists because we don’t ask them to dumb it down, we ask them NOT to dumb it down just to make it clear. So they’re getting a clear version of somebody else’s work that doesn’t include the jargon of that specialized field. It’s stripped of its jargon, it’s spoken in plain language. And the emotion, the passion that the scientist feels about it is allowed to come out because that’s part of the human story that science is. Science, rather than being passionless, is generated by passion. So it’s great that that comes out in this work.
In the training, obviously you can tell if there’s a difference between before and after. But have you ever been able to test the durability of this, that these people retaining these? Or do they lapse back? Or can you tell?
It’s hard to get measurements on the success of this, but we’re beginning to get some early results because we’ve been working with teaching assistants. And teaching assistants are graduate students who are asked to give courses to undergraduates to see if the undergraduates want to go into science. And one of the problems has been that a lot of them drop out because they can’t get interested in the science partly because the teaching assistants don’t have any training in communication or in education; they know the material but they’re not really experienced at communicating. So we put them through a course of communication, and then we find some of the numbers we’re getting back are that the students are rating them as highly or higher than people who have been doing this for five years, and these are first-time teaching assistants.
Next thing we’ll check on is are their grades getting better and other things you can measure. But so far, the acceptance of the teachers is already better because there’s an attempt to personalize the experience. And so the students are accepting the teachers more, and by the same token, I assume they’re accepting the science more.
Have you ever thought of designing a curriculum that could be put into the science graduate programs, because these people are going to become scientists?
What we’ve actually done is introduced a curriculum into Stony Brook University where I helped the Center for Communicating Science. And there are courses for credit taught to graduate students, and in addition there’s even at least one department that requires that the students take these communication courses. So it’s beginning to be seen as an essential element of the science education. And it’s a small beginning. But my feeling has always been isn’t communication essential to science itself, don’t we need to communicate science in order for it to take place or for the benefits of science to come to the surface? And not only that, that’s practical, but for the beauty of science to be enjoyed by the whole world, you definitely need communication. And that will help more science get done, and better science get done. More people entering science, if they understand how beautiful and engrossing it is – exciting. So it seems to me that since communication is such an important part of science, shouldn’t it be taught as part of a science education so that when you graduate as a capable scientist, you’re also a capable communicator?
Maybe you don’t even have an idea of this answer, but what got you into this passion for science?
I’ve always been curious and that made me want to know more. I started reading Scientific American in my early 20s and since then I’ve read almost every article in almost every issue. And I love it, I just love it! I mean, I put the magazine down and I read other science magazines – I read Science & Nature and Science News, which I think does a very good job. Just the other day, I just slammed it down on the table and I said to my wife, “Arlene, you won’t believe this, listen to this.” You hear these wonderful stories of things you never imagined.
No, I agree. I mean, some people get turned off by it, some people get turned on by it.
Well, it’s hard to believe anybody would get turned off by it unless they’re not hearing it the right way.
I think that a lot of people are turned off early because they weren’t encouraged or they were led to believe they couldn’t understand it.
Yeah, it’s true.
I appreciate it. Thanks.
Well, thank you very much.
Thank you for listening to Episode Twenty-Five of Multiple Sclerosis Discovery, our final episode for 2014. We’ll be taking a two-week hiatus for the holidays, but we’ll be back with new weekly episodes starting on January fifth.
This podcast was produced by the MS Discovery Forum, MSDF, the premier source of independent news and information on MS research. MSDF’s executive editor is Robert Finn. Msdiscovery.org is part of the non-profit Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis. Robert McBurney is our President and CEO, and Hollie Schmidt is vice president of scientific operations.
Msdiscovery.org aims to focus attention on what is known and not yet known about the causes of MS and related conditions, their pathological mechanisms, and potential ways to intervene. By communicating this information in a way that builds bridges among different disciplines, we hope to open new routes toward significant clinical advances.
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