Nautilus

Profile of Alan Alda, a skilled science communicator

Alan Alda is not only a beloved actor, producer, writer and activist, but also a skilled science communicator. Those aiming to talk effectively to the public about biotech research would do well to follow his lead. That’s the view of George S. Mack, whose profile of Alda is published in this month’s issue of Nature Biotechnology (26, 1325; 2008). From the article:

Nobel Laureate and Rockefeller University president Paul Nurse has hosted Alda as a speaker and guest and shared a speaking platform with him many times. “He should have been a scientist himself,” he says. “Alan pays attention, and he’s interested in what science can tell us about the natural world and ourselves—ranging from molecular biology and high energy atomic physics right through to geology and relativity.” For Nurse, the highest tribute he can offer is that Alda is prepared to tackle difficult topics and disciplines. “He doesn’t retreat behind the metaphor, which can at times be useful, but you have to be careful about metaphors because you think you understand things when you don’t always.”

Alda is a great proselytizer for the potential of science as a provider of solutions for poverty and hunger. He also spends time visiting US universities each year to teach science students how to give presentations. According to Alda, a major aim is not “to dumb down science.” But he also worries about the tendency of scientists at times to talk down to nonexperts. In the field of genetically modified plants and animals, for instance, Alda believes researchers should address people’s concerns straight up. “I think it’s important to know what their fears are, and to address them, rather than to just say don’t worry and just trust the guys in the white coats,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea for scientists to acknowledge the fear of bioengineered foods and then to distinguish among the fears.”

Read the full article at Nature Biotechnology (site licence or subscription).

More about Alan Alda’s new TV series The Human Spark.

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