Spring 2017 Bulletin

Communicating Science through Art

The Public Face of Science

On December 12, 2016, at the Century Association in New York, the Academy hosted the Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture on “Communicating Science through Art” with Diane Ackerman (poet, essayist, and naturalist) and Alan Alda (actor, director, screenwriter, and author). This program served as the Academy’s 2048th Stated Meeting and included an introduction by Geneva Overholser (Senior Fellow and Consultant at the Democracy Fund). The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Geneva Overholser
Geneva Overholser is a Senior Fellow and Consultant at the Democracy Fund. She is the former Director of the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001 and serves as Cochair of the Academy’s project on The Public Face of Science.

It is a real treat for me to be here with you all tonight, and what fun to be able to conduct the conversation that we are about to have. In the Academy’s Public Face of Science project, we are trying to identify the factors that shape public attitudes toward science. What causes someone to be excited about a new discovery and to be curious about it? What does it mean that one individual, but not another, will be inclined to use scientific evidence in daily decision-making? From what we have learned so far, the question of public trust in science is a really complicated one. A majority of the public does think that science has made our lives better, and they think that the government’s investments in scientific research pay off in the long run. Yet we see sizable gaps between the opinions of the general public and the views of scientists on such questions as global climate change, GMOs, vaccines, and evolution. Some of us, when we consider this gap, go immediately to the notion of scientific literacy: if we just taught science more effectively, surely we could take care of the matter. But while education is certainly important, years of research indicate that it’s not quite that simple.

The Public Face of Science project is looking at how factors such as political ideology, religion, socioeconomic status, and education level affect both views on particular issues and views of science more broadly. Consider how we encounter science: we know that the public gets information about science from newspapers, television, radio, and the Internet, but their views are shaped as well by the more informal encounters that all of us have at museums, zoos, aquariums, national parks, or science cafes. What role do these organizations play in shaping public attitudes?

Science, of course, also finds its way into movies, television, plays, and other forms of art. These encounters provide an opportunity to reach different audiences and to integrate science more richly into our broader culture. We are eager to bring the important topic of “Communicating Science through Art” to this terrific gathering of Fellows, and to get your views. And how lucky we are to kick off the conversation with two people who so beautifully practice the art of communicating: Diane Ackerman and Alan Alda. It’s possible that you know more about Alan Alda as “Hawkeye” Pierce than you do about his truly pioneering work in science communication. And it is also possible that you admire Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife and eagerly await the upcoming film starting Jessica Chastain, but know less about Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind, which has been called “a poetics of the brain based on the latest neuroscience.” All of this devotion to helping us see scientists as human beings, not as the “white-coated gurus on the mountaintop,” has led Alda to establish and support a truly remarkable network nationwide of educators, who incorporate science communication and science education into the same program. And Ackerman has been called, for good reason, our foremost naturalist poet. These two obviously have a lot to teach us about telling stories about science.

Diane Ackerman
Diane Ackerman is a poet, essayist, and naturalist. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

I’m going to read two short things that I wrote:

On Discovery

When I read of the just-discovered Symbion pandora, a radically new life-form that’s pinpoint small, trisexual (it will try anything), and lives on the lips of lobsters, my first thought was: Do lobsters have lips? But that was quickly followed by a renewed sense of wonder at the quirky fantasia of life on earth. With a mouth like a hairy wheel, and other anatomical oddities, pandora is so outlandish that a special phylum was created for it – Cycliophora, of which pandora is the sole member.

I must admit, I get a devilish delight when the miraculous appears right under my nose. After all, the marvelous is a weed species. One can glimpse it on one’s doorstep. People often ask me where they might go to find adventure. Adventure is not something you must travel to find, I suggest, it’s something you take with you. The astonishing can turn up in the leaf clutter, or even at a neighborhood restaurant, in a dingy tank, on the lips of lobsters.

We forget that the world is always more and stranger than we guess. Or can guess. Instead, we search for simple answers, simple laws of nature, in a sleight of mind that makes us uniquely human. Just as we’re addicted to rules, home-truths, and slogans, we’re addicted to certain ways of explaining things. There’s bound to be a simple answer to everything, we insist. Maybe not. Maybe complexity frightens us. Maybe we fear becoming as plural as all we survey. Maybe we still tacitly believe that the universe was created for our pleasure, that we pint-sized demigods are its sole audience and goal. Then something like pandora turns up, minute being with a sex life even stranger than our own, a creature that breaks all the rules and gives biologists a jolt.

Because we have swarmed across the world with our curious and agile minds, we sometimes think that nature has been fully explored, but that’s far from true. Plants and animals are going extinct at an appalling rate – some estimates are as high as 300 species a day – and many of them are vanishing mysteries. The riches of the natural world are slipping through our fingers before we can even call them by name. Hanging on by a suction cup, and reaching around to vacuum up fallen morsels from a dining lobster’s lips, pandora reminds us that we share our planet with unseen hordes, and it hints at the uniqueness of our own complex niche.

Recently a graduate student, strolling through the woods, happened upon a fungus in a curious state of arousal. Odder still, it was sprouting behind the head of a beetle grub. Intrigued, she took it to a laboratory, studied it carefully, asked the right questions, and soon realized that she had made an astounding discovery: asexual form of a mold that produces cyclosporin, an immunosuppressant used to combat organ rejection. We know the tropics contain a rich pharmacopeia, but for many organisms our backyards are still unexplored, too.

Variety is the pledge that matter makes to living things. Think of a niche and life will fill it, think of a shape and life will explore it, think of a drama and life will stage it. Personally I find pampas grass an unlikely configuration of matter, but no stranger than we humans, the lonely bipeds with the giant dreams.

At the heart of the word “discovery” is a boomerang. It literally means to uncover something that’s hidden from view. But what really happens is a change in the viewer. The familiar offers a comfort few can resist, and fewer still want to disturb. But as relatively recent inventions such as the telescope and microscope have taught us, the unknown has many layers. Every truth has geological strata, and for some truths the opposite may be equally true (for example, you can’t have a heresy without an orthodoxy).

Many discoveries are happy accidents of play. After a lifetime’s search for traces of our ancestors, Mary Leakey made the most important find of her career because of a dung-tossing game. One day in 1978, in Tanzania, her researchers were hurling elephant dung at each other in a playful camp fight, when someone fell down and happened to notice markings in the clay that looked like imprints of raindrops and animals’ tracks. The impressions were 3.7 million years old, and preserved in hardened ash that had eroded over the years. Only partial tracks were visible, so it was difficult to tell what left them. In time, Mary Leakey uncovered a trail of footprints left by three humans – male, female, and child – that led across the volcanic plain. As the footprints clearly showed, the female paused at one point and turned to her left. The child’s footprints sometimes dawdled behind those of the adults and sometimes overlapped; the child may have been stepping in its parents’ footprints on purpose, a game children still play. Mary Leakey was profoundly moved by possibly our earliest glimpse of human behavior: the female’s pausing to turn. “This motion, so intensely human, transcends time,” she wrote in National Geographic. “A remote ancestor – just as you or I – experienced a moment of doubt.” Or of discovery. Perhaps the female heard a relative call, or sensed a dangerous predator. Volcanoes spurted ash onto those plains; she may have been monitoring a threatening plume in the distance. Maybe she was simply enjoying the scenery – the changing stir of sun and shadow, a whiff of newly risen plants, an unusual land animal or bird taking flight – as she strolled happily with her mate and child. We know her life made relentless physical and emotional demands, as ours does, and she felt the basic emotions we do. She would have enjoyed family comforts; she would have feared; she would have played; she would have been curious about the world.

The moment a newborn opens its eyes, discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico, where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me, its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even black nowhere of the womb, and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. Discoverers keep some of that initial sense of surprise lifelong, and yearn to behold even more marvels. Trapped in the palatial rut of our senses, we invent mechanical extensions for them, and with each new attachment more of the universe becomes available. Some of the richest moments in people’s lives have come from playing with a mental box full of numbers or ideas, rotating it, shaking it, while the hours slip by, until at last the box begins to rattle and a revelation spills out.

And then there are those awkward psychological mysteries. I suspect human nature will always be like mercury, a puzzle to grasp. No matter how much of the physical universe we fathom, what makes us quintessentially human will always elude us to some degree, I suspect, because it’s impossible for a system to observe itself with much objectivity. When it comes to powerful emotions such as love, for instance, each couple rediscovers it, each generation redefines it. Of course, that makes studying human nature all the more sporting.

I rarely dwell on this when I go biking through the countryside, I don’t worry about the mites that live among my eyelashes either. I have other fish to fry. But I get a crazy smile when I think of pandora. I like knowing the world will never be small enough to exhaust in one lifetime. No matter how hard or where we look, even under our own or a lobster’s nose, surprise awaits us. There will always be plenty of nature’s secrets waiting to be told. This is one of those tidy, simple-sounding truths I mentioned, the sort of thing humans crave.

And I believe it because I got it straight from a lobster’s lips.


Be the Owl

I would be an owl if I could, an ule, a creature named after its sound. So, I would be a howl if I could, sweet cheat of the night, who slices open the air with soft serrated wings, so silently it doesn’t warn dozy prey. How far can it see? An owl could read the bottom line on an eye chart from a mile off, or hear a mouse stepping on a twig 75 feet away. Tuning and retuning, I would be an owl with ears twin radar dishes, eyes winged binoculars. A screech owl because, though baby screechers screech, the adults make the most enchanting soft whinnying-howl. Owl of the stethoscope ears.

I’d swallow meals whole, head first, tumbling soft and furry down my throat to the fiery plant that compacts all the inedibles into a hard pellet. Twice a day, growing bloated and queasy, I’d stretch my neck up and forward, squeeze my stomach hard, and vomit a hairy bony nugget. Oh, I’d vomit gently, all things considered, not thrash and shake the pellet free for five minutes like other inversely-constipated owls. I’d eagerly coax these dainty pukes. Not like the giant sea cucumber that hurls up its whole stomach and tosses it, literally, at the missing feet of a wall-eyed fish, then while the distracted fish feasts, steals away, a gutless wonder but alive, soon to grow another stomach.

I’d sing of owl-puke, the pellets that pave my days with dense nuggets that offer home to fungi, beetles, and other tramps. Does it sound nicer as a fur ball? I suppose it does. But a little cat fur swallowed while grooming can’t compare to a stony wadded-up girdle of rodent, shrew, mole, gecko, and snake skeleton, mixed with beetle crackle and songbird wings and oily fur, as if for a jigsaw puzzle of a chimera, part mammal, part bird, part reptile, part insect, all tasty.

Yes, all things considered, I would be an owl with a ukulele call, a cowl of grey feathers cupping my feathered jowls, talons sharp and strong as ice hooks, parachute wings, a demi-suit of down, and ingénue eyes, voodoo eyes. I would be possessed of the ultimate head swivel: upside down and around back and front again over the other shoulder. Hunting among oaks and cottonwoods and old shady maples, with broad wings outstretched and head tucked in tight, I’d flap hard and fast, rarely gliding or hovering, while listening and watching for scuffling prey in the leaf litter and lawns.

I’d sing duets with my mate during the day and be calmed by a male chorus at night, a parliament of owls. What a panoply of songs and calls! When frightened, I’d blend in with tree trunk or foliage, stretching my frame long, closing my eyes to slits, tightening my feathers, and standing still as old bark. In winter, I’d gobble hot meals of warm-blooded prey, and in summer cool crisp lizards, snakes and bugs. And, it goes without saying that I would marry for life, a long life of a score or two, lengthened by living in the suburbs and devouring the rat race.

I would be an owl with wide feather skirts to curtsey with when courted by bowing suitors. Oh, the formal dances of courtship, ceremonial and piquantly oriental. First a springtime male calls, robust as all get out, and I reply, we flirt like this several times, then I see him flying in, watch him perch nearby, and begin head bobbing and bowing deeply, repeatedly, now and then winking one eye. Ignore him and he just chases harder. Accept, and the bill kissing and mutual preening begins, with the preened one uttering soft whimperings of delight, both fine feathered friends amused and enthused. Yes, all things considered, I would be an owl, with owl-bright eyes, creature comforts, and wide wings with down furbelow to wrap my chicks in owl love.

Alan Alda
Alan Alda is an actor, director, screenwriter, and author. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006.

While working on the television show Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, I stumbled upon something fundamental about a different way to communicate science. My role was to interview scientists about their work, but I didn’t come in with a list of questions. Instead, the questions I asked flowed from my curiosity and my desire to know more about what they were telling me. And that only increased when they spoke in a way I couldn’t understand.

For the scientist, the task now was not to do a lecture for the public, but to make this poor schmoe understand it, this one person. This created a connection between us, and that connection was broken anytime the scientist turned to the camera and started lecturing. She would begin to use more jargon and her tone would become colder and more formal, less intimate and personal. But when I coaxed her back, suddenly the tone would change, and she would be just talking to me again. And as a result, when I finally understood what she was telling me, the public also had a better chance of understanding it. There was this moment of “getting it.”

And I thought, when the show was over, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could teach scientists to be good communicators while teaching them to be good scientists? I thought about what it takes to connect with another person; and it was my training as an actor that taught me an important skill: improvisation. Not comedy improvisation, but the kind of improvisation that lets you interact freely with another person. As an actor, you don’t say your next line because it’s written in the script or because you’ve rehearsed it. You say your next line because the other person makes you say it in response to how she behaves toward you. In the same way, I felt, communication takes place when this kind of responsive listening happens.

So I did a little experiment teaching engineering students improvisation techniques, the way actors have been taught for generations. At the University of Southern California, I got twenty engineering students together for a short workshop. First, I had them talk for a minute or two about their work. Then, after three hours of improvisation exercises, I had them talk for a minute or two about their work again, to see if there was any difference. It was extraordinary. After only three hours, most of the engineers were freer and more open. The ones who had a difficult time opening up got better. The ones who were already pretty good got even better. And everybody in the room was surprised, including me, because I wasn’t sure it was going to work.

But when we’re trying to communicate something complicated to an audience, there’s a particular difficulty that has to be dealt with. It’s called the “curse of knowledge.” This is where the speaker has the illusion that the listener has the same deep understanding of the subject that the speaker possesses. There was a test developed by a Stanford graduate student about twenty years ago in which she would ask people to think of a song that everyone knows and then tap the song. The tapper was asked how many people they thought would be able to guess the song without hearing any words or music, just tapping. The tappers often estimated that more than 50 percent of the audience would identify it correctly. Some even thought that 80 to 100 percent would be able to guess the song. But the number of people who actually recognized the song, just from hearing it tapped out, was around 2.5 percent. The problem is, when we know something in a deep way, we often assume that other people understand it the way we do. Thinking about what the other person is thinking and feeling helps avoid this gap in understanding, and improvisation helps you track the other person really well.

So I began teaching communication skills with improvisation as the central focus. We would teach them to be more aware of the audience, connecting to them in as intimate a way as possible. A two-way street is created: instead of broadcasting a message at an audience, there’s more of a personal exchange.

Stony Brook University was the only place that picked up on this idea, and they started the Center for Communicating Science, which they later called the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. We have courses that teach improvisation, writing, and distilling the message. We teach media training in front of a camera. We even teach how to talk to Congress. But every step along the way, we reinforce this connection, this training in improvisation, with specific exercises that take you from a low level to a high level of connection. Over the years, we’ve held workshops with eight thousand scientists and medical students. With medicine, of course, you’re bringing science into an intimate connection with a patient; and it’s been shown that if a patient believes the doctor is empathic, the patient has a 19 percent greater chance of paying attention to the doctor’s advice. This could make the difference between life and death.

So we’re spreading this concept around the country. This spring, we started a collaboration with the National University of Australia, and at the beginning of next year, we’re going to be working with universities in Dundee, Scotland, and Oslo, Norway.

It works and it’s spreading.

And here’s the thing that I want to leave you with: improvisation does more than just enable you to communicate with an audience, it also improves teamwork within the lab, which was not a benefit we anticipated. Because unless scientists are in the exact same field, and sometimes unless they’re in the exact same laboratory, they have difficulty understanding one another. They’re not ready to collaborate. But scientists come out of these workshops saying, “You know, I’ve known this guy for forty years, but I never knew what he did.” And this is a wonderful thing. Collaboration is what the world is going to depend on for new ideas and new discoveries. But the world is becoming more and more specialized, so we have to make an effort to build those bridges. And, lastly, scientists are telling us that they’re doing their own work better as well, because as they learn to distill the message about their work for others, they step back from it and see it in a broader, fresher way.

I hope that we can, all of us, dedicate ourselves to communicating clearly and vividly, and in this personal way, because that’s our greatest hope for people to be in touch with one of humanity’s greatest achievements: the joy of science.


Geneva Overholser

Thank you both so much. Alan, this is so effective. Why doesn’t it come more naturally to us? Why is it such a challenge?


Alan Alda

It’s so interesting, and it goes back to the notion of the “curse of knowledge.” It was first coined by a couple of economists who saw that if you had some information about an economic or financial advantage, you tended to assume that everybody else knew it, too, and you devalued the very thing that you had private knowledge of. In the same way, scientists (and all of us) have this to some extent – we know something really well and therefore assume that it’s understood by everybody else. And if you understand something well, you often forget what it’s like not to know it – that’s suffering from the curse of knowledge.


Diane Ackerman

As you were saying that, I was thinking this makes so much sense, in terms of just how the brain works. I think of it not as the curse of knowledge, but as habit. And the minute you start really learning something and achieve mastery of it, you blur all of the details that you saw when you first began learning about it. And you lose all of the wonder and curiosity. That’s why I loved watching Scientific American Frontiers, because there was this sense of wonder. And for me, that’s the most important thing to convey.


Alan Alda

There was a study done at the University of Pennsylvania that measured which science articles were most often emailed, and I’d have thought that the majority of articles shared would have been about health. But, rather, it was articles that expressed a sense of wonder and awe of nature. It’s a surprisingly powerful thing to evoke everyone’s sense of wonder.


Geneva Overholser

As someone who writes in a lot of different genres, trying to convey complex situations and information, Diane, how do you think of your audience? How do you think about transmitting that sense of wonder, but also the information you care deeply about?


Diane Ackerman

I figure that if I can let people see through the lens of my sensibility – like that of a child – in sensory detail, so that they really feel like they’re there, you can persuade someone that they are going through something with you, or seeing it through your eyes. That if I see it innocently, they will see it innocently as well. But it’s not something I do automatically. I have to work on it and achieve it. Because, like everyone else, I often have blinders on me.


Geneva Overholser

Both of you have talked a great deal about connection, which is clearly at the essence of this. And yet, we’re at a moment of polarization when it comes to science. How do we address that? How do we connect fact and feeling?


Diane Ackerman

I don’t think there’s just one way to do it. I think that everybody has unique natural abilities and tendencies that they can use. I’m very happy that there are doom and gloom naturalists out there, but, for my part, I try to fill people with curiosity and wonder about things. But what are we going to do when we have people who don’t believe in science at all? How are we going to persuade them of the facts? I try to enchant them. I try to trigger the child in them. I try to get someone to want to go out and imagine what it’s like to be an owl.


Alan Alda

I agree that there’s probably no one way to do it. One thing I hope for is that better communication on the part of scientists will instill in the public a better understanding of the way scientists think, skills they can borrow for their own lives, such as relying on evidence and not on wishes, beliefs, or superstition. And to show them the difference between evidence and beliefs, and how valuable it is to our lives to understand that difference.


Diane Ackerman

Unfortunately, there aren’t many scientists who are adept at avoiding jargon and esoterica.


Alan Alda

I agree. So, what we work on is similar to what Diane does: entering into the wonder of, let’s say, an animal, so that it can be more appealing to the person listening, rather than just giving the dimensions of the animal. I love when scientists express their amazement and amusement at what they discover. It’s just so full of life. And that’s a great model for the rest of us, too.


Diane Ackerman

I previously taught a course at Cornell on creativity in the arts and sciences. Once a week, there would be a guest speaker – a chemist, mathematician, or physicist, for example – who talked about his or her mystery and how his or her mind worked. And the audience could ask questions. And you began to see their excitement when, for example, one said he started studying foxes because, when he was little, he wanted to be a fox. And he ran around golf courses pretending to be a fox. In those instances, the science became humanized – there was a person behind the discovery.


Alan Alda

Another thing that really humanizes the scientific story is an account that includes failure. Failure is, to me, a dramatic story. The hero is trying to achieve something of great importance, and then there’s this obstacle in the way, a tremendous obstacle you’ve got to fight your way through. Now, the audience is thinking, how is he going to get through this? How is she going to achieve her goal? And the listener gets invested in the story and the scientific process. Stories of failure are too often ignored, but there can be no breakthroughs without failure.

© 2017 by Geneva Overholser, Diane Ackerman, and Alan Alda, respectively

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/communicatingscience.