Alan Alda appeared in the auditorium at Scripps Research in La Jolla on Jan. 16 to announce a partnership that will teach scientists how to communicate more effectively to the public and to other scientists.
The Emmy-winning actor is making Scripps the West Coast home of Alda Communication Training, a Long Island-based program that sharpens the communication skills of people who spend much of their days staring at computer screens and microscope slides and speaking in the language of their academic papers.
“It’s the job of the person leading the discussion to make it clear to the person listening,” Alda told a room packed with 500 science and biotech VIPs. “It’s not the responsibility of the person listening to understand. If you’re not making contact with your audience, if you’re looking over their heads — or you’re giving your whole talk on PowerPoint slides and turning your back to the audience and reading the slides to them — this is not communication, it’s ex-communication.”
The 83-year-old actor, who has Parkinson’s disease, is best-known for playing the wisecracking Hawkeye Pierce on TV’s “M*A*S*H” from 1972 to 1983. You may also remember his Emmy-winning turn as a conservative senator on TV’s “The West Wing” or his Oscar-nominated performance as Senator Owen Brewster in 2004’s “The Aviator.” Last year, he starred as a divorce attorney in Netflix’s “Marriage Story,” which just got nominated for six Oscars.
But Alda is also respected as a science communicator. From 1993 to 2005, he hosted the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers,” for which he interviewed more than 700 scientists and received the National Academy of Science’s Public Welfare Medal. (“I think it was because of my communicating science,” Alda joked, “but I really think it was in gratitude for my not becoming a scientist.”) About half of the episodes of “Clear+Vivid,” his popular current podcast, focus on scientific topics.
While taping “Frontiers,” Alda said, “what I discovered was that when I was standing next to scientists, I was bringing out my humanity by my own curiosity, by the way I related to them, which I developed through studying improvisation as an actor.”
This gave Alda the idea to teach improv, and other theater skills, to scientists to make them better speakers and listeners. (His first job in show business was as a member of an improv troupe, the Compass Players, in the 1950s.) Alda described an experiment he designed in which he had USC engineering students give a talk about their work for one minute. Then he had them improvise for three hours and talk again.
“Everyone in the room was shocked to see the difference,” he said, “including me. I didn’t know it was going to work.”
Alda said this work is vital to the public interest because the average person is exposed to reams of misinformation on the Internet and needs to better understand how important the role of real science is to their daily lives.
“The general public is busy living their own lives,” he said. “They haven’t spent 20, 30, 40 years devoted to a single aspect of nature the way many scientists have. We can’t expect them to know everything about science and we have to help them understand it. We have to help find ways to expand their curiosity.”
At first, no educational institution was willing to entertain Alda’s idea. (He recalled being told by one Nobel Prize-winning university president: “We don’t have time for that, we’ve got too much science to teach.”) By 2009, however, he found some open minds in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, where he established what was renamed in 2013 the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The center, which gave birth to his communication program, has trained 15,000 science professionals on campus and in workshops across the country.
“For years, we wished we had a place on the West Coast where we could train all the scientists, researchers and medical professionals all up and down the West Coast — without them having to fly to us or having to fly to them,” Alda said.
He called Scripps Research (at 10550 North Torrey Pines Road) “a perfect fit,” explaining that “when you have this many smart people together, the more they can spark one another, the better the product will be in the final analysis, and they’ll spark one another more when they’re communicating better.”
The training — conducted in two-day workshops by teachers from different fields — will start in June and initially cater to biotech executives and researchers in the life sciences. Eventually, the intention is to expand into other sciences, including medicine. Dozens of Scripps Institute researchers have already taken the training.
Alda has hired staff to run the institute, but plans to be active in running it — in part because he doesn’t want his disease defining him. He was diagnosed in 2015, and went public with it three years later. His battle with the condition was written into his role as a psychiatrist on the hit Showtime drama “Ray Donovan,” and his hands shook visibly during his Scripps talk.
“Of course my hand shakes!” he exclaimed at one point. “I have Parkinson’s disease!”
Alda said he wants all Parkinson’s patients “not to believe or give in to the stereotype that when you get a diagnosis, your life is over.”
“I’ve gone five years,” he said. “I’m almost busier than I have ever been, I’m getting a lot accomplished, and I look forward to I-don’t-know-how-many years, but as long as I’ve got them, I’m going to be very grateful.”