Spotlight on The Flame Challenge: Talking with Alan Alda

by Kevin Cuddihy on 24 February 2014

What is color? That’s the central question behind this year’s Flame Challenge, a contest run by Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The Flame Challenge highlights the importance of clarity in science communication by inviting scientists to answer a fundamental question “in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old.” And no one knows better than a technical communicator how to explain complex concepts in the simplest of ways—and the importance of doing so.

Alan Alda graciously agreed to a phone interview last week to discuss The Flame Challenge and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Below is the transcript of that interview.

Want to enter The Flame Challenge? The contest is open to scientists, defined as “someone who is in the process of getting a graduate degree in a science (including health sciences, engineering, and mathematics), or who is employed doing scientific work, or who is retired from doing scientific work.” You can submit an entry in writing, video, or graphics; the entry deadline is Saturday, 1 March, so hurry! See the website for full details and to enter.

Let’s turn the question around on you to start: In simple terms, what is The Flame Challenge?

The Flame Challenge is a contest I started when I was writing a guest editorial for the journal Science. I realized I wasn’t following my own rules writing it and wasn’t being personal enough. I was talking about the implications of poor science communication in general. I realized I had a personal story—the teacher who explained the flame to me in one word. I was 11 years old and I was fascinated by flames, so I asked my teacher. The answer was just “oxidation.” And that was very unsatisfying. All these decades later I was writing the piece, and by the time I got to the end of the piece I thought, “This is a contest,” so I asked scientists to explain “What is a flame” in a way an 11-year-old could understand.

The first year we had 6,000 kids judging, last year 20,000, and so far this year we have 22,000 kids. And the entries haven’t stopped coming in either. We have entries from all over the world, nine different countries, and kids are still coming.

It’s heartening to see the thought the judges put into it. They’re at least as good in their judgment as any board member I’ve shared a board with. They’re very sensible and they’re trying to get the most information in the most engaging way. And the scientists really go all out and do interesting videos or imaginative verbal explanations.

Our members, technical communicators, work every day toward the same goal of The Flame Challenge—communicating complex information with clarity. Why do you think that goal is so important?

It’s important for so many reasons. One is the self interest of the public. They need to know what science is doing. Sometimes they have objections that aren’t well founded. And sometimes they don’t have enough information, which if they had they might be rightly upset about what’s happening. Stuff goes into their food, into the air, into the water.

Scientists need the public and funders and policymakers to understand it so science can be done. And scientists need other scientists to be able to understand their work and cut through the jargon and collaborate with those who don’t share the common language. The overriding reason for science to be clear and vivid to the public—probably more important than anything—is that science is beautiful and elevates the spirit in the same way literature does or great music, and we shouldn’t be denied that.

A couple of the things that stood out in reading through the Stony Brook website were the emphasis on clarity and the caution against “dumbing it down.”

Yeah, we don’t want scientists to assume we want them to do that. Clarity shouldn’t include dumbing it down. It means making it clear. Being vivid makes it engaging, making you see it and sense what it’s about. None of that should stand in for oversimplification. Einstein was quoted as saying a number of things, I’m not sure how many he actually said, but one of the things he was quoted as saying was “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Do you feel the emphasis on clarity is even more important in scientific communication, or perhaps STEM topics in general?

Every time we do a workshop or a presentation, someone always raises the question, “Why don’t you do this for economics, for social science, for math.” There’s hardly an area for communication that couldn’t use a little more clarity, but we can’t work on everything. Our real goal with the Center for Communicating Science is to make an adjustment; if our dreams come true there’ll be a slight adjustment in science education where someone who studies science also studies the skills of communication, where universities turn out capable scientists who are also capable communicators. I believe communication is an integral part of science.

For example, two equally good scientists can give presentations at a conference—the one who gave the better presentation gets the attention. That’s not good for the other one’s career, and if his material is more important, that’s not good for the world, that’s not good for science. The solution is to have better communication all around.

Is that why you became involved with Stony Brook’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science?

I’ve been working generally on this for about 10 years. Every time I’d do a science program, or any other thing that would take me to an institution where they taught science, I’d see if I could get the administration interested in including communication in their science education. The only place that picked up on it was Stony Brook, who started the center about four years ago, and we worked on it together. About a year or two ago they named it after me.

What we want to see is centers for communicating science blossom all around the country. We’re creating a website that can be a hub of best practices. We have four years of working on techniques that we’ve seen are really effective, and we want to spread those techniques. And we want to see these centers that pop up be innovative and create new techniques that they share with us in turn.

One of those innovative techniques, I saw on your website, is the use of improv.

It’s been a deep pleasure to see something that changed my life 50 years ago as an actor and a person, now 50 years later changing the lives of scientists. It’s really moving to see. It’s not comedy improv, it’s a much purer form. The purpose of it is to get people to learn to habitually relate to the other players so that when they turn to the audience, they talk to that audience as if they’re real people. They don’t talk over their heads—they make personal contact. Once they do that they’re then able to apply it to their writing. They make contact with the reader, because they’re used to understanding what the person on the other end of the communication is going through. The emphasis is on the audience, not on yourself. It changed me as a young man, and I see it changing scientists.

What advice or tips would you give to someone entering The Flame Challenge?

Don’t say everything you know. Any good communication with the public, before you know where they are in the process of understanding what you’re talking about, the main thing to remember is that you want to engage them, you want them to have a genuine interest in what you’re telling them. Try to help them understand something basic. And most of all, make them want to know more. When it gets too complicated to go into, tell them that, too.

Let’s make the final question a bit open-ended: What’s the one question you wish more people would ask you about The Flame Challenge?

A lot of people assume that because 11-year-olds are judging, the purpose is to teach 11-year-olds about science. The real purpose is to teach scientists how hard it is to teach science to someone who’s 11 years old. But when you can accomplish that, you can explain it to a vast swath of people—people like me, who are curious. I understand better it when it’s vivid and clear.

The surprising thing is that although we started the contest to give scientists a fun way to experiment with clarity, the bonus is that kids all around the world have become more interested in science. They love judging and they really have to understand the topic to judge it. It’s great.

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