The New York Times article “Alan Alda’s Challenge to Make Science Easier to Understand” begins with a story. Young Alan asks his teacher, “What is a flame?” and is dissatisfied with her answer, “It’s oxidation”. This was a response that he did not comprehend.
The article goes on to provide an overview of Mr. Alda’s acting career and long-held interest in science. In recent years these two aspects of his identity have merged together with the formation of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The mission of this center is to use theater improv. techniques to train scientists to better communicate their work with people outside of their discipline. I agree wholeheartedly that this is important to do. However, I disagree with the notion which often emerges that ‘if someone doesn’t understand what an expert is saying, it’s because the person talking/teaching/etc didn’t explain it well enough’. Just because we don’t ‘get something’, doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t explained well, our teacher isn’t good, or so on. It just means we don’t get it! Could it have been explained differently? Possibly. But, perhaps we just don’t have enough knowledge at the time to fully understand the information presented. At a surface level, we can likely appreciate and comprehend the work of another researcher, or at least understand why it is important, just as young Alan could describe a flame and its properties. Can we understand the nuances of an experts’ work? Highly unlikely. Not because they did not explain it well, but because we don’t have much, if any, education in that area.
It seems that may have been the case with 11 year old Alan’s inquiry about a flame. At the end of this article the reporter asks how he would now answer his own question of “What is a flame?”. Mr. Alan’s response: “It’s oxidation, actually”.