Conveying scientific ideas is important to “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda.
After his performance on “M*A*S*H,” the actor later founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island. The center works with scientists, researchers and graduate students who have been socialized to speak in scientific jargon. It gets them to communicate more clearly.
And Alda practices what he preaches. He hosted the PBS show “Scientific American Frontiers” for 11 years, during which time he translated complex scientific concepts into layman’s terms.
“People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another,” Alda wrote in his 2017 book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” “When patients can’t relate to their doctors and don’t follow their orders, when engineers can’t convince a town that the dam could break, when a parent can’t win the trust of a child to warn her off a lethal drug — they can all be headed for a serious ending.”
Alda Says Ignorance Plus Curiosity Can Be Useful
Scientists haven’t yet found a cure for Parkinson’s disease, which Alda was diagnosed with later in life. But the “M*A*S*H” star believes human ignorance, when acknowledged and combined with curiosity, can be a driver for figuring the world out.
“We don’t value our ignorance enough,” he told AARP Magazine last year. “Ignorance is really good to have if it’s combined with curiosity. And scientists are professional curiosity machines. We should all imitate that as much as possible. Now it’s clear that our lives depend on it.”
Still, Alda acknowledged that his own efforts to translate science for popular culture have yet to pay off. He said there is still much distrust of science in “pockets” of the U.S., and scientific expertise has sometimes become polarizing.
“Unfortunately, I probably need another 25 years to help the culture achieve trust in science overall,” Alda said. “Because there are pockets of people who still think science is just another opinion… I’m very concerned about the casual attitude many people have toward science.”
Alda Has Regrets About His ‘M*A*S*H’ Character
That he won’t live to see his scientific mission fulfilled is one of Alda’s regrets. Another is that he didn’t always win out on “M*A*S*H” when it came to making his Hawkeye character more sensitive.
About 40 years since the final episode of “M*A*S*H,” Alda stresses that he himself is a feminist. But Hawkeye was “a product of the time.” A carefree womanizer, Hawkeye didn’t always comport with Alda’s own vision of what a man should be, he said.
“Even in that era, I was, as you probably know, a very outspoken feminist. And I wasn’t just talking about it. I was trying in every way to work from that point of view in my life,” Alda told AARP. “We had many discussions on M*A*S*H, even before we started shooting, to help shift the vision of the character from the male-schoolboy approach. I was able to win a lot of those discussions. But some I didn’t. And I’m very sorry that I didn’t. That character was a product of the time and accepted by the culture, especially by men. Not so much by women.”
Be that as it may, “M*A*S*H” has become a television classic, with many of its characters familiar to younger viewers through reruns. And Alda has been able to use his fame to speak out for the cause of science.