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January 2016 Issue
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Science vs balderdash

Alison Ballance is bringing science to the masses.

Alison Balance, presenter of RNZ’s Our Changing World, is a zoologist, wildlife film maker and writer

In a world where more conflicting information than we could possibly dissect in one lifetime is catapulted at us from all angles, how can we hope to separate fact from fiction?

Many of our key environmental issues – 1080 and climate change to name two – have helpful (and unhelpful) hands steering us in so many directions it’s bemusing, especially given the complex nature of such issues.

Alison Ballance spends much of her life trawling through scientific research and speaking to the most informed minds, to give the public a clear picture of what science tells us about these issues in a language Joe Bloggs will understand.

She says there has been a revolution in the past 10-15 years in how scientists present their work to the masses. “There’s a growing enthusiasm – scientists are starting to enjoy it,” says Alison. “In academia you got kudos for publishing scientific papers and people used to look at popular science and think scientists should be doing science rather than talking to public.

“They’ve now realised it’s not enough to lock yourself in a lab. You now need to explain what you’re doing to the world.”

And it’s not just scientists who have had to change their tact, says Ballance, but the media too, concerning the need to provide opposing views for a balanced report.

“With climate change, for instance, for a great many years there’s been a very strong scientific consensus that it’s happening and humans are causing the rapid change,” she explains. “But there was so much emphasis given to allowing climate deniers an equal hearing, it gave an impression of a 50-50 split when clearly there wasn’t.

“There was a lesson for newsrooms to distinguish where the balance fits between the 97 per cent of scientists who say ‘here is credible evidence’ versus three per cent who tend not to have such credible evidence.”

Ballance believes she is lucky to work on a weekly science and environment features show where there isn’t the same pressure to give credence to every opinion.

She recalls a feature she put together about 1080 where she presented credible evidence, rather than emotional opinion. “I was expecting a backlash because in the past, many anti-1080 people would become upset at us not presenting a balanced point of view. But there was hardly any response at all because people realised it was a very evidence-based story. That’s what can happen when you leave emotion from the feature and just provide evidence.”

But Alison is concerned about the wealth of false information also available in today’s media, and encourages people to think more critically. “People need to think ‘is this a credible source of information’? If not, perhaps take it with a grain of salt and not just at face value.

“The process of science is posing a question then going out and testing it. Science isn’t black and white, it’s a million shades of grey. I want people to understand that process so when they see the headline ‘Scientists have discovered a cure for cancer’ they will think ‘no they haven’t’ because there is no such thing as a ‘cure for cancer’ – the science is much more nuanced than that.”

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