The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology
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The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology

Edited by Michael R. Redclift and Graham Woodgate

The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology is a major interdisciplinary reference work on the developing field of environmental sociology. It consists of over 30 specially commissioned essays by leading scholars from around the world. These original essays examine a wide range of environmental issues in the developed and developing world as well as formerly centrally planned countries to present a truly international perspective. Together they analyse theory and concepts, philosophical and empirical issues as well as offering practical policy advice.
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Chapter 17: Trust in models? The mediating and transformative role of computer models in environmental discourse

Simon Shackley


Simon Shackley INTRODUCTION In his book, Science in Action, Bruno Latour discusses a Dutch research effort to explore whether an alternatively designed dam to that in existence at Rotterdam Harbour could prevent the further intrusion of salt water into freshwater masses (Latour, 1992). Using the actual harbour for experimentation purposes was difficult because the critical variables, such as river flow and tidal change, could not readily be controlled. Nor, as an open, real-world system for which policy-relevant knowledge was sought, could it be easily analytically reduced and selected relationships and processes investigated in the laboratory. The research group overcame this problem by developing and using a physical scaled-down model of the harbour with an accurate proportionality. Relationships could then be established between the scaled-down model and the real harbour for key variables (strength of flows) by using a range of sensors in the physical model and a limited number in the harbour itself. Latour argues that this research strategy brought ‘natural reality’ into the laboratory, where it could be controlled and ‘tamed’ and its key relationships and variables could be investigated in a way not possible by using the actual harbour itself. Alternative engineering solutions and their effects could then be explored by replacing different parts of the model with new engineering options. The appropriate scales of time and space for analysis had been reshuffled to the scientists’ benefit, allowing greater control and management, or what Latour terms ‘action at a distance’. We can develop Latour’s narrative because the same...

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