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Science of the dammed: Expertise and knowledge claims in contested dam removals

Chris S. Sneddon
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA; cssneddon@dartmouth.edu

Francis J. Magilligan
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA; fjm@dartmouth.edu

Coleen A. Fox
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA; coleen.fox@dartmouth.edu

ABSTRACT: Historically, science and its associated expert voices often serve multiple roles in the context of complex environmental conflicts: investigators of undesirable environmental conditions; guarantors of “value-free” and de-politicised expertise and information regarding those conditions; authors of rationales that support one management decision over another; and sources of authority used to persuade sceptics or the public that a certain environmental action is logical and desirable. However, recent thinking in science and technology studies (STS) and political ecology emphasises how scientific knowledge and expertise are co-produced with the political, economic, and cultural arrangements characteristic of a given society and a given locale. In many environmental conflicts, expert knowledge is challenged on the grounds that it is out of touch and politically compromised. This paper examines the diverse scientific discourses and environmental narratives surrounding dam-removal processes in the region of New England, United States. Dam removals are increasingly seen by environmental advocacy organisations and state agencies as a means to rehabilitate degraded riverine systems, and these actors muster an array of science-based arguments in support of removal. Conversely, opponents highlight their place-based knowledge to counter the claims of removal advocates and question the motivations of expert knowledge. These competing claims feed into conflicts over dam removals in intriguing ways, and understanding how scientific knowledge and expertise are used (and misused) is crucial to understanding conflicts over river restoration and developing more participatory strategies of water governance. The question is not so much whose claims are truthful, but how such claims are inserted into, and negotiated within, controversial ecological interventions.

KEYWORDS: Dam removal, expert knowledge, public understanding of science, political ecology, New England