Science in Dispute: Debating the Authority of Knowledge in an Environmental Contestation



This paper is an examination of science, as it is understood and contested between conservationists and developers in an application to construct a salt mine in Western Australia. If the salt mine were to go ahead, it would have become the largest salt mine in the world, adjacent to a World Heritage Area. Thus, the application triggered significant local interest in the potential environmental impacts on surrounding ecological systems. As the only means for the public to have an impact on decision-making is through the environmental approvals process, much of the debate revolved around the validity and legitimacy of knowledge gained through ecological science. This paper focuses on the ways in which the conservationists and developers moulded and shaped scientific knowledge to fit their opposing beliefs, values, and aims. However, rather than focus on the overtly political manipulation of science, I examine why particular interpretations of science are considered legitimate by some participants in the dispute, while others are not. In particular, I ask, what does it take for particular scientific ‘facts' to be considered legitimate? To do so, I examine how the conservationists and developers came to conceptualise and frame science within the dispute. I argue that for members of either group to consider any scientific knowledge legitimate, it is first judged on its ability to resonate with their own worldviews, experiences, and aim.