Estimated Truths: Water, Science, and the Politics of Approximation

August 16 to August 17

Department III

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin

Organized by the Department III Working Group "Art of Judgement"


Wilko Hardenberg, MPIWG
Etienne Benson, University of Pennsylvania
Giacomo Parrinello, Sciences Po, Paris

Other participants:

Azadeh Achbari, University of Amsterdam
Samer Alatout, UW-Madison
Debjani Bhattacharyya, Drexel University
Angelo Matteo Caglioti, UC Berkeley
Sarah Dry, Science Museum Group
Maurits Ertsen, Delft University of Technology
Matthew Evenden, UBC, Vancouver
Jessica Lehman, UW-Madison
Daniel Macfarlane, Western Michigan University
Michael Reidy, Montana State University
Christy Spackman, Harvey Mudd College


The scientific legibility of the world is often produced through approximation in a variety of guises. Planning efforts in particular, which are often subject to pressing time and budget constraints, tend to eschew absolute truths in favor of estimated values that promise a sufficient level of precision. Water flows and levels, for instance, have often been assessed by scientists and engineers through processes of estimation, simulation, and modelling. More often than not, the construction of authoritative knowledge in the field has been based on values that were deemed to be good enough for the task at hand.

The central question this workshop seeks to answer is: how have scientists produced informed judgements about rates of flow, changes in level, processes of condensation and precipitation, thickness and deformation of ice, and other dynamic properties of water in its different states through processes of approximation, simulation, and modelling? In exploring this issue we want to pay particular attention to the relationships between politics and science and the role of power structures in determining choices and decision-making processes. At the same time, we want to remain attentive to the ways in which the material properties of water and the larger biogeophysical systems into which it is embedded shape the kinds of knowledge that are produced. We want thus to address the dynamic, processual nature of planning and research, characterized by constant flows in which both data and judgements are produced, validated, and reassessed through mediation and conflict.

You will find the call for papers on the working group’s website.


Max Planck Institute for the History of Science,
Boltzmannstraße 22,
14195 Berlin, Germany
Phone: (+4930) 22667-0