Salience: On the Eve of the 2016 Election
A different version of this blog appears on ClimatePolicy.org
Salience is a word that in the social sciences has come to mean relevance, or perhaps, goodness of fit of knowledge to a particular problem. I use salience, probably overuse it, in class when I talk about making climate-change data relevant to planning and decision making. In conversational English, salience
refers to something being important or most notable.
On my list of to-do blogs was a reflection and analysis of climate-change policy during the Obama administration, and then a discussion of the climate-change positions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. However, the way the election has evolved, climate change and environmental policy do not appear to be very salient to choices at hand. There is certainly no meaningful nuance of policy and positions from any analysis I might provide.
About a year ago, I was writing
about some of our students at University of Michigan preparing to go to the Conference of the Parties in Paris
. Even at that time, I commented about our behavior seeming to be a concerted effort to accelerate our decline into the Dark Age. That particular comment was motivated by the accumulated impacts of the anti-science movement
. More broadly, however, there is an anti-knowledge movement in the U.S., which is dangerous. Science-based knowledge and knowledge in general has become conflated with political and cultural groups of people. It has become tribal knowledge. Knowledge that is, therefore, untrusted.
During the decade I have been writing blogs, I have taken a number of road trips across the Plains. I have noted a number of times how the world I live in day to day is irrelevant to what I experience on these trips. My world is full of people talking about the importance of their research, the importance of climate change, science, policy, politics, communication, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Daily Show. My world is caught up in self-importance, knowing, and the seeing the future and what needs to be done.
At times, I have said that what goes on in Washington seems completely disconnected from the reality in the center of the country – not salient. However, that is not case. Driving across the country shows the impacts of energy policy. There are great fields of wind turbines, huge piles of corn at ethanol plants, and flaring oil wells. Of course, our agricultural policy makes the enormous farms and ranches possible. There was a time when the flirtation with a carbon market was labeling grasslands as carbon management. For the most part, energy policy might make sense; climate policy does not. For those who are haves, climate policy seems a financial threat for, yet another, manageable weather risk. For those who are have nots, climate policy is simply not salient.
Climate policy is entangled with other values associated with its tribe. Knowledge is in a stew full of emotion, beliefs, self-identification, and cultural values.
The immediacy and urgency of the Presidential election have removed issues such as climate change from the public clamor, if not, in fact, as a decision point in the election. We have arrived at a point that the specifics of climate change, science policy, and environmental protection seem less of an issue than the preservation of our efforts to have policy and regulation anchored in describable, objective knowledge. Science-based knowledge, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, and objective analysis are all viewed as tainted by the prejudices, interests, and manipulations of corrupt individuals and institutions. We devolve to cult of personality, exaggerated attacks of character, innuendo, fear, and corroborating fantasies posed as reports of facts and events.
After November 8, 2016, however, climate change, science policy, and environmental protection will be of essential importance to our economic wellbeing and societal success. As we move forward in a world of too many people, uneven resources, and unsustainable practices, knowledge-based decision making will be at the foundation of stability and security.
Many scientific organizations have compared Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s approach to science and science policy (see below). The interesting nuances of Democratic and Republican approaches to science since World War II are not present in these analyses. Ms Clinton’s approach is knowledge-based; Mr. Trump’s approach is whim-based and unpredictable. The choice has never been so definitive.
rFor those still centered on climate and science: ScienceDebate.org: Candidates Answer 2016 QuestionsScientific American: Grading the Presidential Candidates on ScienceScientific American: Trump Versus Clinton: Worlds Apart on ScienceIFLScience: American Presidential Stances on Science IssuesNational Geographic: Top Takeaways From Presidential Candidates’ Views on ScienceUniversity Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR): Federal Transition 2017 Forbes: Marshall Shepherd: Weather And Climate Priorities Facing The Next US President