Salience: On the Eve of the 2016 Election
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 in class when I talk about making climate-change data and knowledge usable in planning and decision making. In conversational English, salience refers to something being important or most notable.
On my list of to-do blogs in the run up to the election 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 voters. 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 climate negotiations at 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 a dangerous anti-knowledge movement in the U.S. Science-based knowledge has become conflated with political and cultural groups of people; it is tribal knowledge. Knowledge that is, therefore, untrusted outside of the tribe.
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 day-to-day world in which I live is irrelevant to the people I meet 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; our agricultural policy makes the enormous farms and ranches possible. The landscape shows our erratic energy policy. There are great fields of wind turbines, huge piles of corn at ethanol plants, and flaring oil wells. There was a time when the flirtation with a carbon market was labeling grasslands as carbon management. In conversations, energy policy, focused on independence and security, might make sense; climate policy, mostly, 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; there are too many billboards about abuse and opioids.
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. The specifics of climate change, science policy, and environmental protection seem like minor details as we look to preserve 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, often present in such analyses, are not salient to 2016’s analyses. Ms Clinton’s approach is knowledge-based; Mr. Trump’s approach is audience-based and unpredictable. The voter’s choice has never been so definitive and far-reaching.
Climate-change policy is entangled with other values associated with its tribe. Knowledge is in a stew full of emotion, beliefs, threats, self-identification, and cultural values. In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver describing local governance in a Congolese village writes, “… it seems odd that if one man gets fifty votes and the other gets forty-nine, the first one wins altogether and the second one plumb loses. That means almost half the people will be unhappy … There is sure to be trouble somewhere down the line.” The technical and scientific challenges of decarbonizing the energy system and adapting to climate change are easy compared to the social and political challenges of reclaiming science-based knowledge from the partisans. The reclamation of science from politics is essential for scientists, serious politicians, and our future success.
For those still centered on climate and science: