Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the “Doomsday Clock” will remain set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest humanity has been to complete annihilation since the clock was created. We haven’t moved the needle since 2020, when it sunk to its current, dismal, less-than-two-minutes-left level.
How the Doomsday Clock works
The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that illustrates the likelihood of a manmade global catastrophe. It was invented in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Originally set at seven minutes to midnight, the clock has been changed 24 times by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since its inception.
Its high point was in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was set at a reassuring 17 minutes to midnight. Since then, the clock has been edging relentlessly toward catastrophe, to its current “we’re all going to die” rating.
But don’t worry about the Doomsday Clock too much. The clock’s measurement has always been arbitrary and its purpose political. What it actually “measures” has diffused so much over the last few decades, it’s hard to see the value in its reading at all.
I’m not saying don’t worry about the many potential ends-of-the-world that the clock illustrates. I’m saying the Doomsday Clock itself is not a good way of understanding the likelihood or time-frame of an approaching global catastrophe. It’s like a Soviet propaganda poster: a relic of the Cold War interesting mainly as a curiosity.
The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor, not a measurement
When it began in the early days of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock existed mainly to track and comment upon the political tension between the U.S. and the USSR, by far the two largest nuclear powers on Earth. It was designed to “frighten men into rationality,” according to Eugene Rabinowitch, the first editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Since then, the “clock” has expanded to consider climate change and a host of other dangers like pandemics, cyber-attacks, and disinformation.
A nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. would have likely resulted in the complete destruction of life on Earth in a few hours, a concept that was new to people in 1947. So the clock worked: It was a shorthand way of illustrating how political decisions from two empires affected the likelihood of everyone dying. But the Cold War has been over for decades, and the dangers we face now are very different than the ones we faced in 1964. Climate change is a looming catastrophe, but it won’t go down like a nuclear war, and the host of other threats enumerated by the clock won’t (by themselves) result in the death of humanity in a way we could likely predict, so it’s fair to ask what the clock is meant to measure in 2022. The answer is not exactly clear.
“It’s not scientific,” Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors explained to The New Republic, “It’s a number that’s arrived at by a group of people who are exploring each of the questions, then having a huge amount of discussion, and ultimately a convergence on a number. And that number is frankly arbitrary. It’s not a scientific quantity.”
Even the first “setting” of the Doomsday Clock was arbitrary. Painter Martyl Langsdorf created the image for the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She went with a minimalist clock face and chose the time of seven to midnight herself because, “It seemed the right time on the page…It suited my eye.”
The Doomsday Clock is not even a good metaphor on the most basic level. The defining characteristic of a timepiece is a hand moving inevitably forward to provides useful, objectively true information. The Doomsday Clock’s hand moves in both directions, and it provides nothing but an illustration of the subjective opinion of a small group of people.
Waking people up with a Doomsday Alarm Clock?
The purpose of the clock has always been to wake people up to the danger we face. As Krause put it: “Scientists have a responsibility — which is the reason I’m involved in this — to try and alert the public to the realities of the world, and if you have use emotional tools to do it, you should…Whenever I write something popular, I don’t actually expect it to really be teaching that much. What I expect to do is motivate people to want to learn. And in my mind, that’s what the clock does.”
But does the Doomsday Clock actually motivate people to want to learn? For me, it’s the opposite. If I accept the idea that humanity is hair away from its end and these scientists have “proven” it, I want to take a nap, not hear more about it. Or, as National Geographic put it: “If everything’s a crisis, nothing’s a crisis.”
History is rife with unintended consequences, so who is to say whether the political assessments of the scientists who changed the clock were even right? Geopolitical events that were seen as moving the hands in a positive direction could have actually been moving us closer to death, and we have no way of knowing what would have happened had opposite decisions been made. A softer stance by one of the super-powers in the 1960s would probably have moved the hands away from midnight, but it could have emboldened either the Soviets or the U.S. into thinking they might win a nuclear war. There just isn’t any way of knowing.
Consider the statement released with this year’s non-movement of the hands. When it comes specifically to nuclear war, the Atomic Scientists agreed that we made some progress over the last couple of years: The New START arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia being extended, and the U.S. pledging to rejoin the Paris climate accord and reinstate the Iran nuclear treaty are all seen as positive, while the continuing efforts of China and North Korea to develop nuclear arsenals moves the clock closer to midnight. I can buy that, but reading further, you get a dizzying laundry list of “bad things that are happening,” presumably offsetting the progress on nuclear arms control, and pushing the hands toward midnight. Here’s only a small sample:
- Terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS and some criminal organisations continue to profess their determination to build, acquire, and use biological weapons to achieve their goals.
- Mask-wearing and social distancing are similarly discouraged by disinformation.
- Cyberattackers have grown more audacious.
- Chinese use of surveillance technology has reached new heights.
- Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test in November, destroying one of its own satellites and creating a debris cloud that orbited dangerously close to the International Space Station.
For the clock’s reading to have a useful meaning, it would have to compare the threat of potential ISIS biological attacks with the extension of nuclear treaties between the United States and Russia and determine whether that moves the hands up or down, a proposition that is absurd, given the chaotic nature of a system as complex as “all possible geopolitical forces on earth that could harm humanity.”
A new symbol for new times?
I believe a better symbol for our current situation might be a ring of hundreds of alarm clocks wired to explode when their alarms go off. All the alarms are set at different times, and we don’t know when any of them are scheduled to go off. We are free to move the hands where we like, but only if we can convince/force enough other people to agree to change the time. If we do nothing, each one will explode. If we do something, we could avoid explosions if we don’t make any mistakes and we get very lucky.
But that’s just me.