Stepping back from doomsday

  • 28 January 2020
  • NormanL

You may have heard of the so-called "Doomsday Clock," a rhetorical device created during the Cold War by atomic scientists to warn about the dangers of nuclear war. The clock is still a thing -- its hands moving each year slightly closer to what, we are told, is "midnight," and the end of the human race (it's currently about two minutes to midnight, if you're wondering).

But as Lawrence Krauss, who until recently lead the group that produced the Doomsday Clock, writes in the Wall Street Journal. it's time for this particular exercize in doomsmanship to end:

...the threats the clock now purports to measure are different in kind. Nuclear weapons could end human civilization in a day. The generation of greenhouse gases associated with human industrial activity won’t. It is increasingly likely to have devastating impacts, but these will emerge over the long term and be spread unevenly across the globe.

Psychologist Steven Pinker argues—and the bulletin admits—that the clock is anything but a scientific instrument. In Mr. Pinker’s view, the annual announcement is a publicity stunt that demeans the scientific community and makes the world seem more dangerous than it actually is.

The clock is a publicity stunt—and a successful one. That was the point. The public hardly ever debates the ever-present danger of a world with 10,000 nuclear weapons. People would rather not think about it.

Yet there’s a deeper problem. Not only is the Doomsday Clock unscientific; the factors of its setting are now dominated more by policy questions than scientific ones. The former may be important, but claiming the authority of “atomic scientists” is appropriate only for the latter.

A similar argument could be had about science itself -- are scientists still pursuing truth, or are they seeking to influence public policy (or, more cyncially, more grant money)?

We've no problem with drawing attention to genuine dangers facing humanity -- from nuclear self-annihilation to pandemics, pollution and much more. Krauss argues there's good reason to set the clock or some other "icon" to "some fixed value, say, five minutes to midnight, might serve as a permanent reminder of a dangerous world."

Fair enough. But the next step beyond calling out the danger is doing something about it -- we will advocate for responses that allow creativity and the freedom to innovate to lead the way.