it trivialises science and makes no sense

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists should choose to be scientists or activists – they can’t have it both ways

January 25, 2023 1:35 pm(Updated 5:09 pm)

Oh good – it’s that time of year again. “That time” being mere seconds from the apocalypse – at least according to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who have put out another press release about moving the hands on their (self-described) “iconic” Doomsday Clock.

The idea of the clock is that scientists assess the evidence and warn humanity just how close we are to destruction, by using the metaphor – referenced in the famous Iron Maiden song – of “minutes to midnight”.

The latest announcement is that the hands on the clock have been moved to ninety seconds to midnight – particularly scary, because it’s the closest that we’ve ever been, since the clock was instituted in 1947, to the total destruction of the planet.

Or at least, it would be scary, if the clock made any sense.

Consider where the clock was set just a few years after it began, in 1953. Because of US and USSR tests of thermonuclear weapons (and their threats to drop them on each other’s population centres), the clock was set to two minutes to midnight. It then fluctuated between there and twelve minutes to midnight until it was wound back to seventeen minutes after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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So we’re being told that now is a more dangerous time for humanity than at any time during the Cold War – more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis, than Able Archer 1983, or any of the many nuclear near-misses that occurred as the US-Soviet tensions played out.

You might think the atomic scientists have a point: because of Putin’s aggressive war in Ukraine, there really is a higher chance than in decades of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the West. Putin has even made unmissable hints about nuclear weapons in some of his deranged speeches.

That would be a fair argument, if the clock hadn’t already told us that the world was at its closest-ever point to destruction — 100 seconds to midnight — in January 2020. And that was before the pandemic was even a talking point: The Bulletin’s statement at the time didn’t mention coronaviruses, or indeed any kind of pandemic risk.

The inconsistency is because the clock has changed over the years: it used to focus entirely on nuclear risk, but now includes climate change among other risks such as “the breakdown of global norms”. Exactly how all this is calculated—why, for example, the war in Ukraine only moved the hand closer by 10 seconds, whereas the election of Donald Trump seemed to move it by 30 seconds in 2017—is never revealed.

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As any scientist will tell you, if you change your methods halfway through a study, your results will no longer make any sense. It’s no different for the Doomsday Clock: the fact that the clock has changed—and includes creeping risks like climate change that work very differently from a scenario where leaders might instantly press the nuclear button—makes the whole thing into a meaningless publicity stunt.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists can’t have it both ways: they’re either scientists, and work to keep their measures consistent and interpretable, or they’re activists, willing to say outrageous things to grab publicity for a cause. For years, they’ve tried unsuccessfully to blur the distinction. Their faux-precise numbers—they decided they were allowed fractions of minutes in 2017—have trivialised science. And their repeated cry-wolf pronouncements have trivialised the idea of existential risk.

There really are lots of reasons to worry about the future, and for governments to make their countries better-prepared for existential catastrophes. But lumping together very different kinds of risks into one highly subjective, inconsistent measure and press-releasing it to the world isn’t very useful, or very scientific. It’s time to stop the clock.

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