Is the Doomsday Clock legitimate?

Somehow, 2018 has only just started and the situation already seems incredibly bleak. At least that’s what the members behind the academic publication Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists say. Originally conceived in 1945, this nonprofit organization has been gauging the probability of a global catastrophe and has communicated this threat level to the public with its infamous Doomsday Clock, which represents the countdown to the end of civilization if countermeasures aren’t taken. This metaphorical clock has moved backwards and forwards many times throughout its run, from as far back as 17 minutes from midnight in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union to as close to two minutes from midnight in 1953 during the testing of the first hydrogen bomb (Bulletin, “Timeline,” 2018). But even with the Cold War long over, it seems the global situation has only gotten worse. On Jan. 25, 2018, the 19 international experts that make up the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board adjusted the infamous Doomsday Clock by moving it 30 seconds closer to midnight.

“As of today, it is two minutes to midnight,” announced President and CEO of the Bulletin Rachel Bronson during a recent press conference (Bulletin, “Doomsday Clock Announcement, 2018,” 01.25.2018).

Naturally, many people aren’t too thrilled about this grim assessment. Global geopolitical tensions are already at an all-time high thanks to the frosty relations between Russia and the U.S. as well as the belligerent partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C. It also doesn’t help that President Trump continues to play Russian Roulette on his Twitter feed and goad celebrities and world leaders alike into schoolyard squabbles. Just earlier this month, he taunted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s lack of nuclear arsenals on Twitter and bragged about how his Nuclear Button “is a much bigger & more powerful one than his” (The New York Times, “Social Media Shudders After Trump Mocks North Korea’s ‘Button’,” 01.03.2018). At this rate, it really does appear as if the apocalypse is just around the corner.

But despite how dire “two minutes until midnight” might sound, the entire concept of the Doomsday Clock isn’t as helpful as some people make it out to be. For one thing, it doesn’t empirically measure anything. It’s only a metaphor, after all. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board may consist of experts in their field, but the time displayed on this “clock” only represents what a handful of people think about the state of the world. The rather arbitrary nature of the time set on the Doomsday Clock becomes clearer in the context of the Bulletin’s history. When the concept was first created in 1947, the clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight. Was there a logical explanation behind this decision? Nope, the Doomsday Clock started at 11:53 p.m. because, according to the original artist, “it looked good to my eye” (Bulletin, “Doomsday Clockwork,” 01.27.2017).

It’s also important to note that the Doomsday Clock hasn’t been a good predictor of actual nuclear risk. For instance, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board changed the time from two minutes to midnight to seven minutes in 1960 and kept it that way until 1963, citing how “[f]or the first time, the United States and the Soviet Union appear eager to avoid direct confrontation in regional conflicts” (Bulletin, “Timeline”). However, they couldn’t be more wrong. In 1961, the U.S. government ignored warnings from various defense experts and started deploying “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey that could reach all across the Soviet Union (The Atlantic, “The Real Cuban Missile Crisis,” 01.2013). As predicted, the USSR became paranoid when it saw American nuclear missiles aimed right at their doorsteps and proceeded to deploy its own nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 to “[give the U.S.] a little of their own medicine” (The Atlantic). This deadly confrontation lead to the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, which historians agree was the moment when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict—a time when the Doomsday Clock read seven to midnight.

Of course, some people would argue that we’re not supposed to treat the Doomsday Clock literally. They would claim that its real benefit comes from how it spreads awareness and conveys the urgency of the global situation. However, its current design does less to promote action and instead seems more preoccupied with keeping people in a heightened state of alarm at all times. In the past, the Doomsday Clock assessed danger specifically based on nuclear weapon proliferation. Sure, it wasn’t always accurate, but at least it had a clear purpose. But ever since 2007, the Bulletin incorporated other dangers as well. In its 2018 report, the Science and Security Board accounted for threats such as climate change, cyberattacks, and advances in CRISPR gene-editing (Bulletin, “2018 Doomsday Clock Statement,” 01.25.2018).

“Today, technological innovation in biology, artificial intelligence, and cyber are occurring at speeds that challenge society’s ability to keep pace,” stated Bronson ominously (Bulletin, “Doomsday Clock Announcement, 2018”).

While it’s true that all these issues (especially climate change) should be addressed with careful consideration, adding more dangers to worry about muddles the original message and makes it much harder to stay focused. The goal has ultimately changed from reducing nuclear weapons to reducing everything that could possibly pose a threat to humanity, which makes the overflowing mountain of problems incredibly overwhelming to even approach. Even the solutions that they offer to “turn back the Clock,” are mainly directed towards the world leaders rather than the everyday person, and they seem more like wish lists rather than detailed plans of action. In addition, setting the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight because of advancements in gene editing and A.I. and grouping them together with nuclear weapon proliferation is just absurd, given how many lives those scientific advancements can save. In that regard, the Doomsday Clock is no better than the sensationalist news media that automatically labels new scientific technologies as dangerous without making the effort to understand them properly.

Despite what the Bulletin claims, blindly decrying the end of humanity with this “Doomsday” Clock every year is not going to help anyone. It may have opened some people’s eyes during the Cold War, but in the age of social media and 24-hour news networks, the general public is more than cognizant of the terrible state of the world. The real problem is that many people have become too desensitized to all the alarm and overwhelmed to the point of apathy. The Doomsday Clock really only serves to remind people of what they already know—human society is destroying the world.

The Bulletin has always been urging people to pay attention to the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand as it moves closer and closer to midnight in hopes that people will be “shocked” into action. However, it’s clear that these apocalyptic proclamations are starting to have the opposite effect on people after hearing it so often. By its very design, the Clock will never actually reach midnight, so at this rate, all that the Bulletin can do is keep advancing the Clock by smaller and smaller increments until they’re forced to resort to half-seconds to avoid running out of space. While the yearly assessments on the global state of affairs remain important as a way to collect data, perhaps it’s time to retire this Mayan-Calendar-esque Doomsday Clock for good as an outdated relic of the Cold War.


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