Tick, tick, tick ... does the Doomsday Clock need a reset?

In a recent piece in The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg takes issue with the seriousness surrounding the Doomsday Clock, a kind of visual metaphor put out by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that turned 76 this year.

Back in 1947, a group of nuclear-weapons scientists who felt remorse about working on development of The Bomb came up with the idea of the Doomsday Clock and set it to a metaphorical "seven minutes to midnight." Goldberg hails the Clock as one of the finest examples of successful publicity stunts, a gimmick that keeps on giving. Every time the scientists advance the clock, news outlets have an opportunity for a good graphic—the hands of the clock creeping menacingly toward midnight—and dutifully relay the cause du jour for the advancement, whether it's bad behaviour by Russia, the election of Donald Trump, or what have you. Out of necessity, the scientists (and journalists—most of the management structure of the non-profit Bulletin are not professional scientists) who manipulate the clock have had to pull it back from midnight every so often, but the news-grabbing events always advance it toward the end of the world.

Goldberg doesn't mention what I consider to be the crowning irony of the thing: the fact that supposedly objective and rational scientists use as a publicity vehicle one of the most important scientific instruments of all time—a clock—to convey what amounts to an entirely subjective and even emotion-laden message. But in a twisted way, the metaphor reflects the paradoxical nature of what the board of governors behind the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is trying to do: trade upon their reputation for being smart in one area (nuclear physics) to persuade the general public that they know what they're talking about in a different area (arms control and international relations).

As Goldberg points out, scientists have a legitimate role to play in public policy. If a technical issue is too complicated to be understood by the average politician, the politicians should ask the technical experts for their technical advice. But such experts have a way of getting swelled heads. I suppose when the President asks your advice about some technical matter, a certain personality type will start to think that government leaders will listen to you no matter what you're talking about. It's an understandable failing, but a failing nonetheless.

In the nature of things, nuclear scientists who work on weapons development are more intimately familiar than laypersons with the way these weapons are deployed and the command structures that control them. But that doesn't make them clairvoyants or mind-readers who can sense the states of mind of bad actors such as Vladimir Putin to decide that he is just that much more inclined to push the nuclear button, that we need to move the minute hand from 11:55 to 11:56. Such an action is exactly as meaningful as if I told my new dog that I now like her 5.5 instead of 5.3. They both mean "more than before," but neither love nor danger is measured in metric units.

Such logical arguments are wasted on those who cover each advance of the Doomsday Clock, and most of those who read about it. Everybody knows danger isn't a quantitative thing, but the metaphor takes advantage of the strong and enduring trope that embedded itself in our subconscious in the 1950s when nuclear Armageddon was a novel and frightening thing. Hundreds of cultural products—novels, plays, movies, TV series—have profited from exploiting this fear either directly or in sublimated form, as the spate of 1950s sci-fi B movies attests. So in that regard, the Doomsday Clock was truly a stroke of genius, as it taps into this fear that has never gone away, and probably won't until the unlikely happens and nuclear weapons are banished from the planet.

And if nuclear war is Armageddon, a total abolition of nuclear weapons is the New Jerusalem. As a Christian, I believe that nuclear weapons will have no place in the kingdom of God, so I do anticipate a day when the earth will be free from them, and free from a lot else besides. But as long as people like Putin control substantial amounts of thermonuclear bombs and the ability to deliver them, it seems irresponsible for the U. S., as the leading nuclear-armed opponent of Russia, to divest itself unilaterally of such weapons.

Back when the old U. S. S. R. was led by less irrational people, it was worthwhile to negotiate nuclear-arms reduction as long as we had means of telling whether the other side was cheating. Not being either a nuclear scientist or an espionage expert, I do not know what shape our "national technical means" are in these days. I suspect, not too hot. But it's pretty clear from Putin's recent actions that this is not the time or season to try nuclear-arms-reduction talks. Instead, I hope we are keeping our hands near the trigger, so to speak, while taking every precaution to ensure that mistakes or errors don't set off a nuclear war.

In the meantime, the atomic scientists who get to adjust their clock hands however they feel the times dictate will get media attention for every second they move the hands closer to midnight. Goldberg makes the point that if you've heard someone cry "Wolf!" every so often for seventy-six years and no wolf ever showed up, you might be inclined to disregard the next such announcement. But that old nuclear fear is still there, the media find that it still garners eyeballs, and so we might as well get used to the broken clock of the atomic scientists which is no good keeping time but gathers reporters as reliably as clockwork every time it moves.

This article has been republished with permission from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics.


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