What’s Up With the Very Real ‘Doomsday Clock’?
On January 23, 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a non-profit research and education organization based in Chicago, moved the hands on its Doomsday Clock forward to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest in its 74-year history. According the Bulletin, this change reflects the growing threat posed by climate change, nuclear proliferation, and misinformation, and the increasing unwillingness of world leaders to respond to said threats. But just what is the Doomsday Clock, anyway? Where did it come from, how its it updated, and what can it tell us about the ever-changing risk of global catastrophe in the 20th and 21st Centuries?
The Doomsday Clock traces its origins back to 1945 and the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that year, a group of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, including metallurgist Hyman Goldsmith and biophysicist Eugene Rabinowitch, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, a monthly newsletter aimed at keeping the public informed of the emerging danger of nuclear weapons. Two years later, when Rabinowitch and Goldsmith decided to expand the newsletter into a proper magazine, they asked artist Martyl Langsdorf, wife of physicist and Bulletin member Alexander Langsdorf, to design the cover. At first Martyl considered drawing a giant letter “U” to represent Uranium, but after listening to conversations between other Bulletin scientists, she realized that essence of the publication was not nuclear weapons themselves but the dire risk of global catastrophe they posed. Thus, according to the Bulletin’s website:
“She drew the hands of a clock ticking down to midnight. Like the countdown to an atomic bomb explosion, it suggested the destruction that awaited if no one took action to stop it.”
The Doomsday Clock debuted on the cover of the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin, with the hands set at seven minutes to midnight. Though this position originally had no particular meaning – Martyl admitting that she placed the hands for “aesthetic reasons” – it would nonetheless form the baseline for all future adjustments. The decision whether to move the hands – and how far – is made every January based on changes in technology and geopolitics over the previous year. Originally this decision was made by founding editor Eugene Rabinowitch himself, but after his death in 1973 the responsibility passed to the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which currently includes 13 Nobel laureates.
In the 74 years since its creation, the Doomsday Clock has been changed 24 times. The first change was made in 1949 in response to the Soviet Union detonating its first atomic bomb, an event which drastically changed the climate of the Cold War and lead the bulletin to move the clock to three minutes to midnight. Other events which pushed the clock closer to midnight include France and China developing nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1968, and President Ronald Reagan pulling out of disarmament talks in 1980; while events which pulled back the clock include the world’s scientists collaborating during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, the United States and Soviet Union signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Prior to 2020, the closest the clock has come to midnight is 2 minutes in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons within six months of each other, while the furthest it has been is 17 minutes following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Strangely, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever come to all-out nuclear war – had no effect on the clock, as the crisis was resolved long before the Bulletin could meet to discuss it. Furthermore, the crisis resulted in major global policy changes – such as the creation of the famous Moscow-Washington Hotline – which made the world a significantly safer place.
Due to its simplicity and visceral immediacy, the Doomsday Clock quickly became an icon and an enduring symbol of the Cold War, inspiring countless works of popular art such the Iron Maiden song “Two Minutes to Midnight” and the Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen. And as the times have changed, so too has the Doomsday Clock. In 2007, designer Michael Beirut updated the Clock’s design to give it a more contemporary feel, while in 2009, when the Bulletin retired its print edition and became a digital-only publication, the Clock also made the transition, and now appears as a regularly-updated logo on the Bulletin’s website. In 2016 the Bulletin also commissioned a physical Doomsday Clock to hang in the lobby its Chicago office, which attracts thousands of tourists every year.
Other changes have been more fundamental. While the Clock has long been associated with the threat of nuclear war, in more recent years the Bulletin has kept its eye on more current and emerging threats to civilization, including climate change, biotechnology, cyberwarfare, and even artificial intelligence. Indeed, the Bulletin’s rationale for moving the Clock to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020 – the closest in its entire history – was as follows:
“Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”
Nonetheless, the threat of nuclear war continues to factor heavily into the Clock’s setting, as evidenced by its being set forward to 5 minutes in 2007 following nuclear weapons tests in North Korea and the resumption Uranium enrichment in Iran.
Yet despite the Doomsday Clock’s iconic status, it has faced considerable criticism over the years, with many questioning the validity of the Bulletin’s process for setting its hands and even the clock’s very value as an indicator of global risk. Much of this criticism has centred on the clock’s representation of risk, which some like Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University view as inherently flawed. According to Sandberg, the various risk factors measured by the Clock are fundamentally different and thus cannot be easily compared. They are also all manmade, meaning that:
“…the normal forms of probability estimate are not just inadequate, they are actively misleading. [The Clock is] not an exact measure and it’s also combining several things. It was perhaps much easier when they started, when it was just nuclear war, but since then we have gained other existential risks.”
But even when applied to nuclear warfare alone, says Sandberg, the Clock’s very design makes it less than useful as an indicator of risk, as its inexorable “countdown” model implies that global catastrophe is inevitable rather than something we can actively avoid. Furthermore, Sandberg argues that the clock’s fundamental mission – to remind humanity of how close it is to disasters- may in fact be counterproductive, stating:
“You can’t live your life at 3 minutes to midnight.”
This view is shared by Katherine Pandora, a history of science researcher at the University of Oklahoma, who argues:
“Having authorities state that an emergency is at hand is an effective way to gain someone’s attention and have them primed to take immediate action, which is the logic behind the clock’s minutes-to-midnight gambit. Asking successive generations of people to sustain a constant sense of emergency is a contradiction in terms. The unintended effects of this directive can impede a successful resolution of the issue at hand and undermine the working relationship between experts and nonexperts. I don’t think that using apocalyptic rhetoric helps us to do the hard work of discussing difficult and complicated issues in a democracy.”
Nonetheless, Pandora praises the efforts of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to keep the public informed about emerging global threats, stating:
“It is the prodigious amount of research and analysis that ground the conclusions in the reports that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issues that are the real tools for mobilizing discussion among all of us on critical issues.”
The Doomsday Clock has also received criticism from right-wing commentators, who accuse it of being, in the words of journalist John Merline, “little more than a Liberal angst meter.” These critics argue that despite founding editor Eugene Rabinowitz’s assertion that:
“The Bulletin’s clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”
… the clock’s movements are motivated merely by political ideology, moving closer to midnight during Republican administrations and farther away during Democratic ones. However, a cursory look at the clock’s history reveals this to be untrue, as the clock was backed off significantly under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and moved forward under Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Other right-wing criticism has centred on the Bulletin’s 2017 Doomsday Clock statement in which it argued:
“Information monocultures, fake news, and the hacking and release of politically sensitive emails may have had an illegitimate impact on the US presidential election, threatening the fabric of democracy.”
This has led commenters to accuse the Bulletin of equating “fake news” with nuclear warfare as an existential risk to civilizations.
But most criticisms, whether liberal or conservative, appear to miss the fundamental point of the Doomsday Clock. As the Bulletin states on its website:
The Doomsday Clock is not a forecasting tool, and we are not predicting the future. Rather, we study events that have already occurred and existing trends. Our Science and Security Board tracks numbers and statistics—looking, for example, at the number and kinds of nuclear weapons in the world, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the degree of acidity in our oceans, and the rate of sea level rise. The board also takes account of leaders’ and citizens’ efforts to reduce dangers, and efforts by institutions—whether of governments, markets, or civil society organizations—to follow through on negotiated agreements.
The Bulletin is a bit like a doctor making a diagnosis. We look at data, as physicians look at lab tests and x-rays, and also take harder-to-quantify factors into account, as physicians do when talking with patients and family members. We consider as many symptoms, measurements, and circumstances as we can. Then we come to a judgment that sums up what could happen if leaders and citizens don’t take action to treat the conditions.
The Bulletin acknowledges that at its heart, the Doomsday Clock is – and has always been – a symbol, an easily digestible representation of global risk intended to spark discussion and spur action. And in response to accusations of political partisanship, the Bulletin offers a sobering reminder:
“Ensuring the survival of our societies and the human species is not a political agenda. Cooperating with other countries to achieve control of extremely dangerous technologies should not involve partisan politics. If scientists involved with the Bulletin are critical of current policies on nuclear weapons and climate change, it is because those policies increase the possibility of self-destruction.”
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What is the Doomsday Clock? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/
Mecklin, John, This is Your COVID Wake-Up Call: It is 100 Seconds to Midnight, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/
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Merline, John, The Famed ‘Doomsday Clock” is Little More Than a Liberal Angst Meter, January 25, 2019, https://www.investors.com/politics/commentary/the-doomsday-clock-measures-liberal-angst-not-global-risk/
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