Science

What The Doomsday Clock Doesn’t Tell Us

Putting humanity on a permanent, blanket high-alert isn’t helpful when it comes to policy or science.

A clock superimposed on a question mark
Photo Illustration by Slate

Since the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sent out a press release yesterday, the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, and countless other outlets have reported that the Doomsday Clock now reads just 2 minutes to midnight, the closest we’ve been to nuclear apocalypse since the Cold War. While the symbol of imminent destruction might seem apt in our current overly-anxious political climate, the minute hand has been creeping forward incrementally for years (yes, even pre-Trump), and it’s been primed at T-10 minutes or less to Doomsday since 1998. In light of this perpetual crisis mode, it seems worth asking: What does the Doomsday Clock actually tell us?

The short answer is not much. When the clock was first conceived in 1947, it was set at 11:53, seven minutes before Doomsday, because, as artist Martyl Langsdorf put it, “It looked good to my eye.” As repentant Manhattan Project scientists, the founding members of the Bulletin were well aware of the consequences of their work, and wanted the public to be mindful of potential risks going forward, too. So they created a simple, visually striking system by which to measure the state of the world: The closer we get to midnight, the more urgently action is needed to prevent an existential threat to humankind.

The organization’s intentions are good, and the qualifications of the team behind it are beyond dispute—its board, for example, now includes 15 Nobel laureates. But the clock itself, the most famous manifestation of their work (by their own admission, it “attracts more daily visitors to our site than any other feature”), lacks the nuance that makes the rest of their efforts so vital. And while the Bulletin asserts that it “commands worldwide attention when it issues periodic assessments of global threats and solutions,” the reality is that outlets overwhelmingly pay more attention to the “global threats” side of the report than any proposed fixes.

Should we be alert to the possibility of global catastrophe? Of course. But the clock’s logic is neither precise nor especially incisive. In 2007, it branched out from nuclear weapons alone to incorporate other threats, namely climate change and the unchecked rise of biotech. These are issues worth exploring and engaging with, but tossing them in alongside the possibility of nuclear warfare feels strange if not irresponsible, especially when no effort is made to quantify their relative contributions to our ostensible impending demise. The 2018 report cites the gene-editing tool CRISPR as a factor, but the authors decline to explain how or to what extent its existence brings us closer to catastrophe beyond a vague allusion to “possible misuse” of the technology. And the very name “Doomsday Clock”—and its ongoing association with nuclear apocalypse—defies nuance. The approach fails in its stated purpose of advancing the public understanding of these very disparate threats when it flattens them into one measurement by design.

Pushing for nuclear disarmament and slowing climate change are laudable and necessary goals. It’s understandable the board wants to convey a sense of urgency around these issues, all of them long acknowledged with little to show for it. But that’s exactly the problem: A literal Doomsday Clock that’s perennially poised to signal the end of humanity, while a powerful metaphor, so far hasn’t been a useful tool for change.

The Bulletin’s other work—rewarding new voices in the field, writing smart, open-access analysis, drawing up nuanced policies—has achieved far more than an arbitrary arbiter of death and destruction ever will. It’s time to stop the clock and start listening to the science that’s supposed to inform it.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus