Bob Brockie: Problems with the Doomsday Clock
If we're to believe the Doomsday Clock, the world is now 30 seconds closer to global apocalypse than it was last year.
The original Doomsday Clock has hung on wall in the office of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in the University of Chicago since 1947. It was originally a symbol of the threat of nuclear war, as interpreted by the Bulletin's governing board, among whom are 18 science Nobel laureates.
Since 1947, this symbol of global catastrophe has been set back and forwards 22 times. It was furthest from midnight (17 minutes) in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, and closest to midnight 64 years ago, following the Cuban missile crisis.
According to the Bulletin's advisors, we have only a remote chance of surviving an imminent apocalypse.
The Doomsday Clock is not what it used to be. In its early days, the clock simply measured the threat of nuclear war but this year is quite different. The atomic scientists have widened the range of world threats to include climate change, genetically engineered alien flu strains, transgenic plants that could be malignly used to produce toxic proteins, potential paramilitary robots with a license to kill, hackers crashing the grid, giant asteroids, fake news but, above all, that horseman of the apocalypse, Donald Trump, whose strident nationalism, inflammatory rhetoric and his dismissal of scientific expertise threatens us all.
Scary stuff. No wonder that they've moved the clock 2.5 minutes closer to midnight.
But critics claim the clock has lost touch with reality as its contributors grossly simplify, misread and exaggerate bad news. One contributor to the Bulletin predicted that the Fukushima disaster would cause 1.4 million deaths within 10 years. In fact it has killed no-one in the almost six years since the accident. Another one of the Bulletin's academic contributors labelled ebola as a slow motion atomic bomb. In fact the infection has been virtually wiped out.
These atomic scientists misconstrue the nature of technology. They could argue that metallurgy, cars and planes should never have been invented as traffic accidents and wars have inflicted devastating and irrecoverable harm on humanity. But the wider effect of these inventions has been to make life vastly safer and healthier. The same could be said of today's technological discoveries.
The Doomsday Clock metaphor may have fitted the prospects of a sudden nuclear war but does not fit slow motion problems of climate change, sustainability, or the prospects of long-term technological developments.
Skeptics say today's clock adjusters take the "precautionary principle" to ridiculous limits, spotlighting remote, distant menaces and unlikely worst-case scenarios. Its new purpose is to promote a sense of urgency and panic us into facing every risk at any price.
Skeptics also say the Bulletin's exaggerated claims can be perverse and counterproductive. The atomic scientists' vague, muddled, broad apocalyptic scare-mongering makes it difficult for us to prioritise our problems or shape any coherent response to them.
Cynics claim the Doomsday Clock's hair-raising message is little more than a Greenie angst meter.