doomsday clock

The failings of the Doomsday Clock

Currently set at 90 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock has been ticking for over seven decades now. Since its creation in 1947, this ominous timepiece has measured how far away mankind is from self-destruction, but, in an era where the stakes have never been higher, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Doomsday Clock has lost its relevance and deteriorated into obsolescence.

At its core, the Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of how close humanity is to a catastrophic event; primarily nuclear war. Originally designed by Martyl Langsdorf for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the clock’s hands are adjusted every year to reflect the perceived level of nuclear threat. Yet, despite its historical significance and the attention it receives from the media, the Doomsday Clock no longer fulfils its intended purpose.

The most obvious problem is that the Doomsday Clock’s methodology completely lacks any semblance of transparency or clarity. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists claims to use a wide range of factors to determine the clock’s setting, including political developments, scientific advancements, and risk perceptions. However, the specific criteria and calculations used to arrive at the particular time on the clock remain wholly shrouded in mystery. Without a clear understanding of how each new time is being chosen, it becomes difficult to trust the clock’s verdict or to properly understand it.

This then suggests that one of the fundamental flaws of the Doomsday Clock lies in its possible subjectivity. Even though the clock’s time is determined by scientists, they are not free from their own biases and perspectives. This potential subjectivity, especially when paired with our lack of knowledge on how the time on the clock is determined (as well as the possibility that the scientists have missed information that would otherwise have changed their minds on the decided time), diminishes the clock’s credibility, leaving it open to the criticism that it is actually a tool being used to advance political agendas or other narratives. Whereas nuclear weapons come from a place of empirical research and rigorous testing (think the Manhattan Project), it is unclear whether or not any comparable objectivity is used when setting the clock.

However, the specific criteria and calculations used to arrive at the particular time on the clock remain wholly shrouded in mystery.

As a visual aid, the clock also attempts to reduce the very serious threat of nuclear war into a number of seconds or minutes, something which lacks nuance and doesn’t take into account the irrationality and emotion that often enters modern politics. This is perhaps comparable to other methods of quantifying abstract concepts, such as rating pain on a scale from one to ten. You might know that you’re in more pain than before, but how do you know how much by? Will a future injury cause you to rethink your placement of previous injuries? What happens if you need to rate something as 6.5 out of 10? Or at an 11?

Furthermore, the Doomsday Clock has become increasingly detached from the reality of global affairs. Its focus on nuclear weapons as the primary threat fails to adequately address the myriad challenges we face today. The world has evolved massively since the creation of the clock, and the threats we face as a society are far more diverse than back then, with issues such as climate change, cybercrime, and terrorism being more prevalent. By fixating solely on nuclear weapons, the clock undermines its own relevance and fails to capture the complex problems of the modern world.

The melodrama surrounding the Doomsday Clock has also contributed to its declining relevance. Over the years, the clock’s movements have become sensational headlines that have generated horror among the general public, who can do virtually nothing about the issue themselves. While it is crucial to raise awareness about global risks, the exaggerated and alarmist nature of the clock’s annual setting only serves to cause terror and then eventual desensitization to the potential of nuclear war. When the clock is continuously set close to midnight, it becomes difficult to differentiate between genuine warning and sensationalized fearmongering.

By fixating solely on nuclear weapons, the clock undermines its own relevance and fails to capture the complex problems of the modern world.

Though the clock does raise awareness of the threat of global disaster fairly well, it does not tell anyone what steps should be taken to manage this. Admittedly, that isn’t its purpose – but the lack of tangible or practical impact means the effect of the clock isn’t much different from anyone deciding what the current threat of nuclear war is by themselves.

In an era where accurate and evidence-based information is becoming less readily available, it is essential to critically evaluate the tools we rely upon for evaluating potential issues; and the Doomsday Clock is simply unfit for modern usage. Its lack of transparency, subjective nature, outdated focus, and sensationalism have rendered it unsuccessful in today’s complex world.

If we’re going to address the crises of the 21st century, we must seek more comprehensive and objective methods of assessing global risks. The Doomsday Clock, with the inherent flaws of how it’s currently run, is simply not up to this task.

Image credit: Blane Aitchison.

Image description: A pop art graphic of an alarm clock against an explosive background.