Welcome to the discussion, Professor Pinker

By Rachel Bronson | April 11, 2018

In a recent interview, my Bulletin colleague Lucien Crowder asks renowned Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker about his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, and about his critique of the Doomsday Clock. Pinker is after all a practiced Clock denigrator. When our Science and Security Board announced the 2018 time in January, Pinker tweeted out #stoptheclock. In his new book, he devotes a chapter to existential threats and criticizes leading scientists and technologists, including Elon Musk, Lawrence Krauss, and the now-deceased Stephen Hawking, for being apocalyptic naysayers, lacking proportionality and sowing fear among the broader population. In this context, he dismisses the Doomsday Clock as a “gimmick” and a “propaganda stunt.”

Pinker’s critique is noteworthy not only because of his visibility, but also because of his high regard for the Bulletin, something he emphasizes at least three times in this short interview. But he is concerned (more in his book than his interview) that if everyday citizens believe the world is “screwed,” they are unlikely to take necessary action to address contemporary challenges. The Doomsday Clock, in other words, could breed complacency or, worse, paralysis.

But does the Clock actually breed complacency? When the Bulletin announced the time in January, more than 7,500 articles were published around the world immediately after its release. News of the setting appeared in liberal and conservative media, in media targeting older and younger audiences alike. More than two million people watched the announcement on Facebook live, and more than a quarter million people read the statement explaining the Clock setting within the first week of its publication. Those reactions hardly seem complacent—and they certainly weren’t unusual. In 2017, the response was quite similar.

Interest comes not only from the grassroots, but from decision makers at the local, state, and international level. In 2015, the Clock announcement framed a motion in the Scottish Parliament to decommission the world’s nuclear arsenals. In March 2017, the United Nations’ High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Kim Won-soo, opened a major meeting to prohibit nuclear weapons by referencing the time on the Doomsday Clock. The convening eventually led to an International Ban treaty and the group ICAN receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2018, the California Governor Jerry Brown included the Clock in his State of the State address, using it to motivate his colleagues in government and the public to focus on the issues that really matter. The examples go on and on.

Pinker would rather the Clock—or perhaps the Bulletin—focus more broadly on the benefits associated with scientific advancement and the positive steps that have been taken to keep the planet safe. People would be less fatalistic and more engaged, Pinker argues, “if they were more aware of the progress that has taken place, at least in reducing arsenal size and in [agreeing to] treaties like New START, than if they were unaware of them and under the impression that no progress has been made at all.”

Important arms control agreements have indeed been signed in recent years, and they have reduced the number of warheads that both the US and Russia maintain in their arsenals. In fact, the Bulletin moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock away from midnight in 2010 when the US and Russians were on the verge of signing New START, and made clear that was the reason the Clock was reset. In 2016, the Bulletin’s Clock statement similarly highlighted the “bright spots” of the Iran Deal the Paris Climate Agreement. In 1991, the Clock’s minute hand moved back to 17 minutes from midnight, and the accompanying statement cited the signing of the START arms control agreement as a major reason, saying, “[t]he Cold War is over. The 40-year-long East-West nuclear arms race has ended. The world has clearly entered a new post-Cold War era.”

And just weeks ahead of this year’s Clock announcement, the Bulletin published a special issue that was titled “The good news on reducing global risk.” Articles in the issue touted a host of positive news about technological advances, from innovative ways to detect nuclear misbehavior to the many positive aspects of the Crispr revolution in gene editing to advances in batteries and electric vehicles that represent clear progress in the fight against climate change. And yes, professor, one of the stories in that special issue was specifically titled “Our WMD treaties are working.”

Perhaps Pinker would be less reflexively anti-Clock if he spent a bit more time familiarizing himself with Clock changes over time, and the painstaking and serious process, culminating each November, that decides the time. Since its founding, the Bulletin has identified positive and negative developments in the evolution of existential threats to humanity and the policies citizens and leaders might create to manage them. Despite its name, the Clock hasn’t simply focused on doom and gloom. There has been a healthy dose of doom, to be sure, but the Bulletin’s primary focus has always been on the preservation of humanity, and on the “new type of thinking” that Albert Einstein thought necessary if humanity is to survive in the Atomic Age.

Perhaps it is Pinker who is too one-dimensional in his thinking, focusing too narrowly on the rosy and optimistic benefits of scientific advancement, at the expense of its undeniable risks. “Technology,” he writes “is not the reason that our species must someday face the Grim Reaper. Indeed, technology is our best hope for cheating death, at least for a while.” Perhaps he is right in some regards, but there is no escaping the fact that technology also has an ugly underbelly, as the climate change-driven destruction of oceans, landscapes, and species currently attests.

Since its founding by scientists who were committed to bringing nuclear energy to the planet and who anticipated the revolutionary effects of nuclear medicine, the Bulletin and its Doomsday Clock have operated in the space between the soaring benefits and devastating risks of new and disruptive technologies. Pinker criticizes the Bulletin’s founders as trying “to preserve civilization by scaring men into rationality.” But our founders recognized that while fear could debilitate, “those in America and elsewhere – who are able to face the facts, and to act rationally to meet the challenge … are the men on whom free society must depend to organize its defenses without sacrificing its basic principles of individual freedom and responsibility.” In other words, those armed with an understanding of scientific advance are better positioned to support a world of individual freedom and responsibility. Without such understanding, the world is in fact at grave risk and unlikely to sustain the kind of open society and healthy environment we at the Bulletin aspire to encourage.

On the day that I first read a draft of our Pinker interview, I came across a video published in Grist, an environmental news website that calls itself “a beacon in the smog.” The video was produced by a young woman grappling with the causes and consequences of nuclear winter. She starts her piece by stating the time on the Doomsday Clock, to orient the broader audience to why she is so concerned. She finishes with concrete steps that everyone can take to push back the hands of the Doomsday Clock. Contrary to Pinker’s belief that when faced with serious problems, new generations will be “paralyzed” or “endangered,” the video—and so many others produced around the world—show that if given the scientific facts, and the political tools, the public can get engaged, can mobilize, and can offer productive responses to global threats. The Clock is and has always been a way to stimulate these kind of responses.

Perhaps what really frustrates Pinker is that he and fellow psychologists are not better included in the discussion that results in the annual setting of the Doomsday Clock. In his Bulletin interview, in fact, Pinker calls for “more collaboration with psychologists, people in my field,” and on this point, it is easy to agree wholeheartedly. Scientists, security experts, journalists, artists, civic leaders, psychologists—all are needed to get involved, to help us get this right. If at the end of the day, this is really the nub of his critique, then his concerns are quite easy to address. Come join us, Steven Pinker. We welcome you to the discussion. There is a seat at our table.

See you in November?

Editor’s note: The Steven Pinker interview referenced in this piece can be found here.

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