Some disagree that it is 100 seconds to midnight. These undergrads held a debate

By Nitish Vaidyanathan | June 2, 2022

The Doomsday Clock is set every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains. Photo by Thomas Gaulkin/Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Every year, a few hundred idealistic, nerdy college students compete in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. Teams representing universities across the United States are given 18 real-world issues, decide what they think about them from an ethical perspective, and then explain themselves. Issues have spanned from privacy and oppression in the Chinese Social Credit System to the moral status of rivers and aliens, the virtues of honesty in classrooms, and the ethics of fictional races like the Orcs from Lord of the Rings. It’s a friendly version of debate, rewarding the collegial and thoughtful more than the brash and eloquent.

I participated in the Ethics Bowl all four years of college, captaining Stanford’s undergraduate team for three of them. This past year, as I spent my weekdays working as professor Scott Sagan’s research assistant, researching nuclear weapons policy, I dedicated my evenings and weekends to coaching the team. On one such evening, team members asked me to consult on an argument they were putting together. They were trying to figure out whether the members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board were acting ethically when setting the hands on the Doomsday Clock. Were they unnecessarily fear-mongering, or just trying to communicate risks about existential threats? Were they helping reduce risk by encouraging changes in policy? Or did their pleas fall on deaf ears—or worse—encourage counterarguments and disinformation? In response, my mouth landed somewhere between a smirk and a sheepish grin: “Well,” I said, “my boss is on the board.”

So began a months-long, passionate, complicated discussion on the ethical value of the Doomsday Clock. The Stanford Ethics Bowl team—formed by five undergraduates and their current captain, Sarah Yribarren, a sophomore studying chemical engineering—spent many hours deep-diving into the Bulletin’s archives. And as they pored over these articles, they fielded questions to me, someone who was taught to discuss nuclear risk by Herb Lin and Scott Sagan, two members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. The argument that she and the team crafted raises important questions worth exposing to the Bulletin’s readers as it serves both as a pressure test of and an earnest reaction to the work of the board. While the reactions of six undergraduates certainly are not representative of any particular population, they point to some important issues the board should look at when communicating the Doomsday Clock in the years to come.

Talking with Sarah. Sarah was the primary architect of this exercise, and both her philosophical rigor and scientific background are apparent in her analysis of the board’s work. We met over dinner recently so she could summarize the team’s opinions on the Doomsday Clock. Sarah started by explaining the broad strokes of scientific communication. An older school of thought attributed skepticism towards science among the public as a simple result of the public’s lack of knowledge about how science works. If you fill in this “deficit” by giving them information, the logic goes, people will understand the world better and will become more open to scientists’ advances.

The deficit model however is incomplete. Providing subjects with scientific information may help fill their knowledge gap. But the convincing power of that information is blunted by a variety of factors, such as cognitive, emotional, or social biases as well as the interests and values of the recipient. The Bulletin’s focus on art helps overcome some of these traditional failures of the deficit model. The Doomsday Clock is an artifact of communication aimed at the general public. It uses the metaphorical conceit of a clock ticking down to midnight to help provide that emotional foothold for non-specialists seeking to understand man-made existential threats.

Sarah then explained what she saw as a better way to think about scientific communication: the “two-way engagement model.” In this framing, scientists are encouraged to engage in a dialogue with participants, with an eye to the psychological factors at play in the public understanding and perception of the issues being discussed. This model also implies listening to the public and contextualizing the scientific issues in terms of their concerns. In turn, it implies taking non-expert opinion seriously. I would contend that this exercise in contextualization benefits the scientists as well. A physicist or political scientist studying nuclear weapons who is not keenly aware of the actual effect these weapons have on human lives—whether by their use in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or in the conflicts that nuclear weapons enable like in Ukraine—is missing the moral weight of the object of their study.

Sarah and the team thought this model portrayed scientific communication more holistically and better understood the important role the Bulletin plays. Rather than publishing work aimed at other scientists, the Bulletin’s articles and its Doomsday Clock statement take the arcane world of nuclear risk and aim to contextualize them for lay people.

Inspired by the book An Ethics of Science Communication, Sarah advanced four principles that scientists ought to adhere to when communicating with the public: generosity, which is the recognition of non-scientific forms of knowledge such as experience and art; accuracy, or at least the ability to justify any deviations in accuracy if using fiction or narrative to communicate the point; transparency, which applies both to the scientific method and the communication of its results; and last, communicating with an eye to the utility of the knowledge, so recipients are empowered to act on it. These principles emphasize the value of keeping the public’s needs in view while retaining the importance of communicating scientific knowledge. With these as our criteria, Sarah and I dug into the ins and outs of the board’s work.

What in the world is weather whiplash?

Generosity. Sarah and I both agreed the Bulletin was doing pretty well on generosity. First, the use of a metaphorical device like the Doomsday Clock to illustrate nuclear risk is far better than trying to explain scientific facts at length. Many of the Bulletin’s articles indeed follow poet Tom Sleigh’s advice in his article “To Be Incarnational,” straying away from massive statistics that numb and instead focusing on evocative details in individual cases. A recent collection of stories about Chernobyl helped provide a sense of the stakes of one of the unexpected battlefields in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An article on the debate over war crimes in Ukraine helped capture a slice of how horrifying life has been for so many civilians. And articles like Jessica McKenzie’s on the positive effects of bees on ecosystems allow for a bright foray into climate science, even to non-specialists on ecology like me.

Accuracy. Sarah and her team were considerably more concerned, however, about how the board dealt with accuracy. Here, she echoed Steven Pinker’s critique of the Doomsday Clock: The clock is misleading as a causal mechanism for there is not necessarily a definite timeline after which a nuclear explosion may happen. And more broadly, what is the Clock’s relationship with the actual level of existential risk?

The team and I argued about the Clock’s accuracy for hours. I was particularly motivated to defend the Bulletin on this point probably given that my boss—a social scientist known to be rigorous and accurate—participates in setting hands of the Clock. I conceded that the Clock was not a great metaphor for nuclear risk. But nuclear risk is extremely hard to represent anyway. It deals with events of very low probabilities but with massive consequences; low probability outcomes influenced by events that often go under-reported; and possibilities in which the logic of increasing or decreasing risk is often counter-intuitive to lay people. All of this happens in a geopolitical context in which states and other stakeholders manipulate risk—and perceptions of that risk—to their advantage.

I tried my hand at coming up with a better, more rigorous metaphor for the team. I ended up with a perverse, phantasmagorical image of an eight-to-10 player game of Russian roulette crossed with a Mexican standoff, in which players could increase or decrease the number of empty barrels and could pull the trigger as many times they wanted and might accidentally pull the trigger if they were spooked, and there were a bunch of spare gun parts on the floor that the players had to manage and a few people who looked like they might be trying to enter the standoff. After I tried to explain this for five minutes, my floundering cowed the team into taking my word for the fact that manmade existential risk was very hard an issue to model.

Yet Sarah and the team still had some hang-ups regarding the Clock’s accuracy. Though they acknowledged that it is an incredibly complex issue to grasp and communicate about, the Doomsday Clock still didn’t ‘feel’ accurate. To get to the bottom of it, we discussed the Clock’s transparency and utility.

Transparency. After re-reading the board’s 2022 Doomsday Clock statement several times, the team members agreed that the board did carefully consider the global situation and how it changed their perception of the risks at play. But it was unclear to them, for example, how many seconds the Trump administration had added to the clock or how many the Biden administration had removed—and why. Sarah told me that “it seems like they thought about this really carefully and then figured out what the general vibe was and put a number for the vibe.” But short of an explanation for how the Clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight, Sarah and the team were confused on how to interpret it. In her response to Pinker’s critique, Rachel Bronson, the CEO of the Bulletin, said the Harvard psychology professor should probably familiarize himself with the “painstaking and serious process, culminating each November, that decides the time.”

But the team I coached of six motivated, bright students couldn’t familiarize themselves with that process even after having spent several hours apiece scraping the Bulletin’s archives. Sarah’s point, then, was perhaps not so much about accuracy but about the transparency with which that accuracy was portrayed. She said that had the board explained the effect each indicator referred to in the statement had on the Doomsday Clock’s time, by providing a rubric or codebook on how events translated to seconds, she would be a lot more convinced as a recipient of that information.

How my Gen Z students learned to start worrying and dismantle the Bomb

Without a process transparent to outsiders, even the most accurate process may appear hollow. In a recent article, Christian Ruhl let the clock off a little easy, writing: “seconds don’t translate well to probabilities—and it’s not designed to, as a public communications and awareness-raising tool.” I would argue that with a more transparent process, seconds could—and perhaps should—translate to probabilities. When the science is uncertain, as it is around estimating the likelihood of nuclear war, scientists should acknowledge their uncertainty transparently. Paradoxically, this may help readers—like Sarah and the team members—to be more receptive to the Board’s decisions.

Utility. As we continued our discussion, Sarah argued that the recent inclusion of climate change further complicated the reading of the Clock, particularly because climate change seems to generate risk of a different nature and at different scales than nuclear issues do. I asked Sarah whether it would be that terrible after all if the Doomsday Clock did, to borrow Pinker’s verbiage, function as a “dread-generating device.” And from there, we got into the utility of the Bulletin’s endeavor. The knowledge it disseminates is certainly useful for knowledge’s sake, but the organization was founded in recognition of the graveness of the threats facing humanity and the realization that mobilization is necessary. What can the Bulletin’s audience do in response to such warning, and does this warning spur action?

Can readers of the Bulletin do anything about the existential threats they read about here? There is more wiggle room with climate change, I think, because people can play a personal role in reducing risk, either by changing their personal habits of consumption or by voting at the ballots or with their wallets. But the power the public has on reducing nuclear risk is much more speculative. The public can support candidates who favor arms control or they can lobby their representatives. The Nuclear Freeze campaign in the 1980s also saw some significant successes. But the linkages remain challenging.

It is important to note that there is definitely dis-utility in generating dread. In a tweet, Adam Mount, the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, noted that he has had to write to citizens who were having suicidal thoughts because they thought the world was on the precipice of a nuclear war. And climate anxiety is increasingly prevalent among younger generations. I agree people could be reasonably scared by recent developments, starting with the concern that Russia could go nuclear in Ukraine. But institutions like the Bulletin need to be careful about their role as potential scaremongering. Images of floods, for example, can increase climate change’s salience in subjects but can also “undermine” their feelings of “self-efficacy,” demotivating them from action.

The Bulletin is already doing a lot of excellent work to make sure their work has utility, perhaps epitomized by a recent article by Susan D’Agostino which gives advice on how to talk to children about the war in Ukraine. And the Bulletin’s growing fleet of programs to engage the public are immensely valuable. The Bulletin should study the impact the Doomsday Clock has on the public’s perception of nuclear risk more systematically to better understand the effect it may have on each individual. Improvements to communication about the Clock could further enhance its utility.

Setting the Clock. At the end of our conversation, I asked Sarah where she thought the Clock should be set for it to be accurate. We went over the history of all the times on the Doomsday Clock since it was first set in 1947. By the end, Sarah laughed and offered: “I don’t know … like, four minutes [to midnight]?”

Sarah ended our conversation by reiterating her praise and her critiques of the Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock. The Bulletin does do excellent work in recognizing the importance of generosity. But its Science and Security Board that sets the hands of the Clock could stand to make its work more transparent. Otherwise, the obscurity of the board’s deliberations will risk clouding the perceptions of the Clock’s accuracy. Last, though Sarah was grateful for the Bulletin’s focus on public utility, research on the effectiveness of the Doomsday Clock is necessary, and would help the board communicate more clearly and effectively in the future.

In times as uncertain as these, the dialogue between institutions like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board and interested readers is vital. While this article gives only a brief snapshot from the other side of the conversation, I hope it is interesting and useful to the board members to see how some undergraduate students might disagree with them.

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Sidney Zurch
Sidney Zurch
1 year ago

I fail to see how anyone can object to the relevance or accuracy of the Doomsday Clock when government officials, spokesmen and press are actually threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

1 year ago

Stamford appears to have a tremendous amount of military research support. I don’t believe this is the correct venue for what I would consider to be the most important subject ever discussed. And humor has zero place in this discussion. We are at a grave point. The clock should now be at seconds to midnight. We could at any minute very likely to be at DEFCON 3. This is the time for your most senior board members to be issuing a very start warning in a NYT ad. Having observed closely over the past 100 days and as a student… Read more »

Des Carroll
Des Carroll
1 year ago

Will not the advent of nuclear fusion remove most, if not all. of the issues facing nyclear fission? If not, why are scientists pursuing fusion?

Robert Schaefer
Robert Schaefer
1 year ago

This was a good read! I wanted to add my opinion that the Board should remove the climate change portion of their Doomsday Clock assessments. Because climate change and nuclear risk are measured in terms of existential risk in different ways, it makes the message murkier to many, and many have thus dismissed my inclusion of the Doomsday Clock in arguments because of it. Many members of the public are concerned about climate change, but concern over the current prospects of nuclear war is practically nonexistent, and the Board’s Doomsday Clock assessments are needed to communicate the current security dangers… Read more »

Tyrone Da Silva Castanho Lehmkuhl
Tyrone Da Silva Castanho Lehmkuhl
1 year ago

Colonization created nuclear weapons & has used them already. You’re all trapped in an individualist mindset — the Clock isn’t a causal mechanism, it’s so you can help advocate & organize shutting down the U.S. economy w/ workers & the poor, in which you make your demands for a pathway to disarmament clear & do not budge. Sitting in ivory towers to do research on “refining” the Clock itself is not helping. You need to get into the streets & support Black Lives Matter with your own lives on the line also. Nuclear weapons exist & they shouldn’t, that’s all… Read more »