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It’s time to ditch the Doomsday Clock

Tick tock. Credit: Getty

January 25, 2024 - 4:05pm

How close are we to Armageddon? The answer is: closer than ever, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, an organisation devoted to raising awareness of the dangers of existential risks. The organisation has published a “Doomsday Clock” every year since 1947, and this week it was reported that the clock hand has been kept at 90 seconds to “midnight”, or the total collapse of human society. The prognosis, in other words, looks pretty bleak. 

The lucky thing is that the organisation’s pronouncements, which are often touted as objective assessments of likely extinction, are anything but. Indeed, the Doomsday Clock has shown itself to be woefully inadequate at separating itself from the politics and ideology that surrounds it. As the clock creeps closer to midnight, slicing the minutes that separate the world from annihilation into finer and finer fragments, the ridiculous character of the whole venture is becoming increasingly self-evident.

The Doomsday Clock was first created to raise awareness of the risk of nuclear war. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was then — and remains— overwhelmingly concerned with the threat of nuclear weapons, and this is what has driven the biggest shifts in the Clock’s position. 

Unfortunately, the Clock is predisposed to inflating nearly all threats facing humanity. When India confirmed in 1998 that it had developed nuclear weapons, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists suggested that the world was over a third more dangerous. In retrospect, that call looks off. India has been just as responsible as any other major nuclear power with its weapons, and its nuclear arsenal has remained limited and proportional to the threats it faces. 

At other points, the Doomsday Clock has failed to separate itself from the American political culture in which it is immersed. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it dropped by a full two minutes — citing the risk of extremists getting hold of nuclear weapons. Again, this possibility did not come to pass.

Potentially most importantly, the Doomsday Clock has, more than anything, failed to recognise changes in how nuclear weapons are perceived and treated by national governments. Nuclear weapons were seen as a significant threat in the late 1940s because they had recently been used in Japan. It was entirely feasible that they would be used again soon. 

Things have changed, however, and the use of nuclear weapons is not nearly as likely as in the past: it is practically inconceivable now that any power would actually use them in conventional conflict. Though in recent years questions have been raised about Russian willingness to use nuclear weapons on Ukraine, Moscow still hasn’t carried through on the threat, despite mounting costs and losses in its war. 

The language of nuclear apocalypse conflates reality with fear. As a result, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists fails to take account of the subtleties and perspectives required to understand how close we really are to Armageddon. We should call time on the Doomsday Clock.


William Finlator is a student at the University of St Andrews.

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Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
5 months ago

Perhaps we should rename it as the Inane Ramblings of Paranoid Nobodies?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago

We could have our own version: the Bulletin of the Unherd.
If we take midnight as Armageddon and noon as perfect peace, i’d say we’re somewhere around 8.30pm. This “X seconds to midnight” is what makes it a nonsense.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 months ago

Get back to me when the Doomsday Clock reads 12:01.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
5 months ago

Even if it was an objective assessment of likely extinction I would still ignore it because I can’t get passed the hopelessness of the clock metaphor.

A clock which measures time proceeds continually in equal increments. Whereas even by their own calculations, the risk of extinction through nuclear war increases sporadically and inconsistently and could, at least in theory, recede.

I could accept a thermometer metaphor or one of those clapometers they used in old TV talent shows. But a timepiece makes no sense.

I’m reasonably sanguine about the risks of nuclear war but I won’t stand for poorly chosen metaphors.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago

How long until the Net Zero extremists adopt this clock – followed soon after by the WHO adopting it and insisting one is placed on all public buildings ?

John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago

In don’t think anyone takes it seriously though, do they? I think it’s a useful lightning rod for establishment histrionics: the clock is this close to armageddon because most people simply refuse to take the constant tide of scaremongering government bullshit seriously, not because the world is in any way as dangerous as suggested.

Rainer Zuhlke
Rainer Zuhlke
5 months ago

The “Doomsday Clock” has always represented pseudo-scientific populism. Not to be taken seriously.