Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight, but can we really predict the end of the world?

January 23, 2015 by Anders Sandberg, The Conversation
Clockwatchers are getting impatient. Credit: EPA

The second hand of the Doomsday Clock is now only three minutes to midnight. This is the closest to apocalypse we have come since 1984 – the coldest of Cold War years, just a year after Able Archer, the Petrov incident and Reagan's "evil empire" speech.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which controls the clock, said the time was changed on January 22 because of the threat posed by both climate change and nuclear weapons. Increased international tensions, a faltering of the disarmament process, upgrades to and increasing proliferation, as well as a lack of progress on curbing emissions make the probability of global catastrophe "very high".

A sceptical journalist pointed out that the bulletin has been moving the clock periodically for 68 years, yet the world hasn't ended so far, so "why believe it this time?"

The panel members' response was to point out that they are "not in the business of forecasting" so much as warning the world of its plight. In this case the clock can be viewed as a form of probabilistic rhetoric.

Rolling the dice

How many times do you need to roll a dice and not get a six until you start suspecting it is loaded? How many times do you need to roll a loaded dice before you have a sense of how loaded it is? Just because something does not happen, doesn't mean it's not informative.

If we assume there is an unknown probability of nuclear war per year, and every year fate rolls the dice, we can calculate the chance of a given number of years with no nuclear war. We can turn this around to update our estimate of how likely nuclear war is. Back in 1945 we might have been open for almost any risk, but in 2015 the chance of a nuclear war is at least not high.

(For those interested, this Bayesian approach to probability puts the chance of nuclear war at 1.4% per year, with a 95% confidence interval between 0.036%-5.1%.)

The new clock is red. In case it wasn’t clear enough already. Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

However, we know far more about the world than that. We can investigate the number of close calls that have happened – such as the Cuban Missile crisis and the Norwegian rocket incident – in an attempt to get better estimates. We can analyse the weaknesses of command and control systems, or the risk of accidental faults triggering conflict. But even the best analysis of this kind will be limited. The risks are clearly changing over time, and there may be fundamental things we do not know about the world.

Measuring the end of the world

How would we actually measure how close we are to the end of the world?

One might imagine having actual data: maybe a wormhole leading to a future date and allowing direct observation of when humanity expires. But if the universe is consistent – which is to say paradoxes cannot occur – knowing this information will not allow us to change the date. The value of any information about the risks we face lies in how they allow us to reduce the risk.

We almost have a literal clock for certain risks. We roughly know the time when the sun will start expanding and make Earth inhospitable. We could set up a timer counting down to impact if we detected an asteroid or comet on its way towards Earth. However, the evolution of the sun is slow and we have good reason to believe the risk of an asteroid impact in the near future is very low: the utility of such clocks is limited.

In the case of earthquakes, supervolcanos or pandemics, the causes start out on a microscopic scale – a stressed mineral grain breaking in a faultline, a mutation in a cell somewhere – and expand exponentially to produce a large event. Here we are dealing with something that is, for all practical purposes, random. These threats must be treated as probabilities: any "clock" would give us a probability estimate.

But the actual large threats likely to destroy us are dominated by human factors. This implies far tougher kinds of uncertainty. They change over time, they are affected by self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies (like the Doomsday Clock itself), and the very system of risk changes as technology and society changes.

Here the normal forms of probability estimate are not just inadequate, they are actively misleading. The 1.4% probability per year of sounds very exact, yet the estimate is based on a list of potentially suspect assumptions. The chance of at least one of them being wrong is high. It may be better to explicitly acknowledge the uncertainty, compare what we know to an acceptable risk of Armageddon, and state the nuclear risk as being "unacceptably high".

Model uncertainty is always present, but becomes particularly important when dealing with complex systems where we do not know everything going on. Environmental researchers are looking for ecological or climatological tipping points: if we knew the exact boundary we could make an index (a "Doomsday Yardstick"?) telling us how close we are. But the actual approach is more of a considered expert judgement, and more like the hints in the warmer-colder game rather than an actual distance. Again, the benefit lies in trying to move in the right direction rather than measuring something exactly.

Proper uses of doomsday predictions

The Doomsday Clock is not a measurement of time, probability or distance. It is a measure of the "strong feeling of urgency" the people who run it have when watching the world-system.

It can be compared to the World Economic Forum global risk report that was recently released. This was not a report of the actual risk, but how concerned people are about the risks -– the experts might vastly overestimate or underestimate the chance of something happening, and there could be far worse threats out there. Yet it is helpful to compile what concerns people and use it as a start for discussing what we need and are willing to do.

Doomsday predictions are rarely informative, but good ones can be directive: they urge us to fix the world.

Explore further: Scientists cautiously optimistic as Doomsday clock reset

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12 comments

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reset
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2015
"It's the end of the world as we know it....I feel fine" REM
mooster75
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 23, 2015
Sorry about the downvote, but I HATE that song!
Maggnus
5 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2015
Interesting article. I have never liked the doomsday clock, as it seems arbitrary and beset by broad "what if" assumptions, but this article puts it into a better light.
charles_pariseau
1.8 / 5 (6) Jan 23, 2015

During the 1970s the media promoted global cooling alarmism with dire threats of a new ice age. Extreme weather events were hyped as signs of the coming apocalypse and man-made pollution was blamed as the cause.
Environmental extremists called for everything from outlawing the internal combustion engine to communist style population controls. This media hype was found in newspapers, magazines, books and on television;
charles_pariseau
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 23, 2015
News articles*:
1970 – Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age – Scientists See Ice Age In the Future (The Washington Post, January 11, 1970)
1970 – Is Mankind Manufacturing a New Ice Age for Itself? (L.A. Times, January 15, 1970)
1970 – New Ice Age May Descend On Man (Sumter Daily Item, January 26, 1970)
1970 – Pollution Prospect A Chilling One (Owosso Argus-Press, January 26, 1970)
1970 – Pollution's 2-way 'Freeze' On Society (Middlesboro Daily News, January 28, 1970)
1970 – Cold Facts About Pollution (The Southeast Missourian, January 29, 1970)
1970 – Pollution Could Cause Ice Age, Agency Reports (St. Petersburg Times, March 4, 1970)
charles_pariseau
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 23, 2015
Does the bullet point list above for global cooling look familiar? It reads almost like some of the manifestos we get from warmists today.
Uncle Ira
4 / 5 (8) Jan 23, 2015
Does the bullet point list above for global cooling look familiar? It reads almost like some of the manifestos we get from warmists today.


Not really Cher. What it looks like is a list of newspapers repeating the same story about maybe one science paper or maybe not a science paper or maybe the same speech some scientist-Skippy made or maybe not some scientist-Skippy. It looks like a bunch of newspapers running the same story I mean. The dates all close to the same time is the giving away thing I notice.

Maybe I will change my mind if you would postum up a link to hundreds of scientifical studying that all say what your bullets are saying, eh?
Maggnus
4.3 / 5 (11) Jan 23, 2015
News articles*:1970 – Colder Winters Held Dawn of New Ice Age – Scientists See Ice Age In the Future (The Washington Post, January 11, 1970)
1970 – Is Mankind Manufacturing a New Ice Age for Itself? (L.A. Times, January 15, 1970)
1970 – New Ice Age May Descend On Man (Sumter Daily Item, January 26, 1970)
1970 – Pollution Prospect A Chilling One (Owosso Argus-Press, January 26, 1970)
1970 – Pollution's 2-way 'Freeze' On Society (Middlesboro Daily News, January 28, 1970)
1970 – Cold Facts About Pollution (The Southeast Missourian, January 29, 1970)
1970 – Pollution Could Cause Ice Age, Agency Reports (St. Petersburg Times, March 4,
Nice try, those are all the same story in different newspapers. It was also withdrawn within a few years, given most scientists did not agree that cooling was an issue. Furthermore, at that time, more scientists were concerned about global warming then they were about global cooling. Consensus came later.

Facts are pesky things.
reset
1.5 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2015
Does the bullet point list above for global cooling look familiar? It reads almost like some of the manifestos we get from warmists today.


Economic meltdown preceeds war.

http://investment...ression/

The numbers this guy puts up are all verified and his observations and interpretations are IMO accurate. 3 symbolic minutes away...I still feel fine.
PhotonX
4 / 5 (8) Jan 23, 2015
During the 1970s the media promoted global cooling alarmism with dire threats of a new ice age. Extreme weather events were hyped as signs of the coming apocalypse and man-made pollution was blamed as the cause.
Environmental extremists called for everything from outlawing the internal combustion engine to communist style population controls. This media hype was found in newspapers, magazines, books and on television;
Wow. Muffed the ball on your very first play. How embarrassing.
In 1970, nearly half a century ago (OMG-I'm getting *old*) the jury was still out regarding plate tectonics. Most geologists then were in agreement, but not all, and we've learned a great deal more about it since. Are you planning to cite a bunch of non-science newspaper stories based on a single report denying continental drift, or do you accept the consensus of the vast majority of Earth Science specialists on the subject? Or would you consider that to be disingenuous?
Moebius
not rated yet Jan 25, 2015
I can predict it. We have nuclear weapons. Idiots are in control of them. If we don't get rid of them we will use them. If we use them them it's the end of the world.

And that's just nukes. The population problem is getting worse, ocean pollution is getting worse, climate change is happening, species depradation, over fishing, et cetera. All those things that are going to kill us are a double threat as long as we have nukes because those problems increase the likelihood of using nukes.

Yeah, we'll be fine, no doomsday happening here. It's like Leslie Neilson in front of the burning fireworks factory "...nothing to see here."
kochevnik
not rated yet Jan 26, 2015
@Maggnus Furthermore, at that time, more scientists were concerned about global warming then they were about global cooling. Consensus came later.
Global warming was not an imminent issue prior to studies blaming CO2 as a greenhouse gas capable of exclusively changing climate. These studies came about around the same time David Rothschild popularized the idea. Give the Rothschild's utter sociopathic lack of concern surrounding anything other than complete and total world power, as well as immediate and coordinated suggestion of a world carbon tax and tax on breathing, his altruism is suspect

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