Retire the doomsday clock

More important, the Doomsday Clock and the issues that now drive it aren’t about danger but about political power. Scientists, especially since the end of World War II, have been trying to figure out how to translate being smart in a narrow area—chemistry, physics, earth sciences—into political power. This is the old feud between science and policy, in which scientists give advice then are appalled when people and their leaders, for perfectly good reasons unrelated to science, reject it.

Scientists, understandably, have a hard time accepting that not everything is amenable to a scientific answer. For example, scientists were right that we were playing with fire during the Cold War, but we didn’t have much choice about that conflict because of decisions made by people in another country who were adherents of a dangerous ideology. (Sound familiar?) Setting the clock at one nanosecond to midnight wouldn’t have changed the fact that the Soviet Union still existed. No amount of laboratory know-how could change the fact that the Cold War was a political problem, not a quadratic equation.

Worse yet, scientists can sound ridiculous when trying to play in the policy arena, as was often the case during the Cold War. Exhibit A: the support of many scientists for the “nuclear freeze,” a proposal that would have prolonged, rather than curtailed, the arms race.