Monday, January 27, 2020

Why Lawrence Krausse Is Wrong On The "Doomsday Clock" - Why It Needs To Keep Ticking

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, eyeglasses and closeup

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website recently warned ('Why The World Is Closer Than Ever To Doomsday'')

"On Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which takes stock of the threats posed by nuclear war and climate change each year, moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight. We are now measuring how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds -- not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been since the clock was created in 1947.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded by those who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and now includes 13 Nobel Laureates on the board, issued a statement on Thursday that read, "Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society's ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode." 
But physicist Lawrence Krausse isn't buying it (WSJ, 'Time To Stop The Doomsday Clock', Jan. 23), p. A15, writing:
"The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is resetting its “Doomsday Clock,” which has stood still since 2018 at two minutes to midnight. I was a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors for a dozen years and chaired it from 2009 through 2018, and I think it’s time to retire the clock."

He then quotes founding editor Eugene Rabinowitch, who explains the clock's purpose:

“The Bulletin’s Clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle. It is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

Let's also note that no serious scientist treats it as an exact quantitative measure of danger. It is more  an analog -based estimate of probability embodied in an image anyone can grasp.  (Much like the descending ball in NYC on New Year's Eve is purported to be a chronological countdown to the New Year.)   The Doomsday Clock then embodies a potential countdown for humanity's end (as opposed to the end of an expired year) - factoring in the differing probabilities for the cumulative threats facing us.  

A more precise interpretation might be as an analog estimate of the multiple correlation of mounting dangers to the time we have left to address them,  before they lead to our extinction.   One can even conceive of the clock as a kind of pictorial - image based multiple regression scenario of the cumulative threats at a given time, t. In this latter one is aware of not one but multiple (regressor) variables in relation to the predicted danger of "doom",  D.  These regressors  constitute  a set of threat variables, ranging from a Torino 9 asteroid  strike ('x1'), to all - out nuclear war ('x2'), to runaway greenhouse effect, 'x3', to uncontained bird flu pandemic 'x4', etc.

Krauss continues:
"Early on, it often did. It moved forward in 1953, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed the hydrogen bomb, or in 1974, when missiles with multiple warheads became a reality. But gradually it broadened focus beyond the physical dangers of nuclear weapons and began taking account of political questions such as arms-control treaties and tensions between India and Pakistan, and, since 2007, of other military threats such as bioterrorism, as well as the global existential dangers of climate change. The 2019 announcement also cited “fake news” and Donald Trump."

Here, Krausse seems to want to sideline these political threats but they are very real.  For example, the nuclear threat  involving India and Pakistan could easily expand to a larger nuclear war.  Bioterrorism also is not to be underplayed, given we would not like to see the release of a weaponized smallpox or Ebola virus - or the bubonic plague. 

 As for Trump, common sense would alert the sentient citizen to the intolerable risk of a narcissist egomaniac who has control of nearly 6000 nuclear warheads- but no control of himself, or self-awareness in respect of his limitations.  In a real manner of speaking, so long as Trump is around we are all living with a ticking human time bomb - and no one knows when it will go off, or what will set it off.

Krausse again:
"This multiplication of threats has heightened the sense of alarm. The Doomsday Clock time is now much closer to midnight than it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis (seven minutes), when the world really was on the precipice of a nuclear holocaust. At the same time, a clock that has moved back and forth while lingering frighteningly close to midnight for more than 70 years strikes many as crying wolf. At two minutes to midnight, the clock can’t move much further forward, even if threats increase."

Here I beg to differ with Lawrence that the Cuban Missile Crisis (which I lived through while living in Miami, FL in October, 1962) is equal to the nuclear threat that exists now.  The reason?  At the time the U.S. and USSR combined had a total of roughly 200 nuclear warheads- and long range ICBMs (e.g. Atlas missiles) to deliver them.  Cuba had an estimated 93 intermediate range missiles (IRBMs compliments of the Russians) which it was prepared to use IF the U.S. had tried to invade or attack. (Fortunately we had JFK at the helm and not the likes of the bellicose buffoon Trump.)  Had war been unleashed it would have been bad for sure - with up to 100 million dead or dying -but not anything near the 5 billion that would perish today  because of 10,000 nuclear warheads (in an all out nuclear war) and a likely "nuclear winter" to follow.

The back and forth movement of the clock to which Krausse refers is not "crying wolf" but simply acknowledging that the probability of  incipient threats can vary over a long time- and even year to year.   The proximity to midnight merely indicates  the variability of this threat potency and also  that we haven't done a damned thing to address the most catastrophic, namely proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the approaching runaway greenhouse effect.  Worse,  we now face the specter of hypersonic ICBMs which leave virtually no early warning time before nuclear strikes- radically amplifying nuclear threats.

Add in the latter, say the Russians - then the U.S. - developing thousands of them, and the clock can indeed move much closer to midnight - say 30 seconds or even closer. What else would you expect from thousands of such hypersonic weapons each with a megaton or larger warhead that could strike any U.S. city within minutes?  
"More to the point, the threats the clock now purports to measure are different in kind. Nuclear weapons could end human civilization in a day. The generation of greenhouse gases associated with human industrial activity won’t. It is increasingly likely to have devastating impacts, but these will emerge over the long term and be spread unevenly across the globe."
Krausse is right in a way, but not totally.  It is true nuclear weapons in general would have a more catastrophic (and immediate)  effect than climate change - but not necessarily.  It is conceivable an all out nuclear war - say carried out in hours - could take many lives but still leave 2-3 billion alive, for a time. However, if nuclear winter sets in those lives too would be snuffed out in 10-20 years.  Analogously, if climate change isn't controlled it may lead to the runaway greenhouse effect by the end of the century (say with a  6C increase in global mean surface temperatures) that could end the existence of most humanity within 10-20 years. 
"Psychologist Steven Pinker argues—and the bulletin admits—that the clock is anything but a scientific instrument. In Mr. Pinker’s view, the annual announcement is a publicity stunt that demeans the scientific community and makes the world seem more dangerous than it actually is."

I have already dispelled Pinker's Pollyannish views in a previous blog post, e.g.
And shown the world is indeed as dangerous and replete with threats as it appears to the sentient and aware citizen. 

Back to Krausse:
"The clock is a publicity stunt—and a successful one. That was the point. The public hardly ever debates the ever-present danger of a world with 10,000 nuclear weapons. People would rather not think about it."
Yet there’s a deeper problem. Not only is the Doomsday Clock unscientific; the factors of its setting are now dominated more by policy questions than scientific ones. The former may be important, but claiming the authority of “atomic scientists” is appropriate only for the latter."

I totally disagree with Larry's take the clock is a "publicity stunt",  because there is no stunt aspect to it, as I described in my opening paragraphs.  If anyone wishes to behold a publicity stunt look no further than Trump's lawyers' performance at his Senate impeachment trial. There you will see a blizzard of lies, disinformation, distractions and propaganda the likes of which would do Goebbels proud. A publicity stunt for the ages and in the service of treason.

Krausse would do better to move away from his 'cartoon' view and see the clock instead  as a compact pictograph synthesizing  a multiple regression outcome for incipient threats at any one time. These threats are real - albeit variable in potency and imminence- hence the (visual) device which incorporates them is no "stunt". Further, it is based on rational interpretation and decision-making (including on policies that affect scientific quality, outcomes)  so shares with science - atomic,  astrophysics or other - the critical attribute of reason.

 Further, policy decisions can and do impact scientific ones - often adversely.  For example, Krausse cannot deny that the Trump cabal's policies, e.g.  on climate change,  have actually worsened the climate situation globally.   The dilution of many regulations including allowing more CO2 and methane to be discharged into the atmosphere, not to mention easing of water pollution standards for rivers, streams,  are not in anyway helpful to averting the worst climate scenarios - including the runaway greenhouse effect.

Add in the Trumpists' savage attack on the ACA ("Obamacare") which could conceivably leave up to 30 million without any health care and you have the makings of a human catastrophe set to become vastly larger in the event of the next flu pandemic.  See e.g.
Krausse again:

"But today the clock’s setting is determined more by concerns about how superpowers can engage in arms-control talks, about potentially reckless statements by world leaders, or about what policies would best reduce carbon emissions. These are important questions, but not ones on which scientists can claim special authority."

OK, admittedly they are not questions on which scientists can claim an exclusive  ("special") authority - but they are certainly ones on which they can claim a pre-eminent authority. Hence, would in general carry much more insight than a politician's - say in terms of how carbon emissions beyond a certain threshold would lead to the runaway greenhouse effect. Or how the future failure of arms control talks - say to do with hypersonic ICBMs- may pave the way for much greater likelihood of a nuclear holocaust

"The group announcing the clock reset includes a former president of Ireland, a former United Nations secretary-general and members of the Elders, an organization founded by Nelson Mandela that describes itself as “independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.” These like-minded people—along with various intelligence and climate policy experts, and one atomic scientist—can make informed recommendations, and I largely agree with them. But this is public policy, not science."

Again, Krausse confuses the clock with an actual scientific  paper, argument or measuring device -  which it is not. It is a quasi scientific, public policy tool that adopts an easy to grasp visual representation  ("clock") to estimate the variable probability of humanity's proximity (in time) to ultimate perdition.  
"So why not retire the clock? An icon with some fixed value, say, five minutes to midnight, might serve as a permanent reminder of a dangerous world. Nuclear weapons aren’t disappearing any time soon, and climate change is already occurring on a massive scale. Other threats will emerge, even as technology creates opportunities for revolutionary improvements in the human condition."
The clock cannot be retired precisely because leaving it at a fixed position (say 5 minutes to midnight) would erroneously convey the message of a fixed probability for  future collective threats. Thus, a 5 minutes to midnight full stop would lull most citizens of the planet into thinking all further movement toward midnight had ceased. So all is well and let's party! 

This then would also ensure the world more likely falls into a complacent attitude and makes no attempt to curb nuclear proliferation or significantly reduce carbon emissions hurling us toward the runaway greenhouse.  It is exactly the wrong thing to do and I am amazed a guy that actually was part of the process at one time would advocate this.

No, nuclear weapons aren't "disappearing" anytime soon, but that doesn't mean inroads can't be made, say in halting or removing the threat of hypsersonic delivery systems.  And while climate change is indeed already occurring on a massive scale there is still time to avoid the calamity of the runaway greenhouse - if we act now to do so.  But fixing the clock at one position is an invitation to do nothing because well, 'Hey look! It ain't moving any closer to the witching hour so why worry?'

"The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists can continue to play a useful role by focusing on providing accurate information on technology and science to be used as a basis for public policy. Or it could rename itself The Bulletin, acknowledge that it is an advocacy organization, and make the best case for its well-intentioned proposals."

This is a non-starter. "The Bulletin"?   Seriously? People who thrive on 'clickbait'  and spend most days buried in their smart phone screens for the latest buzz would simply yawn and move on.  The power of the doomsday clock is precisely because the IMAGE of motion toward midnight catches attention.  And attention in these hurly- burly,  distracted times is hard to capture.  Hence, Krauss'e prescriptions here are basically equivalent to remaining silent (or out of sight) in spite of the  sundry variable threats and their changing probabilities.

Sorry, no can do, Lawrence.

No comments: