Read fast! Scientists say we’ve only got two minutes…

Dr. Manhattan in the press conference scene.

Dr. Manhattan in the press conference scene.

On a previous post, our own Norm Ivey proposed a new qualification for public office — “that all government officials must have a scientific background.” Mr. Smith demurred, saying “A background in science does not provide any unique insight into the public good.”

I’m with Mr. Smith. The science boffins are all very well and good within their respective fields. They can help you win a war with a handy gadget from time to time, for instance.

But I don’t see them as having any sort of particular skill at, say, keeping us out of a war in the first place. When it comes to diplomacy and politics, give me someone schooled in the humanities, with a particularly strong grounding in history and highly developed word skills.

Mixing science and politics gets you weird things like the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I was thinking about how silly that device is while watching “Watchmen” while working out one morning this week. Remember the press conference scene in which Dr. Manhattan is asked for a reaction to the fact that the scientists have moved the Clock to “four minutes to midnight?” The super-duper hero is dismissive:

My father was a watchmaker.

He abandoned it when Einstein discovered that time is relative.

I would only agree that a symbolic clock…

…is as nourishing to the intellect…

…as a photograph of oxygen to a drowning man.

OK, so that analogy doesn’t really work. Maybe the person who wrote that bit of dialogue was a scientist rather than a wordsmith.

Anyway, what I would say is that the Clock attempts to quantify the unquantifiable. It has NO application to the real world. There’s no way to make use of such information.

800px-Doomsday_clock_(2_minutes).svgYou doubt me on this? OK, let’s test it scientifically. Right now the Clock says it’s two minutes to midnight (which is way WORSE than in the movie when everyone is expecting nuclear war, by the way). Now that you know that, wait two minutes. Has nuclear war occurred? No? Wait another two minutes. Test the proposition several times, if you like. You’ll find it’s not scientifically sound….

(And don’t tell me I’m being too literal. I’m just trying to play by the rules of science, which is pretty useless if it’s not literal, measurable, empirical. Which is why it gets itself in trouble when it ventures into metaphor.)

Oh, wait: I see the scientists have tried to improve their odds of being right by enlarging the symbolic meaning of “midnight” to denote global climate change as well as global thermonuclear war. So… since climate change is already happening, they guarantee that they are “right,” in a sense. Which, in a temporal sense, makes for an entirely different dynamic from the nuclear war metaphor.


To me, it just underlines the silliness of the whole business. At the very least, it lacks precision

11 thoughts on “Read fast! Scientists say we’ve only got two minutes…

  1. JesseS

    Yeah, I was annoyed by the expansion of midnight, but at this point it’s a bigger problem than atomic fallout. When the ocean starts to stink we are done for and if coral bleaching due to CO2 absorption and rising temp is any indication –we’ll we are probably already done for.

    As far as measure for public office, how about Robert Heinlein’s measure of a human being for the low bar for public office (well, except the dying part).

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      For some reason, that brings to mind the saying by Lao-tzu: “Govern a great country as you would cook a small fish.”

      But to answer more fully, when I was a little kid — a voracious reader — whenever I was at my grandparents’ house in Bennettsville I would grab my uncle’s Boy Scout Handbook and pore through it. My uncle is just six years older than I am, and I was eagerly looking forward to being a Scout myself when I reached his advanced age.

      I cannot overstate the importance I placed on that book. I thought it the guide to life, containing everything a man needed to know how to do in order to be a complete man. Survival in the wilderness, first aid, building a campfire, knots, cooking and purifying water, chopping down trees and lashing their branches together. Easy-to-follow illustrations of all the procedures. All those skills, and a code of honor. What else did a boy ever need to learn?

      I would love to have a copy of that handbook today. It would be an edition from sometime in the late ’50s or early ’60s, apparently the point at which humanity’s practical knowledge reached its apex. It looked like this… That fully decked-out Scout on the cover (right down to his military-style spats!) was obviously on his way to great adventure, and in his hand he held all he needed to succeed — the Handbook!

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And on the cover of that handbook was the picture of himself, in which he is holding a handbook, with himself on the cover holding a handbook, and so on…

        Deep stuff, man…

    1. Bob Amundson

      Great TED TALK. “Science does appeal to authority, but it’s not based on any individual, no matter how smart that individual may be. It’s based on the collective wisdom, the collective knowledge, the collective work, of all of the scientists who have worked on a particular problem. Scientists have a kind of culture of collective distrust, this “show me” culture …”

  2. Norm Ivey

    I don’t care if our officials are scientists or not, but I want them to have a background in how science works. I want them to be able to back up their claims and proposals with science. I want them to trust science even when it counters their political views.

    In the Google hearings yesterday representatives displayed their lack of understanding and trust of science when they accused Google of manipulating search results. Those who still deny climate change are willfully ignoring what science–not scientists, but science tells us is happening to the planet. When economists from the CBO produce a report that details what the science says about this or that political proposal, and it’s ignored or dismissed because it doesn’t support a particular point of view, what’s the point of employing those people at all?

    “A background in science does not provide any unique insight into the public good.” I agree. I want the diplomats–real diplomats–managing our relationships with the rest of the world. I want mean and women elected by the people defining the “public good.” But then I want economists, physicists, engineers, climatologists, biologists, chemists, ecologists, zoologists and all the rest of them telling us how to achieve that public good and what the consequences for a path of action could be. And I want our diplomats and representatives to listen.

    1. Mr. Smith

      I agree that facts and objectivity are great, but they don’t ensure good judgment. And without that the rest is for naught. Science won’t save us from people (sometimes including scientists) who are inclined to ignore it because it is in their interest to do so. What’s more, politics, and policy making, is generally more a battle over perceptions than over facts.

      Anyway, don’t kids learn science in school anymore? I thought that’s what the “S” in STEM is for.

      A more basic need than “science” is well-grounded critical thinking combined with moral reasoning. And even some scientists have trouble with that. A friend of mine is a professor of animal reproductive physiology. His background and experience in this field have sometimes led him to look with some degree of favor on eugenic “answers” to social problems. I suppose that from a purely scientific perspective eugenics may seem like it offers reasonable, or at least efficient, solutions. But when you factor in moral and other objections – including the simple fact that human life isn’t about efficiency – then you recognize how this purely scientific perspective can be misleading.

      A scientific mind may be good at showing us the nature of problems we face, but it’s not what gives us the sense that we should do something about them. It doesn’t even necessarily tell us what to do about them. A purely rational mind might, for example, say that the best response to global warming is to let a certain percentage of people drown. Or maybe build higher sea walls. After all, walls do seem to be in fashion. And just think of all the jobs that would create!

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It has a weird sort of cultish air about it. As you say, it’s dated, and I feel that’s it’s sort of an artifact of a time when the nation DID revere scientists.

      We were a more technocratic nation after WWII, and I don’t say that to be critical. As you know, I very much miss the times when the WWII generation was running the country. We were a confident and generous nation then, willing to work for good in the world (no disgusting “America First” childishness) and willing to face up to our flaws at home and fix them (Brown v. Board, Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.).

      But we had an almost simple faith in Science. Those science fellas came up with the bomb and won the war! They broke the sound barrier, cured polio, and they’re gonna get us to the moon — just you watch! Oh, and one more word: Are you listening? Plastics!

      The Doomsday Clock has a sort of air of religious ritual about it. Periodically, having performed who knows what mysterious augury in their labs, these High Priests of Science emerge briefly into the light to share with us their awful pronouncements — Beware! It is now two minutes to midnight! You have been told!

      Then we don’t see them again for years…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        They keep us in suspense. They’ve only changed the clock setting 23 times since 1947. I guess these priests think familiarity breeds contempt, and we’d get bored with them if they made an announcement every week. So they rarely emerge from their Sanctum Sanctorum

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’m sort of waiting for Bud to say something here in defense of numbers people, because I’ve got a slam-dunk response…

    Oh, well, I’ll go ahead and say it anyway.

    Fed up with the dumbness of “Designated Survivor,” I switched to rewatching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam while working out in the morning.

    This morning, it got on the subject of McNamara — a numbers guy if there ever was one. And something was said about him to the effect of, he was a guy who basically couldn’t take in information if it couldn’t be quantified. (Which is, to me, the central fault of numbers people. I basically can’t communicate with such people.)

    One person recalled saying to him, after one of his technocratic briefings (probably featuring body counts), Bob, you left out one thing… And McNamara, thinking totally in terms of numbers, asked what on Earth that could be? The guy said something like, the feelings and wishes of the Vietnamese people…

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