EnvironmentScience

When It Comes To Effective Communications, Sometimes Timing Is Everything

You’ve got to hand it to the smart people at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, home to the iconic Doomsday Clock, which for six decades has been telling the world how close we’re coming to the brink of annihilation.

Kennette-Benedict

Kennette Benedict

What makes the group’s work so effective is that its message — and means of communicating it — haven’t changed over the years. They use a method that’s simple, powerful and impossible to ignore.

Whenever the Bulletin wants to tell the world how close we are to (or distant from) ultimate peril, it resets the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock — basing that judgment on what a team of scientists and analysts have concluded about how well we’re addressing everything from threats from nuclear arms to climate change. The closer to midnight the greater the peril. The further away, the more time we have to take action. In January, for instance, the clock’s minute hand was moved forward again — from five to three minutes, where it had been since 2012 — due to fear of an out-of-control arms race and lack of action on global warming.

Kennette Benedict, who served as executive director the Bulletin from 2005 until she retired in February 2015, recently offered a fascinating overview of the Doomsday Clock that’s worth reading. She covers everything from the clock’s birth in 1947 to who decides what time it is to the first time it was reset.

Among the many interesting tidbits she shares is that the clock’s minute hand was set the farthest from midnight in 1991 — all the way back to 17 minutes — to mark the easing of tensions resulting from the end of the Cold War. Another fun fact is that for the first iteration of the clock, the time was set to seven minutes to midnight because designer Martyl Langsdorf said “it looked good to my eye.”

Benedict touches on a lot in her discussion about the clock, but one of the very important insights she offers is how the Bulletin works overtime to ensure the clock isn’t seen as “just a scare tactic used to advance a political agenda.” As she puts it:

The Bulletin has moved the Clock hand away from midnight almost as often as it has moved it toward, and as often during Republican administrations in the United States as during Democratic ones.

Ensuring the survival of our societies and the human species is not a political agenda. Cooperating with other countries to achieve control of extremely dangerous technologies should not involve partisan politics. If scientists involved with the Bulletin are critical of current policies on nuclear weapons and climate change, it is because those policies increase the possibility of self-destruction.

If you have some time on your hands, take a look for yourself.

Posted on March 10, 2015

Bruce Trachtenberg
Bruce Trachtenberg is executive producer and editor for The Atlantic Philanthropies. He previously served as executive editor for frank and before that as executive director of the Communications Network.