As a child in Cold War Munich, Dr. Robert Rosner remembers the protests against the American nuclear-tipped missiles scattered throughout West Germany. Back then, the prospect of an East-West clash over Europe’s most prominent dividing line left him feeling “petrified.”
“I mean, that was visceral fear,” he recalled. “And I don’t think that sense is in the public mind today.”
This lack of nuclear awareness is only part of the reason that the University of Chicago physicist and his colleagues––including nuclear policy veteran Sharon Squassoni––decided that the Doomsday Clock would remain at 100 seconds to midnight, matching the previous year’s record for proximity to global catastrophe.
Not that all the trends were bad. “There were events [this past year] that were positive,” said Rosner in a recent interview with Press the Button. The two experts lauded the Biden administration’s decision to extend the New START Treaty and to rejoin the Paris Agreement as much needed steps towards tackling nuclear dangers and climate change respectively. They also cited a “renewed commitment” to science in dealing with national crises like the coronavirus pandemic as a case for optimism.
Still, it wasn’t enough to turn back time. “On balance, we concluded that the risks were still very, very high,” said Squassoni. The main culprit: a sharp uptick in the reach and influence of disinformation and conspiracy theories––sometimes with deadly consequences.
“Getting good information to people to make rational choices was very much threatened in the last year,” she explained, pointing to the rampant spread of misinformation on everything from basic public health measures to the integrity of national elections. To underscore the point, a December NPR/Ipsos poll found that nearly one in five Americans believe a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles are secretly running the country––the basis of the QAnon conspiracy tied to the January 6 attack on Congress.
“We’re walking through the world not realizing how dangerous it really is in part because we’ve insulated ourselves against the news,” said Rosner. “And while we have roadmaps for how to improve things on the nuclear side or the climate side, no one has come up with a sensible way for dealing with the misinformation pandemic.”
But it’s exactly this inability to agree on the same facts that makes measuring nuclear risks—let alone mitigating them—incredibly difficult.
A big part of the problem has to do with the unique nature of the nuclear politics. Nuclear policy isn’t just about political will, explained Squassoni. It’s about psychology, too. “Look at nuclear deterrence,” which she called “the big boulder in the path towards nuclear disarmament.”
“There are many people who believe that nuclear weapons [in one country] deter the use of nuclear weapons from another country,” she said. “But it’s a belief, right? It’s not anything that can be proven. And so, how can we create that feeling of security without these weapons?”
Rosner agreed, arguing that nuclear abolition “is not a technical question.” This insight, he said, was “the key thing to understand” about the policy arguments constantly coursing through the field.
Laying out the pandemic as a useful analogue, he argued that the challenges around the coronavirus were “in principle, not technical problems. There were scientific questions that required some work, but we knew they would be answered.” It was the failures that were political. Americans could not agree on the threat posed by coronavirus, let alone the collective action needed to stop it.
“It really has to do with this mysterious thing that physicists are always perplexed by,” said Rosner. “How do you convince people of something that seems perfectly obvious? The problem is that it’s not perfectly obvious, especially when people are willing to distort the truth.”
In the nuclear arena, Rosner argued that “vested interests” who have “no desire to spend less on these weapons” may be guilty of just this distortion. After all, a new arms race could be extremely profitable for the right kind of companies. And challenging their influence with reasoned, nuanced argument in a decentralized, hyperbolic media ecosystem that rewards extreme views is a tall order indeed.
But still, the two experts believed that the world could back away from midnight, especially if prompt action is taken to tackle the spread of disinformation in the months ahead.
“How can we help but try to be optimistic,” Rosner said with a shrug. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”
“And that’s what we’ll work for,” added Squassoni.
The entire interview with Dr. Robert Rosner and Sharon Squassoni is available here on Press the Button.
Zack Brown is a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.