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.