Published on January 12, 2019
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (not a nuclear weapon!) launches in 2018 (Source)
Exploring the data on the decline in worldwide nuclear stockpiles and the most intriguing government program you’ve never heard of: Reality Project Episode 3
On a warm Boston summer in 2018, I was just settling onto the lawn at the Hatch Memorial Shell for a performance of my favorite symphony — Holst’s The Planets — when I saw a tent set up by the Union of Concerned Scientists. As someone generally concerned about the state of science, I wandered over and as I got closer, was drawn to a crowd gathered around a man discussing the threat of nuclear weapons. Having just finished Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, I was hoping to hear more positive news about the massive reductions in nuclear weapon stockpiles that occurred over the past 30 years.
Instead, the man’s speech — as Pinker tells us to expect from academics — was entirely negative. The gist was that human folly led us to create weapons which could wipe our species off the face of the Earth and we were in grave danger. Perplexed, when the man paused to take a breathe, I raised my hand and asked if he knew how many nukes there were worldwide and how this compared to numbers in the past. Confidently he replied: “There’s more now than ever before although I don’t know the exact number.”
At this point, buoyed by the confidence (and arrogance) that comes with possessing data someone else doesn’t, I pressed my factual advantage for all its worth stating: “In 1985, there were approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and today, in 2018, there are less than 15,000. That represents a reduction of nearly 80%, and what’s more, there are 4 fewer countries with nuclear weapons today.” Surprised, the man asked for a fact check, and after an acceptable source was consulted, he acknowledged the optimistic numbers were correct. While my intention was not to defang the man, this was the unintended effect, and the crowd slowly began to disperse, the gusto gone from the man’s proclamations.
Although I had inadvertently cost the man his entire audience, he agreed to have a discussion with me (after I apologized for the intellectual ambush) and we had a fruitful debate with both of us making concessions: I agreed that 0 nuclear weapons was optimal (although not realistic at the moment) and he said he would reframe his message to emphasize the progress we’ve made in nuclear weapons reduction. Later, as I sat listening to the sounds of Holst’s magnificent work, I thought about what this experience had taught me:
- Even experts are seriously wrong in their view of the world.
- People assume the worst of humanity in the absence of data.
- Don’t act superior to someone when you are correcting them. Remember that you were ignorant as well before you read the statistics.
In this article, we are going to examine the data concerning nuclear weapons around the world. The basic stats above are correct — the number of nuclear weapons and the number of countries holding them have both declined drastically in the past 30 years. However, there are also points about which we should rightly worry, including tension between the US and Russia which threatens arms control treaties and the possession of nuclear weapons by unstable states. In addition to the numbers, we’ll also learn about Megatons to Megawatts, the most intriguing government program you’ve probably never heard of, in which Russian bombs literally turned on your lights.