Have you ever walked outside on a hot summer day and thought, “Gawd, what’s the temperature out here” and checked a weather app on your phone? Even though you can feel the actual heat, you want to attach a number to it. It’s human nature.
We put so much faith in numbers, in fact, that we don’t bother to look too closely at where they come from.
The Doomsday Clock Has Precisely Zero Scientific Basis
We’ve all heard of the Doomsday Clock, right? Every now and then it makes the news with an ominous headline (“The Doomsday Clock is now JUST THREE MINUTES FROM MIDNIGHT”) and it just got bumped further up by 30 seconds because… small hands, weird hair, orange complexion, something something, Twitter. It’s a spooky, ominous measurement of how close we are to Armageddon, and it’s coming from scientists, so you know that’s as real as it gets.
No, hold on. Did we say “real”? Because we meant “vague and utterly meaningless.”
The Doomsday Clock is a tradition upheld by an obscure science magazine called the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists (perfectly suited to its founding in 1945). The placement of its hands is decided by a bunch of scientists and climate researchers, who periodically get together to talk about how worried they are about things in general. So that’s the first misconception about the Clock: the only thing it actually measures is the worry of a few people.
In all fairness, said people are esteemed scientists. However, scientists often know nothing outside their own, narrow fields of expertise. So making a bunch of them from different fields discuss wide-spanning global issues probably isn’t all that far from you and your coworkers doing the same at the water cooler. Well, the consensus from these meetings is published in the Bulletin, complete with the updating of a symbolic logo they call the Doomsday Clock.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. And now you know why the Doomsday Clock folks once randomly counted the Fukushima nuclear disaster right up there with Cold War nuclear proliferation, completely ignoring the fact that Fukushima happened because of an earthquake and tsunami while the latter’s cause was people in a deliberate arms race of mutually assured destruction.
Even the “minutes to midnight” concept is not just flawed, but actually the exact opposite of a scientific process. The clock was originally set at seven minutes to midnight … for no good reason at all. Martyl Langsdorf, the artist who designed it, chose that reading for this heavily revered symbol on the basis of “it looked good to my eye.”
The Better Business Bureau Extorts The Businesses It Grades
The Better Business Bureau, you might imagine, grades businesses based on their ability to serve their customers with integrity, reliability, and fairness. It’s an easy way to tell if the company you’re about to buy from is going to screw you over … which means the BBB’s own integrity better be roughly equivalent to Captain America’s.
Yet, in 2010, an ABC News investigation recorded the attempt of Terri Hartman, a Los Angeles small business owner, to change her C grade (issued due to a complaint that had since been resolved) by phone. The BBB representative told her that she could only change her grade by buying a membership. Hartman duly paid up and, the next business day, her business had an A+ grade and the complaint was removed from its record. Carmen Tellez, another Los Angeles business owner, experienced the same thing when she tried to change her C- grade.
And of course that’s not as insane, or as nakedly mercenary, as it gets. For $425, the BBB issued an A rating to a fictional business named Hamas, named after the Palestinian fundamentalist organization and completely made up by a group of Los Angeles business owners. Stormfront, a neo-Nazi website, was registered with the BBB as a prank by someone using the name “Aryan Whitney.” Clearly fooled by the subtlety, the BBB gave them an A+ rating for yet another $425.
The CEO of BBB stated that all these grades were made in error. Which is something you might buy if it happened once, but if it happens three times, and then twice again while cameras are rolling, you start to suspect something is up.
Meanwhile, the notorious garbage heap known as the Ritz-Carlton in Boston received an F rating, based on a torrent of … two complaints? Certain restaurants owned by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who it just so happens refused to join the BBB, suffered the same fate. Disneyland? Also got an F. The BBB openly rated all of those things lower than Stormfront.
The ABC investigation uncovered a pretty clear pattern: Organizations that aren’t BBB members receive an extremely low grade based on very few complaints and, unless they become BBB members, changing that grade is next to impossible. “It’s a scarlet letter,” lamented Brian Kraft, who spent over a million dollars in legal fees trying to sue the BBB. “These guys are bullies.”
Seeing as he received a C in error and, when he tried to protest it, got downgraded to F, it’s kind of hard to disagree.