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Monday, January 9th
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Tonight, Michael Shermer will appear on Art Bell‘s Coast to Coast AM national radio show. Topics to be discussed include: UFOs and alien abductions, psuedoscience and the paranormal, evolution and intelligent design, cults, science and religion. You can tune in live on AM radio stations across the US (free), XM radio channel 165, or you can pay for a subscription to the podcast from the Coast to Coast AM website.

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In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Charles G. Lambdin’s review of the film “The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe.”

Charles G. Lambdin is a graduate student at Wichita State University, where he teaches psychology and research methods.

Creationism by Any Other Name

film review by Charles G. Lambdin

Intelligent design (ID) is a dressing up of the old “argument from design,” with technical jargon added to lend a thin veneer of scientific credibility. ID advocates’ opportunistic tactics, which have more in common with politicians than scientists, have been described as the “wedge” strategy — an attempt to gain academic acceptance by maintaining a presence in academic and scientific venues.

A prime example of this is the film The Privileged Planet, a contemporary classic of pseudoscience. The film was produced by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank whose expressed goal is the promotion of Intelligent Design. The film gained a degree of notoriety when the Discovery Institute boasted that The Privileged Planet was screening at none other than the Smithsonian Institute itself, with the implied endorsement of that august body. In fact, the Discovery Institute donated $16,000 to the Smithsonian, which by policy allowed the Discovery Institute to co-sponsor the film and to use the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium for its viewing. This naturally sparked an outcry from the scientific community, which led the Smithsonian to refuse the $16,000 donation, thereby withdrawing their co-sponsorship and any hint of endorsement. Although the Smithsonian was still contractually obliged to show the film, the screening ended up being an invitation-only event attended by ID sympathizers.

The film revolves around the authors of the book of the same title, Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrobiologist, and Jay W. Richards, a philosopher at the Discovery Institute (the book is published by Regnery). Their argument is that life is too improbably to have come about by chance, therefore there must be an Intelligent Designer. The film reviews the standard arguments for the necessary conditions that allow life to exist on Earth or elsewhere, such as that the planet must be in the “Goldilocks Zone” — the distance at which a planet reaches habitable temperatures. The film claims that if the earth were merely five percent closer to the sun temperatures would approach 900° Fahrenheit and all the water would boil off the earth. The type of star also has to be just right. If the sun were smaller, then the “Goldilocks Zone” would have to be closer. But if the earth were closer to the sun then its rotation rate might become fixed with its rate of orbit (as with our own moon), such that the same side of the earth would always face the sun, creating two lifeless sides — a cold, frozen side and a scorched, seared side. (The film ignores the transitional twilight zone between the dark side and light side in which life might exist.) Plate tectonics must diligently operate to recycle carbon; there must be an atmosphere rich in oxygen, liquid water, and a circulating, liquid iron core generating a magnetic field to deflect solar radiation. (Never mind the microbes found at thermal vents in the ocean or at significant depths in mines — which do not require oxygen.) The planet must be orbited by a large moon — our moon stabilizes the tilt of the earth, keeping the seasons temperate. The planet must be surrounded by larger planets in order to protect it from gigantic space debris that are absorbed by these larger planets before they can strike the earth. And the list goes on and on.

The Privileged Planet logo

In short, a whole lot of things have to be a precise way in order for a planet to be habitable, and all of these factors must be present in order for life to exist on any planet. (Again, it could be argued that these are merely the factors that allow for a very specific type of life and are not even necessary for a number of earth creatures). In The Privileged Planet it is stated that if we assume that the odds of each of these factors occurring are the same, and if we fix these odds at one out of ten, then the odds of all of these conditions coming together in one location are 1/1,000,000,000,000,000. These odds are so remote, the authors conclude, that it is unlikely that a planet would be habitable due to chance alone, and so the best inference is design.

These odds might be remote, to be sure, but there are probably a lot of planets! This simple point is glossed over in the film. Interestingly, the film gives an estimate of more than 10,000 billion billion star systems in the universe, and 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Oddly, no one in The Privileged Planet bothers to put such estimates together with the film’s 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 odds of habitability. To do so, we must estimate how many planets there are in the universe: If we assume that the odds that a star system contains one planet are one in a million and that there are 10,000 billion billion star systems, this leaves us with ten million billion planets in the cosmos.

Now if, as stated in The Privileged Planet, the odds that a planet is habitable are 1/1,000,000,000,000,000, or .0000000000001%, then contrary to what is claimed in the film it would be expected that there should be 10 habitable planets due to chance alone (10,000,000,000,000,000 x .000000000000001). However, the one-in-a-million odds that a star system contains at least one planet is a very conservative estimate! Astronomers who search for extra-solar planets find that about one in ten star systems they search contain planets. Using Gonzalez and Richard’s own odds of habitability, this suggests that there may be one billion habitable planets due to chance alone. And even this may be a conservative estimate! The odds of habitability presented in The Privileged Planet are, after all, rather arbitrary given how they were computed. To illustrate, scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in a paper on “Habitable Zones and the Number of Habitable Planets in the Milky Way,” using only part of the Drake equation estimate that there are 48 million habitable planets in our galaxy alone ( If this figure is in any way representative of other galaxies, then the number of habitable planets in the universe would be staggering.

The other arguments in The Privileged Planet amount to pointing to coincidences and citing them as evidence of a divine plan, which is, of course, a non sequitur. For example, it is suggested that Saturn and Jupiter were placed where they are so as to protect the earth from asteroids. (This is really no different from Voltaire’s joke in Candide that the Anabaptist drowned in the bay, therefore the bay was created so that the Anabaptist could drown in it! Everything works out for the best in this best of all possible worlds.)

Another claim made in the film is that the position of the earth in the solar system makes for perfect solar eclipses. It is only the perfect solar eclipse that has revealed the atmosphere of the sun to us and further allowed us to confirm Einstein’s idea that the light rays of other stars are bent by the sun’s gravity. A perfect solar eclipse would not be observable from other planets in the solar system. How can it be that the one place in the solar system from which these discoveries could have been made just happens to be the one place where there are observers to make them? Furthermore, one of the factors that contributes to the habitability of earth is its location in the galaxy. This location also makes an ideal place to do astronomy (there’s not a lot to block our view). From this, Gonzalez and Richards argue that there is “a high correlation between life and discovery.” The same factors that contribute to the earth’s habitability also seem to make us able to do science! It must therefore be the case that we were designed so that we could understand the universe and that the universe was designed such that it could be understood by us. (The subtitle of the book is “How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery.”)

I was baffled every time it was stated that there “is a high correlation between life and discovery.” I wanted to shout, “Yeah it’s high; it’s perfect; it’s a correlation of one!” It does not make sense to talk about science and discovery as though they could occur independently of life, which is done in the film by suggesting that the correlation “between life and discovery” could be anything less than perfect. If there is no life, no conscious beings, then who or what is doing the discovering? How can “discovery” exist without discoverers?

The thesis of The Privileged Planet is no different than the classic case of Presidential coincidences: Abraham Lincoln was elected to congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to congress in 1946. Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Kennedy in 1960. Both of their last names have seven letters. Both of their wives experienced the loss of child in the White House. Both were shot in the head on a Friday. Both were assassinated by Southerners and succeeded by Southerners. Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, who was born in 1808. Kennedy was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, who was born in 1908. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, has 15 letters in his name. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, has 15 letters in his name. Both assassins were known by three names. Booth was born in 1839, Oswald in 1939. As I am unable to imagine otherwise, these coincidences are too great to have occurred due to chance alone, so there must be some Intelligent Assassin behind it. Thus runs the reasoning throughout The Privileged Planet.

Throughout the film much is made of the fact that we can “do” science at all. Why is it so surprising that we can figure things out about the universe? Such statements as, “We evolved to hunt and gather food, not to do astronomy,” display a complete lack of understanding of evolution. It doesn’t really make sense to say that we evolved to do anything. We just evolved. There is no reason to think that evolution is a teleological process and that we are evolving into anything in particular. Similarly, the statement that, “It is just so astounding that we can even understand the universe at all,” is not an observation; it’s a value judgment. If an occurrence seems near impossible to you, this only really says something about your beliefs regarding nature. (Why should one expect things to be other than the way they happen to be?) Coincidences are not evidence of mystical forces. Statistically unlikely events are, in the long run, likely to occur: There are 280 million people in America, therefore one-in-a-million odds will happen 280 times a day in America. It does not make sense to say that 280 miracles happen a day in the United States, any more than it should seem miraculous that someone will win a lottery.

Ignoring such facts, The Privileged Planet repeatedly beats into the viewer that the coincidences in nature require an Intelligent Designer. Intelligent Design theory begs the question by not having set an objective criterion for what is “too rare” or “too unlikely” or “too complex.” As Schopenhauer said, nothing more is implied by a premise than what is already contained in it. To say that habitable planets are uncommon only implies that they’re rare, not that they’re designed. And as we have seen, they may not be that rare.



  1. Dan says:

    “this suggests that there may be one billion habitable planets due to chance alone”

    Shouldn’t that be one million.

    “It does not make sense to talk about science and discovery as though they could occur independently of life”

    Could life not occur independent of discovery?

    • Gordon says:

      “Shouldn’t that be one million?”
      No, it should not even be…one. Perhaps, by Darwin’s own ‘rules’ we have no reason to even consider this conversation…we should just be banging one another over the head in order that we get our ‘Lexus’ and the other dude don’t! Who cares about Darwin and evolution anyway—he just went about explaining how life ‘changes’. Tell me how inanimate chemicals like carbon and calcium became sentient and able to use a computer and keyboard to type this out…and that you’d then read this and think?!
      Chance alone cannot even determine how we came up with our moon…the ballistics don’t work out (unless you consider a double impact by the “Orpheus” idea folks…which has so many unique parameters that our moon alone will cause you to ‘bend-a-knee’ screaming, “How is that possible?”). And too the parameters of all the universal constants (from Boltzmann to Planks to gravity…etc) are seemingly unrelated (yet simple and ‘beautiful’) and yet they can NOT be anything other than they are or…again…we would not be having this conversation! And how can random chance cause the ‘happening’ of the DNA code? It takes more ‘faith’ to believe in chance (for that cause alone) than it does to go with God! It’s not chance there is purpose in the code—it carries the signature for life. How can anything carry information if there is not an intelligence that ‘Somehow’ got it in there in the first place? At the beginning (Big Bang – singularity) life was somehow ‘seeded’ into the energy/(the light). We are in the weirdest of situations and frankly, I am amazed that anyone talks about anything other than why there is something rather than nothing…and why I am me and not you…and here in this time and not before or after?
      We are not JUST bio-creatures! We are energy (‘spirits’) stuck in a bio-suit and limited to ‘travel’ (causing us to travel) in three dimensions of space and one dimension of time UNTIL we graduate life through death to go home to a dimensionality of somewhere up into the 10 area. We are going to ‘report’ on our doings here!
      I KNOW…I KNOW…That’s a wacky idea/thought/religious musing). But we have many weird facets in our ‘make-up’ and none seem to have a happy home unless the Science, Theology, and Philosophy join. CS Lewis commented: “If there exists in me a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy then most likely I was made for another world”. And who is not with desires: perfection, fairness, knowledge…love; and even kindness! So let’s be kind (to ourselves…and lay off the attack mode of name calling) and ponder why not…’life’ in a state other than physical? Is not the quantum world a world that still has information and so intelligence…but it cannot really be called physical?
      I don’t understand how we can go off on the tangent of multi-universes when we do not even understand our own. To me (I’ll blame me) it’s seems like we are just moving our goal post further back so that the opposing team can not score (putting more squares on the checker board to confuse our opponent) and in both analogies it is just because we do not know how to play the game (or refuse to play by the information provided to our heart). Why not consider spirit life and expand the limits of science to encompass that possibility—who is hurt if we do not try? ((Only us)). It seems to me that we will go to great extents in cost and consideration and time…moving towards anything and everything OTHER than a spiritual existence in quantum type energy (light) ‘world’. No matter what the reason is for me typing this and you reading it; it is going to be STRANGE and AMAZING and SCARY!
      To look out the window and say “fluke of chance” is like hiking though the Black Hills of South Dakota…seeing the faces of four important presidents in the stone and saying: “Huh! Who’d have thought that the wind and rain were so ‘creative’ in this odd little ‘cosmically-dark’ corner of the state?” If you find information than it leads back to intelligence (we might not know WHO did it) but we know someone DID!

  2. Dave says:

    ” It doesn’t really make sense to say that we evolved to do anything. ”
    Isn’t this the theory of evolution, that we evolve to meet a need?
    The point in the priveleged planet that you are missing is exactly what the commentor above me asked. That life exists without science. Why is it that our particular species has wondered about the origins of the universe and our existence since the beginning of man? No other species can apply their minds in this way. This type of inquiry is not a product of evolution and it does not coincide with the idea of natural selection.

  3. Why says:

    First, it seems to me the anti “creation intelligent design” folk are just as bigoted as the religious zealots they poke fun at.
    Second i would ask these questions.
    If evolutionary theory is correct, why then do such a huge and diverse number of species all happily live in an identical environment (eg coral reef-desert sand dune)? Did natural selection make a mistake, surly given the risks of random mutation, and constraints of environment, we should see the survival of only one or maybe two specie per environmental region?

    Also, why are biologists/geneticists so paranoid about extinction, biodiversity and depletion of the gene pool? Surely if evolution sorted it all out from one prime-evil cell, then it does not need a gene pool or biodiversity to continue on its merry way? Furthermore if their concern is indeed justified. Where then stands Monsanto and their terminator policy?


  4. Gordon says:

    “The film ignores the transitional twilight zone between the dark side and light side in which life might exist.) Plate tectonics must diligently operate to recycle carbon; there must be an atmosphere rich in oxygen, liquid water, and a circulating, liquid iron core generating a magnetic field to deflect solar radiation. (Never mind the microbes found at thermal vents in the ocean or at significant depths in mines — which do not require oxygen.”

    The film is NOT all encompassing…there is much we do not know and science is always changing(advancing and re-adjusting) as things are discovered…fine tuning its laws and constants. Thermal vents and the terminator line between light and dark? so what…no Lexus there…no advanced life…and IN the thermal vents is ONLY where that type of life can be and it is not going to advance to the land or visit the moon or ponder this e-mail string…ever! Hugh Ross (I believe) said that other life will be found on ohter planets but it will be one-celled and preimative…it will have life…but it will NOT ponder its life and ask why

  5. Christopher says:

    What some people aren’t getting is the sales tactic that this movie puts up and that this review calls out. The whole premise is that of the odds being so difficult that our planet must be special and therefore divinely directed. But the math of the film itself that there are a lot of planets. The conditions have to be right yes, but there are billions of chances out there. To say that we are sitting here postulating and that makes us unique is a fallacy of reason. To say that other planets could only sustain single celled organisms is based on the average conditions, not all of them. To say that are we are special is an outcry of ignorance because in fact we cannot tell. This article does not try to debunk god nor is in anti-religion as an earlier commentor claimed. It only calls out bad science. When religion sticks its foot into testable waters it will be burnt. Faith is a personal thing and it should’nt have to sale people. Science is a method and it’s for everyone. I firmly believe that the people who made the film know the real science and odds and choose to leave out information and form a line of thinking that supports their agenda. They believe that a little slant truth is okay because god is the way and whatever gets you there works. But I refuse to be tricked. My key to skeptisism is Atlatis. I was a believer until I found out the origins and what happened to the information since. I think that anyone who sees this myth for what it is comes out thinking with more reason.

  6. stephanie says:

    I am special, thank you Christopher! I am intelligent enough to ponder this, and I have come to the considered and scientific conclusion, that I am unique and very special. :-P

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