In my first college course in statistics, the professor made the following statement: “You can prove anything by statistics as long as you make the right assumptions.” I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but I have seen the truth of that statement over the years. People decide what they believe, and then they manipulate statistics to prove that they are correct. Another way of saying it is, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” This is true of religious people and atheists alike, and it’s a difficult mistake to avoid. Making the right assumptions to prove your point is usually possible.
There are some things we need to know about any statistical claim. The first is whether there are unconsidered variables in the calculations. For example, recent COVID death statistics failed to include other conditions that affected the mortality of people with the disease. Mortality rates for terminally ill people in nursing homes are not the same as those for college students.
People who claim that statistics indicate there must be inhabited planets with people like us base their claim on limited variables. In 1961, Astronomer Frank Drake formulated what is known as the Drake Equation to compute the probability of life on other planets. Drake used seven variables, with each assigned a probability factor. They are:
R∗ = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
It should be evident that none of these variables are based on observations but on making the right assumptions. In addition, since 1961, science has added a vast number of new variables. For example, we need to consider black holes, star distribution, planetary chemical makeup, and asteroid bombardment. Added to that list are a host of physical constants and geologic processes we have learned through space exploration.
Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross has refined and expanded the list to include 322 variables. Even assigning modest values for each of those parameters would mean that the probability of all 322 occurring together (as they have on Earth) would be 10-388. That number is beyond impossible. Making the right assumptions involves considering all of the variables.
Whether life exists on any other planet is not a biblical question and has nothing to do with the existence of God. However, tomorrow we will examine some other statistical issues involving God’s existence.
— John N. Clayton © 2021