Making the Right Assumptions

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

Fermi Paradox – Where Is Everybody?

There are billions of stars in the galaxy, so there must be billions of planets in the galaxy. For many years people have speculated that there must be intelligent life out there and even civilizations that have developed space travel. In a casual conversation among scientists in 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi asked, “If these civilizations do exist, where is everybody?” That question came to be known as the Fermi Paradox, and it led to the picture, which we will explain.

The Fermi Paradox points out the lack of any evidence for what many see as a high probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. Since no space aliens have landed on Earth and announced their arrival, some scientists decided to search for them by electromagnetic radiation. In 1960 astronomer Frank Drake began a coordinated project which became known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Ever since then, millions (or billions) of dollars and millions of hours have been spent listening for any transmission of any intelligent beings on other planets. The results have been zero. Where is everybody?

In 1995 the SETI Institute established Project Phoenix, which concentrated only on the 800 closest stars and their planets. Working from 1995 until 2004, the project concluded that there is no species as technologically advanced as humans in the universe within 200 light-years of Earth.

Because of the laws of physics and the dangers of space, any space traveler would be limited to no more than one percent of the speed of light. (Exceeding, or even approaching the speed of light is only possible in the movies.) So traveling at maximum speed from the nearest possible location, a space alien would need 20,000 years to reach the Earth. You could add to that another 5,000 years to dodge space objects (including stars, planets, and asteroids) on the trip. So for a space alien to reach Earth would take at least 25,000 years, and probably much longer.

So what is the picture? It’s a digital representation of what is called the Arecibo message. In 1974, scientists sent out a radio message from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. They aimed it a star cluster called M13, which is 25,000 light-years away. If there is any intelligent life there able to receive and decode it, the message tells about planet Earth and humanity. (You can find the “decode” HERE.) Of course, if there are any intelligent beings in M13 wondering “where is everybody,” they should receive the message in 25,000 years.

The Fermi Paradox is still unsolved. As the leader of Project Phoenix, Peter Backus, said, “We live in a quiet neighborhood.” God, on the other hand, being unlimited by time and space (remember that He created time/space and matter/energy) is always near and ready to hear our prayers unless we are unwilling to acknowledge His existence.

Drake Equation and Planet Civilizations

In the long history of looking for life elsewhere in the cosmos, one of the exciting discoveries has been learning the things a planet needs to support life. In 1961, American astronomer Frank Drake proposed what is called the Drake Equation. He was looking for a way to calculate the number of inhabited planets in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. Drake’s equation lists seven parameters that would determine the answer to that question. They are:

1) The rate of formation of stars in our galaxy.

2) The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

3) The number of planets per solar system with an environment suitable for life.

4) The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

5) The fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

6) The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

7) The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

If you knew each of these probabilities, you could calculate how many planets in our galaxy might be inhabited by intelligent beings with whom we could communicate. Drake gave each of these parameters a number or probability, but they were wild guesses. Once you have the numbers, all you need to do is multiply each of these variables by each other.

Let me explain. What are the odds of drawing the ace of spaces from a card deck twice in a row back to back? The odds of drawing one ace of spades out of a full deck is 1 out of 52 since there are 52 cards in a deck. To calculate the odds of doing that twice in a row would be 1 out of 52 times one out of 52. You multiply the individual probabilities, so the total probability would be one out of 2704. If you knew the likelihood of each parameter in the Drake equation, multiplying them together would give you the theoretical odds that we could receive radio communication from intelligent life on another planet in our galaxy.

Going back to the card analogy, if you drew one time out of a deck of 52 cards, the odds would be one out of 52. If you drew the ace of spades 52 times in a row, the number would be astronomical since you would multiply the result 52 times! The problem with the Drake equation is that the parameters are unknown and are probably unknowable.

There are also variables that the Drake equation didn’t include, such as the type of star. For example, a supermassive star will have a very short life expectancy. Researchers at Rice University reported in January of 2020 that many stars have extended magnetic fields which overlap the Goldilocks zones of most exoplanets. (As we have explained before, we say that a planet is in the Goldilocks zone when it can contain water in the liquid state). These strong magnetic fields will strip away any atmosphere the planet might have. Our Sun has a magnetic field, but it is not strong enough to strip electrons from atoms and molecules in the Goldilocks zone where Earth is located.

More variables regularly show up, and they tell us that our solar system and Sun have been carefully designed and formatted so that we can exist. Psalms 1:19 continues to take on new meaning with every discovery we make in space. “The heavens (do) declare the glory of God, and the firmament (does) show His handiwork.”

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: Astronomy magazine March 2020, page 9.

Frank Drake was involved in the founding of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which we have discussed previously HERE and HERE and HERE.

Vastness of Space

One of the struggles we all have in dealing with the creation of the cosmos is understanding the vastness of space. When someone tries to give a naturalistic explanation for Earth and its abundance of life, they assume that the variables necessary for the creation of life and the conditions required for life to exist have just happened naturally. Because of the number of stars and planets, they assume that the creation can be a product of blind opportunistic chance.

In 1961 Frank Drake (a founder of SETI) presented what is known as the Drake equation. It involves multiplying seven variables that are necessary for creating a planet with intelligent life by the odds of each of those variables happening by chance alone. Let’s say the odds of having one of Drake’s seven variables are 1 in a million. Those promoting chance explanations of the creation would say that since there are 100 billion stars in the galaxy in which we live, the odds are reasonable for the creation to happen by chance.

There are many problems with this equation and the chosen variables. One statistical problem is that you can’t just have one variable which is isolated from all the other variables. If there are seven variables, then they all have to be accomplished at the same time in the same place. You can’t have variable one at one place at one time, and variable two at a different place and at a different time.

We don’t seem to comprehend the vastness of space, and how isolated stars are from one another. An excellent example of this is the asterism we call the Big Dipper. Seven stars make up the Big Dipper. When seen from Earth, they seem to be close together. The fact is that the stars are nowhere near each other. Mizar, the second star from the end of the handle is 78 light years away from Earth. (A light year is how far light goes in a year – roughly 588 quadrillion miles.) Dubhe, the star at the top edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper is 124 light years away. Merak which with Dubhe makes up the pointer stars of the Big Dipper is 79 light years away from Earth and 45 million light-years from Dubhe.

The size of the cosmos is incredible, but that size does not make chance explanations of the creation accurate. Having the right size planet going around a star that is a red giant would not support life. If you had the right size planet going around a spectral G-2 star (like our Sun), it would not support life if it were located at the core or in the equatorial plane of the galaxy. All variables have to work together at the same time and place, and that is unlikely considering the vastness of space.

When wisdom speaks in Proverbs 8:22-23 she says, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the Earth was.” The vastness of space isolates us from the destructive forces that exist throughout the cosmos. It also reinforces the statement of Romans 1:20 which says “we can know there is a God through the things He has made.”