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The Privileged Planet

Reality Check

Victor Stenger

Skeptical Briefs Volume 15.3, September 2005

A New Wedge in the Discovery Arsenal of Stealth Weapons

A few months ago, the Smithsonian Institution agreed to cosponsor a film called The Privileged Planet for a special showing at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The film was based on the 2004 book of the same title by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and theologian Jay Richards, but the story starts about four years earlier.

In their 2000 book Rare Earth, paleontologist Peter T. Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee argued that complex forms of life are uncommon if not exceedingly rare in the universe. Gonzalez was at the time a colleague of these authors at the University of Washington and a major scientific consultant for Rare Earth.

Rare Earth did not represent the views of most investigators in the fledgling field of astrobiology, who are generally more optimistic about the chances of other forms of intelligent life in the universe. In his follow-up 2001 book, Life Everywhere, astronomer David Darling rebutted the arguments in Rare Earth one by one. While not concluding outright that complex life fills the universe, Darling pointed out that we simply do not yet have sufficient knowledge to conclude that such life is rare. Both sides of the debate actually agree that simple, primitive forms of life may be common. However, even today’s most optimistic estimates place Earthlike planets hundreds if not thousands of light-years apart on average.

The Privileged Planet ignores Darling and the consensus of astrobiologists in adopting the Rare Earth position. However, Gonzalez and Richards go much further. They contend that conditions on Earth, particularly those that make human life possible, have been optimized for scientific investigation and that this constitutes “a signal revealing a universe so skillfully created for life and discovery that it seems to whisper of an extraterrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect or imagine.” Makes you wonder what intelligence they have in mind.

Following this line of reasoning, the atmosphere of Earth is not only transparent in the visible spectral band so that humans can see with their eyes, but it is also designed in this way so that astronomers can build telescopes and thereby observe the fruits of intelligence in the heavens.

Have you ever wondered why the angular diameters of the moon and sun as viewed from Earth are almost exactly the same, though the two celestial objects differ greatly in size and distance from Earth? Without that coincidence, we would never experience the type of total eclipse of the sun in which we can actually view starlight near the edge of the sun’s disc as the moon blocks off the sun’s light.

Gonzalez and Richards marvel at the fact that we happen to live on a planet where total solar eclipses are observable and present this as a prime example of design for discovery. Indeed, science may have been triggered when, in 585 b.c.e., Thales of Miletus predicted a total eclipse that supposedly ended a war. In more recent times, observations made during total eclipses have been used to verify Einstein’s theory of general relativity, specifically the bending of starlight near the sun’s rim. Gonzalez and Richards seem to think general relativity would not have been discovered (assuming that the theories of physics are “out there” to be discovered) had we lived on a planet without the coincidence of angular diameters. That is very dubious, since many other tests of general relativity have been made that do not involve eclipses.

At the time that Gonzalez worked with Ward and Brownlee, he was also a frequent contributor to the newsletter Connections and other pamphlets published by Hugh Ross’s evangelical organization, Reasons to Believe. In these writings, Gonzalez presented many of the arguments for cosmic design later published in The Privileged Planet.

Darling discloses that Ward and Brownlee were apparently unaware of Gonzalez’s theological views, which Gonzalez admits he kept to himself at the University of Washington “because of the open hostility to such views among many faculty.” Gonzalez has since moved to Iowa State University, where he presumably finds the atmosphere more congenial.

The Smithsonian was also apparently unaware of the fact that the Discovery Institute, the well-funded organization based in Seattle that is leading the political battle to weaken the teaching of evolution in the schools and install Intelligent Design pseudoscience, had produced the film. The Smithsonian initially accepted a $16,000 fee for the showing, not realizing that their own rules against presenting political or religious material were being violated.

The well-documented purpose of the Discovery Institute and its arm, the Center for Science and Culture (originally the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture), is to drive “wedges” between materialistic science and the rest of society and to redraw science and culture along evangelical-Christian lines. Gonzalez and Richards are fellows of the Center. Other fellows include Intelligent Design gurus Michael Behe and William Dembski and master debater William Lane Craig.

When, after intense media attention, the religious nature of the film came into the open, the Smithsonian withdrew its cosponsorship, stating: “We have determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.” They allowed the film to be shown but turned down the payment.

Of course, Gonzalez and Richards are entitled to their views, but this tale provides yet another illustration of the stealthy nature of the strategy behind the Discovery campaign to “renew science and culture.” The Privileged Planet represents a new, cosmic wedge in the Discovery arsenal. (Why can’t one have an arsenal of wedges?) It joins with Intelligent Design as another form of stealth creationism, claiming to be science but motivated by religion. We can only wonder why a group of people who claim a special pipeline to the source of truth and morality feel they can’t be honest with the rest of us.

Victor Stenger

Victor J. Stenger was emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He died on August 25, 2014. His final book was God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos, and his previous books include Not By Design, Physics and Psychics, The Unconscious Quantum, and Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity.