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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Privileged Planet: Dissing St. Carl in his own church? Was that the crime?

(Note: This post repeats and adds to the June 5 and 6 posts, as I have now been able to log detailed information about still more of the Privileged Planet film. If you have already read June 5 and 6, scroll down to "June 7 update: Lots of astronomers, still no hellfire ... but keep reading. Otherwise, just start here. Tomorrow, I will repost everything and add to it. Also, sorry for delays. I had to do radio today and also write my Canadian Web log. Remember, bloggers like me are volunteers.)

Privileged Planet is, as the Washington Post noted, a “sophisticated” film. It features good music, glorious graphics, and narration by John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli in The Lord of the Rings. Rhys-Davies is an excellent narrator, principally in my view because he knows when to just not say anything and — better still — the writers know when to let someone else say it instead. Although the film obviously offers a message, I did not feel, not so far at least, that I was whacked upside the head with it.

(Service note: IF you are looking for a basic introduction to the uproar over the screening of The Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, you can start anywhere in the archives from May 25, when I broke the story, on. I suggest you go here and here to start, and then this one will bring you up to date. Note that the blogs on the right-hand panel also update the story at various times, so try them too. Right now I am providing a review and detailed account of the controversial film Privileged Planet. itself. - Denyse)

It starts with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I guess some might see Eliot’s comment as “religious” (remember that one of my goals is to figure out why the Washington Post thinks the film is “religious”), but the fact is, Eliot’s quote turns up all over the place.

I, for one, having heard it way too often, wish the writers had chosen something else for their intro. But let’s move on.

The film begins with Voyager 1 and 2, the 1977 spacecraft mission to the outer planets and then addresses Earth’s position in the solar system, as understood by Ptolemy and then later Copernicus. One key difference between PP and more standard fare quickly emerges at this point:

PP avoids using Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun as an excuse to preach on the insignificance of Earth and of human life. It goes so far as to assume that we may be significant and that it may be possible to discover our significance, in part, through science.

Well! I can certainly see where educated people raised on 20th century naturalism, nihilism, existentialism et cetera— whether they are secularists who embrace it or Christians who accommodate it—would find PP’s approach shocking.

But their shock has nothing to do with science as such. Science provides reasonable evidence for a variety of viewpoints, including lots of evidence for the Privileged Planet ideas.

The shock comes from unfamiliarity with an approach to science in which science does not function as the Canadarm of naturalism (the philosophy that nature is all there is).

For example, Denis Daniels, editor of Book of the Cosmos, is quoted talking about the way in which Copernicus enabled a correct understanding of the solar system. “Once you started to imagine the earth moving instead of the sun, the mathematics of that cosmic machine started to make sense.”

Then the narrator notes that Copernicus’s discovery of the Earth’s orbit morphed into the “Copernican Principle” - the idea that the Earth occupies no preferred place. Philosopher Jay Richards, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute then recounts how this “no preferred place” interpretation “became prominent in the twentieth century.” He calls it “The Principle of Mediocrity.”

Richards may be leaning on the “Principle of Mediocrity” phrase a bit hard to drive the point home. Today I picked up 6630 Google hits for the Copernican Principle and only 701 hits for the Principle of Mediocrity (some of these hits may address unrelated issues as well).

But astronomer Carl Sagan (d. 1996), who would be much more popular with the Washington elite than Jay Richards, leaned a lot harder ... in the opposite direction. Sagan popularized the concept of mediocrity in the 1970s to such an extent that I never suspected until I read Rare Earth three years ago that there was significant evidence that his view might not be science at all, just a popular astronomer’s opinion.

Indeed, the film quotes Sagan saying, in Cosmos,

Because of the reflection of sunlight the Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world ... but it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. Look again at that dot. That’s here. Home. That’s us. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

It is hard to miss the sneer in Sagan’s voice as he speaks these lines. Obviously, it was important to him to drive that point home.

Well, is Earth’s position “just an accident of geometry and optics”? Or is it not?

Now, here is the question I asked in By Design or by Chance?:

If there is evidence that Earth’s position is not just an accident of geometry and optics, is science permitted to know that? Or does science have to pretend it is an accident even in the face of considerable evidence that it is not?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the intelligent design controversy.

We’re starting to see now what all the shouting is about.

Update June 6, 2005

The narrator goes on to talk about American astronomer Edwin Hubble’s key discovery that there are many galaxies in the universe and how this discovery gave legs to the theory that Earth is insignificant. Robert Jastrow, former director of Mt. Wilson Observatories, explains that at the time Hubble was examining distant objects, many astronomers believed that our galaxy marked the edge of the universe.

He notes, “Edwin Hubble altered this perception of the universe when he used the most powerful telescope of his day to photograph indistinct objects Long thought to be nearby clouds of gas, dust, Hubble determined that these patches of light were actually individual galaxies, many as large or larger than our own Milky Way.”So our galaxy is one among billions.

He then asks a fundamental question: “Does contemporary scientific knowledge actually confirm the Copernican Principle’s primary claim, that the Earth and the life it sustains exists without purpose or significance in the universe?”

Well, how do we go about framing the question in a way that science can offer relevant information?

The film then moves on to a phase of late 20th century astronomy that, depending on your point of view, will seem faintly embarrassing or depressing — or perhaps the stuff of which youthful hopes should always be made!: The idea that habitable planets and intelligent aliens must be common in the universe.

This search for extraterrestrial life, it is made clear, was a natural outgrowth of Hubble’s discovery that our galaxy is only one among billions.

Looking back on the bubbling 1970s, I am not sure that the idea that there are millions of alien civilizations should have been seen as an inevitable outcome of Hubble’s discovery. That is, whether you believe that there is nothing beyond nature or that there is evidence of intelligent design of the universe (and therefore there must be something beyond nature), we could in fact be all alone.

Depressing, but possible. But it is natural for people who are all alone to look for company, right?

So the film moves on to a discussion of the SETI search with SETI spokesman Seth Shostak. Shostak comments,

Unless there is something very, very special, miraculous if you will, about out solar system, about our planet Earth, unless there is something extraordinarily unusual about it, then what happened here must have happened many times .

Now this could be construed as a religious statement (returning to the Washington Post’s concerns), because Shostak uses the word “miracle”. But it is not clear what he means by the term. In the context, he seems to mean a highly unusual, unexpected event rather than a sign from God.

Shostak is not, so far as I know, a Suspicious Person, because he is not associated with the intelligent design hypothesis. He comes off as sincere and likeable, and one fears for him — the way one fears for a person engaged in a fruitless search for a birth parent who, one suspects, he is better off not to meet. But there is no way to tell him that, and why make it one’s business anyway?

The narrator moves on to say that the assumption that habitable planets must be common has inspired a search for life beyond Earth. More than 100 planets have been identified (as of film’s making in 2004; there are surely more now).

The film states that all of these planets are gas giants like Jupiter. (It is generally believed that life could exist on rocky planets but few believe it could exist on huge gas balls.)

That information may be a bit out of date. I seem to recall reading that a possible rocky planet has been discovered since then.

However, the general consensus announced by the narrator that “few believe they would sustain even simple life,” is probably still accurate, based on the constraints on planets for harboring life that I have read about.

The narrator then refocuses a key point: “Are habitable planets rare or common?” So what is the evidence? Astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez (a Suspicious Person because he is associated with the intelligent design community) is then quoted as saying “The answer could be yes and the answer could be no - and either answer is interesting.”

Gonzalez is shown at work at a telescope at NASA. He candidly explains, regarding his youthful enthusiasm for alien civilizations (inspired by the lunar landings), “My belief wasn’t based on any hard-core science.” Now that he is a working scientist, he looks at it in a more hard-headed way: “There’s two sides of the equation. There’s the number of trials and then there’s the factors.”

The film then cuts to Charles Beichman, a project scientist with NASA Terrestrial Planet Finder*, who points out that, so far as we know, the same laws of physics and chemistry that apply on Earth apply everywhere in the galaxy. This view is backed up by Bijan Nemati, a physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Why is that important? Because ETs cannot simply breathe asbestos dust or stale beer, and live.

The film adopts the view that any actual extraterrestrial life scenario will, so far as we know, obey existing laws of physics and chemistry. So if ETs are out there, they do not have to be “like us” in a detailed way but they do have to obey laws we can study and understand. That is reassuring for science.

Overall, I can see why some members of the secular elite would be squirming in their chairs at this point. Again, the squirms have nothing to do with the science.

The film isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. It relies mostly on people who are not associated with the intelligent design hypothesis to make its point.

No, the Big Sin so far would be simply a failure to support the Carl Sagan consensus. That is, the film treats meaning and purpose in the universe as an open question. After Sagan, and more important, after Jean-Paul Sartre, nobody was allowed to do that.

2005 06 06 afternoon

Next, Kevin Grazier, a pleasant young investigation scientist at NASA’s Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn, points out that Earth inhabits a “Goldilocks zone” (not too hot, not too cold, just right).

The habitable zone in our solar system is relatively narrow, and a vivid demonstration of what would happen if Earth orbited the sun in the position of Venus (parboiled) or Mars (flash frozen).

Privileged Planet also discusses the uniqueness and importance of water for life, and presents it in an interesting way. I’ve written on the topic myself, and wish that more people knew about it.

Jay Richards then comments that “Contrary to what the Copernican Principle suggests, the recipe for life is much more complex than ‘just add water.’” (And, I have to admit, I have not checked my rose bowl recently for new types of life forms ... )

A long list of “necessary factors capable of supporting complex life”, appears:

- within galactic habitable zone [not too hot or cold]
- orbiting main sequence G2 dwarf star
- protected by gas giant planets [protected from asteroid hits]
- within circumstellar habitable zone
- nearly circular orbit [avoids way too cold and way too hot]
- oxygen-rich atmosphere
- correct mass [most life forms can only survive in certain gravity environments]
- orbited by large moon
- magnetic field
- plate tectonics
- ratio of liquid water and continents
- terrestrial planet
- moderate rate of rotation

If you know what the authors are talking about, you won’t need a PhD to realize that these are characteristics of Earth.

Here, I think, I can fault the film for assuming that average viewers understand what the scientists are talking about when typical public education has not remotely prepared them for it.

In school, students learn that global warming threatens Earth. But very few learn anything in school that suggests that Earth is possibly unique.

I have heard people say, seriously, that they believe that we could all move to another planet if we mess things up here. Yeah? Neptune maybe? Check it out before you put your house up for sale.

Gonzalez points out that we live on a “paper-thin crust” of Earth’s tectonic plates (movable crusts). That, in particular, brought back memories for me:

As an elementary school student an Ontario town in 1963, I was told that many American scientists did not believe that there were tectonic plates, as a result of which a professor at the University of Toronto endured much ridicule for endorsing them. My grade school teacher (probably the prof’s former grad student) once cut out a map of the continents and showed how you could fit a lot of them together. How, she asked, could people not see what this must mean? Apparently, the Americans had some other theory involving land bridges, and they were very attached to it. Now everyone knows about the tectonic plates, sort of. So things really do change.

Anyway, back to the film: As far as I can tell from my reading, the film is not misrepresenting anything with respect to the conditions life forms are generally believed to need.

Some authors have argued that life forms on Earth are merely specially adapted, and that the parameters could be very different elsewhere. Science fiction writers have developed elaborate alternate-evolution scenarios. And, of course, there is always a prof or two out there who makes a living opposing one item or another on the list. But the list represents reasonable current thinking.

Many of the ideas in the film echo books I have read, notably Nature’s Destiny, on why the universe seems adapted for life and Rare Earth on why, nonetheless, complex life is rare. Neither book promotes a religion.

Then we finally get to what, I fear, might be a truly sticky point: In a subtle and highly intellectual way, the film ridicules Sagan’s beloved Drake equation.

This is an equation that tries to estimate the number of intelligent alien civilizations in the galaxy.

Privileged Planet demonstrates the equation as a formidable looking bunch of scientific numbers—and then completely blows up the idea.

The Drake equation was one of Carl Sagan’s big moments. He really believed in that stuff, apparently. That life could start anywhere because it didn’t start for any reason or purpose, it just sort of happened.

Bijan Nemati explains why the probability is so small: You have to multiply 10 percent of this and 10 percent of that, so you multiply tiny fractions until you end up with a really small one.

“A hundred billion is a very large number but a thousandth of a trillion is much much smaller.”

Privileged Planet portrays it as 10 to the minus 15 displayed across the night sky in giant letters, of the sort that typically advertise a bait-and-switch used car deal in the Saturday paper.

Then Gonzalez is quoted saying, “Yes, we’re rare.”

(Gonzalez doesn’t say that he knows we’re alone or that he has a special message from God or anything like that.)

I just hope no one puts that guy Nemati in jail for pointing out the obvious. When a system is really rotten, pointing out the obvious is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do— and yet so often, it is the only road out of some stupid hell.

Ten per cent for the Drake equation is actually quite modest and fair You can assign whatever values you want to the probabilities because there is so little real information! Not only have no intelligent aliens turned up, but not even a single-celled organism that can reliably sourced to another planet. Just now, I’d settle for a bacterium, and I bet everyone else would too.

(Stuff to know: Earth and Mars may have whacked stuff back and forth at an early stage in their development, so it is possible that even if we find one-celled organisms on Mars, they came from Earth. Alternatively, an Earth organism could have come originally from Mars. No one was taking notes at the time.)

Then the Privileged Planet narrator asks, “Does the possibility that our planet is rare within the galaxy imply anything about its significance?”

At this point, I think I can detect a sort of religious agenda, but it’s not really different from Sagan’s except in one way:

Where he said no, these folks imply yes!

That’s kind of convenient for yer humble hack, because I’ve still got the story right.

The PP folks dissed Sagan in his own church, the Smithsonian.

I bet that the people who still mourn Sagan, who died relatively young in 1996, and believe passionately in thethings he stood for wouldn’t enjoy Privileged Planet at all, because it raises too many disturbing questions.

They are very, very mad about the fact that Privileged Planet is being shown at the Smithsonian.

But, as I said before, that has nothing to do with science.

I’m going to stop for a break now, but I am still waiting for that big “religious” theme, as in Biblical-type miracles, revelations, prophecies, and such.

Unless, of course, you think that meaning or purpose in the universe is a big religious theme but no meaning or purpose isn’t one.

But then I ask, does evidence matter? What does the evidence reasonably suggest?

June 7 update: Lots of astronomers, still no hellfire ... but keep reading

We now meet astronomer Donald Brownlee, co-author of Rare Earth, a book I found very useful for explaining why complex life is uncommon in the universe (and therefore the likely reason why no one answers SETI’s mail).

He comments, “There is a general feeling that nature wants to make Earth-like planets and that naturally life will evolve on them and naturally evolve into something like us and the conditions, the environmental conditions on the planet that would allow for more complex creatures similar to people, plants, animals, is very rare, so we wrote the book Rare Earth to point out that the Earth is actually a rather special place.”

All this is interspersed with wild nature scenery and then cuts to Brownlee at work in what looks like a really awful institutional office.

It occurs to me that Brownlee’s ideas would be great for promoting environmentalism. This coming Thursday is Earth Day here in Toronto and I will commit a Big Sin if I am fool enough to drive.

Oh, okay, now I am beginning to get it ...

Brownlee says, ... the Earth is almost like a giant organism where the systems are interactive ...

Aha! The Gaia hypothesis! So is this the big religious moment?

Basically, the Gaia hypothesis, named after an ancient Goddess, suggests that Earth is best seen as a giant organism.

But Brownlee only says that Earth is “almost like” a giant organism — and he issues no call to conversion.

Hey, wait a minute. If you are going to save people, provided they adopt your religion, you can’t say “I can almost, like, save you.” So no, this can’t be the big religious moment the Washington Post discovered. Not yet.

Brownlee goes on, “But the real question is, you know, why did this happen? Is it just a matter of luck? Or not? If you look at thousands of planets, only a small fraction, or a very small fraction, will be truly Earth-like. ”

Well, most mentally alive people eventually wonder about those kinds of things. “Why did this happen?” Well, why did anything happen? Come to think of it. Why does anything ever happen at all? Could it all have happened somewhere else? Millions of times? How can we know?

I just hope the Washington Post editorial board doesn’t think that only big-brainers at universities ever wonder about this stuff. Or worse, that if anyone else ever does wonder about it, they must have a bad case of “religion.” Talk about being out of touch ...

Ah, but now we come to a part where I think the film is dissing St. Carl again, and in his own church. While Brownlee is speaking, we cut to the Astro-Slot, a slot machine graphic that shows Earth as the triple zillion winner, coming up on all the panels.

Hmmm. That’s definitely very unorthodox, if you are a devout Saganite. Remember, Earth is only a pale blue dot. It couldn’t be a big winner.

Okay, but either Earth won or it didn’t. The only way to prove that Earth didn’t win would be to find a million more Earths. We are still looking, and the odds are not very good. That does not prove anything, but it does require that we look again at our assumptions.

Jay Richards then comments, regarding chance as an explanation, that there are 100 billion galaxies “... you have to ask yourself, ‘What if this convergence of factors didn’t come as the result of simply a fluke or luck. What if it is the result of some underlying purpose or design? And if the Earth does exist for a purpose, is there any way that we could tell?’”

That is a very good question. Maybe best suited to Science and Philosophy 101 rather than Slow Physics Students Tutorial, but, at the risk of repeating myself, if this is religion, Sagan’s Cosmos was just as much or much more so.

The narrator then introduces dramatic footage of a total eclipse of the sun in North India in 1995, including bystander reactions (clearly, they had not expected the sky to become so dark).

Astronomer Gonzalez enthuses about the event and introduces a surprising fact, well known to astronomers for hundreds of years, but not to many others: The distance of the Earth from the moon and sun happens to be exactly right for key astronomical observations of the sun during an eclipse (400 times bigger but 400 times further away). Of course, the exact position of Earth and the relationship of Earth to our sun and moon are also critical for unrelated biological reasons. Gonzalez sees that as evidence that humans were meant to explore the universe.

Well, maybe it is. On the other hand, if we are so well off here on Earth, maybe we should just stay home. Anyway, that’s just one guy’s opinion. I’m still waiting for the call to conversion.

Next, we learn how Gonzalez and Richards met up. Gonzalez liked the numbers and wrote an astrophysics paper about them, and Richards wanted to study a “wider purpose” of the universe. Together, they authored the book and DVD Privileged Planet.

Richards notes, “I had the same feeling that he did, that perfect solar eclipses were sort of the tip of the iceberg, the first instance of an entire class of evidence that provides a way for judging if the universe is the result of a fluke or some impersonal process or the result of purpose or design.”

Well, Carl Sagan knew the answer already and it was either “fluke” or, at best, “impersonal process.” But how exactly did Sagan know? How can we know if he was right? What if he wasn’t right? Shouldn’t that make a big difference to science?

I’m still waiting for the hellfire tracts. Maybe they come in the mail. Mail from the States is slow here in Toronto, so I must be patient.

[to be continued]

(Blog Policy Note: If you have watched the Privileged Planet film and wish to comment on it, you are welcome. As a matter of policy rather than lack of time, I will not address any posts on this subject unless the poster can begin by reassuring me that he or she has seen the film. I simply do not have time to correspond with anyone who will not make such a minimal contribution to a free society. (If you want to comment on the film without having seen it, there is apparently a huge number of forums available to you, so please go to one of them.)

The Post-Darwinist’s Comments section is now treated as a combination Letters/Op-Ed page. It is surely unnecessary to mention this in polite company, but just for the record, this blog is not a showcase for cussing, dissing, rude remarks, unsubstantiated accusations, URLs posted without comment, et cetera. They get borfed as soon as I notice them. Also, keep your comments to 200 to 400 words. You can always start your own blog or Web site and place the URL in your comments, so people can visit your blog and hear you out at greater length. Note: Your comments should always be more than just an invitation to visit a URL. The sensible Commenters who favour this blog will always give a legitimate reason why anyone should take the time to visit another blog/site.)

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?.

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