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A Privileged Understanding of The Privileged Planet?

Response to eSkeptic's Review of The Privileged Planet Video

By: Ryan Huxley

misc Given the recent events in Dover, Pennsylvania and El Tejon, California, not to mention President Bush’s comments last August, Intelligent Design (ID) is no longer flying under the radar for most people. Consider the recent film review of The Privileged Planet video by Charles G. Lambdin for eSkeptic. Mr Lambdin apparently did not follow the main premise of the video, and apparently has not read the book either. Instead, Mr. Lambdin provides readers with his interpretation of the videos claims. Let us take a closer look at Mr. Lambdin’s view of the video and its claims. (For those interested in viewing the video online for free with the REAL player [though with low resolution], see; and for those interested in a light hearted, but detailed account of the material covered in the video, see

Mr. Lambdin begins his article as the usual anti-ID conspiracy theorist frequently does, commenting on the infamous “wedge document” and supposed shady methods for ID proponents to gain public acceptance of their view. Rather than deal with these issues, which have been dealt with somewhat elsewhere (e.g. see the Discovery Institute’s articles on the “wedge document”), it is more pertinent to discuss the particulars claimed by Mr. Lambdin regarding The Privileged Planet video.

The Earth is located in the circumstellar habitable zone around the sun; this is a “Goldilocks Zone” that allows for liquid water, a vital component for life. This is the first item Lambdin takes issue with:
“(The film ignores the transitional twilight zone between the dark side and light side in which life might exist.)” This is likely ignored because it is complex, technological life – life that would be able to make the kinds of scientific discoveries we make about the universe around us – that The Privileged Planet deals with. The possibility of life in the “twilight” zone is less likely to be of an complex, technological life due to the change in weather that is likely to result from being in such a place; basically, it is likely that simply dealing with the weather would engage whatever life could exist in that arena full time. We have the luxury of having “down time” from dealing with the elements, which is sometimes credited for scientific progress or even the birth of science itself as we know it. More to the point, with respect to this particular item, The Privileged Planet is interested in degrees of habitability, not just mere habitability. In fact, in the video, it is even specifically mentioned that to argue for design based exclusively on habitability is not appropriate (this will be discussed at more length later in this response).

Next, Lambdin discusses the carbon cycle portrayed in the video, and its necessity for oxygen based life, noting that the video ignores mentioning non-oxygen based microbes found deep in the ocean:
“(Never mind the microbes found at thermal vents in the ocean or at significant depths in mines — which do not require oxygen.)” It is likely that the ocean thermal vent microbes generally rely on the ecosystems “above” them in order for their survival and the majority (if not all) of those systems do require oxygen; in other words, they’re likely not a very “independent” life form. Additionally, there are some microbes that do require oxygen. And for those that live in rocks below the ground, there’s mounting evidence that these organisms feed on organic matter that has filtered down from life above (e.g. fossil fuels). However, more to the main point – neither of these types of life do much to qualify for complex, technological life – that is, life that is capable of scientific discoveries. Extremophiles (i.e organisms that live in these kinds of extreme environments), are even specifically discussed on page 37 of The Privileged Planet book, in a section entitled “Extreme Evironments.” The book specifically discusses these in further detail and provides mainstream references as well. However, more to the main point – neither of these types of life do much to qualify for advanced technological life – that is, life that is capable of scientific discoveries. Again, it is not simply mere life that The Privileged Planet is interested in – it is the correlation between degrees of habitability and the ability to make scientific discoveries.

To his credit, while reviewing a few of the many factors required for life, Mr. Lambdin does at one point seem to acknowledge that these are perhaps a “specific type of life:”
“(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).” To this we would say: exactly! That’s correct! Recall that it is life that would be capable of making scientific discoveries if the conditions are right for them to be made. It’s not about any life, but that specific kind of advanced technological life that is the main type of life of interest in the hypothesis put forth in The Privileged Planet.

Anytime one discusses the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, the Drake equation almost inevitably arises. This equation was first put forth in 1961 by Frank Drake in an attempt to ascertain the variables contributing to the likelihood of intelligent, communicating life existing elsewhere in our galaxy, such that interested parties would basically look in the right areas. Some of those factors are discussed in the video and assigned probabilities. Mr. Lambdin subsequently takes on the task of doing some probability calculations based on the probabilities noted (specifically, 1/10 for each of the factors) in the video. (We would like to point out that we welcome and would like to encourage such kinds of calculations for many of the claims made in ID – as well as in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory; these are some of the crucial calculations required to determine the validity for some of the claims made for each of these theories. In other words, both proponents and opponents of ID and neo-Darwinism should be willing to get into the numbers, as Mr. Lambdin does, to help establish legitimacy of claims made. Dr. William Dembski has provided seminal books and papers on such calculations for ID, which will be discussed in further detail later.)

First, Mr. Lambdin discusses the lack of an appropriate discussion of the probabilities proposed and the resources available in the Universe:
“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.” Actually, it is mentioned specifically in the video that the odds provided are actually larger than what is likely the case. Additionally, they do specifically note that there is a vast probabilistic resource within the universe – however, paying attention to the probabilities is crucial. In fact, in the book, a revised Drake equation (see Appendix A, on p. 337) is proposed to include additional factors that are now considered to contribute to the likelihood of civilized life existing in the universe. In the book, some of the particular factors are specifically discussed and shown that the actual probability is much smaller than 10% (p. 340-341). Since there is still much being learned in this area of cosmology, it is likely that many of the factors will be substantially less than 10%, and additional factors may need to be added. This is evident based on the revised Drake equation proposed in the book along with some of the specific factors shown to be substantially less (orders of magnitude less in fact) than 10%.

But, more to a key point made by Mr. Lambdin is that mere low probability for life is sufficient for a design inference. This is incorrect. As discussed previously, it is specifically mentioned in the film that this is not their justification for design; it is the correlation, the pattern, between habitable locations with locations well suited for making discoveries. Mr. Lambdin misses this central point in the video.

As Mr. Lambdin continues, he performs the actual probability calculations, based upon the noted conservative numbers in the video, to arrive at “10 habitable planets due to chance alone.” It is claimed by Mr. Lambdin that these numbers are far too conservative based upon the results of extra-solar planet searchers:
“Astronomers who search for extra-solar planets find that about one in ten star systems they search contain planets.” A few key points that Mr. Lambdin does not mention are worth noting here. The extrasolar planets found are generally unlike our Solar System planets: their orbital location and eccentricities are markedly different. Most of the extrasolar planet have orbits very close to their stars or have elliptical orbits (i.e. noncircular). In the former condition, these planets would not be within the circumstellar habitable zone (i.e. many of the planets are too close rather than in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ allowing liquid water). For the latter case, the extreme temperature variations, caused by being close and then far from the star during the planet’s orbit, prevents relatively stable temperatures and weather. Neither condition allows for complex technological life the luxury of “down time” to pursue studying their surrounding environment (assuming they could even live at all with these conditions). (For those interested in learning more regarding these findings, refer to the section ‘Distant Wanderers’ on p. 94 in the book.) In other words, our Solar System is rather unusual based upon the extrasolar planets found thus far. Yet, Mr. Lambdin pushes his reasoning with the following:
“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!” That last statement has to be reconciled with the flawed reasoning previously exposed. It does not make sense to think that it could be conservative, or else planet finding would not be as involved as it obviously is.

As Mr. Lambdin apparently thinks he is on a key counter argument here, he provides an additional reference to suggest that there may be as many as 48 million habitable planets in our galaxy alone ( and follows with:
“If this figure is in any way representative of other galaxies, then the number of habitable planets in the universe would be staggering.” There’s an important point to be made, which Mr. Lambdin even mentions, but seems to neglect in his final grandiose claim: they are only using a part of the Drake equation. In other words, they’re not including all of the factors necessary to arrive at a habitable planet. In fact, this is even specifically noted in the cited article:
“Nevertheless, there are a number of other important factors, which may significantly change Nhab. Some of those are:
  • the presence of a large moon,
  • the presence of a giant planet to shield the habitable planet from comets and to scatter asteroids,
  • the abundance of long-lived radioisotopes,
  • extinction from gamma-ray bursts and so-called superflares.” (p. 24, last page of the 3 page article)
  • Apparently, Mr. Lambdin is unaware of the fact that in order to arrive at realistic or reasonable numbers for claims regarding habitable environment, one must account for as many factors as are known. Otherwise, we’re left with numbers that leave the incorrect impression regarding chances of prospective habitable planets.

    Mr. Lambdin moves into a critique of the latter part of the video, which deals more specifically with the main idea of The Privileged Planet: habitability correlates with measurability. He suggests some of the statements made are irrelevant to the topic of design:
    “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.” It may be a non-sequitar as it specifically relates to inferring design of the cosmos. However, it is relevant when considering the philosophical implications of The Privileged Planet, which are in contrast to the “pale blue dot” idea (which is how the video opened). That is, implications of design differ from the Principle of Mediocrity (i.e. our place is not special and any musings of importance are simple human fantasies). In this context, such philosophical wonderings are appropriate.

    As the main thesis for The Privileged Planet is mentioned numerous times in the video (i.e. habitability correlates with measurability), Mr. Lambdin seems to miss it and instead suggests it is begging the question:
    “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?”
    Lambdin continues along the previously mentioned ‘interesting coincidences, so it must be design’ reasoning by relating the curious similarities between President Lincoln’s and President Kennedy’s assassinations. He claims that it is merely coincidences, coupled with personal incredulity, that are the basis for the design claims made in The Privileged Planet.
    “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.” The reviewer is completely missing the main argument in The Privileged Planet with this characterization, as discussed previously. First, it is not a matter of being “unable to imagine” other habitable planets along with the necessary conditions for making discoveries that Gonzalez and Richards make the design claim; it is specifically because of what is objectively known to be required for conditions for both habitability and measurability that the design assertion is even conceivable. In The Privileged Planet (in both the video and the book), they explicitly make the reference that probabilities alone are not sufficient to arrive at a design inference. In fact, they even go so far as to say that rarity of life in and of itself is insufficient to make a case for design. Again, as mentioned already, it is the apparent relationship between conditions required for life coupled with conditions required for scientific discovery that support the design argument; we should not expect that these conditions should be compatible in the way we find them from chance or logical necessity. Comparisons are even made between other environments to drive the point home that it is degrees of habitability and measurability that are of specific interest in The Privileged Planet. This is the main argument of The Privileged Planet. It is unfortunate that Mr. Lambdin completely misses the fundamentals of the argument and, instead, constructs a strawman for his critique.

    Discussions of the ability to do science as it relates to neo-Darwinism are discussed in the video, and commented on by Mr. Lambdin. He is perplexed by some statements along these lines:
    “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.” I find myself laughing at this one since again the author is focusing solely on the words (i.e. semantics) and not the intended meaning. The point of the statement quoted is to get the idea across that astronomy provides no immediate benefit to daily survival, yet hunting and gathering food does. In other words, if you could hunt and gather food better than another, you’re more likely to live. But, what benefit does being able to do astronomy provide as seen in the typical “survival of the fittest” concept of early humans? This is the curious part about our Universe and the situation we find ourselves in on Earth: the Universe around us is intelligible, but there is no reason we should expect such to be the case from logical necessity.

    Mr. Lambdin continues his dismissive discussion of these curious facts by suggesting that because improbable events do occur, we should not be surprised by the ones discussed in The Privileged Planet.
    “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.” Richard Swinburne provides an analogy for this flawed reasoning. Consider that you’ve been sentenced to death by a firing squad, consisting of sharpshooters. Upon your forlorn execution day, the dreaded words of “READY! AIM! FIRE!” are heard – yet you live! But, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that you are not dead, because if you were, then you wouldn’t be around to observe it. Therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself alive. But this assumes the very thing one is trying to prove: that by chance alone you are alive. Does this make sense? Is it rational to claim that you survived due to an incredibly (hugely) beneficial bit of luck? Or is an alternative explanation more likely, such as the sharpshooters intended to miss, or filled their guns with blanks, etc. In other words, your living was intended or designed.

    Lambdin continues his ridicule of The Privileged Planet while mischaracterizing the key arguments of it and ID in general.
    “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." “ Mr. Lambdin must be completely unaware of the work by Dembski, the upper probability bound of 1/10^150 & 500 bits. As is documented in No Free Lunch (NFL), design theorist William Dembski (Ph.D. in Mathematics) specifically discusses the objectively identifiable probability limit in order for something to qualify as complex specified information (CSI) (see our article on ID jargon if you're unfamiliar with this term); it basically is 1/(10^150), which corresponds to 500 bits in terms of information (see Sec. 1.5, 2.8, and especially p. 156 in Sec. 3.8). Additionally, in NFL as well as The Design Inference (TDI), he goes through specific example probabilistic calculations in applying his methodology for CSI determination. This includes human phenomena (election control, TDI pg. 9-20, intellectual property protection, TDI pg. 20-22; forensic science, TDI pg. 22-24; data falsification in science, TDI pg. 24-26; cryptography, pg. 26…) and non-human phenomena (SETI, TDI pg. 26-32; general randomness, pg 32-35; simple lifeforms, TDI pg. 55-62; the bacterial flagellum, NFL pg 289-302, 292 & 293 specifically). In any case, whether or not Dembski can successfully apply his ideas is a matter of debate—Dembski has dealt with many problems regarding false positives, false negatives, and clearly defined his terms (see, for example, The Design Revolution, where Dembski addresses a large number of such objections). Dembski’s ideas can be applied in science—we can calculate the level of CSI in a biological structure, just as Dembski does for the flagellum in ch. 5 of No Free Lunch. (For those interested in further refinement of Dembski's treatment of CSI, dated 8/15/05, see

    But, the main point of The Privileged Planet is not that our situation is “too rare” or “too unlikely” or “too complex.” In fact, this is specifically mentioned to be a poor argument for design in the video and the book (the book actually has a section at the end dealing specifically with objections, similar to this). As stated previously, it is that design is a reasonable inference based on the correlation between the conditions required for life and conditions required for scientific discovery. Because Mr. Lambdin never accurately portrays the principal argument in The Privileged Planet, his criticisms do little to cast doubt on the novel ideas proposed.

    With the frequent mischaracterizations by critics of Intelligent Design, confusion abounds in the minds of the general public. Perhaps this is the goal of critics who are unable to provide rational criticisms of an idea they simply don’t like. To admit that there may be something to ID would be to admit they might be wrong. Luckily for science, personal pride usually does not win the day. Let’s hope for the benefit of the scientific enterprise, the evidence is allowed to speak for itself, and the chips fall as they may.