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Return to 4th Quarter 2021 articles.

The title of this article is 'Making the Right Assumptions,' with a picture of An alien planet fantasy space scene of moons rising over the planet.

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 did not 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 is a difficult mistake to avoid. Making the right assumptions to prove your point is usually possible.

Frank_Drake speaking_at_Cornell,_October_2017.

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 fracton of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f1 = the fraction of planets that could support life that acutally develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intellegient life (civilization)
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.

Dr. Hugh Ross.

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.

We see that one problem with statistical arguments is that they often do not include all the variables. A second problem is that they do not ensure that all of their variables are independent. Therefore, we must consider the interdependent factors.

Row of BMW Z4 cars on the background of clear sky.

For a trivial example, let us suppose I ask, “What are the odds that I will buy my grandson a BMW for his birthday?” The first question we should ask is, “Is he old enough to drive?” A second question might be, “Can he get insurance?” A third variable would be, “Do I have enough money to buy the car?” Finally, a fourth variable might be, “Would he be happy with a used BMW?”

Since I love my grandson, I might say that the odds of me buying a car for him are 100%. However, as we consider each of those variables (plus many more), the probability becomes less. Are these variables independent, or are they interdependent factors? If he is not old enough to drive, he is also not old enough to get insurance. The probability of him being able to drive and being able to get insurance are not independent because both depend on his age. His being happy with a used BMW is not independent of my having enough money to buy a new one.


If we look at the question of life on Mars, we might be inclined to say that the odds are very high that life does exist on that planet. It has a mass similar to Earth. Mars has an atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, and water. Mars is tilted on its axis, it has a magnetic field, and the length of a day is roughly 24 hours. Are all of these variables independent? The answer is no because if the planet has volcanic eruptions, it will have an atmosphere, and volcanic eruptions always involve some amount of water. Both the water and the atmosphere are interdependent factors that depend upon volcanic eruptions. Despite all that, life on Mars is highly doubtful.

Martian sneaks behind an astronaut on Mars..

The tricky part of this subject for both believers and atheists is knowing what is dependent and what is independent. As our knowledge of a topic improves, we are likely to find more dependent factors.Night time lightning storm shooting lightning bolts.For example, we recently discussed the importance of hydroxyl radicals in cleaning Earth's atmosphere of pollutants. What are the odds of hydroxyl radicals being in a planet's atmosphere? What may appear to be a separate and independent variable is the presence of lightning. Science has known for a long time that lightning helps produce nitrates which are essential for plant growth. In June 2021, scientists announced a recent discovery that lightning produces hydroxyl radicals. Any planet that has lightning will have hydroxyl radicals, so the presence of hydroxyl radicals is not independent but is dependent on lightning.

Traveling outdoor, hiking and camping lifestyle in nature.

Considering the millions of interdependent factors that must be in place to allow us to exist, could they all have come together by chance? Consider it on various levels — the creation of a universe from nothing — the creation of a life-supporting planet — the creation of the first life from inert matter — the creation of advanced life. We could go on. But considering all of the interdependent factors at each level, is it more logical to assume they came together by mere chance or guided by an intelligent Designer?

— John N. Clayton

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© Keith Tarrier. Image from big stock.com
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