Pretentious Planet
Pretentious Planet
PZ Myers
I finally sat down and watched The Privileged Planet (RealAudio) this evening. What a waste of an hour.

I'd already read the book, which is pretty feeble to begin with, but take a book with no data in it, dilute it and diffuse it into the low signal format of a television program which consists mainly of slow pans and zooms around computer-generated graphics of astronomical phenomena, and you've got a thin broth indeed. The extremely low information density in the program has me even more dismayed that anyone at the Smithsonian saw fit to approve this fluff in the first place—all I can imagine is that the reviewer must have passed out in the first five minutes from boredom, woke up during the closing credits, and gave it a pass rather than admit to having slept through it all.

For example, it dedicates an unconscionable amount of time to the miracle of galactic habitable zones: in the center of the galaxy, it's too dangerous, and at the edges, heavier elements are too thinly distributed, so we can only exist in narrow zones within the galaxy…and voilà! That's where we are! This is the level of sophistication of this program; I guess they assumed the fruity voice of narrator John Rhys-Davies and glitzy CGI would add a level of portentousness to the affair that would convince a few people that it is important.

They also add another Amazing Coincidence, that these conditions suitable for our kind of life are also ideal for astronomical observations. I would also like to point out that in a similar way, I'm in an ideal place. If I'd been born 100 miles below the surface of the earth, I'd be cooked and dead, and even if I were able to survive in such an environment, I'd have no hope of seeing the stars. If I'd been born 100 miles above the surface, I'd have quickly gasped and died of oxygen deprivation…and if I miraculously survived there, I would still lack the raw materials to make telescopes. My existence on this narrow band of the surface is also wonderfully fine-tuned. Why, if my mother had given birth to me just 10 feet above the ground, I would have popped out to have immediately fallen on my soft little head, splat. It is also hard to do astronomy with acute post-natal brain damage.

Imagine a whole hour of earnest creationist hand-waving of this nature, culminating in a complaint that all the good ol' scientists like Copernicus had theological motivations. Why, if only we brought god back into our science, maybe we could make some progress.

If you really want, you can follow that link up above and watch it yourself. I can't recommend it—even you are sympathetic to ID, on purely aesthetic grounds, it's boring—but I will recommend that you read this review of the book by William H. Jefferys, of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. As you might expect, it is not a kind review.

Finally, I turn to Gonzalez and Richards's notion that our earth is uniquely designed for its inhabitants to do scientific exploration, and that the universe is similarly designed for us to do that scientific exploration. They point to a number of phenomena that have aided our scientific enterprise, such as the transparency of the earth's atmosphere, the fact that we have a moon that is just far enough from the earth to produce spectacular solar eclipses, and so on. Of all the arguments in the book, I find this the weakest. It puts the cart before the horse. For suppose it were not so; if we existed on another world very different from the earth, then we would surely be doing something. We would be doing whatever was possible for us to do under the circumstances in which we found ourselves. If we accepted the Whiggish reasoning of the authors, we would be just as justified in concluding that our planet -- and our universe, if we could see it in this alternative reality -- was designed so that we would do whatever we happened to be doing at the time or find interesting at the time (as diverse human cultures have always done). The authors could learn much by studying a little anthropology and a little history.

To summarize, the little that is new in this book isn't interesting, and what is old is just old-hat creationism in a new, modern-looking astronomical costume. It is the same old shell game. It's too bad that Guillermo Gonzalez (whom I know from his tenure as a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Texas's Astronomy Department) has allowed himself to be sucked in as an advocate for this ancient argument. The Argument from Design is 200 years old, if not older, and it has not improved with age. It hasn't resulted in any new knowledge in all of those years. Modern astronomy is constantly producing new knowledge and understanding of the universe. Guillermo is a promising young astrophysicist, and I hope that he doesn't throw away his career on such nonsense.

Too late! I'm putting his drivel on his Permanent Record.

The low point in the movie for me was when Rhys-Davies solemnly declared that Gonzalez and Richards "meticulously tested their ideas against the best scientific evidence", and then they cut to a talking head babbling about habitable zones. There was no evidence, no tests meticulous or otherwise, and even the ideas were moldy and stale. And this is the best the Discovery Institute can do? Geez. Can we keep ID out of the school on grounds of banality?