There is no shortage of science news in mainstream media. This means that there is also no shortage of ignorance and sensationalism in mainstream media. Let me first address the initial reaction that the general population is likely to have given the caricatures of Christianity and beliefs of Christians promulgated across the internet. The objection goes something like this: ‘Well, I would expect nothing more than for a Christian to complain about science because everyone knows Christianity is anti-science.’ Mind you, this does not typically come from those more educated in these matters. Those who are educated in science, the history of science and the philosophy of science are far less likely to have this sort of attitude. They know the deep roots of science, are aware of the subtleties of scientific reasoning, and have a profound respect for the Christian influence in the rise and flourishing of science.
With that empty, baseless objection behind us, I want to point out some of the reasons why there seems to be more ignorance and sensationalism in science journalism than there is actual science. Journalism has typically been all about reporting of facts, but merely reporting facts can sometimes seem a bit boring to most people. As such, journalists will often try to color and exaggerate their stories in order to draw more readers, more web page views, and more ad revenues, etc. This benefits not only the journalist but the organization for which he writes. This is why sensationalism is not only tolerated but even unofficially mandated. With the rise of so much competition across the internet news outlets, journalists and the organizations with which they are affiliated, are always vying for more attention. And so, tremendous liberties are taken with the facts and their implications as communicated by scientific studies and observations.
If one had the time to scour the internet for examples, volumes could be written of the fallacious sensationalism that predominates the news media. For our intents and purposes, a single example may be sufficient to demonstrate this empty rhetoric. In August of 2016 astronomers discovered a planet (Proxima b) that could potentially support life. But what is this potentiality based on? The most notable factors mentioned to be used as an analog to Earth and hence, to the possibility of allowing for life were the following:
As one popular news source put it,
“The planet is thought to be about 1.3 times more massive than Earth and probably rocky. It lies within its star’s “habitable zone” where temperatures are just right to allow the existence of liquid surface water, raising the possibility of life.
If the planet formed further out from its star before migrating to its present close position just 7.5 million kilometres away (4.6 million miles), it could have deep global oceans… Leading University of Washington astronomer Dr. Rory Barnes wrote in a blog for the palereddot.org website, which is dedicated to the new planet: “The short answer is, it’s complicated. Our observations are few, and what we do know allows for a dizzying array of possibilities.”
The biggest obstacle to life on Proxima b is the fact that it is 25 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun.” [1. Sunday World, Evidence of life on Proxima B ‘could be uncovered within a few years’ http://www.sundayworld.com/entertainment/trending/evidence-of-life-on-proxima-b-could-be-uncovered-within-a-few-years]
One interesting concession the writer makes in this piece is that at least one of the factors necessary for life depends on a big assumption, namely that the possibility of life is asserted on the basis of the assumption that the planet formed further away from its host star.
Let’s look at the headline again – “Evidence of life on Proxima B ‘could be uncovered within a few years.” Now, notice the more reserved sobering quote from Dr. Rory Barnes, one of the leading astronomers of the project,
“…what we do know allows for a dizzying array of possibilities.”
Well, before we know more, of course, it’s hypothetically possible for a planet to support life. But does this current “silence” mean that therefore there is life or that it’s likely for there to be life or that it’s just a matter of time before we know there is life? Of course not. But this is typically not the general tone of articles such as these.
Every single instance of a news article that proclaims the possibility of life on another planet includes one enormous assumption, namely that what happened here on Earth for life to emerge was easy and would be expected everywhere else in the universe. This is a giant leap of faith into utter darkness. In reality, the origin of life on Earth is still a giant mystery. There are many challenges, some of which appear to be insurmountable at the moment. I’ve written more about this in Cold and Lonely Truth so I won’t rehash that in this piece. Think about this for a moment – we don’t know how chemical evolution turned inorganic materials into life, and we are aware of many factors that militate against every single theory we’ve tried. And at the same time, we are willing to grant that not only did this happen by no other means than materials and processes on Earth but ready to assume that the same processes acting on similar materials have already taken place on other planets. Blind faith is well and alive, not only in many religions but also at times in science.
To claim that Proxima b is capable of sustaining life because it meets two of the criteria for planetary habitability similar to Earth is just way too simplistic. That the two factors must be within the necessary range of habitability is a must, but it does not mean that there are no other factors required. But, if one were reading articles such as this, one would certainly get the feeling that the conditions for a life permitting planet are not that rare in the universe. The fact of the matter is that conditions for habitability on a planet are so numerous and the ranges for those conditions so narrow, given what we know of the universe, it is extremely improbable for all the requirements to be met in one place and time.
Let’s get back to the claim that Proxima b is a candidate for a life-permitting planet because it is analogous to the size of Earth. Proxima b is 30% more massive than Earth, so its size is not that similar to that of Earth. Could a planet 30% more massive than Earth allow and sustain life? That’s unlikely and here’s why.
The mass of a planet dictates many other aspects of that planet, such as its gravity, its atmosphere and more. Many factors that trickle down a very long chain. If Earth were 30% more massive (like Proxima b), it would have,
A slight increase in gravity on Earth would dramatically change the kinds of organisms that can live on the planet. A bigger increase would mean that no life could survive on the planet. Another hoopla was made in 2009 with the discovery of Gliese 581c on which it was speculated that there might be bugs. Why bugs? Because the gravity on the planet was thought to be too strong that it virtually wiped out the possibility of upright alien-type creatures we’re accustomed to seeing depicted. Scientist, Dr. Edgar Andrews, addressed some of those claims in his piece as well [2. Dr. Edgar Andrews, Small flat bugs, http://whomadegod.org/2009/11/small-flat-bugs/]
The change in the gravitational pull would also impact the gasses that comprise the atmosphere. The reason why the moon has no atmosphere is that it does not have a strong enough gravity. The gasses that make up our atmosphere are finely tuned to allow for life. For example, at the moment our planet’s atmosphere contains ~21% oxygen. If Earth had a stronger gravity, it would retain more of its oxygen. Now, some would think of this as a good thing. But if the oxygen level were to reach ~27% it would be catastrophic for life. [3. Dr. Jeff Zweerink, Too Much Oxygen in the Past, http://www.reasons.org/articles/too-much-oxygen-in-the-past] [4. Kenneth H. Coale, “A Massive PhytoPlankton Bloom Induced by an Ecosystem-Scale Iron Fertilization Experiment in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean,” Nature 383 (1996), pp. 495-499.] An increase in the gravity of our planet would also throw off important ratios of gasses, such as the oxygen to nitrogen ratio. If this ratio is greater, advanced life functions would proceed too quickly. [5. Neil F. Comins, What If The Moon Didn’t Exist? (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp.2-8, 53-65.]
Now, let’s consider the star around which Proxima b orbits. After all, the size of a planet’s host star is also important in creating the conditions that would allow for life on the planet. Proxima Centauri, the host star of Proxima b is a red dwarf star. Our sun is a yellow dwarf star. While the difference is not so significant when considering the full range of the biggest and smallest stars, the difference is enough to call into question whether this type of star would allow this kind of planet to sustain life. Proxima Centauri is ten times smaller than our sun. A smaller star would almost certainly have a lower magnetic field. The problem is that when a star’s magnetic field is too low solar wind and solar magnetosphere will not be adequate to thwart a significant amount of cosmic rays [6. Kentaro Nagamine, Masataka Fukugita, Renyue Cen, and Jeremiah P. Ostriker, “Star Formation History and Stellar Metallicity Distribution in a Cold Dark Matter Universe,” Astrophysical Journal, 558 (2001), pp. 497-504.] and this will have dire consequences for life.
Why would we be optimistic about Proxima b containing life when we have so much data against this likelihood. And what of all the things we don’t know? Does it have a moon? What is its rate of rotation, its atmospheric pressure, its water to continent ratio, orbital eccentricity, the makeup of its core, its magnetic field, its oxygen level, its ozone level, its age, so on and so forth? Why do we need to know these things? Well, each of those factors and many others are all essential for life.
Whether scientists or journalists, to claim that Proxima b is capable of sustaining life is premature to say the least. I suppose one gets excited over this one planet because it may be the best potential for finding life elsewhere in the universe. I think it’s best to measure our optimism with the factors known to be required for life. Astronomer, Dr. Hugh Ross, has done a superb job of researching and aggregating these factors [8. Dr. Hugh Ross, Fine-Tuning For Life On Earth, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-on-earth-june-2004]:
For a complete list, details and references to the scientific body of work that has yielded this list, please see the citation.
Now, given this list, how optimistic can we honestly be about the possibility of Proxima b or any other planet sustaining life? Do popular news outlets have justified reasons to write articles with such bravado? If not Proxima b, then is it really imminent that we will find any other planet with these set of conditions for sustaining life? Well, it’s theoretically possible, but let’s first gauge the various aspects of the planet with the conditions we know are necessary for life before we start parading that finding life on another planet is only a matter of time.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.