Habitable Planet Doubts: Waffling Science?

Habitable Planet Doubts: Waffling Science?

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on a recently discovered exoplanet that some scientists felt confident hosted life.1 Now, another team of astronomers question whether the planet even exists. Are scientists just being wishy-washy?

Far from it. Often times, the latest research pushes the envelope in terms of extracting scientifically useful information out of data. According to the original group led by Steven Vogt, detection of Gliese 581g (the planet now in question) required a decade’s worth of observations of Gliese 581 (the star around which the planet orbits) using two different telescopes. A second team analyzed a greater number of observations of the planet system, all of which were taken with one telescope. Speaking for the second team, Francesco Pepe states that his team found all the previously published planets (labeled b, c, d, and e) but not the two new planets—including 581g, which sits within the liquid-water habitable zone.2 In response to this announcement by Pepe, Vogt’s team issued another statement saying they stand by their reported results.3

While not normally played out in the popular press, this type of “scientific argument” regularly occurs in research journals. This process plays a foundational role in the ability of the scientific process to accurately understand how this universe works. A result does not stand or fall because of the credibility of the scientists involved or on how much press it generates or on how much impact the result might have. Rather, the validity of a result is determined by the ability of multiple, independent research groups to arrive at the same conclusion using independent processes, data, or analyses. In other words, this public discussion represents good scientific process. Incidentally, good Bible interpretation operates in a similar fashion (for an example, see these two articles, here and here).

Although this debate over the exoplanets displays good science in action, I suspect two incorrect responses to arise from those in the Christian community who take a critical view of secular science. Some people might argue that Earth’s unique capacity to support life means that all discovered exoplanets will differ radically from Earth. They would use the challenges to the existence of Gliese 581g (the first known exoplanet capable of supporting liquid water) as evidence that perhaps we should not expect to find anything that looks like Earth. However, this view misses an important biblical fact. Even though Earth started out covered in liquid water, it was not habitable (see “Is Earth the Only Planet with Water?” in RTB’s e-Zine). In other words, capability of supporting liquid water does not necessarily indicate habitability.

Others might use this interchange about the planet’s existence to draw the conclusion that science changes too easily. If this conclusion is true, then allowing any scientific findings about the universe to aid our scriptural interpretations would require that we continually reinterpret the Bible. This argument also misses the mark. Scientists are trained to understand the strength of evidence supporting a specific conclusion. The most important scientific conclusions that RTB uses to affirm the truth of the Bible have a long history of evidence supporting them. Some of the more specific details change (as expected), but the key issues remain unaffected by scientific advances.

RTB argues that the scientific process is a particularly powerful tool that God provided to help us understand His truth in creation. We fully expect that properly used science will affirm and elucidate the power and care God exercised in creating this universe. 

  1. Steven S. Vogt et al., “The Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey: a 3.1 MÅ Planet in the Habitable Zone of the Nearby M3V Star Gliese 581,” submitted to Astrophysical Journal, https://arxiv.org/abs/1009.5733.
  2. Leslie Mullen, “Doubt Cast on Existence of Possibly Habitable Alien Planet,” msnbc.com, October 12, 2010, https://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39640401/ns/technology_and_science-space/.
  3. Mike Wall, “Astronomer Stands By Discovery of Alien Planet Gliese 581g Amid Doubts,” Yahoo!.com, October 14, 2010, https://news.yahoo.com/s/space/20101014/sc_space/astronomerstandsbydiscoveryofalienplanetgliese581gamiddoubts.