What Are the Odds? An Observation of Probabilistic Selectivity

Someone named Bill McKibben, an environmental activist, penned a recent larger essay on climate change. Forget your biases one way or another about climate change. This isn’t about climate at all. Instead, focus on his probabilistic math.

McKibben calculated the odds of a particular climate event, that really has occurred, happening by chance. I can’t readily dispute his computation; back-of-the-envelope estimates and a few clicks of a calculator seem to bear it out. Here is that portion of his essay specifically focused on event probability:

    June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere–the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 1099, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Fair enough. Many atmospheric scientists and others of his supporters are cheerfully spreading word of this calculation online. Good for them! I like probabilistically expressed scientific arguments. I deal with them every day as an atmospheric scientist specializing in storm prediction; they are a fantastic tool to convey the level of certainty or uncertainty.

Now consider the following common premise: the arrangement of all the atoms and molecules in the universe–ten to a power too large to type–has occurred merely by chance, by accident. It all just went “bang” on its own, with no help–against a gravity far more intense than any black hole–and fell into place. Plop plop, fizz fizz, everything ended up as-is. All life (including you and me), every water molecule, sand grain, air molecule…every star, planet, galaxy and every particle composing them…is an accident of nature. Pure, unadulterated happenstance.

Really? What are the odds of that? Surely countless orders of magnitude smaller than McKibben’s probability of one particular temperature pattern being an accident, on one puny planet in one tremendously tiny flyspeck portion of the universe.

And yet, somehow, many of the same scientists who buy right into McKibben’s odds will claim that we are a product of chance–that nothing supernatural was involved, that the ultimate pre-Bang black hole’s blowout yielded this Great Universal Accident, against all likelihood, against all physical concepts of incalculably massive bodies behaving that way spontaneously, randomly.

All of us, all we know and ever will know, and all that’s out there unknown, is just the incidental spittle from a big fat physical and chemical random-number generator? This all was completely by chance?

Probabilistically speaking…preposterous bullcrap!

As a scientist, I don’t subscribe to the point of view that all we observe is a product of pure chance–and one reason is entirely mathematical. The odds are just too vastly, incalculably, incomprehensibly tiny. Place yourself as a hypothetical observer right before the Big Bang, and in that context, tell me the odds that every atom and molecule will assemble exactly as present and occurring on this moment of this day 14.6 billion years later.

Hint: you couldn’t. No calculator or supercomputer can be devised to resolve such tiny probabilities. Again, it’s the inverse of ten to a power too large to type, or something very closely approximating (1/infinity). The mathematical evidence against everything randomly assembling as-is, or in other words, the evidence for a Creator’s influence, is absolutely overwhelming!

Nearly three decades ago, that straightforward bit of science, logic and reason came to me through no books, no essays, no lectures–just rational thought1. It was more than enough to convince me2. God is real. The math argues so. To claim otherwise seems downright irrational, in the face of the probabilistic evidence against random happenstance resulting in absolutely everything.

But I guess a probability asymptotically approaching (1/infinity)–something incredibly, incalculably small–is still too large for most fellow scientists. Perplexingly, the selective ignorance of the most minuscule of probabilities seems to apply just to that particular issue and none other. Methinks something decidedly unscientific is at work there.


1: Looking back, maybe it was even divinely inspired…after all, I consider the capacity to reason logically and numerically as gifts from God to humanity. How we use or abuse these tools is up to our own free will.

2: Here’s something even many friends may not know about me. Before that realization, which hit me like a warhead from above, I was an atheist who actively denied God! My journey from Deist to Christian has been less sudden and straightforward; as they say on Facebook: “It’s complicated.”


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