Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Misleading Krauss? (p. 3)

Krauss and Craig
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Psychology



The psychology of the whole thing is interesting. Believe it or not, I don’t think Krauss was deliberately dishonest, and that’s not just me engaging in the principle of charity. Krauss did after all admit that the universe beginning to exist was likely, and that’s something a lot of atheists aren’t willing to concede. It is for all I know possible that there was a bit of rationalization for not including certain parts of the email that might deliver a false impression (it certainly would have mislead me if I hadn’t been more familiar with Vilenkin’s work), but even if so I don’t think that’s the only factor. Remember this part from Krauss’s Facebook post:
2. we both agree that the edited version does not distort the content or ideas expressed in the original email at all. Those who are claiming otherwise, including apparently Dr. Craig, are mistaken.
It does seem odd that neither Krauss nor Vilenkin seemed to realize how misleading the edited email was. Lest you fear I’ve been hoodwinked by Krauss here, I was able to confirm from Vilenkin himself that this email is genuine. Yet while it’s easy to account for Vilenkin not thinking the email was misleading by suspecting that Vilenkin was not aware of the full context, how to explain this for Krauss?

I think one factor is the failure to understand the context. Krauss was evidently ignorant that Craig’s claim is that “the universe begins to exist” premise is more probable than not, instead mistakenly believing that Craig’s claim was something closer to certainty. Craig has long argued that the scientific evidence makes a cosmic beginning more probable than not, and that the BGV theorem provides a substantial component in the scientific case for the universe beginning to exist. Recall that the edited email contained the following:
Hi Lawrence,

Any theorem is only as good as its assumptions. The BGV theorem says that if the universe is on average expanding along a given worldline, this worldline cannot be infinite to the past.

A possible loophole is that there might be an epoch of contraction prior to the expansion. Models of this sort have been discussed by Aguirre & Gratton and by Carroll & Chen. ……
Because of the context (that Krauss and possibly Vilenkin were ignorant of), one might be given the impression that this loophole defeats the claim that science renders the beginning of the universe more probable than not, when that isn’t quite the case, since the non-edited version said this:
Any theorem is only as good as its assumptions. The BGV theorem says that if the universe is on average expanding along a given worldline, this worldline cannot be infinite to the past.

A possible loophole is that there might be an epoch of contraction prior to the expansion. Models of this sort have been discussed by Aguirre & Gratton and by Carroll & Chen. They had to assume though that the minimum of entropy was reached at the bounce and offered no mechanism to enforce this condition. It seems to me that it is essentially equivalent to a beginning.
Because of the aforementioned context, I think it’s understandable why one might think editing out the “essentially equivalent to a beginning” etc. delivers a false impression. But if instead Craig claimed that the BGV theorem proves the existence of a cosmic beginning with absolute certainty, the omission about what else Vilenkin says about the loophole becomes more understandable.

Still, even this doesn’t quite go all the way in explain why e.g. Krauss left out the “essentially equivalent to a beginning” part, especially when Craig has repeatedly made it clear that he is not claiming that the premises are known with certainty, but rather that they are more plausibly true than false. It seems that some other factor is needed to adequately explain the evidence. But if it’s not deliberate dishonesty, what else could it be?

I suspect it’s old bit of human irrationality known as “wishful thinking.” Humans sometimes believe what they want to be true when they shouldn’t. Krauss clearly has a powerful motive for not wanting the edited email to be misleading (certainly I would if I were in Krauss’s position, believing the KCA to be unsound and yearning to publicly convince others it is unsound), and for wanting Craig’s claim to be something other than “more probable than not” with respect to a cosmic beginning (since that position would much be easier to attack). Krauss probably missed the fact that Craig’s claim about the beginning of the universe is of the “more probable than not” sort, but even though I think Krauss better understands this position of Craig’s, I’m willing to bet that Krauss still doesn’t believe the edited email is misleading even though he’s been shown evidence to the contrary. I myself have faced the temptation to leave out undesirable facts, and it’s easy to rationalize this by saying something like this:
Well, it’s my job to argue my side convincingly, and since I’m not saying anything false, I’m not lying. If some people get a false belief from what I put forth it’s only because they’re jumping to conclusions, and it wouldn’t be my fault that they’re jumping to conclusions.
If you don’t see why Krauss might adopt a similar strand of reasoning, take for example this with the ellipsis points included and the edited out version italicized:
Any theorem is only as good as its assumptions. The BGV theorem says that if the universe is on average expanding along a given worldline, this worldline cannot be infinite to the past. A possible loophole is that there might be an epoch of contraction prior to the expansion. Models of this sort have been discussed by Aguirre & Gratton and by Carroll & Chen. ……They had to assume though that the minimum of entropy was reached at the bounce and offered no mechanism to enforce this condition. It seems to me that it is essentially equivalent to a beginning.
Technically, Krauss isn’t attaching a statement to Vilenkin that Vilenkin didn’t make by editing out the italicized portion. Krauss was correct that there was technical material after the ellipsis. And he didn’t deny that Vilenkin said the models yielded what is essentially equivalent to a beginning—he just didn’t mention it.

When you’re emotionally attached to some view you’re arguing for, it’s tempting to leave out relevant details that are inconvenient for your side, and it’s easy to rationalize these omissions even when those omissions might create a false impression. This is something we should all be careful about. But how to be careful about that? I have two bits of advice.
  1. Ask yourself, “Might this give a false impression if I leave X out?” and if the answer is “Yes,” include it. Regularly asking this sort of question and giving an honest answer even when the honest answer isn’t what you’d like it to be goes a long way.
  2. Instead of being emotionally attached to whatever view you currently adhere to, be emotionally attached to the goal of seeking truth. When it comes to politics for example, I listen to nonpartisan media sources like factcheck.org, and hold my bias towards sources like those because I think they are more likely to give reliable information than partisan media (whether liberal or conservative).[1] So maybe I can’t entirely avoid bias, but I can try to shift my bias closer to the truth, and when you’re biased towards truth, you’re less likely to mislead.

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[1] How does one accept a fact checking source as reliable? Here’s a good earmark: the source viciously assaults all sorts of misleading political statements regardless of whether the misleading statements favor liberal or conservative viewpoints.

2 comments:

  1. Yours is a new perspective on the email portion of the debate for me. Also, you were very fair and open minded in the text of your correspondence with Dr Krauss. Thank you for providing what is a more charitable interpretation of what Dr Krauss did.

    Still, I think that if you say he rationalised his editing by saying he was merely presenting the strengths of his position, he would still be doing something wrong. After all he was claiming by showing the email that Dr Craig had misquoted Vilenkin. Thus he was in fact, by leaving out the conclusions of Vilenkin, making a false statement. In Vilenkin's opinion, the BGV theorem probably did hold and point to the beginning of the universe. That's my take on it.

    One of the strengths of WLC's approach that I see is that he would present the relevant points against his position and then show the points for his position were still stronger, eg. with regard to the evidence for the resurrection.

    It's great to see a really in depth and thoughtful commentary on the debate. I've been looking for one but could not find one that was as dispassionate and open minded as this. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete