Epistemic Trespassing: From Ruby Payne to the “Science of Reading”

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump has continued his disturbing trademark of self-assurance and bravado in the absence of expertise:

The president – who repeatedly downplayed the threat early in the global outbreak – has this week been hyping an anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, as a possible therapeutic treatment.

“It may work, it may not work,” he said on Friday. “I feel good about it. It’s just a feeling. I’m a smart guy … We have nothing to lose. You know the expression, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’”

As has become a common pattern now, these rash and dangerous claims were tempered by an actual expert in medicine:

Yet Trump’s “feeling”, on which he so often relies, was confronted by science when Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned that evidence of chloroquine’s benefits against coronavirus is “anecdotal” and it should not be viewed as a miracle cure.

Trump is a cartoonish embodiment of epistemic trespassing, as defined by Nathan Ballantyne:

Epistemic trespassers are thinkers who have competence or expertise to make good judgments in one field, but move to another field where they lack competence—and pass judgment nevertheless. We should doubt that trespassers are reliable judges in fields where they are outsiders. 

As the example of Trump above demonstrates—and as Ballantyne notes about Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—it is quite common for people to trespass into areas of knowledge and expertise outside their own discipline or experiences.

Here, I want to investigate epistemic trespassing first in the Ruby Payne phenomenon, and then to better understand the current “science of reading” version of the Reading War.

Let’s consider epistemic trespassing more fully next.

Epistemic Trespassing: “exemplary critical thinking in one field does not generalize to others”

I don’t want to overwhelm this discussion with too fine an analysis from philosophical and linguistic fields; notably, I am sharing here outside my narrow area of expertise, education, while staying inside a part of my disciplinary expertise (linguistics) and seeking to avoid the very mistakes I am naming here.

This section draws on work by Ballantyne (linked above) and Bristol and Rossano, both of which are detailed and discipline-specific scholarship.

The examples below—Ruby Payne’s popularity as a self-proclaimed expert in poverty and education, and the “science of reading” movement driven by Emily Hanford (journalist) and Mark Seidenberg (cognitive neuroscientist)—will make this brief overview more concrete, I hope.

Everyone has experiences and a wide range of knowledge (what we learn in formal settings and through educational degree and certification, but also what we learn by something like being self-taught, our hobbies, for example).

We human beings are trespassers at heart,” Ballantyne explains, and we are left then with trying to understand when the trespassing becomes a problem—such as Trump promoting dangerous information through his self-assured style.

As Bristol and Rossano detail, the order of when each speaker makes claims as well as the relationship between or among speakers in terms of common ground (“mutual knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions”) all contribute to if trespassing occurs in the interaction and whether or not the discussion or debate is negatively impacted by that trespassing. 

They identify why trespassing is a problem in general discourse as follows:

Taking an authoritative position about domains that are squarely within another’s epistemic territory can be socially unacceptable (consider ‘informing’ or ‘correcting’ someone about their ethnicity, religious beliefs, emotions, or physical sensations). The terms gaslighting and mansplaining used colloquially to describe this type of offensive behavior.

Bristol and Rossano also outline “a four-point list of things that people can typically be assumed to know better than others:”

a. Information obtained through the speaker’s/hearer’s internal direct experience,

b. Information embodying detailed knowledge which falls into the range of the speaker’s/hearer’s professional or other expertise,

c. Information obtained through the speaker’s/hearer’s external direct experience including information verbally conveyed to the speaker/ hearer by others which he/she considers reliable,

d. Information about persons, objects, events and facts close to the speaker/hearer including such information about the speaker/ hearer him/herself

Distinguishing these contexts are incredibly important, I think, when any public debate concerns a body of research in a specific field (such as poverty or reading instruction) and how that intersects with the day-to-day experiences of teachers (see a. and b. above); and then how those overlapping situations are impacted by media and political discussions of the topic (see c. above).

Ballentyne notes that epistemic trespassing is both very common and quite likely necessary for understanding complex problems or experiences. Therefore, I want to add briefly here a few key elements of trespassing that can help understand how that trespassing works against the goals of better understanding.

Making assertive and authoritative claims (without having expertise) is much more problematic than asking questions. But even as a non-expert may be justified in asking those questions, there must be a recognition that disciplinary fields and knowledge already exist (someone with expertise has probably already asked and answered the question).

Ballentyne identifies “three types of problematic trespassing cases, where two different fields share a particular question:”

(a)  Experts in one field lack another field’s evidence and skills;

(b)  Experts in one field lack evidence from another field but have its skills;

(c)  Experts in one field have evidence from another field but lack its skills.

And a final key point from Ballentyne is that “[t]respassers are a crafty bunch, of course, and they may resist reasoning in the way I’ve described.” In short, trespassers often justify their trespassing because of their zeal for the topic and/or their belief that the field they are trespassing on isn’t sufficiently complex for them to need the expertise or background to make claims.

How does that happen? “Sometimes trespassers will have enough knowledge to give them false confidence that they are not trespassers but not enough knowledge to avoid trespassing,” Ballentyne explains, identifying the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Ultimately, while epistemic trespassing is both common and some times unavoidable, “recognizing the risks of trespassing should often encourage greater intellectual modesty” that can lead to greater understanding instead of “bickering over whose perspective is best,” Ballentyne concludes.

Education itself is a hybrid field, and as a result, it is often the target of epistemic trespassing. In fact, a great deal of public discourse around education is left to economists, psychologists, and political scientists.

Next, I discuss two significant examples of why epistemic trespassing is often more harmful than effective—Ruby Payne’s poverty framework and the “science of reading” debate.

The Payne Dilemma

Let’s think carefully about what it means to be a K-12 public school teacher in the U.S. Since I taught in public school for 18 years, I think the following parameters are accurate:

  • Teachers are expected to have a very wide and deep understanding of a large number of specialized fields.
  • Teachers are often put into teaching and learning conditions that inhibit effective and excellent teaching and learning.
  • Teachers are afforded very little professional autonomy, but are often held accountable for implementing mandates and then for outcomes (measurable student learning).

Here is a perfect example.

In the wake of No Child Left Behind’s focus on closing the achievement gap (created by socio-economic and racial inequity), schools and teachers were placed under greater accountability for raising test scores for low-income and so-called racial minority students.

That gap has existed for as long as formal education has existed so in many ways it is fair to say that too little has been done to address why the gap exists. For teachers, however, the public and political responsibility and blame mostly lie with them even though that is a false claim.

The intensified focus of NCLB on the achievement gap created an opportunity for Ruby Payne to promote her poverty framework, a workbook and series of talks and in-service workshops.

Many schools and districts eagerly contracted for her services, and teachers appeared to overwhelmingly embrace her messages and strategies.

Now here is the problem, confronted by Ng and Rury (2009):

Payne’s self­-proclaimed expert status to speak on poverty is a particular challenge for collaboratively advancing the conversation underway between educational practitioners, policy makers, and researchers. Although expertise may be derived from more than just conducting scholarly research and following defined academic protocols, such professional standards help ensure certain levels of rigor within particular discussions, and also in gathering the basic information required to compare or replicate studies that collectively might benefit the field. In its current form, Payne has framed an explanation and a conversation about poverty in terms that cannot be engaged by others, but has significant implications for both theory and practice in education.

Payne’s poverty framework is epistemic trespassing (she has no formal expertise in sociology or inequity studies) that has now been challenged by a number of scholars who work in sociology as well as educational inequity (Bomer et al., 2008; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008; Ng & Rury, 2009).

Payne’s characterizations of people in poverty are mostly offensive stereotypes, and her educational perspective is driven by a deficit perspective of people in poverty as well as teaching and learning; her emphasis is on deficits in students from poverty and how to “fix” those students in the context of middle-class norms.

But the scholars who have contested Payne’s epistemic trespassing have also had to confront that teachers tended to accept her flawed and harmful work; here Bomer et al. explain this uncomfortable dynamic:

Racializing the representations of poverty means that Payne is portraying poor people as people of color, rather than acknowledging the fact that most poor people in the US are white (Roberts, 2004). By doing so, Payne is perpetuating negative stereotypes by equating poverty with people of color. Although there is a correlation between race and class, this does not justify her use of racialized “case studies.”

Payne’s audience of teachers is primarily white, female, and middle class, so their probable shared perspective [emphasis added] makes it likely that such signals will be understood as racial. Given that the truth claims do not explicitly address the relationships between poverty, race, ethnicity, and gender, we are merely pointing out the absence of such considerations from Payne’s work.

Most K-12 teachers are white, middle-class women, like Payne herself. So here are a couple of aspects to this that should be considered.

Years ago, I brought Bomer to speak on Payne’s framework at a state ELA conference for teachers. After he spoke, I watched as a white woman who grew up in poverty vigorously argued with Bomer that Payne is right. Recall Bristol and Rossano: “things that people can typically be assumed to know better than others: a. Information obtained through the speaker’s/hearer’s internal direct experience.”

Now let’s add another key element. Imagine that you are a teacher who has worked tirelessly with high-poverty students throughout your career, been given impossible teaching conditions and little professional autonomy, and then suffered the brunt of the blame because those students are not achieving academically as expected.

Payne was providing teachers a way to shift the unfair blame (from teachers to the so-called “conditions of poverty”) and also appeared to be a compassionate and supportive ally (providing instructional approaches and materials).

While I regret that many teachers failed to critically reject the stereotypes in Payne’s work, in many ways embracing Payne was entirely rational in a seemingly hopeless professional setting.

Given credible information and time, most teachers come to see the problem in Payne’s work. But for many years, those defending Payne rejected criticism primarily based on significant teacher buy-in (see Ballentyne on how people justify epistemic trespassing).

And as Bristol and Rossano noted, since Payne started the conversation on poverty and education before scholars refuted her work, Payne’s epistemic trespassing holds a sort of false expertise and her work continues to be used in schools in the U.S.

The “Science of Reading” as Epistemic Trespassing

A couple of years ago, Emily Hanford, a journalist with no background in teaching or teaching reading, initiated the “science of reading” narrative in the mainstream media. Like Payne, Hanford has a natural appeal for most K-12 teacher.

The persistent claim that the U.S. has a reading crisis is also very similar to the achievement gap dynamic Payne addresses since teachers have little autonomy in teaching reading (guided often by standards, testing, and adopted reading programs) but are the focus of blame when low-income and marginalized students have low reading scores.

Hanford and Mark Seidenberg (cognitive neuroscientist), among others, represent the primary problem with epistemic trespassing in the “science of reading” debate because most of the prominent “experts” are not from the field of literacy, but they tend to justify their trespassing because they can point to the support of teachers and parents of struggling readers (mostly students with dyslexia) as proof that despite their lack of expertise, their claims are accurate.

Often, and especially on social media, advocates for the “science of reading” resort to anecdotes (see Bristol and Rossano’s a. above), which are valid experiences and concerns by parents and teachers, in order to justify the over-simplified generalizations and sweeping policies that the “science of reading” has endorsed.

To understand how complicated the “science of reading” debate has become, I want to end with this context of the debate.

In the wake of the 2017 and 2019 NAEP reading scores, the ground was fertile for yet another cry of “reading crisis.” Teachers have already been through a decade of value-added methods and all sorts of high-stakes teacher accountability, and now, once again, teachers would be the target of blame for low reading scores by students in the most challenging life conditions.

Hanford’s message—teachers aren’t using the “science of reading” because they were never taught the “science of reading” in their teacher education programs—relieved teachers of blame, but also spoke to their frustration. What frustration?

Keeping Bristol and Rossano’s a. in mind, many teachers across the U.S. have labored under misguided lockstep reading programs, two of which have been targeted by “science of reading” advocates as lacking scientific backing (Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study and Fountas and Pinnell’s reading programs).

This has been a perfect storm of misinformation, compounded by parent advocacy for students with dyslexia who appear to have been under-identified and too often not served adequately.

For teachers, it is reasonable to find these arguments compelling: It isn’t you; it is the culture of poverty. It isn’t you, it is your teacher education program and your school’s reading program.

And keeping in mind Ballentyne’s warning about the Dunning-Kruger effect, it is also reasonable that Payne, Hanford, and others feel justified in their epistemic trespassing because they have the vocal support of the very professionals they are seeking to help (don’t underestimate the power of zeal and good intentions).

However, it isn’t reasonable or helpful ultimately when important topics and public policy are driven by the results of epistemic trespassing—and the current “science of reading” movement is another example of that problem.

Trump’s feelings about a cure for Covid-19 has possibly had dire consequences—poisonings in Nigeria and a death in the U.S.

Advocacy for the “science of reading” is not immediately as dangerous or careless as that worst-case scenario for epistemic trespassing; however, too many states are misreading the reading debate and considering or adopting very harmful reading policies that will hurt students and once again not serve the needs of teachers a professionals.


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