Category Archives: Epistemic Trespassing

On Art, Imposter Syndrome, and Epistemic Trespassing

Ada Limón’s “The Raincoat” ripped through me as I read the poem; it begins:

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. 

I was diagnosed with scoliosis in the summer of 1975 as I was about to enter ninth grade. My entire high school experience was shaped (literally) by wearing a full upper-torso brace.

This was deeply traumatizing for an anxious, skinny, and deeply self-conscious teenager, but it was also unimaginably moving—especially in hindsight—because my working-class parents never hesitated to seek out, pay for, and support anything I needed medically or emotionally to straighten my spine and live somewhat normally once it was removed.

My scoliosis years are also my introduction to reading, collecting, and drawing from Marvel comic books.

Recently, I have come back to creating art although I abandoned my aspirations to be a comic book artist somewhere in my early 20s.

I started out simply tracing from comic books in 1975, but soon began drawing freehand from my favorite artists working at Marvel. By my senior year and into early college, I was drawing more realistic pencil work usually from photographs.

I was entirely self-taught because my high school in the late 1970s had no art courses (until my senior year when the only art class offered was during a required class), just as it had no Advanced Placement courses.

Early in life, I was engaged in self-education in a way that seems logical as I remained in formal schooling until I was 37, when I finished my doctorate.

Yes, I have degrees in education, but my real expertise is learning.

I also spent decades learning to be a serious cyclist and my own bicycle mechanic. And my life as a creative writer, now mostly poetry, is very much self-taught (although I did enroll in one graduate creative writing course during my EdD).

However, all of this sparks a real tension for me that can be captured well in two concepts—imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

While I have returned to art, prompted by my partner exploring art for the first time in her life through Procreate, I have had to revisit what it means to do any sort of work from a naive and inexperienced position while there are people doing that same work from a position of expertise and many years of purposeful pursuit of that work.

My nephew is a professional photographer, yet, much as my partner expressed, he recently worried over texting about his submitting an art display on school shootings. He and my partner are very aware of both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing (although the latter, more so as a concept and not necessarily the term).

The conversations with both of them while I have committed anew to being a visual artist myself (which has not progressed as I anticipated; see here and here) have allowed me to think carefully and deeply about how to justify being self-taught, how to navigate imposter syndrome, and how to avoid epistemic trespassing.

First, as I explained to my nephew, to do any creative work, art for public consumption, takes a degree of arrogance—the assumption that your expression matters in some way and that others should or need to experience it.

As a writer, I have the fortunate “gift” that despite my trepidations and insecurities, once I feel the urge to write something, I do it, I do it with zeal, and then I share it. (Yes, later I suffer the terror of having done all that, but the terror never impedes my doing it, fortunately.)

But as we in the literary world know, arrogance is a dangerous thing; arrogance is so dangerous, much of literature bangs the warning drum repeatedly: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains” (“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Next, then, since creative acts take at least a modicum of arrogance, the key is the most important lesson I learned over three decades as a dedicated student: The moment you have a “great idea” you must understand that there are many people who have already had that idea and spent years upon years purposefully exploring that idea (or behavior).

Your creative arrogance must be tempered by humility, a healthy alternative to both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

A doctorate (not exclusively of course) like any advanced formal schooling or training provides skills in that humility—such as first knowing there are experts that have come before you (and concurrent with you), researching who those people and their work are, and then assessing how to navigate their expertise in ways that inform your coming to know and to do.

My scrawny ass, fully braced, standing at the bar of my parents’ house knew that I deeply wanted to draw something as wonderful as Gil Kane, something as stunning as Jim Steranko, something as beautiful as Frank Frazetta.

During that same time I was falling in love with writers—reading, reading, and mimicking.

Being creative requires that balance between arrogance and humility; however, I also think one other reality is very important to confront.

American culture tends to suggest that many human behaviors are for gifted people only—especially visual arts and poetry, for example.

So, most of us pause when we have creative urges—”Who am I …?”—although, and I cannot emphasize this enough, to be human is to be creative.

Creativity is not for the gifted only. Or better yet, we are all potentially gifted, and thus, potentially creative.

My new life of visual art isn’t what I planned or expected. It involves the wonders of technology (iPad and Procreate) that allow me to blend my very naive attempts at photographs, my latent and self-taught abilities as a visual artist, and my many decades as a purposeful and serious writer.

For me, then, I move forward arrogantly with the humility of “Who am I …?” as my background music while I work.

Epistemic Trespassing in Real Time: Peter Navarro, Economist

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro has an impressive academic background:

Navarro went to Tufts University on a full academic scholarship,[9] graduating in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then spent three years in the U.S. Peace Corps, serving in Thailand.[7][13] He earned a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1979, and a PhD in Economics from Harvard under the supervision of Richard E. Caves in 1986.[13]

His political and academic careers as well as his primary areas of expertise include economics and public policy.

Recently, however, Navarro has drawn criticism for clashing with Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about Covid-19. Navarro has justified his disagreements as follows:

“I have a Ph.D,” Navarro said. “And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics or whatever.” He added, “Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist.”

Navarro is demonstrating in real time both the existence and dangers of epistemic trespassing, embodying several of the qualities and conditions outlined in Ballantyne’s work.

For example, Navarro fits the basic definition by acknowledging his credibility lies in social sciences (economics) but he feels justified in speaking authoritatively on medicine:

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.

Navarro also exhibits these common qualities:

Out of their league but highly confident nonetheless, trespassers appear to be immodest, dogmatic, or arrogant. Trespassers easily fail to manifest the trait of intellectual humility and demonstrate one or another epistemic vice (Whitcomb et al. 2017, Cassam 2016). Second, it’s useful to distinguish between trespassers holding confident opinions and investigating questions in another field [emphasis in original]. I assume it can be epistemically appropriate for people to look into questions beyond their competence, even when it would be inappropriate for them to hold confident opinions.

Once challenged, Navarro responded as expected:

Trespassers are a crafty bunch, of course, and they may resist reasoning in the way I’ve described. They may grant they are in one of the three reflective cases but insist they have not thereby flouted any epistemic norm. How could that work? For any particular trespassing case, the presumption that there is some epistemic trouble can be defeated by good reason to think there’s no epistemic trouble in the case. I call reasons that defeat the presumption of epistemic trouble defences [emphasis in original]. Defences are reasons indicating no epistemic norm has been violated.

Navarro embraced the third defense offered by Ballantyne: “(D3) I am trespassing on another field, but my own field’s skills successfully ‘transfer’ to the other field”:

I expect something like (D3) will be among the most common justifications given by trespassers. For example, Richard Dawkins (2006, p. 56) suggests that he does not see what expertise philosophers of religion could possibly have that scientists like him would lack; in his own eyes, his scientific competence apparently transfers to a new context where he can appropriately answer questions about arguments for and against God’s existence. Neil deGrasse Tyson may believe that his scientific training has taught him critical thinking—the only skill needed to answer philosophical questions. In general, if the trespasser’s expertise successfully transfers from one field to another, then the trespasser does not violate any norms related to lacking the other field’s skills.

With Navarro’s challenge to Fauci, we are witnessing that “[o]verzealous transfer can occur when thinkers mistakenly assume a new context is just like a previous one. … They are cautionary tales for how exemplary critical thinking in one field does not generalize to others.”

That skills may not transfer is grounded in “background knowledge is crucial for the successful application of skills in any domain (Barnett and Ceci 2002, p. 616), but trespassers often lack such knowledge.”

Expertise is a complex combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences; therefore, “how to read statistical studies” is simply not generic across disciplines.

Navarro’s doubling down also represents that “[o]ne hallmark of trespassing, however, is a lack of awareness of the failure to render good judgments”:

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that thinkers who are ignorant in a domain tend to be ignorant of their ignorance (Kruger and Dunning 1999). This is a bias influencing meta-knowledge. People who lack first-order knowledge often lack second-order knowledge about their lack of knowledge. Psychologists have described this as a kind of intellectual ‘double curse’ (Dunning et al. 2003). … Self-ignorance about trespassing is dangerous. Sometimes trespassers will have enough knowledge to give them false confidence that they are not trespassers but not enough knowledge to avoid trespassing.

Finally, however, Ballantyne’s confronting epistemic trespassing is not an argument for disciplinary siloing, but a call for awareness and greater care in situations where interdisciplinary input and consideration are not only common but possibly even necessary—such as in the workings of government and the formation of policy:

Researchers from different fields pull their chairs up to the table and try to arrange the pieces into a coherent whole. But these people have different technical backgrounds and vocabularies, different goals for research practice, and different perceptions of the problem. Presumably, the group could benefit from some guidance, lest their collaboration devolve into grabbing pieces and bickering over whose perspective is best….

…I’ve defended the idea that recognizing the risks of trespassing should often encourage greater intellectual modesty. Researchers on interdisciplinary collaboration have also affirmed the importance of something like modesty. For example, some researchers note that the ‘first step’ for cross-field collaborators ‘is to acknowledge, respect, and explore the diversity of perspectives’ (Hirsch Hadorn, Pohl, and Bammer 2010, p. 437). When researchers tackle together so-called wicked problems—from epidemics to poverty to nuclear arms control—they should presume they don’t have in hand what is required to hold confident answers to the questions, or even to know what those questions are. Their ignorance is what prompts the collaboration, and so they should begin the conversation knowing there are significant unknowns. My proposal is that many questions often not viewed as interdisciplinary call for a similarly modest response. We should be more sensitive to the inherent difficulties of confidently answering hybridized questions. At the same time, we may be encouraged by the possibility that cross-field efforts will enhance our understanding of important questions.

Navarro has little to offer about how the U.S. should confront a pandemic, but inadvertently, he has demonstrated the reality and dangers of epistemic trespassing, a moment in our nation’s history that may prove this to be more than mere academic “bickering” and a threat to human life.


See Also

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