I’m teaching Theory of Knowledge this semester, and last week we discussed Nathan Ballantyne’s “Epistemic Trespassing.” The title refers to when an expert makes claims outside their field of expertise. Ballantyne gives the example of the chemist Linus Pauling making strong claims about the value of Vitamin C. Pauling’s claims were influential even though he was making false claims well outside his speciality.
A student pointed out that trespassing is a matter of overconfidence, so there may be a counterpart problem resulting from insufficient confidence. That is, an expert might decline to make claims within their field of expertise because of an excess of epistemic modesty. In our conversation, I called this the problem of Hiding in Your Epistemic Attic. For the sake of brevity, call this Epistemic Hiding.1
Epistemic Trespassing is bad because it worsens the epistemic state both of the expert and of audiences. Epistemic Hiding also does epistemic harms. The difference is this: Whereas trespassing results in the expert and audience having unjustified or false beliefs which they would not have had if the expert had stayed quiet, hiding results in the expert or audience not having knowledge which they could have had if the expert had spoken up.
These different epistemic harms reflect our simultaneous epistemic duties to have true beliefs and to avoid having false beliefs. A familiar point, going back at least to William James, is that these duties are indispensable but distinct. This suggests that not hiding is— at a general level, at least— just as important not trespassing.
Yet there are some asymmetries.
Joshua DiPaolo argues that the primary harm of Epistemic Trespassing is not just the false beliefs. Instead, he argues, experts enjoy an authority which carries with it a corresponding responsibility. Trespassing, then, is “a neglectful abuse of authority.” If that’s right, then it is important to ask whether experts also have a responsibility to speak to questions within their area of expertise. If they do not, then there is no corresponding abuse in Epistemic Hiding.
- It might instead be called Epistemic Turtling, using the sense of “turtle” from video and board games. That’s the strategy in which a player keeps their dudes close to where they spawn, rather than stepping out and doing the fun parts of the game.
- Cristyn points out in conversation that women and minorities are more prone to imposter syndrome. This is both because of discimination but also because of skewed representation.
- Eric Schwitzgebel has recently suggested that academic philosophy favors overconfident students who speak up more than they are epistemically justified in doing. It’s something like epistemic trespassing, even though the student is not (yet) an expert.