Epistemic modesty vs epistemic trespassing

I found it compelling to discuss this subject on the back of the ruckus created by the gigantic leap of online ‘experts’ of all professional hues on health issues, particularly those related to the origin of COVID-19 and its cure.

This is a two-dimensional issue, that encompasses moral decadence and an unfortunate dive in trust. Epistemic trespassers have flooded the social media space, riding the crest of faux authority, ignoring professional centreline rumble strips, and recklessly overwhelming mere mortals with contradictory views and misinformation.

The unexpected upsurge in new cases and the whopping leap in mortality have resulted in the emergence of an ill-disciplined online acapella choir. Each chorister seemingly oblivious to the fact that the choir should holler lyrics in unison. Talk about a cacophony of pitches blurted out by a bunch of overly enthusiastic soloists, posturing as choristers, excelling at outdoing each other in hitting self-focused high notes! Ethically, it is unacceptable for ‘experts’ to selfishly take advantage of the ignorance of many, who are not endowed with the capacity to effectively dissect and interrogate information. Implicit in the social contract between individuals is the novices’ expectation that the experts will at all times, share with them nothing else but the truth.

The klieg light exposure of the overburdened public health sector has tempted some individuals, particularly anti-vaxxers to confidently veer off the boundaries of their professions, howling at the top of their voice, claiming to be more knowledgeable than the bonafide collective unit of vaccine scientists, including qualified immunologists and epidemiologists. This has given rise to the phenomenon of epistemic trespassing, which means failure to acknowledge the limitation of one’s knowledge. Closely linked to this are the undesirable traits of self-interest, misguided assertiveness, negligence and abuse of capacity to influence vulnerable novices. If you will, juxtapose this with epistemic modesty, which is a humble awareness of one’s limitations, and you would appreciate why the latter is a noble virtue.


In one WhatsApp group, each day I am forced to navigate tonnes of hissy fits on COVID-19 and cry-babe-like wailing linked to the wickedness of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, like everyone else, I would like to quench my thirst for knowledge and truth. And I am always vaguely aware that epistemic trespassers can ruthlessly exploit my gullibility. One of my pet peeves is the exploitation of the laity by the privileged. As often as I read shamelessly blithe, impolitic sounding and downright clumsy posts on COVID-19, I can’t help but wonder why fine savants like a few engineers, architects, land and quantity surveyors, geologists, accountants and academics choose to posture as COVID-19 experts and inundate the group with seemingly authoritative anti-inoculation posts. Their ‘non-conforming stance,’ a perfect moniker for overstepping their professional boundaries, is often riveted to a rickety scaffolding of ignorance.

Their theory is rooted on the belief that COVID-19 originates with white people whose chief-mission is to terminate Africans. In cobbling together their flawed pan-Africanist views, they are not only determined to pour scorn on scientific evidence gathered so far but are also happy to come across as racist hillbillies keen to trash the white race. Are they doing this from the vantage point of unbridled access to the fountain of infinite wisdom, or from the reckless flaunting of misinformed pride and the inclination to clutch at illusions of intelligence and perceptiveness? I have picked that in these WhatsApp groups, there are a few frequent commentators, people distinctly endowed with the rare capacity to pick an argument in an empty room! No prizes for guessing whether they are driven by a deep and sincere desire to share knowledge or simply by an unfortunate craving for earning the unique firebrand status.

This reminds me of Scot Atlas, a radiologist appointed by Donald Trump to serve as his special adviser on the Corona virus. Trump unequivocally denounced the wearing of masks and Atlas was comfortable to echo his master’s view. Despite his limited knowledge, Atlas boldly announced that masks could not prevent the spread of the virus. On what authority did Atlas do this? He posed as a trustworthy expert on an area he was a novice in. A chronic victim of epistemic trespassing! Lest I am misunderstood and accused of bawling and snorting like a hippo on heat, let me clearly state that I am by no means suggesting that lack of expertise should render us mute. We are entitled to hold to our opinions and anchor ourselves on our beliefs if we so wish, as long as we do not choose to confuse such internal views with facts by deliberately latching onto a fluid conduit of misinformation, to the detriment of our compatriots. I will be the first one to acknowledge that years of learning in reputable academic institutions, coupled with the knowledge we have acquired from our environment over time, has equipped us with a measure of personal intellectual autonomy that we dare not surrender to glib-tongued individuals or our own misplaced sense of egocentricity.

Ordinarily, when we accumulate more head knowledge, our ‘elastic’ skulls tend to swirl with pride, and we tend to lack an element of intellectual integrity; a key precondition for epistemic humility. Given this fundamental weakness amidst a conspiracy theory riddled environment, isn’t it only fair that we should not only expect but also demand a reasonable degree of epistemic responsibility across all professions? Should we allow overconfident and dogmatic professionals to sift through, and panel beat credible information, thus violating evidence-based data to fit their narratives and preconceived views, motivated by invalid arbitrary a priori assumptions and patently biased cogitative personalities? Like a raving lunatic, I yowl, no! I don’t think anyone should ever be coaxed into choosing between epistemic rationality and irrationality. Only one choice exists, and it is the former.

True, facts on COVID-19 from qualified experts have been sporadic and somewhat contradictory. Does this give us the license to dismiss all information we receive from these professionals as totally untrustworthy? Not at all! Information on a novel disease that keeps on mutating into stronger vaccine resistant strains tends to evolve with time.

At any point, we would have access to a body of knowledge that is considered reliable, albeit fluid. Such amorphous evidence-based data would stay in force until new facts are gleaned or a new strain with different characteristics scuttle all or most of the previously known facts. People are at liberty to choose whether to accept vaccines or not. The unfortunate wave of epistemic trespassing currently rocking the entire geopolitical enchilada is not only confined to the COVID-19 space. It straddles the whole spectrum of professional areas with apparent impunity. Perhaps, this is what prompted Warren Buffett to come up with the Circle of Competence phenomenon, a concept articulated in the view, “Know your circle of competence, and stick within it.

The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.” Since he would never risk vapourising the money locked in his investments, you would expect an astute investor like Buffett to be unconditionally sold to the staying power of this imperative.

Despite Buffett’s view, epistemic trespassing has long crept into the investment arena. Approximately half a century ago, Professor Burton Malkiel of Princeton University wrote, “A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.” This was followed by an unexpected statement from Rob Arnott, the CEO of Research Affiliates who said, “Makiel was wrong. The monkeys have done a better job than both the experts and the stock market.” If all this is true, doesn’t it unwittingly speak to the nature of risk associated with the choice of investments, and the logic of enlisting qualified professionals to assist in analysing risk and recommending risk-assets likely to yield a competitive return? The principle of epistemic responsibility applies to almost all professions. Most companies that have invested in property portfolios value their properties every three years. The services of a qualified property valuer would be enlisted for this purpose. Where epistemic modesty is in force, you wouldn’t find a bunch of smarty-pants directors, be they lawyers or finance experts unnecessarily questioning capital values determined by qualified resources and perhaps going a step further to demand the inflation or deflation of such considered values. By the same token, property valuers serving on panels of commercial banks would have the grit to reject all sorts of intimidation from their masters and refuse to collude with them in systematically deflating values of property to be bonded.

While an engineer is at liberty to share his views with his attorney, it would be inappropriate for him to insist that the lawyer follows what, from the engineer’s lay perspective, may seem to be a good defense strategy. Without the benefit of test results, a general practitioner drilled in the medical principle, ‘When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras,’ will push back and refuse to listen to an alarmist professional lawyer who happens to be his charlatan patient. In the real world, the door swings both ways, therefore, each professional must be exemplary in demonstrating what he expects of other professionals.

Editor's Comment
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