Epistemic Trespassing in Real Time: Peter Navarro, Economist

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

Paul Thomas
5 min readApr 8, 2020
Public Domain

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.



Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/