Monday, January 30, 2023

More on Epistemic Injustice


I became aware of a paper on epistemic injustice (1) this morning and just finished reading the paper.  I wrote a blog on this topic with reference to one of the paper the authors discussed about 2 ½ years ago and I was interested in learning of the authors agreed or disagreed with my position. As suggested by the title – my position was that the concept of epistemic injustice was misapplied to psychiatry and further that it was misapplied in much the same way that other philosophical concepts have been. That misapplication typically begins with a false premise and the application of the concept is built upon that.

I took the original authors definitions of epistemic injustice in my original post.  The current paper defines epistemic injustice as occurring in two forms and once again I will quote the authors directly:

Testimonial injustice arises when an individual’s factual report about some issue is ignored or taken to be unreliable because of individual characteristics that are not related to her epistemic (knowledge-having) ability.” (p. 1)

“Hermeneutic injustice… an individual’s knowledgeable reports fail to receive adequate attention because she, her listeners, or society as a whole lack the conceptual resources to interpret them.”

They give numerous examples both within and outside the field of psychiatry analyzing the arguments about why the epistemic injustice does or does not exist. I took the same steps in the previous blog post and my arguments were very similar to the authors of the current paper.  We basically agree that psychiatrists need to be focused on the subjective state of the patient.  That means we cannot arbitrarily discount what anybody says. We are also trained to not discount histories based on the demographic, social or interpersonal features of the patient.  In fact, we are the only physicians trained to recognize those tendencies and correct them.  The authors also agreed that all of the patient’s narrative need not be arbitrarily accepted and as an example they describe a patient who is at high risk for suicide and who is denying any risk in the emergency setting despite obvious evidence to the contrary.   They suggest just accepting the narrative for the sake of social justice may result in patients being placed at risk. I agree with that opinion.

I addressed this issue in my original post by describing what I consider to be the clinical method of psychiatry.  That involves listening carefully to the patient but at the same time deciding about the continuity and plausibility of the narrative.  This is a general process independent of any specific patient characteristic that recognizes all human informants make errors and that there are multiple reasons for these errors.  In other words, this general process needs to be applied to every patient professional encounter with a psychiatrist.  One of my mentors in residency also suggested that at some point it extends to everyone a psychiatrist talks with including informal contacts.  That means that psychiatrists may be analyzing many people that they encounter – but not in the psychoanalytic or mind reading sense.  

 The clinical process is important because it can refine the assessment and assist the patient in communicating the problems that brought them in to treatment. The goal of the interview is to establish a diagnosis and formulation and discuss them with the patient.  Agreement with the initial assessment forms the basis for treatment planning and the therapeutic alliance between the patient and the psychiatrist.  There are also therapeutic aspects to this communication.  Interventions like confrontation, clarification, and interpretation not only to improve the factual report but to assist the patient in recognizing active defenses that are limiting their insight into maladaptive behaviors and thought patterns.

The best way to counter any possibility of epistemic injustice is to keep teaching psychiatric methods exactly the way they are being taught right now.  Psychiatric trainees need to learn early on that analyzing the subjective communication is a rich source of information that cannot be denied, but may need to be clarified. There are never any clear reasons for rejecting this information – but like all psychiatric communication it all has to be seen through a critical lens and in some cases multiple hypotheses apply.

The authors have an interesting take as a footnote at the end of their paper on why some authors may be interested in applying a philosophical concept where it might not apply – especially if the critic is a psychiatrist.  There is after all and established pattern of some psychiatrists doing this.  From the paper:

“To the objection that psychiatrists are the ones writing some of these articles, we would suggest that being a psychiatrist does not protect one from misunderstandings – or more likely, misrepresentations – of one’s own field when in the grip of an idea. This should be no more surprising than the possibility of an anti-psychiatric psychiatrist, a familiar figure in the philosophy of psychiatry.”

The authors condense various motivations for misrepresentation as an intellectual idea.  That may be a possibility as a one off paper but what about a pattern over years and decades?  What about the associated self-promotion over those years? What about the inability to recognize the good work of hundreds of colleagues over that period or personal mistakes?  There are always many unasked and unanswered questions when it comes to an idea that criticizes an entire field of work.    

It is indisputable that no medical field has been mischaracterized more than psychiatry. Philosophy has been one of the vehicles used to do it. I hope that more papers are written to illustrate exactly how it happens. In the misapplication of epistemic injustice, it starts with a false premise and builds from there. Psychiatrists everywhere know that one of our best attributes is being able to talk to anyone and more specifically people that other physicians either do not want to talk with or are unable to. Most importantly – we are interested in talking with these people and can communicate with them in a productive manner. We do not get to that point by rejecting what people have to say or not paying attention to them.

The qualifier in my original post still applies:

“There is no doubt that people can be misdiagnosed. There is no doubt that things don’t always go well. There is a clear reason for that and that is everyone coming to see a psychiatrist has a unique conscious state. There is no catalog of every unique conscious state. The psychiatrist's job is to understand that unique conscious state and it happens through direct communication with that person.  That direct communication can happen only if the psychiatrist is an unbiased listener.

There are plenty of external constraints that directly impact the time needed by a trained psychiatrist to interview and understand a person. That is probably a better focus for criticism than the continued misapplication of philosophical ideas.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Kious BM, Lewis BR, Kim SY. Epistemic injustice and the psychiatrist. Psychological Medicine. 2023 Jan 5:1-5.


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