The “pseudoscience” card as intellectual bullying

If you’re in the scientific biz and you really don’t like what someone else is doing or saying, one of the easiest cards to play is the”pseudoscience” card, especially if the object of your scorn challenges accepted orthodoxies. The tag can be devastatingly effective and stick for a long time.

Some people commit big chunks of their careers to taking down the work of others in this way. For example, Stephen Barrett is the founder of Quackwatch, a site devoted to the relentless criticism of alternative medicine and natural health care and their providers, as a 2008 piece in the Village Voice reports.

Not so easy

Of course, there are quacks, charlatans, and frauds out there who masquerade as having knowledge, evidence, and expertise they simply don’t possess. They should be called on it.

But on other occasions, playing the pseudoscience card is a form of intellectual (or is it anti-intellectual?) bullying. It’s a way of diminishing work that threatens or questions accepted theory and practice.

Michael Shermer, in a piece for the Scientific American titled “What is Pseudoscience?” (link here), recognizes that the lines between science and pseudoscience are not as easily drawn as one might think. But rather than simply railing against the difficulties of doing so, he sets out a fair minded way of making the distinction. Shermer asks:

…(D)oes the revolutionary new idea generate any interest on the part of working scientists for adoption in their research programs, produce any new lines of research, lead to any new discoveries, or influence any existing hypotheses, models, paradigms or world views? If not, chances are it is pseudoscience.

On the other hand:

If a community of scientists actively adopts a new idea and if that idea then spreads through the field and is incorporated into research that produces useful knowledge reflected in presentations, publications, and especially new lines of inquiry and research, chances are it is science.

Fear and intolerance

Two years ago, I saw just how strongly the scientific and public health establishment can react to challenges of conventional wisdom when two very reputable health journalists were skewered because they dared to report on research that questioned the efficacy of flu vaccines. Their article appeared in The Atlantic just as the country was facing the H1N1 flu virus.

The harshest criticisms of The Atlantic piece came from the mainstream health sector, but a lot of others with no apparent scientific or medical expertise jumped on board. For example, one prominent law professor, apparently beset by fear and rage, blogged that “many people will get sick and some may even die because these two are too stupid to be able to analyze and evaluate the relevance of evidence,” adding that the authors were “dangerously stupid” and “irresponsible hacks.”

Not too long ago, doctors appeared in ads and commercials touting low-tar menthol cigarettes. Over the years, those trying to lose a few pounds have been alternately urged to eat more meat or less meat, more pasta or less pasta. Soldiers without visible wounds who could not return to the front lines were once deemed “shellshocked.”

In other words, we don’t have to return to the Middle Ages to find plenty of examples where conventional scientific wisdom was simply wrong. We are not even close to reaching the outer frontiers of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That awareness hopefully brings with it a humility that gives us pause before we engage in facile putdowns of cutting-edge work.

Brain science and the workplace: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity

If you’re interested in how the experience of work affects us, but you’re not into heavy science, get over the latter and become familiar with these two terms: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity. We’re going to be hearing a lot about both in the years to come.


Neuroscience is defined by as:

The study of the brain and nervous system, including molecular neuroscience, cellular neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, psychophysics, computational modeling and diseases of the nervous system.

Neuroplasticity is defined as:

The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

In other words, we’re talking about the science of the brain, including how we can change it for the better and fix it after bad stuff happens.

Past blog posts

I try to avoid using too much jargon in writing articles for this blog, so the following pieces are not filled to the brim with references to neuroscience and neuroplasticity. Nonetheless, these concepts are at the heart of these posts:

In recovering from adversity, past adversity can fuel our resilience

Do organizations suppress our empathy?

Understanding the bullied brain

Bully rats, tasers, and stress

Why concentrated power at work is bad

Huge implications for workplace bullying

As the titles of the posts listed above suggest, this has huge implications for understanding and responding to workplace bullying.

Neuroscience gives us tools for understanding what workplace bullying does to people. For example, last year Dr. Gary Namie wrote on the Workplace Bullying Institute blog about a promising experimental tool for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (link here):

Prolonged exposure to unremitting stress damages a person’s health. . . . In worst cases, trauma can result. . . . Now comes a potential new neuroscience tool to complement the diagnostic toolkit — MEG. MEG stands for magnetoencephalography. PTSD can be detected with 97% accuracy using this non-invasive, but still experimental, procedure.  MEG measures the magnetic signals produced by the activity of the brain.

Similarly, emerging understanding of neuroplasticity — in this context, applying insights to help counsel and heal bullying targets — gives us hope for breakthroughs toward helping those with PTSD, a condition so difficult to treat that often has left even the most optimistic trauma experts in a state of frustration.

Legal significance

Words not only can hurt, but also when delivered in a malicious, sustained, and targeted way, they can impair brain functioning. In short, psychological torture causes brain damage. Thus, as these discoveries and developments become documented through published scientific research, neuroscience will help targets of bullying, harassment, mobbing, and abuse prove legal claims against their tormenters. It also will help them access workers’ compensation and disability benefits.

Organizational behavior and business practices

Insights from neuroscience increasingly will inform the study of organizational behavior and business management practices. In an article for Strategy + Business about neuroscience and organizational culture (link here, free registration), Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick wrote:

When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind . . .. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question. New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons.

A next big thing

So folks, this is a Next Big Thing. Stay tuned, because we’re going to be learning a lot of interesting stuff about ourselves, and this knowledge may lead us to ways of improving our lives at work and elsewhere.

Understanding the bullied brain

Science writer Emily Anthes, in an excellent feature for the Sunday Boston Globe (link here), summarizes the latest neuroscience research showing how bullied kids can suffer from lasting brain damage:

A new wave of research into bullying’s effects, however, is now suggesting something more than that — that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

This damage, Anthes reports, is very similar to the enduring effects of severe childhood physical and sexual abuse. In essence, it goes way beyond kids stuff:

What the scientists found was that kids who had been bullied reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than the kids who hadn’t. In fact, emotional abuse from peers turned out to be as damaging to mental health as emotional abuse from parents.

And into the workplace

In another important Globe piece today (link here), reporter Jenna Russell profiles one-time school bullying target Anthony Testaverde, age 29, an honor roll student who was taunted repeatedly about his spinal deformity and avoided college largely out of fear of being bullied again. The experience has followed him to the point of impacting his ability to earn a living and build a career:

Deeply self-critical and preoccupied with what others think of him, he said he cannot be at ease in large groups and has found it hard to stay at one job, because even minor workplace conflicts trigger fears and the urge to flee.

Russell’s summary of the long-term effects of childhood bullying, drawn from personal accounts collected by the Globe, sounds an awful lot like a description of PTSD:

Common threads run through their stories: the spotlit vividness of the memories. The anger at their own failure to fight back or get revenge. A sense of lingering impairment, felt again and again in flare-ups of self-doubt, anxiety, or rage.

Neuroscience and workplace bullying

This research is extremely pertinent to workplace bullying. First, it explains how individuals bullied as kids may be more prone to experience even milder forms of workplace aggression as bullying.

Second, it leads the way for deeper understanding of the destructiveness of workplace bullying. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute (see his blog post, here) and researchers in the field of occupational health psychology have been citing neuroscience research demonstrating the post traumatic effects of severe workplace bullying.

For those of us drafting and advocating for workplace bullying laws, this work helps to make our case. That’s why I was delighted that at a conference on workplace bullying and the law at the University of Augsburg last spring (brief summary here), Prof. Lea Vaughn of the University of Washington School of Law presented on how neuroscience might inform the anti-bullying law reform movement.

Much more

This is cutting-edge work, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of it. Suffice it to say that it has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the damage caused by psychological abuse across the lifespan. I’ll be revisiting this topic in future posts, but I especially wanted to share the Anthes and Russell articles with readers now.

Why concentrated power at work is bad

For some time I’ve been meaning to share this neat little piece, “The Power Paradox,” by UC-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, which appeared in the Winter 2007/08 issue of Greater Good magazine (link here).  It’s about the corrupting influence of power, and it explains a lot of what we see at work. For example:

Perhaps more unsettling is the wealth of evidence that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and to fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating fashion. Surveys of organizations find that most rude behaviors—shouting, profanities, bald critiques—emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power.

My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.

Many of the magazine’s articles are freely accessible online.  A lot of good material there!

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