What does psychology consider harassment?

Because certain entities on the web feel like redefining all forms of internet harassment and threat as “trolling” just because it happens online or via unusual media, I decided to look at what actually qualifies as harassment in psychology (rather than in law, since we’re talking about whether it affects people, not whether it’s illegal). I looked at a couple psych studies that were doing experiments on the effects of harassment, and excerpted the part where they describe the form of experimental harassment they subjected their test subjects to, as well as relevant results:

http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999%2898%2900075-0/abstract
Harassment used in experiment:

For subjects in the harassment condition, scripted harassing comments were delivered on a fixed schedule, at minutes 2, 6, and 10 of the task, by an experimental assistant of the same gender as the subject. All experimental assistants (three women and three men) were trained to deliver the harassing statements in a firm, authoritative, but neutral (i.e., not angry) tone of voice.

Results:

The harassed subjects reacted more strongly than the control subjects to the stressor on all cardiovascular and cortisol measures and recovered more slowly than the nonharassed controls. In addition, several gender differences in response to the stressor and during the recovery period were observed. The harassed men exhibited the largest reactivity on cortisol and DBP indices, whereas the harassed women showed a more pronounced response on the subjective ratings of hostility and HR. The harassed groups were the only ones to show significant cortisol responses, with cortisol reactivity in harassed men approximately twice that of their female counterparts. Control groups did not exhibit significant cortisol reactivity. During the recovery period, harassed men exhibited attenuated return to baseline on cardiovascular indices and cortisol, whereas women, overall, tended to exhibit an overcompensation response on cardiovascular measures.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10661604
Harassment used in experiment:

For subjects in the Harassment condition, the procedure for the first four TAT cards was identical to that just described for subjects in the Nonharassment condition. Before the fifth card, however, the experimenter said that the last four stories had been “somewhat boring,” and that the subject should try harder to make the next few stories interesting. After the fifth card, the experimenter said “you still do not have it right.” After the sixth and seventh cards, the experimenter again indicated that the stories were inadequate, and said “I cannot see what the problem is,” and that “you should make some effort” to improve them. During the eighth story, the experimenter interrupted the subject with a critical comment.

Results:

Results indicate that the harassment manipulation affected increases in [heart rate], [systolic blood pressure], and [diastolic blood pressure]. Furthermore, among subjects in the Harassment condition, anger repressors showed greater HR reactivity than low anger expressors, but similar HR reactivity to that shown by high anger expressors. […] among subjects in the Harassment condition, anger repressors reported levels of anger arousal similar to those of low anger expressors, but lower than those reported by high anger expressors. For subjects in the Nonharassment condition, no such effects emerged

There are other definitions, e.g. cyberbullying being typically defined as intentional and/or repeated harassment, which is ok except intent is hard to prove and easy to deny; and vague definitions that include terms like “verbal abuse”, which don’t explain anything. When studying entire organizations, there tends to be also a requirement of “creating a hostile environment” for harassment, so that even when each person only commits a harassing act once, it still counts.

Conclusion: Even mild interruption, ridicule, and criticism elicits stress responses, and all these mild stress-response-elicitors count as harassment in psychology. That doesn’t mean we should stop criticizing people, and it doesn’t mean that people who want to be skeptics, scientists and/or activists don’t need to learn to deal with a certain degree of both criticism and “trolling”. However, as with microaggressions, a constant barrage of aggression (some low-grade some decidedly less so) is typically more wearying/damaging than the occasional blatant, massive outburst. Consequently, telling a person who’s subjected for months to non-stop criticism, “satire”, parody, “trolling”, and plain old “as defined by every college campus everywhere” harassment* on multiple fronts that they aren’t being harassed is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Even the thickest skin will eventually be worn down** my months, or even years, of this sort of thing.
What this means in effect is that even harassment that doesn’t quite live up to persecutable legal standards*** still causes harm to people. Real, measurable harm.

What the pitters & their associates have been doing to certain individuals for months, even years now is definitely this kind of long-term harassment that creates a toxic environment and has negative physiological effects on people.

And the Horde isn’t entirely guilt-free here, either. The Reset rule and the Three Post rule exist for a reason, m’kay?

EDIT: more studies on this and related topic can be found at the bottom of this comment, because I’ve talked about this before.

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*for example, NDSU defines it as “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s employment or academic endeavors or creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive environment. Harassment may include (but is not limited to) jokes, derogatory comments, pictures, and/or direct physical advances.”
**interestingly, the second study cited here also points out that people who repress their anger still have a hightened physiological response, but they don’t seem to perceive it (or want to disclose it to the researchers)… so “thick skinned” people may well not actually all be that thick skinned, just good at repressing their emotions. The physiological harm is still there though.
***according to USLegal.com, the legal definition of harassment in the US is determined by state, but typically includes this basic core:

Harassment is governed by state laws, which vary by state, but is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.

Forbes is lying about a study to promote AGW denialism

So there’s this Op/Ed piece titled “Peer-Reviewed Survey Finds Majority Of Scientists Skeptical Of Global Warming Crisis” in Forbes right now. It refers to this paper in Organizational Studies, a journal largely focusing on the sociology of organizations.

The Op/Ed piece is blatantly lying about the paper.

Let’s start with the title. For one, the paper is not a survey. Surveys are quantitative, and therefore strive for large and representative samples; this paper was a qualitative study, with a sample selected on the basis of usefulness to the topic, not because it’s representative. Secondly, the author of that Op/Ed piece, James Taylor, claims that a “majority of scientists” is skeptical of AGW. Except that the paper doesn’t study “scientists”; it studies “professional experts in petroleum and related industries”*, and refers to them collectively as “professionals”, not “scientists” like Taylor does. Plus, right in the introduction the paper explains that “there is a broad consensus among climate scientists” about AGW being real. Which is not a group of scientists the paper studies, because its focus is not what the scientists doing research on climate issues conclude from their research. The abstract of the paper (emphases mine):

This paper examines the framings and identity work associated with professionals’ discursive construction of climate change science, their legitimation of themselves as experts on ‘the truth’, and their attitudes towards regulatory measures. Drawing from survey responses of 1077 professional engineers and geoscientists, we reconstruct their framings of the issue and knowledge claims to position themselves within their organizational and their professional institutions. In understanding the struggle over what constitutes and legitimizes expertise, we make apparent the heterogeneity of claims, legitimation strategies, and use of emotionality and metaphor. By linking notions of the science or science fiction of climate change to the assessment of the adequacy of global and local policies and of potential organizational responses, we contribute to the understanding of ‘defensive institutional work’ by professionals within petroleum companies, related industries, government regulators, and their professional association.

In the paper the authors state the purpose of the paper as follows:

Our aim is to examine the construction and disputation of expertise in a contested issue field and the consequences this has for the mobilization for or against regulation.

and

How do professional experts frame the reality of climate change and themselves as experts, while engaging in defensive institutional work against others?

It’s a sociology paper; about social construction of “expertise” on AGW which justifies in the minds of professionals “defensive institutional work, i.e., the maintenance of institutions against disruptions” caused by demands for climate-action. It wouldn’t make sense to study research scientists in climatology for this.
Plus, studying specifically professionals working for oil companies and oil-related industries (in Alberta, no less!) is going to severely skew the proportion of professionals studied who are denialists. Which the authors of the study are quite upfront about**, but which Taylor completely ignores in favor of claims like:

the overwhelming majority of scientists fall within four other models, each of which is skeptical of alarmist global warming claims.

Taylor then quotes parts of the paper where the oil-industry professionals are classified into 5 groups of positions about AGW. Mostly the quotes are ok, but they are trimmed to look less like the “social construction of climate change” categories that they actually are in the paper.

Lastly, Taylor takes a swipe at the authors of the paper (where he once again calls it a survey. dude, no.) for being “alarmists”, because they use accurate terms (“deniers”, etc.); he then claims that because of the obvious pro-AGW-bias of the authors, “alarmists will have a hard time arguing the survey is biased or somehow connected to the ‘vast right-wing climate denial machine.’”. Which is silly, since of course the study is connected to the denial machine; it’s about the denial machine, sampling a group of people who have every reason in the world to deny that their institution (the oil industry) is fucking with the climate.

And then another blatant lie:

Another interesting aspect of this new survey is that it reports on the beliefs of scientists themselves rather than bureaucrats who often publish alarmist statements without polling their member scientists.

Again, this is neither a survey, nor does it study scientists. It confirms that among climate scientists, there is a consensus that AGW is real and a problem. But these folks are not the subject of the study; it’s a study about denialist self-rationalization, so of course it’s full of deniers. Also, it’s of course not “bureaucrats” that publish consensus reports on AGW; unlike the subjects of this study, the IPCC is actually a body of actual climate scientists doing actual research on our climate.

The Forbes article concludes thusly:

People who look behind the self-serving statements by global warming alarmists about an alleged “consensus” have always known that no such alarmist consensus exists among scientists. Now that we have access to hard surveys of scientists themselves, it is becoming clear that not only do many scientists dispute the asserted global warming crisis, but these skeptical scientists may indeed form a scientific consensus.

1)”hard surveys of scientists”, my ass. 2)1/3 of people even within the oil industry agreeing that AGW is a thing and a serious problem, plus another 17% basically answering “I don’t know, and neither do you” cannot in any way be construed as a “consensus” against AGW even among the group studied.

Lastly, and slightly OT, I’ll also note that the denialist goalposts have moved so thoroughly that even in the oil industry, “virtually all respondents (99.4%) agree that the climate is changing”. Now it’s all about whether to do anything about it.

The paper itself is quite interesting, since the concepts they’re analyzing apply to other debates about what is or isn’t scientific and who is or isn’t a legitimate authority on any given topic is relevant to many other areas***, especially where “defensive institutional work” is being done****. Really though, the most amazing thing about it is that a paper examining the ways in which denialists frame their denialism by defining experts as those who agree with them in order to justify defensive responses to attacks on the oil industry ends up being used to define experts (i.e. “scientists”) in such a way that it agrees with denialists and justifies their defensive, anti-regulatory reactions. It’s so very meta.
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* specifically, members of The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA); no research scientists.
**they definitely don’t claim they have a representative sample of “scientists” or “experts on AGW”, since that’s not the point of the study. Quite the opposite, since this is not a quantitative study, but one using qualitative methodology. They’re not interested in how many people believe what, but in the content and diversity of these positions and the methods of justifying them.
**(examples: defining Rebecca Watson as an illegitimate authority in skepticism, because she has a communications degree rather than a science degree; shifting boundaries of what is or isn’t True ScienceTM to exclude many social sciences; hyperskepticism; etc.
****any claim of “you’re harming The Movement”, and “I like this community the way it is, stop trying to change it”, ever.

A kitteh and a link dump

I was going to write a post using most of these, but I changed my mind. Still, the links are informative reading, so I’m just going to post them without the article that was supposed to go around them. And just to make the post more than just a dry linkdump, here’s a picture of Dusty:

Not a safe space — a good 101-level explanation of what the term “safe space” even means.

Michigan Legislators Demand Control of the Organ Which Must Not Be Named — summary of what thedrama in Michigan, with summary of the effects of their anti-woman bill

Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative — article on how the police manage to turn a anti-procurers-of-prostitution campaign into a campaign to arrest, out, and shame poor trans women of color

Despite The Evidence, Anti-Choicers Persist in Lying About Emergency Contraception — article by Amanda Marcotte about something I’ve been saying repeatedly: the science has already shown that hormonal contraceptives, including Emergency Contraception, doesn’t cause implantation failure.

Respect as it applies to anti-harassment policies — A conference organizer states his opinion about the relative importance (or lack thereof) of whether anti-harassment policies will make it harder for people to get laid.

Playing Cassandra

I’m feeling distinctly pessimistic today. As I’ve written in the past, the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” may be a necessary belief to remain motivated in generations-long battles for justice, but as an “is” statement (as opposed to an “ought” statement), it is naive at best in light of the cyclical nature of civilizations. All civilizations in the history of humankind have, sooner or later, declined and fallen into a “dark age”.

And with that cheery introduction, I’ll give you the following:
1)Rachel Maddow analyzing the effects of money on US politics. Basically, Republicans and corporations now have enough money at their disposal to win even extremely unlikely electoral races. And the Democrats’ plan to survive and counter this? winning, then amending the constitution. except that, as just noted, they can’t really win anymore. So basically, unless the Repubicans actually manage to self-destruct, the US government is now wholly theirs, on all levels, for years to come.

2)A graph and summary about oil prices since the economic crisis. oil prices are currently falling because of assorted political clusterfucks, but for the last year, despite fluctuations, they are as high as they were at the beginning of 2008. and anything “good” happening economically will instantly reverse the current downward trend. so, it seems our choices right now are economic collapse somewhere important and the continuation of the Era Of Cheap Oil, or economic stabilization/recovery and the official end of oil below $100/bbl. Peak Oil, anyone?

3)In Europe, xenophobia always lurks just under the surface, threatening to erupt. The EU and its predecessor were created to end a history of conflict that includes the Hundred Year War, the 30 Year War, and that started both world wars. And they were doing a decent job of it, considering, before the global economic meltdown. But because the meltdown happened before the EU figured out how to manage itself in crisis situations, it is now in a political as well as an economic crisis. With predictable results: Fascists are getting elected wherever sufficient distrust of the other EU members has managed to break to the surface

4)And last but not least, speaking of the long arc of history: here’s a paper in Nature (I haz pdf) about possible “critical transitions” in the global ecosystem in the next century or so. I’ve kind of written about these transitions before. They’re basically what happens to an ecosystem when it stops being resilient enough to withstand a particular environmental pressure: it undergoes a drastic change until it can regain (relative, temporary) equilibrium as an entirely different ecosystem, one that usually doesn’t sustain the same species and communities as before. And this paper basically discusses the possibility that our biosphere is about to undergo a critical transition as a result of human-caused pressures on the system. Some choice quotes:

Here we summarize evidence that such planetary-scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.

This Modelling suggests that for 30% of Earth, the speed at which plant species will have to migrate to keep pace with projected climate change is greater than their dispersal rate when Earth last shifted from a glacial to an interglacial climate, and that dispersal will be thwarted by highly fragmented landscapes.Climates found at present on 10–48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12–39% of Earth48. The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.

Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased (as will happen if the population increases by
2,000,000,000 within about three decades), widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result.

Inequality in science, race edition

I’m surprised none of the science-related blogs I read have picked up on this story yet(which has been reported by the NYT, as well as Democracy Now), so I guess I’ll have to do it myself. From a study just published in Science showing that black scientists less likely to receive NIH-funds than white scientists:

Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

That’s unfortunately unsurprising, but sad nonetheless. If I understand the paper properly (and there’s no guarantee that I have, so take the following discussion with all the skepticism it’s due), it seems to indicate that a lot of the discrimination isn’t directly related to bias in the selection, but to bias in career advancement elsewhere (access to resources). That’s probably a large chunk of it, and certainly racial discrimination as well as cultural hurdles aren’t improbable. But AFAICT from the study, even taking into account all of these, there’s still a remaining bias. So is it possible that there’s bias in the selection process itself?

My main question, which the article doesn’t answer, is how the NIH would know the race of their applicants; and if it doesn’t, what the factor that leads to this discrimination could be. A particular focus in the research? Maybe it’s not so much the race of the scientist that’s being discriminated against; minority researchers often try to fill the gap of lacking research about the special circumstances of the groups they belong to, so possibly it was the “race” of the proposal that was being discriminated against (I hope that sentence makes sense; obviously proposals don’t have a race, but may have a “non-standard” (AKA non-white) focus that could be identified as less-than by subconscious bias or even outright bigotry). This may also explain the much lower citation count (but doesn’t explain the much higher citation count for Asian and Hispanic authored papers; it would be necessary to see whether Black, Asian, and Hispanic authors are comparably likely to focus on minority-relevant research topics, and whether minority-focused subjects correlate with citation count to figure out what’s going on there). If the bias is indeed related to research topics, it would be very difficult to circumvent subconscious bias, since there would be no possibility of blind applications for obvious reasons.

The study shows a few other interesting things aside from that main point. For one, the ridiculously low number of Native scientists in biomedical research (only 41?! That’s fucking tragic in and of itself). Two, it seems to me from the data that the reason Asians and Hispanics don’t show the same disparities might not be because they’re not discriminated against. I can’t precisely parse what it says on this subject, but doesn’t it seem to say that Hispanics and especially Asians outperform whites on certain measures, but that those don’t translate in proportionately higher rates of proposal acceptance? It’s either that, or it says that these measures are irrelevant for proposals by non-blacks, and only seem to matter for blacks, who have the lowest citation and publication counts, and the fewest last-authored papers as well. *confused*

“post-modernism”, physics-style

The ubiquitous use of “post-modernist” as an insult meant to describe some sort of uber-relativistic, solipsistic mental-masturbation has always bugged me. Post-modernism was a very important development that deconstructed the illusion of humans (or “scientists” or “men”, depending on the topic) as objective observers of reality. It posited humans as interpreters of reality, who constructed models, symbols, etc.to make a counter-intuitive reality comprehensive to brains that never had any “reason” to evolve the ability to do so. And yet, people sneer at post-modernism and constructivism (the idea that reality is constructed by people) as some sort of wooey, New Agey “everyone can have their own reality and their own facts” sort of BS.

Well, imagine my glee when, while reading an article in Skeptic about Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book The Grand Design, I come upon a discussion of Hawking’s “Other Controversial Theory”: Model-Dependent Realism.
The article in Skeptic explained MDR in the terms very similar to the ones the social sciences have been using for years (but with more neurologyscience*), and the more I read about it, the more it seems to be the very same thing. But this time, it comes from a source not so easily dismissed by nerd-snobbery: the world’s most famous physicist**. A relevant quote from the book:

[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation … then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.
According to the idea of model-dependent realism …, our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own.

source

So: I’m going to have to read that book now, just to make sure I’m not entirely deluding myself about this (wouldn’t want to end up like those morons who think relativity and quantum physics “are what Eastern religions have been saying for millenia”), and if it turns out to be that MDR really is a physicy version of constructivism/post-modernism, next time someone sneers at those concepts because they’re primarily used in the social sciences (and, *gasp* the arts and humanities), I might have to link them to a discussion on MDR and/or suggest the book to them.
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*dum… dee… dum…
**Yes, I’m fully aware I’m making an appeal to authority. However, nerd-snobbery is an argumentum ad hominem, and I find that, in non-formal discussions, those two cancel each other out nicely. So, to get those who commit the ad hom against constructivism to get past their mistake, I present them with an authority their tribalist brains might be willing to take seriously. In terms of intellectually honest debate, this might be cheating a bit, but fuck it: if it gets the morons to pay attention to such important concepts, it might be worth it.