A while back a downtown Auckland tower-block was evacuated after the occupants fell ill with what was first thought to be gas from the air conditioning. It wasn’t. But a dozen people were hospitalised. That evening, more people fell ill and the building was closed. Before a formal investigation reported on the problem, a university … More Why the term ‘it’s psychological’ doesn’t cut it as a real medical diagnosis
I was reminded the other day of a wonderful 1948 story I read as a kid, ‘In Hiding’, by Wilmar Shiras (1908-1990). I read it in a 1960s-era anthology of sci-fi stories, and it left a huge impression on me. Shiras wrote it, apparently, for her children. And the plot was straight forward: a school … More What makes people smart?
There was a headline the other week on the Fairfax news site ‘Stuff’ about a southern New Zealand high school that was forbidding children to wear warm headgear – beanies – despite temperatures dropping into the negatives. Based on the report it appeared to me to be simple power assertion. Beanies weren’t in the uniform, … More When power assertion is disguised by the rules…
Back when I was at primary school one of the many risks kids faced was being seen near other kids who drew the attention of a teacher and were punished. The thing was that anybody in the area was – by definition – part of the group and would be scooped up and also punished. … More Why ‘online profiling’ is so dangerous
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of asthma in the world, and a good deal of research has been done locally to find out why. Recently it appeared that tests run on asthmatics and non-asthmatics show much the same response to specific inflammatory markers, therefore asthma can’t be due to allergy and must … More New Zealand’s asthma rates and immune system problems aren’t ‘psychological’
Human reality is a funny thing. Society, as a whole, behaves differently from individuals – yet is made up of them. Understanding people, individually and en masse, is the raison d’etre of the social sciences. And it strikes me that conceptual realities of human nature often emerge in front of our noses, often in microcosm. I … More Learning the dark truth of the human condition
When I was at Tamatea High School in Napier, years ago, one of the gangs of bullies who prowled the place always greeted me the same way. “Here comes Wright. He must die!” Usually it was posed as a public question: “Hello Wright, do you want to die?” It was a daily event. I wasn’t … More Are humans bullies by nature?
The other month I had an interesting discussion about historians and history. The issue came up of enthusiasts who style themselves ‘historians’ – but whose qualifications are in a totally unrelated area. What was the difference between their stuff and what I’m doing? There is a huge difference, I explained. Anybody with an enthusiasm for … More Why history is all about trends and vectors
One of the ways that George Orwell exposed the reality of authoritarian dictatorship in his novel 1984 was through the way his Big Brother authorities twisted the truth. They didn’t just lie in blatantly transparent ways – they demanded that their ‘alternative facts’ be taken as gospel, irrespective of any evidence to the contrary. If … More Orwell’s ‘1984’ and the alternative truth
A significant hallmark of an authoritarian government is the way it uses the power of the state to bully people. The spectre was raised a century ago by Franz Kafka, whose unfinished novel The Trial summed up the whole problem. In the story, Kafka’s narrator was arrested and put on trial – all without even … More What Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ tells us about authoritarian bullying