OpenLearn Live is the bit of OpenLearn where we make links between the things that matter to you, and the world of learning and research.
Some people like cheese. They like cheese a lot. Other people don't like cheese. Can science explain what is going on with these strange people who don't like cheese? Maybe - there's been some research done:
French (heh) researchers Jean-Pierre Royet and colleagues used fMRI to scan 15 people who liked cheese and 15 who “hated” it. During the scan, the participants were shown images of cheese and were exposed to cheese odors.
The six neuro-cheeses were blue cheese, cheddar, goat cheese, gruyère, parmesan, and tomme. Mmm.
Royet et al. found that the cheese stimuli produced greater activation in basal ganglia structures in people who didn’t like cheese
Except this, as Discover's Neuroskeptic column points out, is as unsatisfying a mousetrap cheddar:
This study doesn’t explain why one person dislikes cheese and another loves it: to say that “you dislike cheese because it doesn’t activate your ventral pallidum” is circular, it’s like saying “you dislike cheese because you don’t like it.”
This, from Twitter:
— Anna Goss (@annagoss) November 10, 2016
... is timely, given a new piece from The New Yorker exploring why calling your business Tronc is an expensive mistake:
The phonemes in a name can themselves convey meaning. This idea goes back to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. A philosopher called Hermogenes argues that the relationship between a word and its meaning is purely arbitrary; Cratylus, another philosopher, disagrees; and Socrates eventually concludes that there is sometimes a connection between meaning and sound. Linguistics has mostly taken Hermogenes’ side, but, in the past eighty years, a field of research called phonetic symbolism has shown that Cratylus was on to something. In one experiment, people were shown a picture of a curvy object and one of a spiky object. Ninety-five per cent of those who were asked which of two made-up words—“bouba” or “kiki”—best corresponded to each picture said that “bouba” fit the curvy object and “kiki” the spiky one. Other work has shown that so-called front-vowel sounds, like the “i” in “mil,” evoke smallness and lightness, while back-vowel sounds, as in “mal,” evoke heaviness and bigness. Stop consonants—which include “k” and “b”—seem heavier than fricatives, like “s” and “z.” So George Eastman displayed amazing intuition when, in 1888, he devised the name Kodak, on the ground that “k” was “a strong, incisive sort of letter.”
If we need a reminder this week that democracy doesn't always deliver the best results, we've been telling the stories of the five men generally agreed to be the worst Presidents of the United States. Yesterday, we heard of Franklin Pierce, who bungled the job really badly and set the course for civil war.
Today, we're focusing on Warren G Harding, the second-worst President of all time according the rankings we're using.
So, why is Warren G Harding considered a bad president?
Harding is unique in the bottom five - the only one from the 20th Century; the only one whose terrible presidency wasn't connected to the fractures of the Civil War; and, to a certain extent, the only one who wasn't considered to have been terrible at the time his tenure ended. (Harding died, in 1923, while still in office.) He was quite popular when he died; it was only information which came to light after he had moved towards the light that eroded his popularity.
There was sexual scandal - Harding fathered a child outside of his marriage with long-term love interest Nan Britton. Harding was such a philanderer, some have suggested his sudden death might have been down to his wife poisoning him. She'd chosen not to get him an autopsy, and had him embalmed within sixty minutes of death, but most now accept her behaviour to be odd, but not a sign of guilt.
The impression of Harding as Lothario in Chief was burnished when a stash of his love letters were released into the public domain a couple of years back:
But it wasn't sexual misdeeds that really tanked his reputation.
There was also a financial scandal, the Teapot Dome Scandal. Harding had transferred control of naval land with oil reserves to the Department of the Interior, whereupon his secretary of the interior Albert Bacon Fall handed contracts to oil companies. Unfortunately, it turned out the oil companies had previously handed Fall large sums in Bonds and cash. Although Harding wasn't personally implicated, the uncovering of the deals hurt his reputation, and that had a knock-on effect on his health.
It didn't help that there was also a taint over Harry M. Daugherty, Harding's attorney general. Seen as a wheeler-dealer, the activities of his assitant and rumoured lover Jess Smith were another source of disgust with Harding's choice of officials.
And the Veteran's Bureau was source of yet more shade. Harding transferred control of the network of Veteran's hospitals from the treasury to the Bureau, which was run by Charles R Forbes. Forbes set about flogging off property and supplies for a song to various contractors, all of whom were happy to make it worth his while.
Although all of these scandals had been uncovered before his death, the different media environment of the early 20th Century meant it took a while for the public to realise the man they had passionately mourned as a great president was actually overpromoted and had surrounded himself with unsavoury characters.
When they caught on, though, it shook public faith in politicians generally. As Harding's stock sank, so did the public view of his trade. It would take a war to restore faith in the idea that politicians were more than in it for themselves.