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OpenLearn Live: 21st June 2016

Updated Tuesday 21st June 2016

The lewd drawing that swung an election, and how looking at our brains gives the lie to neurononsense. Free learrning from the OU and beyond, all day.

OpenLearn Live pulls free learning into the heart of your world. This page will be updated during the day.

On Friday, we completed a week of moons, heard how refugees will compete at the Olympics and caught up with Marx

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

How do people feel about Europe?

The OU's Dr Kesi Mahendran has been conducting a research project, Placing Ourselves, to try and understand more about not just what people think of when they think of Europe, but why they have those feelings. In this short video, Kesi explains her project:

Read more about the Placing Ourselves project at the OU research site

The Welsh speaker in the niqab

If you're connected to the internet in any way (rather than, say, getting a relative to print out these pages and send them to you in the post) it's possible you'll have heard the heartwarming tale of a Muslim woman on a Welsh bus. In case you haven't, here's a Tweet which will bring you up to speed:

Some people have enjoyed the story; some have taken to discovering if there were any rail replacement buses running at the time in order to prove it never happened. Writing in the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum explains why the search for the Actual Bus and the Actual Participants misses the point. Stories like this circulate every so often, she explains, and the chances of a Welsh-speaking niqab wearer in that area are statistically slim, but even so:

Confirmation bias is always a powerful thing. We’re always hungry for scraps that can support our own narratives and reinforce our belief that we are right – and always willing to suspend critical faculties when a story fits our own prejudices. That goes for people whose prejudices tell them that a woman wearing a niqab on the Newport to Cwmbran rail replacement service is a dangerous alien who need to be taught a lesson, and it’s true also for those whose prejudices tell them that this same woman must be an assiduously integrated parts of British life.

But neither side needs the woman in a niqab on the Newport to Cwmbran rail replacement service to be real. In fact, it’s more convenient all round if she doesn’t exist, because so long as she can’t pop up with any awkward human complications, she can be the screen where we project our own self-image. A length of black fabric on which to publish the statement of own politics. A totem of all the ways that we, the onlookers in this story, are unlike the stupid racist who can’t tell Arabic from Welsh.

Read the full article at the New Statesman: What the story of the niqab-wearing Welsh speaker tells us about what we want to hear

Discover how confirmation bias plays into decision making

Why does the world hum?

Some blame shady US government activity. Some suspect it could be something to do with cellphones or pylons. Yet others think it might be down a type of hysteria. The cause of a low, global humming - audible only to a few - isn't clear. Glen MacPherson from the University of British Columbia is trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle:

In my view, there are currently four hypotheses for the source of the world Hum that survive the most superficial scrutiny.

The first hypothesis – argued by Deming and the one I’m currently pursuing – is that the Hum is rooted in Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio transmissions. It’s increasingly accepted now that the human body will sometimes experience electromagnetic (EM) energy and interpret it in a way that creates sounds. This was established for high-frequency EM energy by the American neuroscientist Alan Frey in his infamous “microwave hearing” experiments, which showed that certain radio frequencies can actually be heard as sounds.

Today, there are biophysical models that predict and explain the impact VLF EM energy has on living tissue. I have designed and built a VLF radio blocking box that should be able to test whether VLF radio frequencies are a prerequisite for generating the Hum.

The second hypothesis is that the Hum is the grand accumulation of low-frequency sound and human-generated infrasound (sounds with audio frequencies below roughly 20 Hz and which can be felt more than they can be heard). This includes everything from highway noise to all manner of industrial activity.

The third is that the Hum is a terrestrial or geological phenomenon that generates low-frequency sounds or perceptions of those sounds. For example, there is a well-documented history of animals predicting earthquakes and taking action to save themselves. From an evolutionary perspective, there may be survival value in having members of a population highly sensitive to some types of vibrations. When it comes to the Hum, some humans may have a similar physiological mechanism in place.

The fourth is that the Hum is an internally generated phenomenon, perhaps rooted in a particular anatomical variation, genetic predisposition or the result of toxicity and medication.

Read at The Conversation: Cracking the mystery of the ‘Worldwide Hum’

Help the research project: The World Hum Map and Database Project

Try an audible optical illusion

BBC Radio 4, tonight, 9pm: All In The Mind

Tonight on Radio 4 there's a fresh episode of our co-production All In The Mind - tonight's focus will be on the way we take turns in conversations, and the psychology behind that. There's also an update on the programme's awards, and a feature on care farming.

Listen to the programme live or online, after 9pm tonight 

See more about the episode

Lunchtime learning: Neurononsense

Want to learn something while you eat your lunch? As a sister feature to our occasional Listen Over Lunch features, this week we're going to pick out some interesting online content that will turn your restbreak into a power lunch for your brain. And we're going to very much start with the brain, too.

If you've got the luxury of an hour, you can watch Gina Rippon's Royal Institution talk on neurononsense:

There is a long history of debate about biological sex differences and their part in determining gender roles, with the ‘biology is destiny’ mantra being used to legitimise imbalances in these roles. The tradition is continuing, with new brain imaging techniques being hailed as sources of evidence of the ‘essential’ differences between men and women, and the concept of ‘hardwiring’ sneaking into popular parlance as a brain-based explanation for all kinds of gender gaps. 

But the field is littered with many problems. Some are the product of ill-informed popular science writing (neurotrash) based on the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what brain imaging can tell us. Some, unfortunately involve poor science, with scientists using outdated and disproved stereotypes to design and interpret their research (neurosexism). These problems obscure or ignore the ‘neuronews’, the breakthroughs in our understanding of how plastic and permeable our brains are, and how the concept of ‘hard-wiring’ should be condemned to the dustbin of neurohistory. 

This talk aims to offer ways of rooting out the neurotrash, stamping out the neurosexism and making way for neuronews.

Not got an hour? Give us thirty minutes, and you can catch up with the Q&A session that followed the talk:

What does neuroscience have to say about transgender issues? Do the things we’re told about how boys and girls learn dictate how they really do learn? What role does differences in hormones in males and females have? Gina Rippon answers questions from the audience following her talk.

Only have five minutes? In this short video from Aston University, Gina Rippon explains her work, and how a neuroimager goes about their tasks:

See OpenLearn's neuroscience collection

Between you, me and the ballot box: Single vote victories

With the UK facing a date with destiny at the ballot box this week, we're starting off every day this week with some curiousities of the democratic system. Yesterday, we visited the largest parliamentary constituency on the planet.

Today, we're answering the question 'can one vote make the difference'?

St Veit a d Glan - Fuchspalast Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: JJ55 Fuchspalast in St Veit An Der Glan

There's quite a few mythic elections where the outcome was decided by a single vote - Snopes dismantles most of them with the cold-eyed efficiency of Games Of Thrones army, but does leave one standing.

The 1961 January Zanzibar parliamentary elections were won by the Afro-Shirazi party by a single seat; and one of the seats, Chake-Chake in which they were triumphant they won by a single vote. The victory was slim, and the government weak - the nation was back at the polls by the summer.

In Austria's 2013 state elections in Carinthia, the seat of St. Veit an der Glan looked to be deadlocked. That was until the ballot papers were examined - and one ballot was discovered to have a crude drawing of a penis on it. The drawing, though, fitted neatly in a column on the paper, and was deemed to count. Mental Floss explains:

The voter made two markings: A drawing of a penis in the ranking column, and a check mark was in the choices column. It was decided that the ranking took precedence, and that penis-checked ballot ended up giving a legislative seat to the Green party, and preventing a tie with the Alliance for the Future of Austria party.

Something similar happened in the UK General Election of 2015, although the vote wasn't so tight. Montgomeryshire MP Glyn Davis thanked an elector whose attempt to be offensive backfired:

Mr Davies wrote on his Facebook page: "One voter decided to draw a detailed representation of a penis instead of a cross in my box on one ballot paper.

"Amazingly, because it was neatly drawn within the confines of the box the returning officer deemed it a valid vote.

"I'm not sure the artist meant it to count, but I am grateful. If I knew who it was, I would like to thank him (or her) personally."

Uncertain where to leave your mark on Thursday? Try our guide to the issues behind the referendum

Study politics with The Open University





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