Hi, this is Gerry and welcome to my News Digest for Friday, 9th December, 2011. On today's show, I'm going to talk about a new way to improve your maths and other subjects. Then a few words about the big strike we had here recently. And finally why the way you look can influence your credibility. In other words, if you have a certain look, some people will never agree with what you say.
But first, I have a correction to make from the last show. I'm grateful to Willy for pointing out that I misinterpreted the road safety statistics that I talked about last time. If you want to know how, you can read Willy's comment on the website. I have to confess that I didn't find maths (or mathematics) easy at school. In fact I found it very difficult, and I'm obviously still struggling! So I was pleased to discover an internet site the other day that could help people like me.
An American called Salman Khan had a young niece, his brother's daughter, who like me was having some trouble in school with maths - or math as the Americans call it. So the brother asked Salman to help his daughter, and Salman Khan started teaching his niece - with two results. First, the niece got much better at maths, and second, Mr Khan really enjoyed teaching her. But then he had to move away and he couldn't come and visit her, so he thought he would use the internet, and he started sending her little lessons on the internet. Well, you can guess what happened next. These little lessons were so good that the niece's friends started using them, and then more children, and Mr Khan decided to create a website with all his lessons on it.
His maths lessons just use a black screen, like a blackboard in old schools, and Mr Khan's voice. Mr Khan's voice is very nice to listen to, and he explains everything in a very careful and slow way, and lots of people think that he's a brilliant teacher. There are now thousands of mini video lessons on his website. You can learn about equations, and algebra and geometry. But there's much more. Most of the lessons are by Salman Khan but some are by other people. And the whole site is free. So if you want to have a look, the site is called The Khan Academy and the web address is www.khanacademy (in one word).org. And Khan is spelled K-H-A-N.
On November 30th we had a massive  national strike here - the biggest for about 40 years. Public sector workers went on strike about their pensions. We have to look at this both in the context of the economic crisis and the way pension schemes have been changed in recent years. The government are  introducing all sorts of measures to cut the budget deficit  that we have, and they're trying to do that above all through reducing public expenditure. And they say that public sector pensions are costing too much public money. One of the arguments that they use is that public sector workers get better pensions than people working in the private sector. There are lots of arguments about how true this is, but it seems to be true that people working for British companies these days don't get very good pensions. Unlike in Switzerland, there's no obligation for people to have an occupational pension - a pension organised by the employer. In fact, I read that only 35% of people working in the private sector today choose to join a company pension scheme .
Most company pension schemes were originally what we call "defined benefit" schemes. Under these schemes you know what you're going to receive by way of a pension when you retire - it's defined as a proportion of your final salary. But in the UK practically all these schemes have now been closed down, closed to new members, that is. The reason for this is that they have become too expensive . What companies now offer are "defined contribution" schemes. So what's defined is not what you get when you retire, but how much you and your employer pay in while you're working. The money that's saved while you're working is then used to buy a pension when you retire, but the level of that pension will depend on how well your savings scheme has done while you were working and what the market is like when you have to buy your pension at the moment you retire.
This big change went through without much protest in the private sector, it seems, but, then again, the trade unions have largely lost their power in the private sector. But the unions are still strong in the public sector and their members voted to strike. The unions argue that promises have been broken and that people are being expected to work longer and pay in more contributions without any extra salary. The government say that they are offering a very good deal  compared to most of the private sector. But as usual in such debates, the different sides say conflicting things. People support one side or the other, and it's difficult to know where the truth lies. And that takes me on to my third topic for today.
What do you think about men with beards? Now be careful what you say, because I have a beard. But what does a beard say about me? What do people generally think about beards? Well, it's a cultural thing, isn't it? For a Sikh man, a beard is compulsory. Sikhism, the Indian religion from the north-west of India, forbids men to cut their hair at all. In Islam, Judaism and Christianity, beards are worn by some groups, and are considered important by them. In the Christian world, though, there are some people who do not approve of beards. So a beard can say something about your religion. Perhaps politics also.
I just read an article about how our attitudes to beards and other aspects of a person's appearance can influence our opinions of them and the extent to which we believe what they say or write. The theory is that of cultural cognition. What cultural cognition means is that people form perceptions  about the facts mostly in line with  their existing values and cultural types. So, for example, we associate certain types of idea with certain types of look. If a man wears the businessman's uniform of a dark suit, light-coloured shirt and tie, short hair, no beard we expect him to have certain attitudes and opinions. We imagine men like that will expect people to stand on their own two feet , for example. They'll be strongly in favour of individual rights. The man with the beard and who wears more informal clothes, no tie, can be expected to be more interested in equality, concerned more with social problems than individual rights. These are stereotypes, of course, but the way that we look really affects what other people think of us and how they judge our opinions.
In research done by an American called Dan Kahan (k-a-h-a-n) from Yale Law School, an attempt was made to see to what extent we only really listen to people that we can identify with. He's interested in why some scientific issues, such as climate change or nuclear energy, are so controversial, and why it's so difficult to communicate scientific consensus. So, for example, if most scientists can agree on the degree of risk involved in disposing ofnuclear waste , for example, why won't all people then accept that as truth?
It seems that the businessman-type person in his suit really only listens to and agrees with other people in suits. And the beardie types also only listen to each other. Our sense of cultural identity  is stronger than our reason. This would explain why some people never agree with each other. It doesn't matter how good the arguments are or how much evidence there is, they just don't want to know. So, to take the example of the risks of nuclear energy, people who already believe the risk is high - or low - will a) look for evidence to support their prior view  rather than seek evidence that might challenge  their view and b) give more credit to  evidence that seems to support their prior view than evidence that undermines it. They'll have a higher opinion of experts who tell them what they already believe than the opposite.
In Mr Kahan's research, people were shown photographs of other people who were supposed to be professors and next to their names and photos there was a summary of their views. People were asked to judge how expert these professors might be. It turned out that people rated the imaginary professors as more expert if the summary of their views conformed with their own, and as less expert if their views didn't match their own. In a further twist , the researchers then tried photos of men who conformed to visual stereotypes - smart business types or long-haired, bearded types, for example - along with a sample of contrasting views  on a scientific matter such as climate change. The look of a person was also found to be important when it came to judging the credibility of a so-called expert.
When it comes to applying this research to a Swiss context, I'm not sure if beards have the same significance in Switzerland as they have here. There's an old Alpine tradition of men with beards after all, but I still think you don't see many senior managers with beards, but on the other hand, there are, I think, certain styles that you can associate with certain political parties - especially those that represent strong ideological positions. And when I used to watch a programme like Arena on Swiss television, I sensed that there are plenty of people who would never agree with each other even on issues that would seem to be susceptible to  a rational, scientific solution. We'd probably all like to think that we are rational and open-minded , but we probably aren't. The way a person looks, but also the way they sound - the sort of language they speak - will strongly influence whether we believe them or take them seriously. Am I right?
Remember that you can agree or disagree with me via the website: www.podclub.ch. And with that it's the end of my last News Digest for this year. Thank you for listening and I hope you'll be back for more from the garrulous  Welshman on January 13th, 2012. In the meantime I wish you all a very merry Christmas and health, wealth and happiness for the New Year. Thanks for listening, and, till the next time, take care.
 massive: very big in amount or degree (massive strike, massive increase, a massive amount)  the government are: British news media often use a plural verb after 'government'  cut the budget deficit: reduce the amount of government over-spend (They have been spending more than they are receiving in the form of taxes, etc.)  scheme: (British) a plan developed by the government or a large organisation  Because people are living longer after they stop working  a good deal: a formal agreement (in business for example) (In fact the government is offering to keep the final salary pension scheme for public employees but with higher contributions, a raised retirement age and a pay-freeze)  perception(s): the way you "see" or understand things  in line with: in agreement with, conforming to  stand on (your) own two feet: be independent, self-sufficient, not needing the help of others  disposing of nuclear waste: getting rid of / dealing with what is left after nuclear fuel has been used  cultural identity: here: our feelings of belonging to a group (for example a political, social or religious group)  prior view: what (they) thought before  challenge: here: test  give credit to: here: praise or respect  in a further twist: in another (unexpected) development (in the story)  a sample of views: here: a collection of representative opinions  susceptible to: here: likely to be able to (be solved in a rational and scientific way)  open-minded: ready to be convinced, open to new ideas  garrulous: someone who likes talking (too much!)