Mad Science

I heard a compelling segment on This American Life over the weekend. It was a profile of a self-taught electrician and engineer named Bob Berenz who had become convinced that Einstein was wrong, specifically in his formulation of “E = mc squared”, and had taken a personal sabbatical to develop his own comprehensive theory of physics based on his findings. The punchline was skillfully deferred until most of the way through the segment, when listeners found out that what the man believed instead was that the equation should be E = mc, no squared, because squaring mc was needlessly complicated. This view turned out to drive his entire antagonistic vision of modern physics, that it was taking what should be simple and elegant and making it mathematically and theoretically complex and baroque, largely as a corrupt way to extend the stranglehold of professional academic scientists and experts over a wider public.

I found myself moved and disturbed by this man’s perspective, because I sometimes express sympathy towards similar criticisms of academics and experts. In a way, what the segment reminded me is that overindulgence of that perspective carries its own dangers.

I start from the premise that at least some of the hostility between academia and some of its publics is driven by social cleavages or experiences that aren’t directly captured in the substance of any particular instance of hostile or critical expression. Beyond that, I think sometimes anger at academics is a product of a particular issue or topic where academics have extended an unwarranted degree of magisterial control or authority over policy formation, or have intolerantly defended expert opinion that turns to be at the least debatable, at worst simply wrong.

A lot of the worst examples of malpractice by experts have lodged deeply in global popular consciousness, whether we’re talking the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, corrosively faddish applications of academic views by development organizations in impoverished societies, or crackpottery like the “posture photos”. Stories of scientific and scholarly progress sometimes feed into the same consciousness. When we recount how plate tectonics, the Big Bang, genetics or quantum mechanics were once regarded as eccentric, impossible or wrong by mainstream consensus, we invite people like Bob Berenz to imagine themselves in the same way, martyred by an arrogant establishment.

The key moment for me was that Berenz’ friend, who produced the segment, brings him into contact with a physics professor, who explains that among other things, Berenz has confused momentum with kinetic energy. Berenz simply doesn’t accept that, and comes pretty close to sticking fingers in his ears and humming real loud. (There’s a really interesting moment where Berenz complains afterwards to his friend that the professor didn’t speak in a sufficiently educated manner: the language of class distinction and elitism gets turned on its head. That, too, seems to me to often happen to a professor who engages a critical public from a less-Olympian perspective: the critics then say, ‘This guy can’t be for real, because he talks like a regular guy’.)

This is the point where sympathy has to end. There isn’t anything past that moment that the professor can do to convince Berenz that he’s wrong, because Berenz reveals that he’s operating from beyond the frame of persuasion. There are epistemological arguments in contemporary academia which hold that we’re all beyond that frame, that persuasion and reason are just cloaks for power, but I don’t buy that. Nevertheless, when the participants in a dialogue are this far apart in their purposes and outlook, there’s not much good that can come of it.

In this case, Berenz just doesn’t want to hear the truth: the physical, material world is complicated, or at the least, the methods we need to understand what it really is are complicated. (I think it’s both.) I don’t think that the humanities and most of the social sciences are complicated in the same way: our descriptive language and tools don’t have to be fundamentally difficult to use and understand. But the reality we’re interested in may be even more complicated and hard to comprehend than the physical world: understanding the human experience, whether one individual’s heart and soul or the collective reality of an entire human society, is never going to be simple.

There are academics who would like it to be relatively simple. Virginia Postrel has a column in a recent Atlantic issue about “inconspicuous consumption” that profiles the work of some economists who would like to reduce consumer behavior to “rational” forms of emulation. Postrel has a paragraph in which she concedes that maybe particular consumer behavior is just the complex result of cultural and social history, but “economists hate unfalsifiable tautologies about differing tastes”. Not unfalsifiable, guys, just takes a lot of detailed work on a particular case to evaluate any given argument. Sorry, but that’s the way that the lived human world really is a lot of the time. Not to say that the economists’ general suggestion is without merit, it’s just that it’s a low-bandwidth description of a high-bandwidth reality.

At various points, non-academics would also like the human world to be simple. Either because they’re grinding an ideological axe or because they’re coming from some settled worldview that wants to see it that way. In a conversation with someone driven by that belief, virtually any intellectually serious historian or literary scholar or philosopher or anthropologist is going to end up just as frustrated as the physicist who tried to talk with Berenz.

Everybody comes away unhappy from that confrontation, so it really raises the question of whether it’s worth it to even try. I don’t think scholars have to try and talk with each and every person who seems to fit that description, but I think that all scholars have the responsibility to try to do so every once in a while. Sometimes the Berenz’s of the world have a completely valid point even within narrowly defined scholarly parameters. Sometimes they’re telling us something important about our limitations, weaknesses and failures. And sometimes they confirm that the world really is complicated and that pursuing the how and why of the world really does take training, discipline, and commitment to a cumulative effort that grows and deepens across time and space.

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20 Responses to Mad Science

  1. Bill McNeill says:

    The claim that E=mc is, as physicists are fond of saying, not even wrong. The units on the left and right hand sides of the equation don’t match up. It’s like insisting that the right way to calculate your car’s gas mileage is to multiply the number of miles you can drive on a tank of gas by the tank’s capacity instead of dividing. If Berenz wants to insist on his version of the formula then his quantities for E and m no longer mean the same thing that they do for every other physicist out there. Which is fine, as long as he is able to come up with coherent alternate definitions for these quantities that form the basis of a scientific worldview that can be as broadly convincing as the current one.

    This is a rhetorical advantage of formal systems like mathematics: it renders certain varieties of crankery literally incoherent.

    PS. If you really hate that exponent on the c term you can do what theoretical physicists do and redefine your units in terms of the speed of light so that c = 1. Then Einstein’s famous equation becomes E=m. In standard textbooks of general relativity, you hardly see any c’s at all.

  2. The difference between the Einsteins and the Berenzes is that the former have an intimate, inside knowledge of the theoretical framework they are revising or rejecting; they’re aware of and intrigued by its real limitations or weaknesses, and that’s why they can concentrate their energies on solving interesting problems. Cranks, on the other hand, don’t have enough respect for the achievements of their predecessors to bother learning enough about them to even make a convincing case.

    By the way, Erik Francis has an interesting list of historical cranks at

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. What I think that segment does beautifully is explain what’s really going on with this guy: he’s a self-taught whiz with machines (by the end of the segment, he’s custom-building a Carmanghia engine and drive-train pretty much from the ground up), he feels like he understands how things work, and he’s frustrated by the mathematical density and complexity of physics–he thinks the world should be described by a science that’s pretty much WYSIWYG, that since he understands how things, machines, and artifacts work well enough to work with them, that should scale to universal processes. I understand the feeling, but this is where the presumption of humility that Brian is describing needs to come into play.

  4. back40 says:

    I wonder if your larger point, aside from the crank example, makes a sufficient distinction between the player and the game, the scientist and science, the academic and scholarship, the priesthood and the religion. To wildly amplify this point you can see it as being like an abhorrence for pedophile priests and the institutions that protect them, but not for the religion itself. Less contentiously, a lousy MLB team is in the big dance, but the players and coaches don’t really belong there.

    This seems to me to be where some of the critical energy comes from. It isn’t always scholarship that is disparaged, it is often the current crop of scholars and the institutions they control. The call is for a management shake up and outside hiring to raise standards.

    I have no way to know from this distance if that can happen. I suspect that there is no management team that can be brought in to turn these institutions around, and that there are few outside hires that could be made to raise core competencies. Perhaps in time a new crop could be trained if the institutional impediments that repelled talent in the past were removed, but that also seems doubtful to me.

    Another facet of this problem I’m groping around is arrogance. In fields where I have some knowledge it is dead common for academics to make preposterous claims and insist that doubters and nay sayers are at best nincompoops, and that they are the authorities with pedigrees. Then a short time later their errors are exposed. The problem isn’t that new knowledge is created that overturns old ideas, it is the arrogance of the mistaken authorities. Those with some maturity and wisdom expect that knowledge will advance, that their current views will be shown to be rubbish, and so have a sense of humor about it all and a willingness to consider alternatives that may be mistaken as stated but that may also have some kernel of value when integrated into the body of knowledge.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the issue this segment raised for me, Gary, is that a lot of folks who are hostile to experts and academics have developed some of that same arrogance and lack some of that provisional, self-correcting, presumptively humble view themselves. It would be one thing if the institutional actors always had that kind of closed perspective and most of the people outside the institutions did not, but both shared the same basic epistemological framework. The problem is that in a lot of cases, neither is true–the arrogance and humorlessness seems to me as likely to appear outside of the academic world as inside of it, and on top of that, you’ve sometimes got struggles between actors who aren’t anywhere near each other in epistemological terms.

  6. back40 says:

    I think that lets the experts off too lightly since they claim to be authorities. That claim obliges them to have higher standards. To say that they are no worse than others is no defense. With great power comes great responsibility.

    They are human, so few have or ever will live up to those expectations, but that’s life. When cops do crimes it is worse than when civilians do them since they are presumed to have a greater awareness of the law and the trust of the community. It’s a betrayal as well as a crime. And, when thrown in with the general prison population, they pay the price.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I think your challenge presupposes, however, that there is something better, and on certain problems and questions, I think there may be–you and I are both very interested in thinking about how to make use of collective intelligence and authority in ways that blend or integrate expertise across many domains. But in the evaluation of authority, I also think you’re maybe getting too stuck on the “keys under the streetlight”, the people whose arrogance becomes prominent or visible to your gaze, and forgetting the background noise of ordinary practice. And at the end of the day, if I had to choose between the arrogance of an authority that was still at least somewhat aligned with a consensus opinion of many authorities, some of whom were not arrogant, and the arrogance of a crackpot or fringe thinker of the kind profiled in the segment, I guess I’d choose the authority. I’d rather not choose either, and argue for a different kind of way to be an expert.

  8. back40 says:

    Well, no, I’m not clear that there is something better. That’s part of why I think it important to enforce standards, to unflinchingly condemn violators. For example, the Duke 88 debacle drew responses ranging from admiration to tolerance from many academics, when it ought to have been immediately condemned. When institutions protect misbehaving members it diminishes the institutions and all of its members. That diminishes society as a whole. In seeking to protect members and institutions harm was magnified.

    You referenced your earlier post, the premises you begin from, so this is not only a discussion of a crank autodidact and the authorities he challenged, it is the circumstances that bring so many to challenge those authorities and distrust their pronouncements though there are no coherent alternatives proposed. The choice isn’t often between a crackpot and an arrogant and sometimes mistaken authority, that’s a fringe example that does not speak to the general problem. It’s an interesting curiosity, but does not generalize.

    Collective intelligence and other sorts of discovery machines have uses, are essential to society, but they aren’t suited to all problems. In many cases it is the ad hoc group of heuristically diverse experts working both serially and in parallel, in close communication, that is required. There’s no way around it in my view, we need high quality expertise. The notion of a swashbuckling loner heroically solving knotty problems in a dim room in the bowels of some institution is broken. Experts of that sort are fictional exaggerations of a messier reality. They aren’t giants (often), they are standing on the backs of others and just seem tall.

    It may be that the heuristically diverse groups of experts include some members not often thought of as true experts, and so the pool of talent available for problem solving is enlarged. Some members may not even be human, if AI expert systems of some sort are given credit. Participating in such groups is one of the ways to be a different kind of expert.

    But I’m not sure where you are going. It can’t be some sort of ronin expert, it has to be embedded in some sort of institution, and so the institutional problem can’t be ignored.

  9. Flavia says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking about, just recently, in relation to the so-called Shakespeare “authorship controversy” (which Bardiac discusses in a series of posts, the last of which is here — the earlier posts are linked). There are a lot of reasons why people are drawn to the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays that bear his name, and though I’m impatient with many of them, and the assumptions that underly them, the real issue is that the authorship of the plays just isn’t that important to the way most of us read and teach them. So, if someone finds a smoking gun proving it was Oxford or Bacon or whoever? That would be, genuinely, awesome. But you know, in a semester-long Shakespeare class, I bet biography still wouldn’t take up more than 15 minutes.

    What troubles me about this “debate” is the same thing you note here: the conviction of so many anti-Stratfordians that they’re being silenced by the academic community — that some powers-that-be are threatened by them, and are shutting down debate. Sure, there are arrogant scholars in my field (just as there are arrogant laypeople). But often the real problem is that those who aren’t trained in a scholarly field just don’t understand the nature of the debate, and which questions are meaningful and which ones aren’t (or how and to what extent they are). And to misunderstand that as arrogance and an unwillingness to entertain alternate hypotheses does indeed suggest something disturbing about the way many people — even smart, intellectually curious people, like the guy on TAL — perceive academics.

  10. peter55 says:

    Virginia Postrel says that ??economists hate unfalsifiable tautologies about differing tastes??.

    If this is really so, one wonders how economists go to sleep at night. Mainstream economic theory is built upon an unfalsifiable assumption about human behaviour: that everone always acts in their own self-interest. I would call this statement a tautology, except that it is not true.

  11. peter55 says:

    Timothy, you commented about Berenz as follows: “he??s a self-taught whiz with machines (by the end of the segment, he??s custom-building a Carmanghia engine and drive-train pretty much from the ground up), he feels like he understands how things work, and he??s frustrated by the mathematical density and complexity of physicshe thinks the world should be described by a science that??s pretty much WYSIWYG, that since he understands how things, machines, and artifacts work well enough to work with them, that should scale to universal processes.

    As it happens, this description would describe Einstein very well. He grew up in a family with an electrical business, he had a self-taught, hands-on and deeply-grounded understanding of electrical devices and machinery (one reason, contrary to popular myth, that he ENJOYED his time working in the Swiss Patent Office and refused many offers to leave), and he continued to invent, and patent, practical electrical devices well into middle-age.

  12. hestal says:

    Herr Burke,

    I object to the way you present your argument. You start with an indisputable element of physics and then generalize it into realms that lack precision. This is one of my principle objections to the way academics, there I go generalizing, work with us lesser folk.

    I hope that you will concede that economics and history, for examples, by no means stand with physics in providing accurate descriptions, and predictions, of the world around us.

    But I take another point that you made. From the first comment I made here years ago, I have tried to engage you on the practice of writing history by professional historians. I think they are mostly wrong in the way they go about it and they do so because they can preserve their authority and academic positions by being very careful. They don’t try to identify the lessons of history and apply them to the world around us. Perhaps that is impossible, and if it is then historians should say so. They should admit that their profession is just a variation of the many professions that make up the entertainment field.

    Economists, on the other hand, are not so much enterainers as they are enablers. They provide a rationale for their employers to do what they please, as they, the employers, try to reshape the world for their own advantage.

    But physicists apply the lessons of physics to the world and so they are forced to at least listen to ideas no matter their source. Facts are hard to ignore.

    So, you wonder if it is worthwhile for academics to pay attention to “cranks.” I wonder if it is worthwhile to pay attention to many academics, such as historians, economists, and supreme court justices — who by the way, are the epitome of fortress academia.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure, as you know, I agree that you’re right to wonder. And I agree that the authority that resides in academic history isn’t the same as the authority that resides in academic physics.

    The lessons discussion we had stays with me also. I think the thing I’d still say is that many academic historians do see lessons in history, it’s just that they don’t quite express it in that way, and at least some of the lessons that they see aren’t easily converted into policies or actions. For me at least, some of the study of history converts more readily into wisdom about human beings (individuals and societies), into understanding and empathy and predictive insight than it does into “The right way to handle an energy crisis” or “The best policy for dealing with inflationary pressures on currency”.

  14. back40 says:

    And yet that way of knowing can contribute heuristic diversity to a group of experts charged with working the energy problem or economic policy, so long as there are enough shared methods and terms that communication is possible. At some point during problem solving it may be that wisdom about humans is what is needed to nudge the solution in progress to a new state that has handles that other experts can then manipulate.

    None of the experts are adequate to the task. No single discipline is adequate to the task. But it may be that such a group of odd balls willing to have an adventure outside the comfy confines of their disciplines could do the job.

    An apt analogy might be the band of super heroes, each with a different preposterous power, who work together to thwart evil and save the world. It isn’t merely division of labor since most real life tasks can’t be neatly parceled out to specialists. Sometimes a subgroup will jointly attack some facet of the problem, and then hand the partial solution off to another hero or subgroup to take it to the next level of completion while still others do independent work on sub assemblies.

    Still, sometimes the bad guys win, and the monsters never really die. Job security.

  15. Great point about the necessity for the meeting point between the Einstein’s of the world and the Berenz??s. Although his reaction to academics was extreme and unreasonable, I find myself sympathizing with him. There is often a (warranted) exasperation with the arcane elitism of the academy from the general public, and I’m willing to bet there is a sizable portion of the American public who would have listened to Berenz’s voice on their radio and nodded sympathetically. On the other hand, most would not have stopped their radio dial at what they likely consider to be the bastion of egg-headed intellectual snobbery: public radio.

    I think one of the greatest failings of academia is an inability to clearly and simply answer the question of “So what?” So many scholars can’t explain the real value behind their work to a non-academic. For all I know, a cultural historian writing about the spread of nineteenth-century hermaphroditic print culture may engage in as fundamentally worthwhile and valuable a pursuit as that of the plumber who fixes your sink. The difference is that a plumber can tell you in one sentence (or better yet, show you by turning on the faucet) why his profession is worthwhile. The cultural historian faces a much greater hurdle, and too often academics give up on clearing it.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Great way to put it. “So what?” should be our first and final hurdle, but I think it’s right to say that many academics are affronted by having to answer that question in anything but the terms that their most immediate professional peers prefer.

  17. The situation of the intellectual outsider is very real to me, as that’s been my position vis-a-vis the academic world for two decades. I turned away from Theory before it came Theory and signed on with the newer psychologies 10 to 20 years before they showed up on the seismographs in lit departments. It’s a tough situation.

    The only way to play it is like Socrates and the hemlock. “Yeah, they made the wrong decision, but they are the state, so I gotta’ drink it, otherwise I betray my whole project.” If I didn’t take that stance, if instead I took my outsider status as evidence that I’m right, well, that way madness lies.

  18. hestal says:

    I take the term “so what?” to include “to what end?”

    It seems that academia has two general ends in mind: the accumulation of knowledge, and the application of knowledge.

    “Wisdom,” if never effectively applied, is of little value. Which part of academia takes the “wisdom” produced by professional historians and applies it to our world? Isn’t knowing how to effectively apply “wisdom” the highest form of “wisdom?” Shouldn’t historians be redefining “wisdom” to include principles and their application?

    And what if some professional historians develop some “wisdom” that isn’t really “wisdom” at all. For example the writers that developed the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War era had their version of “wisdom” accepted by the masses, including the “fact” that the white race was superior to the black race.

    Who is to settle on the facts and the true “wisdom?” How should it be done? Perhaps facts and wisdom become true when they are applied to the real world. When one looks back at the rotten slaveholding South and their theories of white superiority and white supremacy what should one think? Do professional historians tell us that such “wisdom” is true or not?

    I am fumbling here, but I just can’t stop thinking that historians are fumbling on a grander, and immensely more important, scale. It seems that they just throw their ideas into the air and hope the winds that blow through society will separate the wheat from the chaff.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    I guess I think part of “wisdom” is an aversion to overly quick or diagrammatic applications of what we know about human beings and their world to action. That’s just me, but I think the people who rush from the study of some complex, multileveled aspect of human experience to a cut-and-dried five-step policy document are people who in the end make things worse, not better, simply because a lot of human experience isn’t easily affected by policy or straightforward action (or is affected negatively). I have an easier time seeing how historical knowledge should be a check or a constraint on action in the present–say, for example, that there’s good reason to think that an occupier is going to have a hard time creating a liberal and democratic society while controlling that same society by force of arms, and therefore that an occupation undertaken with this premise is a bad idea.

  20. hestal says:

    The civil rights movement was certainly regarded as “overly quick” by a major portion of our population who opposed civil rights for all for centuries. It certainly aimed to change the “complex, multileveled aspect of human nature,” that was expressed in Jim Crow laws and centuries of accepted practice in the separation of the races. And it was certainly “diagrammatic” in that it specifically sought to erase those laws and outlaw many of those accepted practices with simple, easy to understand, new laws and practices. Did it make things “worse, not better?” It depends on who you ask. Their variable human natures will determine the answer. But isn’t there only one right answer?

    So you have a picture of how taking action can be a bad thing, and I have a picture of how it can be a good thing. Can history and historians help us decide which is which? Does history teach us that the civil rights movement was a good thing? My instinct, part of my human nature, shouts “yes, indeed.” W. A. Criswell, the leader of the Southern Baptists in Texas at the time, shouted “no.”

    The civil rights movement, a good thing, is an example of an occupier creating a liberal and democratic society under force of arms. General/President Eisenhower sent regular army troops to Little Rock because Governor Faubus would not use the National Guard to enforce the law. Faubus was invoking “states’ rights,” a euphemism of the day that meant, “segregation now, and segregation forever.” Was Eisenhower’s action a “bad idea?”

    So I take your point to mean that professional historians should not derive principles of human nature from past human behavior for fear that they will be used unwisely. I have wondered about this point for decades, perhaps long before you were born, and this wonder was a product of my detection of patterns human behavior in human history. And I have viewed the pace of human progress, in the last four hundred years, not to be swift but slow, far too slow. And this was due to an aspect of human nature: the tendencies of those in power to want to keep power no matter the cost to the powerless.

    So where we go to divine and employ the “lessons of history?” Who will guide us? If not historians, then economists, or politicians, or lawyers, or doctors, or filmmakers, or …? If one imagines that those who will change society can come from any segment then where do they turn for data about what works and what doesn’t? How do we build on past successes? How do we avoid past mistakes? It is just not enough to say that everyone should read all they can about history. It takes too much time. I didn’t become a mathematician that way.

    Yes, it is easy to say that human nature is not as cut and dried as mathematics, and that is so at the individual level. But it is not so at the level of large numbers. For example it is easy to predict that a sociopath will be elected to Congress this year, because they represent 4% of the population. It is easy to predict that some in Congress will steal from the national treasury in some fashion. I make those predictions now. Which members will steal and which will be the sociopath is unpredictable and unimportant fo the purposes of designing a form of government that will detect and stop any “adverse” actions these individuals may take.

    So human nature is predictable and historians, it seems to me, are uniquely positioned to detect the effects of human nature on history. But they choose to focus on forces and movements rather than human nature. For example, historians try to answer the question of “WHAT caused the Civil War,” when they should focus on “WHO caused the Civil War.” The only way that “WHAT” can apply is when it means the aspects of human nature that caused certain individuals to resort to gunfire to have their way.

    John Quincy Adams was Secretary of State under James Monroe. John C. Calhoun was Secretary of War. These men met with Monroe in his office in 1820 to discuss the Missouri Compromise. Afterwards Adams wrote in his diary:

    “The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they [the defenders of slavery] admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim all participation in the introduction of it, and cast it all upon the shoulders of our old Grandam Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They fancy themselves more generous and noblehearted than the plain freemen who labor for subsistence. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee??s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat Negroes like dogs.

    “It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice; for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin? It perverts human reason, and reduces man endowed with logical powers to maintain that slavery is sanctioned by the Christian religion, that slaves are happy and contented in their condition, that between master and slave their ties of mutual attachment and affection, that the virtues of the master are refined and exalted by the degradation of the slave; while at the same time they vent execrations upon the slave trade, curse Britain for having given them slaves, burn at the stake Negroes convicted of crimes for the terror of the example, and writhe in agonies of fear at the very mention of human rights as applicable to men of color.”

    Adams was on the right track, but he didn’t quite get it. Slavery did not taint “the very sources of moral principle,” but humans whose nature made them think slavery was a good thing created an economy and a culture based on slavery. Certain malevolent aspects of human nature caused the Civil War, but the history I was taught and most of what I have read denies or ignores this fact. Surely historians agree that one man’s virtue is another man’s vice? And it follows that these two men have different human natures.

    But finally I take your last comment to include the idea that historians either cannot or should not develop a map of human nature and its effects from history. If that is so, but it can’t be. I am being “overly quick.”

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