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Opinion

Opinion

Science takes a beating in early presidential campaign

July 19, 2011

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It is not encouraging that some candidates in the Republican presidential sweepstakes are using scientific knowledge as political footballs. Actually, not all scientific knowledge — just the kind they find uncomfortable or unpopular, which they blithely dismiss.

Addressing reporters at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in June, Michelle Bachmann, waving the banner of the tea party, declared that biological evolution was not science.

“I support intelligent design,” she said, reported CNN. “What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide.”

Of course, that’s exactly what public education in biology has been doing, year in, year out: putting science, and only science, on the science table.

Biological evolution is on the table because it is science, based on centuries of repeated observation, experiment and discovery. Intelligent design, a gussied-up version of creationism, is off the table because it is based on Genesis. The lesson for students is immediate: Intelligent design cannot pose as science because it invokes the supernatural to explain natural phenomena, in this case, the history and diversity of life on Earth.

For the same reason, we don’t place the stork theory of sex on the table alongside reproductive biology for students to choose. Or a flat Earth beside a round Earth. Or a sun-centered solar system opposite an Earth-centered one. Or an Earth that is 6,000 years old versus one that is 4.5 billion years old, despite the fact that there are factions out there who believe, in the face of facts, that the Earth is flat, 6,000 years old and at the center of our solar system.

Rep. Bachmann went on to say, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is doubt on both sides.” Right, except there is no doubt on either side. Science has no doubts about biological evolution. And faith has no doubts about a supernatural deity. One explains the heavens, the other how to get to heaven, to paraphrase Cardinal Baronius’ 1598 quip. Neither governments nor anyone else should mix or confuse the two.

It’s fine if Rep. Bachmann finds biological evolution personally uncomfortable. But discomfort should not trump knowledge or a responsible science education for the nation’s students, particularly if the U.S. is to remain competitive in a global economy that is overwhelmingly scientific and technological. And knowledge of evolution is an economic necessity. It underpins U.S. and global R&D on the production of the world’s food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum is busily kicking global warming toward his goal of Republican nomination. On Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in June he labeled global warming “junk science,” stating “the idea that man, through the production of CO2 … is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd.” On June 25, he told Fox News’ Glenn Beck, “There is no such thing as global warming.”

Well, here too there is no doubt. Science has no doubt that rapid global warming has occurred during the past hundred years, much of it due to greenhouse gases from human industrial activity. Judging by ExxonMobile and its CEO, Rex Tillerson, the energy sector has no doubt that “our climate is changing, the average temperature of the earth is rising, and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing … [which] … pose significant risks to society and ecosystems.”

The insurance sector agrees. Swiss Re, one of the world’s major insurers, warns that “Climate change will significantly affect the health of humans and ecosystems and these impacts will have economic consequences.” Marsh and McLennan, the world’s largest insurance broker, recently issued a “risk alert” to clients, saying “Climate change — often referred to as ‘global warming’ — is one of the most significant emerging risks facing the world today, presenting tremendous challenges to the environment, to the world economy, and to individual businesses.”

Corporations know that data do not lie or deny. They abide by the current parable that people are entitled to their own beliefs, but not their own facts. They respect mathematical analyses of a century of rising temperatures, dramatic increases in concentrations of CO2 (36 percent) and methane (148 percent) since 1750, rapidly shrinking glaciers on sea and land, and increasing acidification of the world’s oceans.

The Economist, a mainstream conservative business magazine, asks the simple question: “How frightened should people be about this” remaking of the planet? Their answer: “It would be odd not to be worried.”

Bachmann and Santorum, apparently, are not worried, comforted in the belief that most scientists in the U.S. and worldwide are either incompetent or liars or both. They also appear to believe that their categorical rejection of unpopular knowledge is somehow a litmus test for Republican presidential aspirants.

A truer litmus test, ironically, is just the opposite. Leadership requires the honest grit to deploy the best knowledge, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular, in making the tough, critical decisions demanded of presidents.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University.

Comments

ksriver2010 3 years, 7 months ago

This topic always riles me up. "Let the students decide". When do we let the students decide on anything? Do we let them decide on Earth science? No. My daughter can tell you how long it takes for a diaper to break down in a landfill but she can't explain anything else in science, including basic biology. But I digress. It is important to teach the "grammar" on any subject to students. If they don't have the basics of a subject then they can't move onto reasoning about the subject (logic) or presenting things about the subject (rhetoric). High school is usually not the place for a marketplace of ideas, especially with more and more basic studies pushed from HS into college. And with the low reading score at 10th grade in every metro Kansas HS (except Lawrence) most students can't handle the biology reading material, but once again I digress.

I researched this when the science standards controversy had just ended in 2005. In Kansas the average student doesn't have any significant hard biology until 10th grade. And usually it is only one or two semesters of biology. They have to learn all of biology (mitosis, meiosis) in one year. Looking at the textbook and lesson plans, in most cases the students have less than two weeks of that year spent on actual evolution. And in some cases, the teachers avoid it as much as possible. Students have little or no training in high school on philosophy and very little, if any, on logic. Religion aside, our students are not equipped to have a philosophical debate in high school. Teach the grammar of science, including evolution, in high school. Maybe include some of the other views of origins in college, tying it in with philosophy. This is when students know the grammar and are ready to move into logic and rhetoric, being most likely to question things and think for themselves.

overthemoon 3 years, 7 months ago

Very well said.

Except I would suggest that students should leave high school with a sound foundation in critical thought, reasoning, and communication skills both written and verbal. That they don't is a sad commentary on the state of education in the US.

Cait McKnelly 3 years, 7 months ago

I agree more than you know. There are a multitude of adults walking around, some of them with higher level college degrees, who have no idea what critical thinking is, much less have the skills. The only reason I ever got out of High School (and this was forty years ago) with any training in logic was because my senior year I took an independent study course in it and was given a half credit.

overthemoon 3 years, 7 months ago

We couldn't get out of high school without getting a "B" or better on a senior english paper. One grammatical error and it was an 'F' and had to be corrected. Not passing meant not graduating and having to go to summer school to get diploma. I tested out of all college english requirements. All students should be able to do that. It's not that hard.

overthemoon 3 years, 7 months ago

(thank god they didn't require the same for typing!!!)

gr 3 years, 7 months ago

"Rep. Bachmann went on to say, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is doubt on both sides.” Right, except there is no doubt on either side. Science has no doubts about biological evolution."

"But discomfort should not trump knowledge or a responsible science education for the nation’s students, particularly if the U.S. is to remain competitive in a global economy that is overwhelmingly scientific and technological. And knowledge of evolution is an economic necessity. It underpins U.S. and global R&D on the production of the world’s food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals."

Leonard, did you stop to think that Bachmann's definition of evolution may be different than yours? With mixed definitions, people are talking about two different things. You should be one who has had experience enough to know and sense when someone is talking about the type of evolution that people commonly talk about when saying, "evolution" -- molecules to man. And that type of evolution would have nothing to do with "economic necessity" nor have any underpinnings on the "production of the world’s food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals."

I don't think you'll find very many instances of people objecting to "evolution" like Bachmann who would deny such things as DNA heritability, selection pressure, or breeding efforts. Do you think otherwise?

overthemoon 3 years, 7 months ago

Bachmann does not have a 'definition' of evolution that can be tested and verified in the scientific methodology. Period. Her position is based purely on religious belief, to which she is entitled, but it has no place in the science classroom.

And frankly, a person who shows very little understanding of a lot of very important and complex interrelationships of science, economics, politics, and history has no business anywhere near the White House. (or the house of Representatives, for that matter)

bradh 3 years, 7 months ago

Neither does biological evolution. That's why it's called a theory, it can't be proven either.

jafs 3 years, 7 months ago

Theories can be tested, evidence found for or against them, and disproven.

Religious beliefs can not.

Scribeoflight 3 years, 7 months ago

A scientific theory is a hypothesis based on observation that predicts future observations.

In other words, we look at something and say, "Well, if it worked like this, then THIS would also be true. If that is not true, then it doesn't work like that." A scientific theory may not be provable as TRUE, but is always provable as FALSE.

The concept of Intelligent Design cannot be proven or dis-proven, therefore, it is not science.

gr 3 years, 7 months ago

Since "Bachmann does not have a 'definition' of evolution that can be tested and verified in the scientific methodology", then she would be correct in objecting to it, right?

And that is my point. The definitions are different and people are talking about totally different things. So, her objecting to evolution, even if she defines it incorrectly as molecules to man, is right on target. And you said it well, that her definition of evolution is based purely on religious belief! And that indeed is what she is objecting to. So, I don't know why you are objecting to her objecting to what is not science.

jafs 3 years, 7 months ago

So she doesn't understand what evolution means, and objects to her misunderstanding.

But somehow that makes it ok for her to advocate not teaching the correct version of it in schools.

Sounds like she's making two mistakes to me.

Kendall Simmons 3 years, 7 months ago

But she's not objecting to "her" definition. She's objecting to the scientific definition. She wants that one to go away.

To put it another way, Bachmann wants students to "believe in" microevolution, but not macroevolution.

gr 3 years, 7 months ago

Do you mean the evolution definition that overthemoon says cannot be tested and verified in the scientific methodology?

Scribeoflight 3 years, 7 months ago

"I don't think you'll find very many instances of people objecting to "evolution" like Bachmann who would deny such things as DNA heritability, selection pressure, or breeding efforts. Do you think otherwise?"

I think in fact that you would. And THAT is the real point.

Rep. Bachmann and others want to have the world in which we live, with all of our advances in medicine and understanding. But they want to deny the fundamental theories on which it is based. They will accept Micro, but not Macro, not understanding that these are two aspects of the same thing.

Micro leads to Macro over time. A prime example of this is Ring Species: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/05/2/l_052_05.html

This IS the definition of Evolution. Anything else is playing politics with words to advance a social agenda.

island 3 years, 7 months ago

As an independent, who is also an atheist, my deep personal experience with this reveals that the issue is actually more political than left winged activist scientists would have us believe. If we accept the "old Earth" theory of evolution, then there is still a question of whether or not the process is guided by an outside agency. Liberal scientists wrongheadedly assume that there is none, because they only see god as the alternative, but design and chance are not the only plausible solutions, there is the very real and scientific possibility that NECESSISTY is why we are what we have become. Evidence that we are not here by accident is prevalent throughout much of science, but is always dismissed by reactionary liberal scientists by way of significance denial and an assumption that it is just an "illusion", due to their reactionary tendency to find god in an admission that any such evidence even exists, so there is good scientific reason to be equally suspicions of the unscientific ideological motivations that scientists harbor. http://knol.google.com/k/the-anthropic-principle#

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 7 months ago

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island 3 years, 7 months ago

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 7 months ago

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island 3 years, 7 months ago

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notaubermime 3 years, 7 months ago

So, according to your theory, why exactly do we have an appendix?

island 3 years, 7 months ago

Excuse me?... I have not stated any theory of mine. What I have given is the facts. Fact: There are three possibilities, two being scientific, but one looking too much like god for the liking of ideologues. Design, chance, and necessity, (like an energy conservation law that requires life, for example, only).

Study my linked page. More facts and history of the issue.

funkdog1 3 years, 7 months ago

"Why we are what we have become" is not science. That's philosophy.

island 3 years, 7 months ago

No, that's false if, for example, we serve some quantifiable practical function in the thermodynamic process:

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2004/09/30/2003204990 A new theory states that it is entropy which drives evolution to higher levels of complexity -- for the sole purpose of disseminating energy gradients

Olympics 3 years, 7 months ago

grabbing some popcorn and awaiting for the tin foil hat Brownback supporters to way in. I know what we need...an engineer's misrepresentation of science.

We voted as a state for 19th century science standards and we are going to get it!

Olympics 3 years, 7 months ago

"Evidence that we are not here by accident is prevalent throughout much of science,"

Examples pullllllease. By the way, this popcorn is delicious.

island 3 years, 7 months ago

Well, I've tried to reply to this five different time, using three different formats, but I seem to have included too many links or too much text in every case. Are there some special rules on this?

island 3 years, 7 months ago

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Goldilocks-En... The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?

island 3 years, 7 months ago

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/kraus... THE ENERGY OF SPACE THAT ISN'T ZERO "But when you look at CMB map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun. Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us?

That's crazy. We're looking out at the whole universe. There's no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun — the plane of the earth around the sun — the ecliptic. That would say we are truly the center of the universe." -Lawrence Krauss

Scribeoflight 3 years, 7 months ago

So they detected that there are large scale structures in the CMB that align with the plane of the ecliptic. OK.

So, it could be that there is a problem with the current Standard Expansion theory, and there needs to be some chalkboard sessions.

Or, it could be a systematic error in the WMAP and COBE data, caused by the orientation and motion of the sensors themselves.

Or it could be evidence that the large scale structures of the universe are tuned and influenced in such a way that the earth is the most important observational point in the known universe.

Would that be a fair summation of this link and the CERN article listed below?

island 3 years, 7 months ago

http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/ce... Does the motion of the solar system affect the microwave sky?

island 3 years, 7 months ago

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unre... The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

island 3 years, 7 months ago

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/boo... Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

But don't forget that I also said this before you reply as I will not entertain this game: "is always dismissed by reactionary liberal scientists by way of significance denial and an assumption that it is just an "illusion", due to their reactionary tendency to find god in an admission that any such evidence even exists".

jonas_opines 3 years, 7 months ago

As expected, someone pulls out the absurdly broad brush of " leftist intolerance"

kernal 3 years, 7 months ago

Or, when they don't understand it, they knock it.

love2fish_ks 3 years, 7 months ago

Must make you feel manly picking on women. Disgusting

George Lippencott 3 years, 7 months ago

Anybody know what intelligent design actually means? Does it mean evolution is denied or does it mean that evolution may be the hand of a higher power?

island 3 years, 7 months ago

That depends on whether you are a YEC, (young earth creationist), or not, as Bachmann the flake appears to be. There isn't time for evolution if Earth is only 6,000 years old, like they believe that it is, so they claim that god made every species individually and people lived with dinosaurs. Silliness like that.

Old Earth creationism includes cosmological ID, which encompasses the entire history of the 13.7 billion year old universe, and is connected to the structure of the universe, itself, via the "fine tuning argument" and the anthropic principle.

See my linked page. I am the author: http://knol.google.com/k/the-anthropic-principle#

notaubermime 3 years, 7 months ago

Intelligent design was a creation of the Discovery Institute and Dr. Michael Behe (a microbiologist). It is a redressing of creationism to remove mention of any specific god to counter the court rulings against creationism being taught in a science classroom. It is an attempt to influence science from the ground up through politics. All of this is summarized from the Wedge Document sent out by the Discovery Institute. That IS what intelligent design actually means: another way of getting creationism into the science classroom.

island 3 years, 7 months ago

I would agree that this is what motivates DI IDists, but science doesn't care what motivates anybody, so liberals wouldn't be so afraid if they believed what they preached. Think about it.

notaubermime 3 years, 7 months ago

Says the person obsessed with the motivation of "liberals".

jonas_opines 3 years, 7 months ago

I think that we'd all think you were much more of a legitimate thinker if only you found a way to cram a few more instances of derision towards the word "liberal" into your posts. Particularly if you continued to utterly fail at tying it to actual definable behavior in any way.

ksriver2010 3 years, 7 months ago

Most Christians, including Michelle Bachmann, do not realize what ID means. It does NOT mean YEC. It means evolution that was kicked off by a designer. MIchael Behe, the poster child of ID, absolutely believes in evolution, just not that it started as chance.

verity 3 years, 7 months ago

"Leadership requires the honest grit to deploy the best knowledge, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular, in making the tough, critical decisions demanded of presidents." True that.

Island, you're taking a lot of unwarranted jumps in saying what liberals believe. The thing about liberals is that they are liberal---there is no party line to toe. You can take the facts known about evolution and reasonable people can come to a number of conclusions because, of course, not all the facts are known and will most likely never be known. However, you can't just ignore facts and be taken seriously.

And I agree completely with those who decry the fact that students are not being taught to think critically. It needs to begin as soon as children can understand what is being said---and that is before they can talk.

TheYetiSpeaks 3 years, 7 months ago

This is always one of those subjects where there isn't sufficient understanding all over this subject. Often, people who flock to the evolution banner aren't well versed enough to know exactly what has been tested and proven for "centuries" to be true. They try to lump to much into the evolution umbrella. What is proven (largely from Darwin's work) is that species adapt and change to survive in their environment....It's about as ironclad as science can get. However, the idea that man evolved from monkeys, reptiles, fish, single celled organisms, etc.; while having evidence that can definitely be theorized upon, lacks the hardcore evidence that science demands in order to recognize something as near-truth. From the Christian point of view, I find that the lack of understanding comes from an almost hubristic confidence in their understanding of the Bible. Most Christians have loosely intrepeted some sections of the Bible to back up a rigid belief that the words MUST be taken literally even though the context of our time and our Western Rationalism thought pattern should give all Christians pause if they REALLY understand what it is that is written. Jesus seems to warn of this himself several times but the one that jumps to mind for me takes place in John 2 when Jesus clears the temple courts, telling the Jews to "stop turning his Father's house into a market. The Jews respond by asking "What sign can you show us to prove your authority?" Jesus answers "Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days." The Jews then explain that "it has taken forty-six years to build this temple and you are going to raise it in three days?" The Jews because of the setting and the context immediately believe that their understanding of what Jesus has just said is complete and accurate never getting the full gist that the "temple" that Jesus is referring to is His body. To me this is clearly a parable to not immediately assume we can ever glean the full meaning from the events in the Bible while encouraging Christians to continue to challenge their presuppositions of those events. Finally (I'm going to finish, I promise), the assumption that believing in something supernatural is strictly a religious construct is a fallacy. There are plenty of people out there with a belief in the supernatural that don't believe in the god of Abraham or any other god at least in the way that atheists think, take Wiccans for example. Likewise, I'm not sure that ID has to be a religious construct. I feel like I rambled a bit, but at any rate what I'm trying to convey is, that I believe all our understandings of these subjects leave us woefully short of having a meaningful debate on the subjects....especially politicians.

notaubermime 3 years, 7 months ago

I frequently am not sure which is a greater source of amazement: the poor state of science education in this country, or the fact that the people who are the least educated in science are the ones who think they know science better than scientists.

It reminds me of a news story I saw recently about a standardized test done across several countries. The students from the US scored near the bottom of developed countries for answering the question correctly, but had the highest scores for how well they thought they did.

Cait McKnelly 3 years, 7 months ago

Much of what you've written could be taken at face value if there wasn't insufficient evidence of just exactly what the Bible, itself, is. Considering that the oldest known snippet of the New Testament (a portion of the Gospel of John) dates to well over 200 years after Christ died there is no more to support the validity of the book than there is science. I would actually say there is more to support the validity of science, as science is a method of determining truth whereas the Bible is a belief in truth unfounded in hard fact. In my opinion ID has to be a religious construct by it's very name, "intelligent design". Well, unless you believe that aliens came to Earth and "seeded" it. There are a few out there that believe that but somehow I don't think that the creators of the philosophy of ID quite had that in mind. The real truth is, ID is what someone called "a gussied up version" of Creationism; a pig with lipstick. Miss Piggy and aliens notwithstanding. They serve more to prove the point than to detract from it.

rubble 3 years, 7 months ago

"... the idea that man evolved from monkeys, reptiles, fish, single celled organisms, etc.; while having evidence that can definitely be theorized upon, lacks the hardcore evidence that science demands in order to recognize something as near-truth."

Those who dispute that humans evolved from other (extinct) primate species are almost always uninformed of some (perhaps most) of the physical data that leads to that conclusion.

gr 3 years, 7 months ago

Yes, physical data such as a small fragment of a skull being extrapolated into whole communities?

Cait McKnelly 3 years, 7 months ago

The skeletal structure of "Lucy" (Australopithecus), is significantly more than a "small fragment of skull". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucy_(Australopithecus) She is a hominid and her skeleton is estimated to be 3.2 million years old. I suggest you do a little more research with a somewhat more open mind.

jonas_opines 3 years, 7 months ago

Suggest away, but it's not likely to happen

gr 3 years, 7 months ago

I guess that shows my ignorance. I didn't realize Lucy was the only skull or skeleton out there. Does this mean all the others have been determined to be frauds or horses or what not? Such as: Java "Man" Hahnhöfersand "Man" Orce "Man" Nebraska "man" Piltdown "Man"

But, since for some specific reason you brought up Lucy, do you find it odd that some of the displays of the skeleton are... shall we say, different?
Extrapolation, a most fascinating art.

Gerald Kerr 3 years, 7 months ago

Darwinism versus intelligent Design always ends in a slugfest of competing religious beliefs.
Argue away, but a priori beliefs will not concede on either side.

On the other hand AGW arguments and the remedies pushed are a matter of science data and fact. There is no substantial evidence, none, that AGW is catastrophic, is occurring in any significant fashion, is dependent on CO2 production by fossil fuel use. It is a political argument fostered by those pining to change the social and economic status quo and a means of funding ever bigger government by those compelled to boss others about. The data is unclear in it's meaning and even in it's objective reliability. The Theory of AHG is built from extrapolation and computer models many of which are kept hidden behind proprietary pay walls and prohibitions.
In short neither the data or the models are verifiable, and the whole carbon trading and taxing scheme has been virtually abandoned as proponents run from debate and to sparsely attended pep rallies in secluded and pricey locales with great dining venues for the corpulent attendees including the Man-Bear-Pig when he comes out of seclusion long enough to jet to the scene of the latest green tryst whilst consuming tons of jet fuel, lobster, and Hollywood celebrity wives. gkerr

jayhawxrok 3 years, 7 months ago

It amazes me how far the far right will go to discredit science. In their narrow minds science and faith can't coexist and that's absurd. It also does a great disservice to the youth of our nation as they seek to control yet another institution with their religious doctrine.

Control your church with your views, the rest of society belongs to all of us and the majorty are not frightened by the fact that fossils are real.the earth isn't flat or just a few thousand years old, LOL..denying it is just a sign of their desperation.

pace 3 years, 7 months ago

They seem to believe in the science of opinion polls but reject carbon based data. Pick and choose.

gr 3 years, 7 months ago

Who's discrediting science? Or do you confuse evolution with science, thinking evolution is the only science, that they are interchangeable?

voevoda 3 years, 6 months ago

The radical right denies that evolution and climate change are sustained by demonstrable evidence because it suits their political platform to say so. Denying evolution appeals to the "literal truth of the Bible" crowd and taps into a deep strand of anti-modern thinking in fundamentalist Christian groups in the US. Denying climate change appeals to the big industries that would need to implement costly changes in order to mitigate it. The success of the Republican Party depends upon sustaining support from both the religious right and big business, so it's not surprising that Republican candidates for president will espouse the position on science that helps them achieve that goal.
We should recall that Stalin chose to embrace crackpot "science"--Lysenkoism--because it fit with his political goals. It set Soviet biological sciences and technology back decades.

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