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Posts Tagged ‘bad science’

Ben Goldacre has a new book out. You can read the foreword, and also watch a TED talk he gave on the subject which is the book’s focus: the systematic distortion of evidence and profit-driven manipulation of reality by the pharmaceutical industry and numerous related groups and individuals.

I’m really looking forward to reading it once I’ve got through some more of my intimidating literary backlog. I’m expecting to be appalled, judging by what I’ve learned about this general clusterfuck so far. Much about modern medical science has been integral to one of the greatest forces for good in human history, but Big Pharma clearly has its Orwellian nightmare side too.

Here’s one thing I’m interested to see: What do the alternative medicine fans think of all this?

Bad Science did, after all, rip the world of fake unmedicine to shreds with a blistering effectiveness rarely matched elsewhere. I can assure you from personal experience that simply blogging about it occasionally is enough to get you labelled as a bought-and-sold shill by some sections of the alt-med crowd, so you can imagine the kind of things he got accused of for writing a popular book and newspaper column about it.

If you listen to the extremists, practically everyone who’s ever dared question the value of drinking bleach to cure AIDS is obviously in the pay of greedy corporate propagandists trying to keep the populace in check (wake up, sheeple!) – so where does Ben Goldacre fit into that model? You can imagine the confusion:

He says our wonderful homeopathy is worthless bollocks… but he’s written and is eagerly promoting an entire book denouncing the pharmaceutical industry’s profit-driven distortions of medicine. Which is what we do! I don’t understand. Was there a clerical error somewhere in the Big Pharma finance department and his cheques stopped getting sent?

It seems rare that an alt-med advocate will credit their opponents with enough intellectual honesty to be expressing the views they do for any reason other than monetary gain (although, to be fair, this may be something of a two-way street). I wonder if the publication of this new book will persuade anyone that people like Ben Goldacre often spend so much time rebutting alternative medicine because they really think that, and that they can see the problems with Big Pharma for what they are as well.

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Ben Goldacre’s got a fab example of misleading statistics, and the ways in which you can learn to think about things to avoid jumping to a wrong conclusion.

Look at his first nerdy table of data on that article. All they’ve done is take a bunch of people who drink alcohol, and a bunch who don’t, and counted how many from each group ended up with lung cancer. It turns out that the drinkers are more likely to get lung cancer than the non-drinkers.

The obvious conclusion – and (spoiler alert) the wrong one – is that drinking alcohol somehow puts you at greater risk of developing lung cancer. You might conclude, from that table, that if you currently drink alcohol, you can reduce your risk of developing cancer by no longer drinking alcohol, thus moving yourself to the safer “non-drinkers” group.

This is actually a fine example of the Bad Science mantra, and Ben makes an important point which many non-nerds might not naturally appreciate about statistics: the need to control for other variables.

If drinking doesn’t give you cancer, then why do drinkers get more cancer? The other two tables offer a beautiful explanation. Of all the drinkers and non-drinkers originally counted, try asking them another question: whether or not they smoke cigarettes. What you get when you do that is the next two tables.

If you just look at the smokers, then the chances of a drinker and a non-drinker getting lung cancer are almost exactly the same. If you look only at the non-drinkers, ditto. In other words, once you know whether someone smokes cigarettes, whether or not they drink makes no difference to their odds of getting lung cancer.

Which is a long way away from the obvious conclusion we were tempted to draw from the first set of data.

What we did here was to control for another variable – namely smoking – before drawing sweeping conclusions from the data. When we give smokers and non-smokers their own separate tables, it means that smoking cigarettes isn’t unfairly weighing the data we’ve already got any more. It becomes clear that drinkers aren’t simply more likely to get cancer; they’re more likely to be smokers.

And although Ben’s right to point out the importance of controlling for other variables like this, what interests me is the reminder of the importance of Bayesian probability.

In particular, the thing to remember is that the probability of an event is a measure of your uncertainty, and not something inherent in the event itself.

For instance, if that first table is all the data you have, then all you know is that drinkers are more at risk of cancer than non-drinkers. If you were to estimate somebody’s odds of getting lung cancer, and the only thing you knew about them is that they’re a drinker, the best you could do is to place it at 16% – the amount of drinkers who developed lung cancer in the study.

If you later acquire the extra data in the second tables, and find out that the individual you’re interested in is not a smoker, then suddenly you can re-adjust your estimate, and give them about a 3% chance of getting lung cancer. They haven’t done anything differently; nothing about their situation has changed for them to suddenly appear much more healthy. You’ve just learned more about them.

And it’s still not true that their odds of developing cancer are exactly 3% in any objective sense. Maybe tomorrow you’ll learn something about their age, or gender, or family history, and adjust your estimate again based on the new data. Maybe you don’t know that a doctor actually diagnosed them with lung cancer yesterday. This, obviously, makes a huge difference to their odds of having lung cancer – but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re in a low-risk group, and a 3% estimate is the best you can do based on your current knowledge.

In conclusion: stats are hard, listen to maths geeks (or become one yourself) before panicking about the latest tabloid healthscare.

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People don’t trust science.

And why should they? Science is devious stuff. It’s always trying to tell you that your strongly held religious beliefs are wrong, or toying with nature in a way man was never supposed to, or doing something hard to understand with big machines and long words that’s probably going to destroy the planet.

All of which is deeply offensive to the most basic human sensibilities. And worst of all is when scientists – those cold-hearted emotionless robots in white lab coats, or madmen incapable of seeing any beauty in the world who don’t care how much harm their experiments cause – try telling you that they even know what you think better than you do.

I mean, how dare they! Obviously you know your own mind. And if you woke up in the middle of the night and there was an owl on the bedpost with your mother’s face and a demon hovering over you whose genitals were singing Happy Birthday with the voice of Richard Simmons, then you know what you saw. Do these scientists think you’re crazy?

No, they don’t. Most scientists really wouldn’t tell you anything so condescending. But they do think that the human brain can be the epicentre of some pretty weird goings-on, and that the people who cohabit with these brains aren’t always in the best position to interpret what’s going on.

It’s really important to understand that, when scientists suggest that the way things seem to you might not match up perfectly with reality, they’re not being patronising or calling you stupid. There are lots of things that your brain gets wrong, which simply come with being human.

Optical illusions are a good example. These parallel lines ought to look more skewed than they really are. These white dots should appear to blink on and off somewhat disorientingly as you move your eyes around the picture. It’s to do with the way your brain processes visual information, and it’s fun finding out ways you can fool yourself.

Then there’s dreams. Chances are, your subconscious regularly makes up completely bizarre imaginary scenarios out of nowhere, and presents you with an entirely fictional version of reality – and often stops you from noticing that anything is out of the ordinary. This is so common that it’s considered unusual for anyone to say they never experience it.

But while certain very common and popularly recognised phenomena are generally accepted as just being quirks of the squishy grey stuff between our ears, some such quirks aren’t so familiar. There are some ways in which we just feel that our brains shouldn’t be able to let us down – it’s unthinkable that we shouldn’t be able to trust our own perception and intuition in certain areas. Which is why some things are harder to accept, and people may be inclined to respond to such suggestions by saying “I’m not crazy”.

And yet numerous other such phenomena are real and well understood. Some of these I’ve written about before: sleep paralysis, where you more or less continue dreaming but also can’t move; the ideomotor effect, where you find your body making tiny movements without you choosing to do so; pareidolia, where even a random mess of nonsense can throw up something that looks like an underlying pattern once in a while; and a wide range of logical fallacies, which show just how bad we can be at analysing data rationally if we’re not careful. And ignoring any of these cognitive oddities can lead you to get things wrong.

If you’re unaware of dreams, you might get some very funny looks from your co-workers on Monday when you describe how your teeth all fell out one night over the weekend but were magically back in place by the morning.

If you weren’t that hot on statistics, you might think that you’ve discovered a miraculous new remedy, when actually you just rubbed pineapple juice into your elbows three times a day until your cold got better anyway.

And if you aren’t familiar with false memory syndrome, then… well, things can get pretty horrifying.

In a way, it feels intuitive to expect your memory to be entirely accurate. If you remember something happening, that must be because it happened. What other reason could there be? But most of us regularly remember dreams, even though they didn’t happen. And most of us have, at some point, misremembered the way something took place, or disagreed with someone else about the exact details of a past event. Why would that ever happen, if human memory wasn’t prone to making serious mistakes?

The fact is, as in the case of dreams or optical illusions, we’re sometimes obliged to follow the data and mistrust what our brains tell us, in the case of memory too.

The most disturbing example of this relates to the sexual abuse of children.

Now, I need to be careful after a sentence like that. Clearly one extremely disturbing thing surrounding this topic is the actual sexual abuse of children. This is by no means a trivial or minor side issue, and I wouldn’t want any of my surrounding discussion to come across as apologist or dismissive of any serious cases of this.

And yet, precisely because it’s such a serious and heated issue, the occasions when people get unfairly tangled up in it are themselves especially serious, and merit particular scrutiny.

With that in mind, the history of false memory syndrome as regards childhood sexual abuse is quite horrific.

In fact, the whole idea of repressed memories that need “recovering” in therapy is controversial. People who’ve suffered through a childhood trauma often experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder, where the problem isn’t that they can’t remember what happened, but that they keep remembering it, and re-living it, constantly. If you don’t remember a particular childhood trauma, that’s probably because it didn’t happen to you…

…but that won’t necessarily stop you from “recovering” the memories in therapy anyway.

An article by Elizabeth Loftus reports some very disturbing specifics. A woman seeing a psychiatrist in 1986 became convinced that she had suffered serious physical and sexual abuse as a child, and that she was uncovering memories of “having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend”. Another woman, after therapy sessions with a church counsellor, “remembered” having been repeatedly raped by her father and forced to perform abortions on herself twice. On medical examination, it was shown that she had never been pregnant, and was apparently still a virgin. (I know the latter point isn’t always obvious from examination, but it was clear she hadn’t undergone anything like the several years of regular sexual assault that she was reporting.)

These two women both sued their therapists, and received seven-figure out-of-court settlements, and they’re not alone. But the damage this sort of intervention can do if the results are taken at face value is almost unimaginable. Meredith Maran has had to deal with the fact that her family spent years in turmoil because of her accusations that her father had abused her. In her case, this entirely false impression didn’t even result from any therapy sessions or hypnotic suggestion, but apparently just from being immersed in a sort of “incest survivor culture” for so long.

I don’t want to downplay the fact that, for many people, all kinds of abuse, sexual or physical or psychological, in childhood or adolescence or adulthood, is a very real and terrible problem. These people don’t need things made even worse for them by an exacerbation of any victim-blaming culture, or the worry that they’ll be accused of making it all up if they speak up and ask for help.

But, at the same time, our appreciation for critical thought shouldn’t just fly out the window because a serious accusation has been made.

A self-help book that was recently being promoted by the Church of England was criticised by scientists for its failure to take false memory syndrome into account. It told readers things like “If you are unable to remember any specific instances… but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did”. They’re putting forward “a feeling” as solid evidence that you were sexually assaulted as a child and just don’t remember it. This is incredibly reckless and irresponsible, especially given how much we now understand about the role of suggestibility in forming false memories that seem entirely real.

The main thing to take away is that memories don’t always relate to genuine events with perfectly reliable consistency. We have good evidence that the recollection of perfectly ordinary and totally sane people can be completely wrong, despite how real and reliable such memories feel. This is not a dangerous thing to know. It is not intrinsically antagonistic to genuine abuse victims for us to be aware of this. Understanding false memory syndrome should only give us a better chance of approaching the truth, by letting us more closely estimate the likelihood of the testimony being false, when assessing unlikely claims about demonic cults and baby-eating.

Helpful sources and further reading:

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Chris French in the Guardian
Cracked (what, you thought I was being scholarly?)
The British False Memory Society
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation

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Brain Gym is some pretty kooky nonsense, and kids should be allowed to call out the bullshit their schools are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on. Some of them are pretty good at it.

– I haven’t written a whole lot about the “genderless child” story, but I’m not crazy about the idea. It seems oddly oppressive in its own way somehow. Societal gender expectations do deserve to be addressed, but this might not best be done by ignoring them and expecting everyone else to do likewise.

– An atheist in Louisiana has responded to the inclusion of an official prayer in his graduation ceremony by sending threats of violence and death to those in support of it. Nope, wait, sorry, I got that backward. He pointed out, correctly, that government-sponsored prayer in state schools is against the law, and he was the one who got harassed and threatened by fellow students and teachers, and kicked out of his home by his parents. The Friendly Atheist has an interview with him, as well as news on how fantastically generous that blog’s readers have been in supporting a scholarship fund for him.

– Despite certain tabloids’ obsessions, the list of things worse for the economy than benefit fraud continues to grow.

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Jamie Bernstein has a two-part report of her recent experience at an AutismOne conference, over at Skepchick and Friendly Atheist. Both parts are really worth a read.

The first part is mostly a write-up of the rather unsettling package of speakers and other happenings lined up for the event, including a speech from fraudulent non-doctor Andrew Wakefield about how cruel the rest of the world is to conspire against them by, y’know, pointing out they’re endangering countless lives by distorting science. There was also some pretty kooky self-help psychobabble, and some booths offering a variety of wacky stuff like homeopathy, which you might think should be wholly unrelated to either autism or vaccines, but which probably all tend to appeal to people of a certain frame of mind for the same sorts of reasons.

Part Two is sad in a whole other way. Jamie went along to this thing with a guy called Ken Reibel, who’s an active and somewhat well known part of the reality-based side of the online autism community. At some point in the day, it seems like someone on the staff organising the conference realised who he was – and things suddenly start getting tense.

In short: they were thrown out, despite not really doing anything wrong or being disruptive in any way, and it was pretty clear that the only reason for it was that they knew that Jamie and Ken were not reliable followers who could be trusted to toe the line and stick to the mandated set of beliefs.

Now, these people don’t have to be thrilled to have someone around who they know has written extremely antagonistic things about them in the past. And it seems to be within their accepted policy to be able to refund a visitor’s entrance fee and ask them to leave the premises at any time. But even if they’re legally within their rights, it displays an impressively determined closed-mindedness, to evict someone on no other grounds than that they are known to hold a contrary opinion. These visitors weren’t kicking up any kind of a fuss, and had given no indication that they would do so.

You do only tend to find this fragile, defensive, and rather pathetic attitude in isolated pockets of woo. I’m not aware of any skeptical or rationalist event where somebody has been thrown out on such tenuous grounds. In fact, when believers turn up at skeptical events, it can lead to some interesting conversation – the first instance that springs to mind is when Hayley Stevens and Rose Shapiro were questioned about homeopathy during a Q&A session following an interview. The guy was a little insistent, and eventually they had to just move the discussion on, but he was never deemed unwelcome simply for holding alternative views.

On the other hand, anti-science campaigners have something of a track record of this kind of thing, such as when a student was kicked out of the Creation “Museum”, or when PZ Myers was pulled out of the line to see a film that he was in.

It seems to say something about whose aims include open debate, and whose are more focused on self-confirmation and ignoring dissent.

There’s more on this from Orac and Ken Reibel himself.

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I should warn you up front that if you don’t agree with everything I’m about to say then I’m going to call you a racist.

Why yes, it is quite unusual to have planned in advance to deflect any criticism against me by ignoring the facts and bringing up irrelevancies in the hope of turning the mood of the debate against you. But apparently that’s just how some people roll.

In particular, homeopaths.

The original link to where this all kicked off is broken, as the post itself has apparently been deleted, but it’s been saved for posterity in various places. On May 12th, someone called Sue Trotter posted on a homeopathy message board, outlining a cunning strategy.

We can play the race discrimination card if we get this right. Please bear with me whilst I explain.

If we can find some British Indians/ Pakistanis or Bangladeshi’s they can complain to the ASA explaining that homeopathy is a prefered system of medicine in their countries of origin, used to treat a wide range of illnesses. The current wave of complaints against homeopaths would therefore seem to be an attack on their culture and beliefs and therefore discriminatory.

Wow. Let’s see if I can translate the subtext here:

These skeptics keep demanding evidence that we can’t provide, and complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority when we make unsubstantiated medical claims. But dodging the facts is getting tiring, so let’s find some brown people to throw at them and call them racist if they dare to keep criticising us.

I think I captured the essence of it there.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but this strikes me as being perhaps most offensive to the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis themselves. The most useful thing Sue Trotter seems to think they can contribute to the discussion is simply whatever controversy can be manufactured from their skin colour and ethnic background.

And QueenGoriana said to me on Twitter: “I’m sure my scientist Indian cousins missed the memo which told them evidence-free magic is a defining part of their culture.”.

Sue admits that her plan isn’t necessarily foolproof, and that they “would need to get a smart lawyer to draft the letter”, tacitly confessing that the whole point is to be sneaky and manipulative, and to discourage any sort of honest discussion of the evidence.

It’s not an unprecedented tactic, either. British MP David Tredinnick has previously complained that scientists who criticised healthcare systems that use astrology or phases of the moon were “racially prejudiced“.

Because if you ever say that something lots of Chinese people believe is incorrect, you must hate foreigners.

Read more on this from le canard noir, Sceptical Letter Writer, Brian Hughes’s Storify, Skepticat, and Skepchick.

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If you don’t know who Tim Bolen is, I apologise in advance for shattering your blissful ignorance. First, watch this video. It’s nice and short. Well, it’s short.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll now be struggling to put into words quite why you feel a strong compulsion to hate this guy.

I’m not sure that hate’s ever a good thing, but it’s certainly an easy thing at times.

Maybe you’re wondering why I’m being quite so snippy and snide about him. Maybe, if you’re not aware of his body of “work”, he doesn’t come across as contemptuous and unbearably smug in that clip, and just looks kinda sleepy. I can’t tell.

Now let’s talk about who Tim Bolen is.

A few weeks ago, science-based medicine advocate and all-round skeptical hero Steven Novella was a guest on The Dr. Oz Show, a TV show in the States hosted by a prominent TV doctor. Here is Steve’s account of how it went.

Last week, Kash Farooq posted a link on Twitter to a rather less charitable description of Steve and Dr Oz’s conversation.

Looking at them both, there are some striking differences between the approaches taken by these two accounts.

For instance, Tim Bolen’s analysis gets to the seventh paragraph before offering a single critique of Steve’s performance on the show that isn’t about his hair or make-up. He continues to use the phrase “carpet-head” throughout the article, and seems to think that he’s undermining Steve’s credibility, rather than just insulting The Dr. Oz Show‘s team of professional make-up artists, by making a weird Tammy Faye reference.

And when he stops simply being insulting for its own sake, it gets weird.

Novella claims to be a neurology professor at Yale University, and throws the name “Yale” around like he was throwing seed to the morning chickens – but, to me, that is an outright fabrication. Novella, evidence shows, works for a medical center that “rents” the name “Yale” from the University, who then, assuming the monthly payments are up to date, gets to claim that all their staff doctors are, in fact, professors at Yale (insert bad smell here).

Yes, he really said that last bit in parentheses. That’s Tim Bolen’s way of slamming someone with his disapproval. If you are six years old, you can acceptably laugh with him.

The rest of this is entirely empty whining. The Yale Medical Group lists Steven Novella as an Assistant Professor of Neurology. The prestigious history of Yale School Of Medicine at Yale University and the close affiliation between the two establishments is not hard to learn about. Bolen seems to think Yale University is eminently respectable, but whoever Steve works for are irrelevant bandwagon-jumpers using the name dishonestly. This is demonstrably untrue.

Which isn’t surprising, because after this Bolen just starts making stuff up shamelessly.

The reality of Novella, easily found, is that he testifies for insurance companies, and that seems to be the extent of his practice. I get a picture of Novella saying…

No, you can shut up right there. There’s no reason for anyone to care what he can picture Steven Novella saying. Personally, I get a picture of Tim Bolen shitting into his own mouth, but that doesn’t have any bearing on how he might actually spend his weekends.

Anyway, this claim about Steve is entirely false. Steve works as a clinical neurologist, earning a living as a physician at Yale School of Medicine. He has a number of published scientific articles to his name. He’s also a prominent part of the skeptical community, hosting a weekly podcast, and contributing to several scientific blogs. He’s an associate editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. He does plenty of work that it’s impossible not to learn about if you do any research.

And I couldn’t track down a single instance of this “easily found” bollocks about insurance company testimonials. I googled the relevant terms, and the only pertinent links I could find brought me straight back to Bolen’s diatribe. He doesn’t link to any supporting data. As far as I can tell, he’s flat-out lying.

Then it gets weirder:

Knowing what I know about Randi’s sexual proclivities, that Randi/Novella video, and Novella’s obvious relationship with James Randi, has raised red flags with me about the ENTIRE pseudo-skeptic movement.

I genuinely don’t know what this means, but that sentence stands alone as if it were in some way revealing or incriminating. Yes, Steve and James Randi are friends and allies, and have worked closely together before. They’ve appeared together on video before, there’s no denying that. And James Randi is gay. Maybe that’s what meant by “sexual proclivities”? I’ve really no idea.

Steve’s blog post about his discussion with Dr Oz describes the alternative medicine debate at great length, and comprehensively outlines both their positions and how the discussion on the show went. Bolen pretty much just crows about how smart Dr Oz is and how dumb Steve looked, over and over, without actually describing a single thing that happened. (Except that Steve has bad hair. That’s very important for some reason.)

Then he flips back to the only other mode he seems to have, namely that of outright bullshitting:

All over the internet they are calling Oz names, using, of course, their made-up internet names – not their real ones (They are terrified of being personally identified). These people are not known for manliness. Each of the pseudo-skeptics, I estimate, has between fifteen and thirty different made-up internet identities. For them, I guess, if they are losing a factual or intellectual argument to someone in a discussion group they just bring five of their other identities online to back them up, pretending these are really five other people agreeing with them.

You “estimate”? I do not think that means what you think it means. Again, not a shred of supporting evidence for this is provided. Just more unbelievably sour grapes. I did a quick search for what the “pseudo-skeptics” have actually been saying about Steve and Dr Oz, and literally the first post I found was by two people whose full names and résumés are on their site.

Of course, maybe they’re also busy being thirty other people as well, so that might not tell you much. I know I find it hard keeping track of whether I’m supposed to be John Smith, James Norriss, Zingelbert Bembledack, or Santorum Q Lemonparty, depending on what day of the week it is.

Bolen ends on a strange, vicious, and idiotic legal threat, which amounts to nothing more than fantasist ranting about all his enemies one day facing a “video-taped Deposition” for the crime of… um… having their articles appear near the top of search engine listings when you search for them… by dastardly, nefarious means. Yeah. The spite and delusions driving this guy are quite unsettling.

And it’s probably not healthy for me to spend so much time on him. I almost decided to dismiss him as an obvious troll and leave it, but he’s actually got quite a presence online as a source of much genuine grief. He has quite a history with Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch, and there are a number of pages about him on ratbags.com and Canadian Quackery Watch.

If you’re not quite bored of Bolen yet, have a look at an older post of his on Orac the Nipple Ripper, regarding the identity of a popular science-blogger. I think my favourite part of this is where he claims:

There is absolutely no recognized medical specialty known as “surgical oncologist.” It is a made up term.

Three seconds later.

Okay. I’m done. I haven’t needed a unicorn chaser this badly in quite some time.

Ahhhhhhhh…

Wait, no. Whenever Japanese people are shouting on a YouTube clip I get worried something terrible’s about to happen. I’m sure they wouldn’t do anything bad to the kittens, but I’ve seen people on Japanese game shows do some pretty horrifying things, so I can’t watch this without being a little on edge. I need something else.

Ahhhhhhhh…

Wait, no, that’s not good. That’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Jesus.

Ahhhhhhhh.

That’s better.

(Yes, all my unicorn chasers are videos of cats. Problem?)

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