Society’s fear of science

Here’s another video from the recent Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark conference. This time Lawrence Krauss discusses science and politics.

Lawrence Krauss is always of good value. He is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Department, Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative and Inaugural Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University. He is an internationally known theoretical physicist with wide research interests, including the interface between elementary particle physics and cosmology, where his studies include the early universe, the nature of dark matter, general relativity and neutrino astrophysics.

The value of a science ethos for society

Krauss has been active in the Science Debate 08 campaign and also is serving on a science policy committee for Barack Obama. He points out that science is not understood as a vital and important part of our culture – and that is a pity. The scientific ethos of honesty, full disclosure and anti-authoritarianism would be of great benefit in politics.

In this video Krauss discusses the problem that the media has in discussing science and its role. Issues such as the treatment of “balance” in reporting (which can mean balancing the science of, for example, evolution and climate change with equal time for those who deny the science). He also deals with the fundamental irrationality in society which provides avenues for bad science.

Referring to the fear of science in society he sees the need to communicate several ideas:

  • Science is more than a “story” of equal standing to other stories in religion and politics. Science has a relationship to actual reality and consequence;
  • Science actually underlies any good decisions required in most policy areas;
  • Science is not a threat to morality, ethics or faith.

Download videos from Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark

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56 responses to “Society’s fear of science

  1. Great video.
    It would be nice to see something like this on TV, but then ordinary people might learn something about science.
    Can’t have that.
    (sigh)

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  2. Every now & then I trot along to meetings of MoRST’s science communicators panel (given that science communication is a very large part of how I spend my time). At one of the early meetings there was quite a bit of discussion about the paucity of good science programming in the mainstream media. The general opinion from the media reps there was that the networks won’t fund it – it’s seen to be very much niche-specific & wouldn’t bring in the advertising revenue that they desire. Not to mention Hard to Do. Someone else present said, ‘anyway, you’ve got the Discovery channel’, at which point I was tempted to start banging my head on the nearest wall.

    On a slightly more cheerful note, I was at a meeting this morning where Jacquie Bay from Auckland’s Liggins Institute was telling us about their use of TV for getting science stories out to schools. This year they had 3 TV ‘seminars’, next year they’re planning for 8. Small stuff but it’s a start. She did say that it wasn’t a good idea to rely on the scientists as sole presenters; they needed to have someone there as a ‘bridge’, to ask the questions & get things rolling along 😉

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  3. “Someone else present said, ‘anyway, you’ve got the Discovery channel’, at which point I was tempted to start banging my head on the nearest wall.”

    Oh yes.
    I used to think that the Discovery Channel was the best thing since sliced bread.
    Then, slowly, their programming changed.

    I nearly blew a blood vessel when they had some Oriental Medicine adverts floating around.
    Then there was that tripe “Hauntings” and another show on psychics “helping” police and yet another on “miracles” in emergency rooms.
    It all became too stupid for words.
    I let my cable subscription lapse and now my TV just gathers dust in the corner.
    (Though I do miss “Mythbusters” and Cartoon Network.)

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  4. We haven’t gone that far – the Significant Other enjoys the movies on offer, & sometimes (very sometimes) there’s some good stuff on the History Channel. But Discovery’s content is indeed often too stupid for words. I feel in need of a lie-down if I happen to pass through the lounge when someone else is watching. (There’s no accounting for taste!)

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  5. I don’t have a tuned TV (it only runs a Wii), but I noticed this when I was back home with my parents recently. My parents have a TV with Sky so I browsed about the channels in case something fun was on. I don’t recall what, specifically, was on the Discovery Channel, but I remember feeling really, really let down. It wasn’t always like that, was it? I think I watched a very good piece on elephants on Discovery several years back.

    It is a real shame that TVNZ do not see any benefit in acting as a public broadcaster. I miss good BBC documentaries. Heck, TVNZ could at least misinform people in a fun way – start running the first season of BBC’s Look Around You!

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  6. I quite like the Documentary Channel on Sky. But most of all I like a nice, black, TV screen. And a book on the couch with a cool glass of Emerson’s Pilsner!

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  7. I’ve spoken very briefly with a number of people in the sci. doco. field and they all say things have largely moved to a “cable” style, with rare exceptions like the BBC. I’ve heard that “the beeb” is almost the only company that can fund “proper” science/nature documentaries these days. (No idea if that’s just a whinge, but quite a few people seem to say the same thing and some of them have been in the industry a long time.)

    You’re right about the History channel, Alison. I don’t have Sky myself either, but I’ve seen a few programs when I’m visiting others. Maybe historians don’t think so much of them as we do?!

    Emerson’s? That’s a Dunedin brew, and a good one too. A good scientists’ brew: George Emerson (deceased) was a lecturer at the department of Biochemistry at the University of Otago at one stage from what I’ve heard. Obviously biochemists make good brewers! 🙂

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  8. People have good reason to fear “science.” All the good that science ever did could be rendered moot by this one discovery…

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  9. Ken, I see that your blog sticks aside for moderation any posts that arrive too fast (fair enough: sensible anti-spam measure). Could you drag my post out of the spam? (If you think it up to scratch!)

    Don’t know why this happened – maybe too many smileys?? – Ken

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  10. There is one glaring problem with science. Scientists:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/22/health/22radio.html?_r=1&ref=us

    An influential psychiatrist who served as the host of public radio’s popular “The Infinite Mind” program earned at least $1.3 million between 2000 and 2007 giving marketing lectures for drug makers, income not mentioned on the program.

    Conflicts of Interest May Ensnare Journalists, Too (November 22, 2008) The psychiatrist and radio host, Dr. Frederick K. Goodwin, is the latest in a series of doctors and researchers whose ties to drug makers have been uncovered by Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa. Dr. Goodwin, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, is the first media figure investigated.

    In October, Mr. Grassley revealed that Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff of Emory University, one of the nation’s most influential psychiatric researchers, earned more than $2.8 million in consulting arrangements with drug makers from 2000 to 2007, failed to report at least $1.2 million of that income to his university and violated federal research rules. As a result, the National Institutes of Health suspended a $9.3 million research grant to Emory and placed restrictions on other grants, and Dr. Nemeroff relinquished his chairmanship of Emory’s psychiatry department.

    In June, the senator revealed that Harvard University’s Dr. Joseph Biederman, whose work has fueled an explosion in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children, had earned at least $1.6 million from drug makers between 2000 and 2007, failed to report most of this income to his university, and may have violated federal and university research rules.

    They are as greedy, bias and self serving as any other human being…

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  11. Just in fun: if this were to be “as any other human being”, then they cannot be worse than others, just the same 😉 JK. Point I’m poking at is the lousy logic 😉

    Sure, there are individuals who mess up, just like every work area you can think of: its not a point of difference.

    Do carefully note that it is the science industry that is punishing these people, as your examples show. So, clearly, the science industry (i.e. as a whole) holds higher standards, which some individuals fall below. But you try apply to the larger group what may hold to a few, despite the fact that your examples showing (representatives of) the larger group punishing these people. In fact, looked at from how the science industry has responded, your examples show the science industry holds high standards.

    Along the same lines, the standards being broken, e.g. “the university rules” are set by the science industry, again showing where their standards are: above individuals that transgress them.

    Earning money in and of itself isn’t a conflict of interest, nor is consulting in and of itself, btw.

    I get the impression that you frequently parrot what you’re read on some website that writes of a view that you are “supposed” to support because they say that’s what people of your religious persuasion are supposed to. You never seem to think much about what you write or apply a little logic to it before coming out with it.

    Getting back to Ken’s post, I suspect much of the “fear” is simply a lack of background to understand for themselves the bewildering number of results that come in every week. The lack of balance in presenting issues hardly helps, to put it mildly.

    9: I’ll be because I wrote my posts up in separate tabs, then send them in, in quick order. Most servers block overly rapid submissions from the same source as its a hallmark of mass spamming. (I’ve even heard that there are blog robots! I’ve no idea if that’s true.) A lot of blog software seems to use a “gap” of around 3 minutes or so between posts as a fastest rate to head this off.

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  12. We really just rely on free-to-air TV at the moment. We didn’t go for Sky because one is forced to take the mundane sports and films and then pay extra for docos. We’ll have another look down the track when alternative digital content is available.

    I have enjoyed downloading lectures and conferences (e.g. Beyond Belief and some good ones from Princeton. There’s even BBC docos available on Google sometimes soon after screening in the UK). However, I have been converting them to DVD format to watch on TV. This takes a while and can be a hassle.

    I have just invested in a media player hard drive. This should allow me to watch downloaded videos on TV without conversion. I’m looking forward to trying this out tonight.

    Mind you, I like Damian’s approach – usually with a nice wine.

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  13. You’ve got to remember that theism is only superficially about loving people, and it really boils down to a mystical misantropy. James is totally focused on all the (perceived) negative aspects of the world, because he feels the Magicman has a relatively simple solution to those – it’s like a One Step Programme for Earth: Belief!

    Complex, nuanced, earth-bound checks and balances against greed are not as easy to understand immediately, and they don’t provide any sense of trumped-up superiority. Those of us who are not convinced that humanity is a cesspool of abject and barely-surmountable sin, we find it a little easier to see problems with science’s ethical checks and balances, and propose potential solutions.

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  14. James’s claim (@ #9) that the discovery that gave the world the atomic & nuclear bombs renders everything else that science has ever done, null & void, needs to be tempered by a reminder that that same discovery also gave us the radio-isotopes used in radiotherapy, not to mention the prospect of nuclear power. Technology’s a double-edged sword, James, & always has been. Ever since the first Homo erectus twigged that you could make specialised tools to prepare food, the opening was always there to use pretty much the same tools on other people. And you’re never going to stop scientists investigating the world just because there’s a possibility that someone might use a discovery to do harm. If that was the case we’d still be in the stone age.

    And James – before you do your usual spiel about needing some supernatural being to instruct us on how to be ‘good’ – that’s not the topic of this thread. So would you mind stopping & thinking for a minute? If you joined a face-to-face conversation with a group of others, would you automatically try to derail it onto the same old tired track? They’d probably think you rather rude, & I’d like to think that you have more courtesy than that. So why do you think it’s fine to derail others’ internet conversations?

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  15. Don’t feed the troll.

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  16. James’s claim (@ #9) that the discovery that gave the world the atomic & nuclear bombs renders everything else that science has ever done, null & void, needs to be tempered by a reminder that that same discovery also gave us the radio-isotopes used in radiotherapy, not to mention the prospect of nuclear power. Technology’s a double-edged sword, James, & always has been. Ever since the first Homo erectus twigged that you could make specialised tools to prepare food, the opening was always there to use pretty much the same tools on other people. And you’re never going to stop scientists investigating the world just because there’s a possibility that someone might use a discovery to do harm. If that was the case we’d still be in the stone age.

    Well Alison, science for the first time in history has given mankind the ability to pretty much wipe itself out. And at the rate nuclear weapons are being built (even by rouge nations) how long will it be before we pull the trigger? Then the stone age may not look so bad…

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  17. Also, science is faith based, let me quote Paul Davies at length:

    SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

    The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

    The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

    Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

    Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

    Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html?_r=3&hp=&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print&oref=slogin

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  18. James, your trolling is tiresome. The short answer is that you blame the user of a weapon, not its maker. And you’ve done the boring “science has faith” line too many times. With it you are again trying to drive a thread off topic.

    Returning to my earlier point, and the topic at hand, I suspect much of the “fear” the public have of science, isn’t a fear of science itself, but a lack of being able to understand or judge for themselves the bewildering number of new results that come in every week. I have some empathy for that. It can be confusing for a scientist even, especially for topics away from your expertise. The lack of balance in presenting issues in the media doesn’t help. Some of those presenting so-called “balance” views deliberately try to paint science as “dangerous” in order to promote their particular products or point of view. Its compounded by the balance rarely presented though balance of evidence backing the products/ideas/etc.

    In addition to feeling a lack of control from not being able to judge for themselves, perhaps they also fear the statements that some of the “woo” types put out to promote their own product or cause. Part of the problem with the latter, is that science too often has to then take a defensive position in response it shouldn’t really have to because of the “attacking” approach some of these people take (i.e., attacking “possibilities” rather than talking about evidence and issues). In some ways its possibly best to ignore things (?), they are a bit like trolls attacking without and argument for their position: all noise for attention and not much else! Instead, perhaps focus on trying to deal with the first fear: being able to judge for themselves. Ideally with that in place the scare-mongering and worry-warting will be seen for what it is-?

    But its easy to see these points and talk about them without doing anything.

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  19. James, your trolling is tiresome. The short answer is that you blame the user of a weapon, not its maker. And you’ve done the boring “science has faith” line too many times.

    To be clear it was Paul Davies who said that science has faith. And we could not use the A- bomb Heraclides unless scientists first invented it. I lived through the Cuban missile crisis – I remember the terror, the daily drills, how that threat colored everything. As far as I can tell there is little serious ethical reflection in science in general. If they can do it – they will… What’s next – a human animal hybrid? More weapons of mass destruction?

    Returning to my earlier point, and the topic at hand, I suspect much of the “fear” the public have of science, isn’t a fear of science itself, but a lack of being able to understand or judge for themselves the bewildering number of new results that come in every week. I have some empathy for that.

    Well, well, we agree. And that was what was so disturbing about Krauss’ talk – calling for more involvement in politics by “science.” The fact is they are already involved – if “science says” it’s almost gospel. Scientist have become the new priest class, complete with its own creation myth. And when they speak, they speak from on high – and the great unwashed masses need to know their place and genuflect at the mere sound of their approach…

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  20. Wake up, James! Go to a local Cafe Scientifique/Science in the pub/whatever the local group calls itself. I know there’s a rapidly increasing number of branches of the Cafes over in the US. And there you will see scientists talking on an equal footing with ‘ordinary people’ (some of them scientists in different fields, but many of them interested laymen) on a whole range of science topics. Not only is there a hunger to find out about science, but there’s an increasing interest among scientists in sharing that knowledge around.

    (As for your tired old canard – couldn’t use X unless scientists first invented it – who chooses to use this stuff? In the case of the original A-bomb – democratically elected leaders of the USA, for what they saw as the ‘greater good’. I notice you ignored the fact that ‘good’ has also come from this technology – few would rant against the potentially life-saving use of radiotherapy, for example…)

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  21. 12, Ken: Are there any particular places you find good for getting downloaded docos, etc.? Are the doco full-screen resolution? (Computer screens have a higher resolution than TVs usually.) Mind you, with my bandwidth maybe it’d be moot anyway.

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  22. (Excuse the long post.)

    James:

    Go and read some decent textbooks on the relevant science and history or at least a substantial popular science account by genuine experts in the relevant areas. I have which is why I can see where you are wrong 🙂

    Both of your replies go at a tangent from what I was referring to with your usual twisted logic and both make you look like an idiot. Its your call to look like that, but all you do is negative. Twist others’ statements. Play games. Not think and write ignorant stupidity. Paint ridiculous stereotypes. “Conveniently” leave out what would spoil your arguments. Side-step if someone makes a sound point. Whatever. There is no point in trying to “help” you: you need to save yourself your own idiocy.

    To others (i.e. not to James):

    (Off-topic for a moment: its not suitable to for all forums, but I used to have this idea that creationists/IDists ought to post as they are very good at showing lukers how stupid they and their religion are! I once convinced a particularly persistent creationist that this posts were helpful in that they made his religion look bad and he actually stopped posting the more extreme examples of his silliness and in fact actually started asking other creationists to tone their posts down as they were making the religion look silly! It was hilarious to watch in its own way.)

    Back on topic. I guess another problem is that a range of people abuse the internet to drive their own agenda, exploiting people’s gullibility and innocence.

    Apparently the upper levels of creationism are essentially a money-driven business, complete with corrupt and very bizarre people. Its worth noting the money aspect as it makes the enterprise at least in part intentionally acting for reasons outside of what they claim to followers. But creationists are a minority, at least in this country.

    In a similar fashion, the various proponents of “woo” (so-called “natural health”, etc.) have business motivations. I suspect this is a larger number of people (in this country) than creationists and just as bad in many ways.

    Both of these types of business ventures sell their wares on the basis on some thing they present as “doing good” (spirituality, health) whilst calling “the others” an “enemy” and claim the evils of “the others” are based on the very thing that they are based on (making money, power, etc).

    Some parts of the media use some of these people as “balance”, or even present entire articles/shows on their products/services. From purely an entertainment perspective it’d be fine if these people were obviously stupid and obviously out to make money: it’d become a sly way of showing “gee, aren’t these people weird and dumb” and having a laugh at it. The problem comes when the media are silly enough to give these people credibility in various ways.

    This comes back to people finding it hard to judge for themselves what is presented in the media. Not only to most people lack the science background to judge for themselves, they also have to push aside the negative campaigns of these dubious business people and on top of “can we trust the media to get it right”. I’m sure the media will consider themselves innocent: after all they’re just people writing up stories as they see them. I’m there is some truth in that, but considering the unwillingness of their organisations to hire personnel with relevant expertise to judge and/or vet the material they are presenting, they should accept some culpability? The Science Media Centre is trying to help out here, but surely it has to be said that this is to compensate for the media organisations (for the large part) not hiring the relevant expertise themselves, and effectively disowning responsibility to get it right? (I can understand it from a budget point of view, but that strikes me as a “race to the bottom” approach.)

    Café Scientifiqué is a good thing to point to Alison! I’ve only seen a couple where I am. I know you’ve been involved in that area. Its nice in that it lets people bypass all of the media, and any issues attached to that, and talk directly to people involved in science. I suspect they may mainly serve those open to hearing the science, though—?

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  23. (As for your tired old canard – couldn’t use X unless scientists first invented it – who chooses to use this stuff? In the case of the original A-bomb – democratically elected leaders of the USA, for what they saw as the ‘greater good’. I notice you ignored the fact that ‘good’ has also come from this technology – few would rant against the potentially life-saving use of radiotherapy, for example…)

    Yes we always can blame others Alison. It was the Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber (personal friend of Einstein) who first weaponized Mustard Gas for the greater good of Germany. I guess scientist can’t “just say no.”

    And like I said, that was what was disturbing about Krauss’ talk. What does science have to say about political issues? Most of which are moral at the bottom.

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  24. Both of your replies go at a tangent from what I was referring to with your usual twisted logic and both make you look like an idiot. Its your call to look like that, but all you do is negative. Twist others’ statements. Play games. Not think and write ignorant stupidity. Paint ridiculous stereotypes. “Conveniently” leave out what would spoil your arguments. Side-step if someone makes a sound point. Whatever. There is no point in trying to “help” you: you need to save yourself your own idiocy.

    Recently Heraclides you chided me for using a rather mild ad hominem attack. And again you turn around and do the same thing, only much worse. Has your hyprocisy no bounds man? Or do you feel justified? The thing is Heraclides, you probably have no idea how the average guy feels about “science.” How they look at the “intellectual elite.” We Americans are often chided for not buying the theory of evolution wholsale or jumping on the man made global warming bandwagon – you know maybe its not the science that bothers us, maybe we just don’t like to be told what to think.

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  25. James “…how the average guy feels about “science.”

    Most average people are ignorant about science.
    Astoundingly ignorant.
    They lack a basic science education.
    That doesn’t stop them from having strong, totally uninformed and worthless opinions about science though.

    Take yourself, for example.
    You are ignorant about science.
    You don’t know how it works.
    You’ve never seriously studied it.
    Judging from your reading list, you’ve never bothered to actually…read a science book.
    Yet you spout off continuously about science.
    Go figure.
    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/generalscience/us_science_020501.html

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  26. Take yourself, for example.
    You are ignorant about science.
    You don’t know how it works.
    You’ve never seriously studied it.
    Judging from your reading list, you’ve never bothered to actually…read a science book.
    Yet you spout off continuously about science.

    Not that it matters Cedric but back in the day I did pull Bs in Anthropology 101 and 102. I only mananged a C+ in Zoology though. More recently (10 years ago) I was first in my class in electronics (a private techinal school) – the field I’m still in today, and use those theories on a daily basis (i.e. ohm’s law, measuring current, understaning outputs for specific micro processors, trouble shooting to the component level, etc…). Never mind telecommunications in general – the specific field that I’m in. So yes, I understand how “science” works – I use it on a practical level every day…

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  27. That doesn’t stop them from having strong, totally uninformed and worthless opinions about science though.

    Why is this Cedric? One reason is that one of things things that really does filter down to the popular culture in mass are medical research studies. Coffee is bad for you – wait, coffee may be good for you. High doses of vitamin C is good for you – wait, high doses of vitamin C is bad for you. High doses of vitamin A is good for you, no wait, it is bad for you – but high doses of vitamin C is again good for you. Now we are not sure about coffee.

    http://www.news-medical.net/?id=22280

    Contradicting claims of disease prevention, an analysis of previous studies indicates that the antioxidant supplements beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase the risk of death, according to a meta-analysis and review article in the February 28 issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.

    “Our findings contradict the findings of observational studies, claiming that antioxidants improve health. Considering that 10 percent to 20 percent of the adult population (80-160 million people) in North America and Europe may consume the assessed supplements, the public health consequences may be substantial. We are exposed to intense marketing with a contrary statement, which is also reflected by the high number of publications per included randomized trial found in the present review.”

    You see Cedric, the average Joe just throws his hands up. If the “experts” can not agree and give conflicting information then what is the layman to do? You go on with life, do your best and take science with a grain of salt…

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  28. @12 & 21. One method of finding good doco’s is bit torrent downloads.

    You will have to consult your own evolved and considered (:-)) morals about whether you are comfortable about making use of these sources that are more or less illicit depending on which country you live.

    But, you can find some good stuff there. One of my own favourite shows is BBC Horizon documentaries. Unfortunately these seem to have gone massively downhill of late, but at their best would choose a topical scientific issue, usually with some controversial aspects and then interview as many of the involved scientists as possible.

    Using BBC Horizon as an example, you can download almost every single episode made, since the 70s. In fact there is a torrent where you can download 139 horizon episodes in one hit. This is around 78GB.
    Quality is reasonable, its all captured off tv, video, and dvd. The more recent program have the best quality, but I don’t think I have struck one that is unwatchable.

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  29. Beyond the issue of fear of science through lack of understanding, I think that there are some reasonable grounds to fear science based on the historical application of science.

    Some examples of historical problems that people could and do attribute to science follow:

    * Game theoretical underpinnings for past wars. Cold and warm.
    * Drug testing failures. Thalidomide etc…
    * Environmental degradation caused by industrial pollution.
    * Technological development of weapons of war and anatomically/psychologically aware torture techniques.
    * Simplistic economic models of rational economic agents used as justification for self enriching fiscal and social policies (perhaps a bit controversial this one :-))

    Of course, what is missing from this picture is any concept of balance and of all the good things that science has given us. I won’t provide a list here, but if you are to consider the brutal and short lives that humans had in the past, competing tooth and claw for the limited resources against each other and other species (the evolutionary crucible), then you shouldn’t need the benefits of science spelt out.

    In my opinion, the key challenge is to calculate properly and rationally the risks and rewards of various research findings and possible technological applications of those findings. I do however, see a tension
    with the economic structures of our societies here. There are financial rewards to gain from the application of science, and these rewards can sometimes blind individuals to the risks involved with some science and technology. I think however, that the majority of people are predisposed to acting ethically, and this whole issue is of a similar nature (if not the same issue) as any political or legal crime and punishment issue and thus should fall into the political and legal sphere of influence. Of course, science is also in a unique place to inform these political and legal debates also. I liked how Dan Dennet stated this in the science network interview of him, and would recommend that interview to anybody struggling with the philosophical implications of any of this stuff (Yes James, I am talking about you). The link is: http://thesciencenetwork.org/programs/the-science-studio/daniel-dennet

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  30. James said…”Not that it matters Cedric but back in the day I did pull Bs in Anthropology 101 and 102″

    Perhaps you should have stayed awake in class?
    Just a thought.

    James said…”I was first in my class in electronics”
    So?

    James said…”Never mind telecommunications in general – the specific field that I’m in.”

    Telecommunications? Wha..?
    Are you next going to regale us with your accredited plumbers licence and TV repair certificate?

    Previously Cedric said…”That doesn’t stop them from having strong, totally uninformed and worthless opinions about science though.”

    James replies…”Why is this Cedric?”

    Because most people don’t study the sciences.
    Simple really.

    James said…”You see Cedric, the average Joe just throws his hands up.”

    Just like you do.
    “Oh it’s all too hard.”
    “I don’t understand.”

    Until you can be bothered to learn, you will continue to wallow in ignorance.
    You remain a back-seat driver. A blind back-seat driver.
    In a parked car.
    You opinion on science issues is a joke.

    Read a science book. Get an education.
    Why are you so fearful of this?

    Like

  31. While watching the Dan Dennett interview i mentioned @29 I had another thought that might be relevant to this topic. That is related to the understanding of science and perhaps fear of science coming from lack of understanding.

    Rough underformed thoughts alert

    The thought was, that often peoples approach to issues of understanding is taken at the level of an individual (Perhaps that’s a western cultural bias) . That is the level of understanding that an individual has of science/technology. Perhaps this is wrong level of granularity to approach the question, and that no individual can encapsulate science or technology and thus no individual ever truly “understands” science.

    Another way to look at this is the limitations of “reason” when looked at on the level of an individual. There seem to be a lot of questions being raised in different fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology about really how rational or conscious an individual person is. Evidence that much of our decision making occurs physically in the brain before we are conscious of a decision points in this direction.

    Perhaps these concepts of reason, rationality and perhaps science as well, only truly manifest or make sense at the level of groups of people. Similar in a sense to modern multi level evolutionary theories. We might be able to look and admire the results that science has given our species, and understand some parts of the underpinnings of these, but because of our limitations and because success in science has come though specialisation, we lack the capability for a true individual understanding of science. Perhaps the individual has no great capacity for either reason or rationality, but groups of individuals can achieve this.

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  32. Perhaps you should have stayed awake in class? Just a thought.

    I did, that’s why I pulled Bs…

    you next going to regale us with your accredited plumbers licence and TV repair certificate?

    I don’t know what you have against TV repair guys. And I’m not regaling you with anything – just stating the facts.

    il you can be bothered to learn, you will continue to wallow in ignorance.You remain a back-seat driver. A blind back-seat driver.

    You completley ignored the point, so I will repeat it:

    http://www.news-medical.net/?id=22280

    tradicting claims of disease prevention, an analysis of previous studies indicates that the antioxidant supplements beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase the risk of death, according to a meta-analysis and review article in the February 28 issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.

    “Our findings contradict the findings of observational studies, claiming that antioxidants improve health. Considering that 10 percent to 20 percent of the adult population (80-160 million people) in North America and Europe may consume the assessed supplements, the public health consequences may be substantial. We are exposed to intense marketing with a contrary statement, which is also reflected by the high number of publications per included randomized trial found in the present review.”

    SO CEDRIC WHEN THE “EXPETS” CONTRADICT EACH OTHER IN A SPECIFIC FIELD WHAT IS THE LAYMAN TO DO? SPEND THE NEXT 20 YEARS STUDYING THAT SPECIFIC FIELD? HOW MANY FIELDS MUST HE STUDY? DO YOU WONDER WHY PEOPLE DON’T WORSHIP AT YOUR ALTER?

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  33. James said…”I did, that’s why I pulled Bs…”

    While remaining ignorant about science.
    Congratulations.

    James said…”I don’t know what you have against TV repair guys.”

    I have nothing against them.
    Especially when I need a TV repaired.
    However, when I need science I go to a scientist.

    James said…”You completley ignored the point”
    Huh? What point?

    James said…” SPEND THE NEXT 20 YEARS STUDYING THAT SPECIFIC FIELD?”

    Um no.
    If your ignorant of a subject, then don’t waste your breath offering an opinion.
    You just expose your ignorance.
    If you don’t know anything about TV repair, then…stop flapping your gums about repairing TVs.
    Simple.
    Is this hard for you to understand?

    Like

  34. You avoided the question again Cedric, so let’s try one more time:

    WHEN THE “EXPETS” CONTRADICT EACH OTHER IN A SPECIFIC FIELD WHAT IS THE LAYMAN TO DO? SPEND THE NEXT 20 YEARS STUDYING THAT SPECIFIC FIELD? HOW MANY FIELDS MUST HE STUDY?

    Like

  35. James said: Yes we always can blame others Alison. It was the Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber (personal friend of Einstein) who first weaponized Mustard Gas for the greater good of Germany. I guess scientist can’t “just say no.”

    James, we have already agreed – some considerable time ago – that there are ‘bad’ scientists. Just as there are ‘bad’ politicians, dentists, churchmen, bus drivers, you name it.

    And you still haven’t addressed the point that most (all?) technology is a double-edged sword: without Rutherford’s discoveries we would have neither the ‘bomb’ nor radiotherapy for cancer treatment.

    Like

  36. “When the experts contradict each other”…

    Well, James, that’s the nature of the beast. Science is continually refining its understanding of how the world operates as new data & new technologies become available.

    On the vitamin thing: yes, some years ago people (Linus Pauling among them) did see high doses of vitamin C as the panacea for almost every ill. Because there were a few preliminary studies that seemed to suggest this. This was picked up by every vitamin purveyor in the book to use as the basis for a hard sell to consumers. (Still goes on, often in complete ignorance – or completely ignoring: not the same thing – of the current state of play.) Now we’ve got a lot more information available, both longitudinal studies on a population basis & individual research programs, & we can say that megadoses aren’t such a good idea after all. And at the scientific level there really isn’t a lot of argument about that. The ‘contradictions’ are at the level of selling the vitamins, which isn’t the same thing at all.

    And that information – contrary to what you’d like to think – is indeed freely available to anyone who’s interested: google ‘cochrane reviews’.

    Like

  37. Well, James, that’s the nature of the beast. Science is continually refining its understanding of how the world operates as new data & new technologies become available.

    And that’s the problem Alison. People see this and they don’t know what or who to trust. Do you believe what they told you yesterday or today? What will they tell you tomorrow? Like I said – things related to our health do filter down to popular culture. And people are seeing conflicting claims – all backed up by scientific “studies.” This is one of the reason people take the claims of science with a grain of salt. As they should.

    The ‘contradictions’ are at the level of selling the vitamins, which isn’t the same thing at all.

    No it isn’t, you just said that early studies did suggest that high doses were good. Sure vitamin companies will run with this (and quote these studies ad nauseam) but the studies gave them the ammo. Now studies are tell us to take high doses of vitamin D – what will they say tomorrow?

    And that information – contrary to what you’d like to think – is indeed freely available to anyone who’s interested: google ‘cochrane reviews’.

    That is just silly Alison. If you have two conflicting studies by “experts” the layman is not going to figure it out, period.

    Here is a great first line from the article in the link below: “If contradicting research has you wondering if coffee is healthy or harmful, the answer is simple: it depends.”

    No duh…

    http://www.health.am/ab/more/the-final-verdict-on-coffee/

    Like

  38. James, we have already agreed – some considerable time ago – that there are ‘bad’ scientists. Just as there are ‘bad’ politicians, dentists, churchmen, bus drivers, you name it.

    Except this time “bad” scientist gave mankind the ability to destroy itself. How long before we pull that “final” trigger pulled Alison? Especially with all the rouge nations coming on line with the bomb? I really don’t think you guys understand what you have unleashed on mankind…

    And you still haven’t addressed the point that most (all?) technology is a double-edged sword: without Rutherford’s discoveries we would have neither the ‘bomb’ nor radiotherapy for cancer treatment.

    I would trade that all to lose the A-bomb…

    BTW – Alison, do you think it would be ethical to create a human/animal hybrid?

    Like

  39. ON topic:

    Not sure if this has been mentioned here before, but it seems that NAS USA may be doing something vaguely akin to the NZ SCM, but for Hollywood movies: http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/

    Perhaps we ought to say “hi” to Peter Jackson and Co…?!

    Personally, I suspect education is a deeper issue in the long term, but its interesting all the same. Their symposium sounds fun. Wrong part of the world, though. And too late! Oh, well…

    Like

  40. @ Heraclides – November 23, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    I find its worth doing a search on google video soon after a doco is braodcast on BBC. Keen people will often record and upload them (although sometimes that get deleted after a few days). The Genius of Charles Darwin was like this but I notice that they are back up again.
    The Science Network has some good talks – including the three Beyond Belief conferences.
    It’s worth looking through the Princeton Universuty Lectures and Special Events. Then there’s the Research Channel, TED and MIT World videos.

    There’s also plenty of audio podcasts for download (great for listening on an mp3 player while exercising.

    I know the bandwidth problem. I can’t just watch streaming video on my PC so always download the whole file and watch later on my TV.

    Like

  41. 24: I am being blunt, but if you don’t like this, stop behaving like it. If you choose continue behaving like that, then suck up and accept what you get and don’t bleat about it. Seeing you have chosen to continue like this, I can’t see how you’re in a position to complain to me about it.

    The “being told what to think” line is boring & I’ve addressed it before. Your religion tells you want to think. The media does sometimes (often), too. But, you only blame science… Science presents evidence and arguments based on evidence, not assertions by fiat. You’re mischaracterising, again: one of the things I said you keep doing, you’ve done again… you’re doing my justifying for me 😉

    In case you haven’t noticed, some of us were trying to discuss an issue. I felt your only aim was to disrupt, so I objected. I personally would like to, for one on this blog, discuss an issue without you trying to “take over” everything.

    26: Its quite a different thing to understand research science as opposed to use the products of research science as engineers do. Its fairly common for people who’ve never done more than undergrad level to not fully understand the difference. Anecdotally, for some reason, engineers seem particularly prone to saying that they understand research science when its clear from their own words that they don’t. Perhaps because its all “rote” to them? I don’t know.

    27: Blame scientists and conveniently leave the media out? In media presentations, they appear in conflict because the media insists on presenting each step in on-going science as a “done deal” (rather than an investigation that has yet to reach a consensus) or simplifying the story so that they appear in conflict with previous work (rather than being different aspects of a larger story or looking at an issue from another angle or using different methology, etc). But you would rather blame scientists than those presenting the science…

    Ditto for reading the literature. You’re reading it like a media report, not as a scientist would.

    Like

  42. “BTW – Alison, do you think it would be ethical to create a human/animal hybrid?”

    That sounds suspiciously like the old ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ question – you’re damned either way you answer it.

    But I’ll take you seriously for the moment.

    Hybridomas – individual hybrid cells – have proved enormously useful in working out how cells function & in the study of cancer, for example.

    Hybrids at the level of the individual organism? a) we don’t have the ability to do this, nor are we likely to achieve that in the near future. b) yes, I would consider it unethical, for a whole swag of reasons.

    (sits back & waits for the predictable response. Pass the popcorn, Cedric.)

    Like

  43. Should add to my last sentence, that the way you read that illustrates that you don’t understand research science. A research scientist would first look for the points of difference and try understand why they came up with different findings. “That” they came up with different findings in and of itself isn’t terribly interesting or useful without the context.

    Like

  44. 42: Yeah, continuing to troll, in which case its rich of him to complain to me about how I see him.

    Like

  45. 28: Thanks. I have mixed feelings about bit torrents. Its complicated so I won’t go into it here: a bit of both ways.

    29: Like any human endeavours there will be a few screw-ups, so the balance matters, as does the intention.

    31: The pre-cognition stuff is interesting, eh? In a related way, people can solve quite complex problems when asleep. (I do: in fact its often the basis of how I work!) I’m not so sure about the “working as a group” thing. It does help to have your own ideas or behaviour reflected, as it can jolt you out of lines of thinking or behaviour, but good people seem to be able to do this for themselves with a little practice. Its one of the reasons that I think good science requires good introspection. (If James would think back a bit, there’s a deeper message here for him…)

    Like

  46. 37: In both examples, you’re leaving out the “messenger”… 😉

    38: Boring and so obviously misleading and you’re still playing the contradictory crap and you do know it. Yawn.

    40: Thanks, I’ll try look these up later.

    Like

  47. James said…”And that’s the problem Alison.”

    No, it’s the solution.
    Science thrives on challanging the status-quo.
    Bun fights between scientists are good. Not bad.
    That’s why science has…progressed.
    It’s not about preserving tradition.
    Or being nice and quiet in front of your elders.
    Leave that for the seminary.

    As Ken wrote here about the Krauss video….
    “The scientific ethos of honesty, full disclosure and anti-authoritarianism.”
    If you’re going to be anti-authoritarian, then the fur will fly.

    James said…”People see this and they don’t know what or who to trust. Do you believe what they told you yesterday or today?”

    Once again, Krauss talks about this in the video.
    As Ken said…”He points out that science is not understood as a vital and important part of our culture.”

    James continues…”What will they tell you tomorrow? Like I said – things related to our health do filter down to popular culture.”

    Popular culture.
    (wince)

    “And people are seeing conflicting claims – all backed up by scientific “studies.” This is one of the reason people take the claims of science with a grain of salt.”

    People don’t read the scientific studies.
    They can’t.
    It’s usually specialized language and (to a non-scientist) probably makes for boring reading.
    Most people also don’t bother to read popular science articles.
    Uninformed journalists will interview a scientist, search for a way to spin it to make it interesting (probably mutilating the study done in the process) and then pass it on to a public that has no science
    education to critically assess the pop article in question.

    Watch the video, James.
    It would help make this discussion more productive.

    (Nukes a fresh bag of popcorn)
    (Passes the bowl to Alison.)
    🙂

    Like

  48. Oi! I want some too. *pouts* And don’t forget the host 😉

    JK…

    Like

  49. Hybrids at the level of the individual organism? a) we don’t have the ability to do this, nor are we likely to achieve that in the near future. b) yes, I would consider it unethical, for a whole swag of reasons.

    Yes Alison, and there will be scientists who disagree. And if they have the funding, that is where we will go – especially if it is for the “greater good.” THe fact is, there are no universal ethics that scientist follow. And that is troubling especially with the knowledge they are gaining.

    (sits back & waits for the predictable response. Pass the popcorn, Cedric.)

    And here I thought you were more gracious than the run of the mill atheists on this blog. Let down again…

    Like

  50. People don’t read the scientific studies.
    They can’t.
    It’s usually specialized language and (to a non-scientist) probably makes for boring reading.
    Most people also don’t bother to read popular science articles.
    Uninformed journalists will interview a scientist, search for a way to spin it to make it interesting (probably mutilating the study done in the process) and then pass it on to a public that has no science education to critically assess the pop article in question.

    That is true Cedric,but the fact remains that the masses do get conflicting information because there are conflicting studies.

    And Heraclides said above:

    Returning to my earlier point, and the topic at hand, I suspect much of the “fear” the public have of science, isn’t a fear of science itself, but a lack of being able to understand or judge for themselves the bewildering number of new results that come in every week. I have some empathy for that. It can be confusing for a scientist even, especially for topics away from your expertise.

    If these studies are confusing for scientists who are not in a specific field then what is the layman to do? The average man could never gain the expertise to judge between conflicting scientific studies, in these various disciplines.

    Like

  51. 49: Again you show that you don’t understand how research science works, yet presume to tell others how it does. *Sigh* Seeing you very obviously don’t understand how research science works, stop saying how it does, eh? (Besides, your last lines read like a troll line again…)

    50: Before you were objecting to science itself, now you’re objecting to other things. I guess the only constant is that you object to everything! :-/

    More seriously, this isn’t what I was referring to.

    Firstly, let me emphasise a part of what I wrote: “for topics away from your expertise”. (I should really have not written ‘especially’: probably an editing error.) Of course scientists away from their expertise have less expertise in the topic. Obvious, isn’t it?

    Secondly, when I wrote “new results”, I was referring to those presented in the media, not in the science literature: after all that’s where non-scientists see the new stuff and I was writing about everyone, not just scientists.

    Its confusing given what content is presented in the media. I’m referring to a media presentation issue, not the results per se. New results can be made clear in the media, but often aren’t. Some docos do quite well. In my experience, few TV news articles do, esp. the “splashier” USA-styled ones.

    What I wrote had nothing to do with “gain[ing] the expertise to judge between conflicting scientific studies”, it had to do with how things are presented in the media.

    In practice, most educated people, not just scientists, can pretty much instantly spot the sillier things or at least sense there is something more than what’s being presented. The pity of the thing is on one hand things could be presented much better than they often are, and on the other that there is a large enough group of people who fall for things they shouldn’t (who must be a huge bonus for the media barons, I have to say).

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  52. In practice, most educated people, not just scientists, can pretty much instantly spot the sillier things or at least sense there is something more than what’s being presented.

    Heraclides, that simply is not true – a prime example are the studies on vitamins that Alison and I discussed. These conflicting studies are difficult for the layman to understand. Never mind the question about who we are to believe. And will they change their mind next week?

    Like

  53. Well, I can’t see how the latest vitamin studies – as presented here, anyway; can’t speak for the US media – could be difficult to understand when the presentation is done in a responsible way. Which happened in the Herald, where essentially the reporter said that new, large-scale studies indicated that mega-doses of vitamins are not necessarily good for you & may well do some harm. It was made clear that this superceded previous work in the area. People who have sufficient science education to know how science works wouldn’t see a false controversy there, where none exists; they’d recognise that scientific understandings change as new data become available. (I’m not the only one here to have identified this to you as part of the nature of science.) You could argue that the education system has failed to give people that understanding – & I could well agree with you on that – but that’s a little off-topic here.

    However, the fact that there seems to be a general agreement among the relevant scientists (experts in that particular field of science) about the pros & cons of megadoses of vitamins hasn’t stopped the pill purveyors from pushing their products as pervasively as possible (sorry, guys, I couldn’t help myself!). Nor does it stop various rags from printing stories along the lines of ‘I cured my cancer with megadoses of vitamin C’ (or whichever one is flavour du jour). Which comes back to the concept that at least some mistrust of science is generated, or at least supported, by a lack of good, critical, investigative journalism.

    Like

  54. You are mixing media reports and research again, writing “studies” (i.e. research results), not media reports (as I was writing about). The upshot is that you’re replying to something I didn’t write, making my quote about research, when I wrote about media reports. After all, the portion of the post your took the quote from was making that very point… 😉

    Of course the original science is complex: if it were simple there would be no need to train to do research science. But the media reports, what I was writing about, often confuse for a range of reasons, as I mentioned earlier. As I wrote earlier, it is possible to report things with clarity. To my mind, a key element to having an issue reported accurately and clearly is that the person doing the reporting must genuinely understand the issue they are reporting. Its perhaps unrealistic to ask someone who doesn’t understand (the) science to report it accurately, just as most non-financial people couldn’t accurately report, say, complex financial stories. But in practice there are few specialist reporters. Etc., etc., as per my previous posts.

    Then there is the issue that some portions of the media probably just don’t care: see my previous posts.

    About the vitamin studies, I mentioned earlier that the media rarely provide the context for the results, what’s different about the latest study, etc. If these things were presented, it’d be a lot less confusing. That’s not about the research studies themselves: that’s about the media reporting of the studies.

    Researchers don’t “change their mind next week” in the way you imply. That may be the impression you get from the media, but its not the science position. Many, if not most, of these studies that seem to conflict in media reports appear that way because no mention is made of differences between the studies, as I tried to point out earlier. There are rare cases of complete reversal (i.e. changing views in the way you refer to), but that’s rare not “next week” as in “all the time”. Its made messier by media reporting on areas of science that are not yet resolved as if each new study was definitively the last word. But, again, that is a media presentation thing. I could go on but I’m having to repeat myself too much.

    (There is an argument for university, etc., press releases to be more useful, but that’s also a media issue, just one based at the originating institutions.)

    Like

  55. Post 54 crossed over post 53 by the way.

    Like

  56. Pingback: “Scientism” in the eyes of the beholder « Open Parachute

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