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A taxonomy of delusion

May 27th, 2009

At this point in the debate over climate change, I doubt that any standard process of argument (reference to scientific research, analysis of data, refutation on Internet-derived talking points and so on) is likely to shift the views of those who accept some version of the anti-science position on this topic. Certainly, I don’t intend to try any further.

But, it seems useful for a number of reasons to try to understand why people take and hold such positions. In some cases, it may be that, where rational debate on the scientific merits has failed, some other mode of argument or persuasion might work. More generally, in any political process, it’s useful to understand the opposition.

Here’s a first attempt at a taxonomy, which I started in this Tim Lambert thread

. Looking at those who have either propounded or accepted anti-science views on this topic, nearly all appear to fit into one or more of the following categories

* Tribalists
* Ideologists
* Hacks
* Irresponsible contrarian
* Emeritus disease

Update John Mashey has a related taxonomy here

Further update The discussion has convinced me that I need to add a further category, that of irresponsible contrarian. I’d previously applied this to Richard Lindzen, see below, so it was a mistake not to have this category.

Tribalists are probably the biggest group, with two main subcategories.

First, there’s a group of people who really dislike environmentalists and can’t bear the thought that they could be right about something as important as climate change. This group is strongly represented among (though still a minority of) engineers and mining geologists, groups that appear to make up most of the rank-and-file membership of the Lavoisier Group, for example.

Second, there are rightwingers in the US and other countries (including Australia) where the political right derives most of its thinking from the US. The basic motivation is the same, except the animus is directed towards liberals (in the US sense) and leftists in general, rather than environmentalists specifically. Members of this group are notable for an obsessive focus on Al Gore: some seem to think that an An Inconvenient Truth and not, say, the thousands of pages of IPCC reports, is the primary document in the case for action on climate change.

There’s nothing much that can be done about the political right, which is wrapped in impenetrable layers of delusion, but there’s a lot that can be done (and is being done, to some extent) to bridge cultural gaps between environmentalism and professions like engineering and geology. Younger members of these professions tend to be lot more concerned about sustainability, while the spread of suits, haircuts and a generally pragmatic approach among environmentalists has done its bit also.

Ideologists overlap significantly with tribal rightwingers, but are potentially more amenable to argument. These are people with a libertarian, or more generally pro-market outlook, who have convince themselves that doing something serious about climate change involves a major step towards socialism (a view shared by a few hopeful socialists). Given this conviction, wishful thinking inclines members of this group towards scientific delusionism. For most of these people, the fears they have are groundless. The standard measures proposed to deal with climate change, emissions trading and carbon taxes, are minimally interventionist, both in scale (maybe $10 billion a year for Australia to start with, and not much more even in the long run) and form (these are market-based methods of correcting externalities).

There are, I guess, a handful of extreme libertarians whose ideological position depends on the non-existence of global public goods requiring global policy solutions. To this group, I can only say that if your political views are inconsistent with the existence of the atmosphere, perhaps you should revise those views rather than trying to adjust reality to fit them.

The third group, not large in number, but important as opinion leaders, are hacks, who argue against science for a living. This group can easily be recognised by their past track record. Since there aren’t many people prepared to do this kind of thing, the same individuals and institutions have pushed the corporate line on tobacco and passive smoking, the ozone layer, DDT and climate change, among many others. In Australia, the IPA has played the leading role in this respect, running hard on passive smoking before shifting to climate delusionism.

The individual who most exemplifies this group globally is Steve Milloy, an all-purpose compendium of hackery, who spent years presenting himself as a scourge of “junk science” while secretly on the payroll of tobacco and oil companies. He’s now the official Science expert for Fox News, which says it all I guess. People who have paid little attention to th issue and have accepted Internet factoids as trustworthy can often by persuaded by pointing out their origin with people like Milloy. But at this point the majority of delusionists have well-established mental defences for their own delusions; many have convinced themselves that it’s the real scientists who are spouting lies for money and that corporate funding for the likes of Milloy is just self-defence.

The best hope of dealing with this group has been making life hard for their paymasters. After being outed as the money pump for a string of front groups, Exxon has largely given up paying. For anyone old enough to have been in the game before the mid-1990s, it’s always useful to check the Tobacco Archives, which document every corrupt payment made by the tobacco industry to its legion of hired guns.

Fourth, there are irresponsible contrarians, exemplified by Richard Lindzen. The typical contrarian is skilled enough in argument to maintain a weak position, and successful enough in their own field (often tangentially relevant to the issue at hand) to have an inflated view of their own intelligence. And they prefer confuting the conventional wisdom (to their own satisfaction) to giving serious consideration to the views of experts on subjects where there own knowledge is limited. The type is most clearly illustrated by a 2001 Newsweek interview of Lindzen that I’ve quoted before

Lindzen clearly relishes the role of naysayer. He’ll even expound on how weakly lung cancer is linked to cigarette smoking. He speaks in full, impeccably logical paragraphs, and he punctuates his measured cadences with thoughtful drags on a cigarette.

Anyone who could draw this conclusion in the light of the evidence, and act on it as Lindzen has done, is clearly useless as a source of advice on any issue involving the analysis of statistical evidence. But, I imagine, he could hold up his side of this argument just as well as he does on climate change.

Finally, and most unfortunately, there is Emeritus disease, a problem that is found in every area of academic controversy. The typical sufferer is an older male, with the archetypal case being the holder of an emeritus position. Unfortunately, aging tends to go along with both a hardening of intellectual arteries and an unwillingness or inability to keep abreast of recent developments in the field in question, with the effect of dogmatic attachment to views formed long ago. Having taken a view of an issue on the basis of very limited consideration, they remain dogmatically attached to it until the end of their days.
(Looking at the description, I’m obviously a high-risk candidate for going emeritus myself. That’s one reason I try to engage in discussion with people holding a range of views from which I might learn something, most recently economists of the Austrian school).

Unfortunately, Emeritus disease has a bad prognosis. As Max Planck observed long ago

a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

I’ll lay down a few rules for discussion on this post. I’m not interest in rehashing delusionist talking points (GW stopped in 1998, Al Gore is fat and so on) and comments containing such points will in general be deleted. On the other hand, I’d be interested in anyone claiming to have reached a sceptical position who doesn’t fit into one or other of the categories I’ve mentioned (to be credible, you may have to forgo anonymity). And, obviously, I’m interested in refinements of the classification, better targeted counterarguments and so on.

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  1. John Mashey
    June 8th, 2009 at 14:02 | #1

    @Paul Williams
    There’s nothing of Holy Trinity about that, it’s simply what:

    - the IPCC says in AR4
    - essentially all the major scientific societies say
    - real climate scientists say when you talk to them

    It’s just like the science relating disease to smoking: it’s what the Surgeon General’s committee wrote in 1964, what the health-related soceities and agencies say, and what individual researchers say.

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, the scientific basis for AGW is at least as strong as that for smoking:disease.

  2. John Mashey
    June 8th, 2009 at 14:58 | #2

    @Alice
    Alice:

    Assuming you’re in Oz, he’s yours, not mine :-)

    I wouldn’t suggest PSYCH-4, as I have no evidence one way or another. I’m unfamiliar with the “Family First” party, so maybe someone with more local knowledge can comment.

    Of course, attendance at a Heartland conference by a politician would most likely hint at ideology in JQ’s taxonomy. In mine, it would likely be some combination of {IDEOL-1, POL-1, and maybe PSYCH-1}.

  3. Alphonse
    June 9th, 2009 at 16:10 | #3

    I think you can put Fielding down as Tribalist/Pol-2 (“if evolutionists and people who use rude words believe in anthropogenic global warming …”)

  4. Gaz
    June 9th, 2009 at 17:10 | #4

    Paul Williams :John Quiggin, I’m not sure if any of your categories allows for the interested lay person who, while not able to follow all the technical and statistical arguments, nevertheless finds the overall “package” of AGW unconvincing.
    As an example of what I mean, our South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, has said that the science is settled, AGW is inevitable. However he used that position to justify measures such as promoting wind generators on office buildings. If he was serious, and believed AGW was inevitable, given SA’s non-impact on global CO2 emissions, he should (in my opinion), have been preparing the State to deal with the coming crisis.

    This is an example of an argument that crops up from time to time and might suggest a sub-category in the taxonomy of denial (or entrenched scepticism): those who don’t believe AGW is real because the actions or inactions of others suggests they don’t believe it either.

    The astounding thing is that it usually revolves around the actions/inactions of politicans, and is based on the apparent assumption that if politicians believe something they will act on that belief. It seems to leave no room for political reality, let alone run-of-the-mill insincerity, apathy, venality etc.

    While I’ve heard the chain of logic, for want of a better term, several times before, it’s never been clear whether it’s the real basis for the sceptical position, ie people really do take their cues from authority figures, or just a rationalisation for denial resulting from some other deeper cause.

  5. Gaz
    June 9th, 2009 at 17:14 | #5

    Just repeating this in the hope the blockqqquote will work better.

    Paul Williams :John Quiggin, I’m not sure if any of your categories allows for the interested lay person who, while not able to follow all the technical and statistical arguments, nevertheless finds the overall “package” of AGW unconvincing.
    As an example of what I mean, our South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, has said that the science is settled, AGW is inevitable. However he used that position to justify measures such as promoting wind generators on office buildings. If he was serious, and believed AGW was inevitable, given SA’s non-impact on global CO2 emissions, he should (in my opinion), have been preparing the State to deal with the coming crisis. At a minimum, some type of coastal protection for important areas likely to be inundated by rising seas.

    This is an example of an argument that crops up from time to time and might suggest a sub-category in the taxonomy of denial (or entrenched scepticism): those who don’t believe AGW is real because the actions or inactions of others suggests they don’t believe it either.

    The astounding thing is that it usually revolves around the actions/inactions of politicans, and is based on the apparent assumption that if politicians believe something they will act on that belief. It seems to leave no room for political reality, let alone run-of-the-mill insincerity, apathy, venality etc.

    While I’ve heard the chain of logic, for want of a better term, several times before, it’s never been clear whether it’s the real basis for the sceptical position, ie people really do take their cues from authority figures, or just a rationalisation for denial resulting from some other deeper cause.

  6. nanks
    June 9th, 2009 at 17:58 | #6

    The mechanisms underlying the attribution of leadership were one of my research interests. I define a ‘leader’ as that person whose behaviour maximally predicts the behaviour of the group.
    This definition fits quite a bit of theory and observation (eg social identity theory) whilst avoiding all the subjectivity and circularity of claims to charisma that seem to still be in the leadership literature. Anyway it appears that people really do take cues from ‘leaders’.

  7. John Mashey
    June 10th, 2009 at 01:43 | #7

    @Gaz
    I think that Paul’s actually a specific (common) AGW-related argument, of the form:

    “What I (or my town, or my state, or my country) do is too small to matter, so why do anything?”

    Last year, I attended a good conference on preparing for sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily for local government folks, some of whom gave talks about what they were doing.

    A common theme was “Mitigation is global, adaptation is local”:
    GHGs had global effects [and everyone had to work on that], whereas adaptation was local. Of course, those facing serious adaptation challenges are rather more motivated to do mitigation efforts to lead by example, hoping to avoid the need to do some of the most expensive mitigation.

    Hence, there tended to be talks in which towns explained:
    a) Mitigation: how they were lowering carbon footprint
    b) Adaptation: elimination of building too near sea level (unless floating).

    There is obviously a strong geographic component. People in SF Bay area worry about sea level rise, people in Colorado (5,000ft+) may dismiss it as a concern.

  8. Jonathan Baxter
    June 10th, 2009 at 04:23 | #8

    John Mashey :
    As I’ve noted elsewhere, the scientific basis for AGW is at least as strong as that for smoking:disease.

    The problem with that claim is that “smoking:disease” is well-defined, whereas — depending who you listen to — “AGW” means anything from “100M-sea-level-and-10C-temperature rise within 90 years” to “Human-generated CO2 is causing the planet to warm”.

    The scientific basis for the latter statement is as strong as “smoking:disease” (in fact, probably stronger since we have the physical mechanism), but that’s about all.

  9. jquiggin
    June 10th, 2009 at 05:40 | #9

    Again, and since this might help us gain some insight into scepticism, why is there a problem with “depending you who listen to”. The IPCC summarises mainstream science, and its findings have been endorsed by every major scientific organisation in the world. That’s not to say that IPCC 2007 is right in every detail, just that the interpretation of AGW as defined by the IPCC is the obvious one to discuss.

    This is, I think, a critical problem with “sceptics” as noted above. The superficially plausible claims of anti-AGW bloggers or the dubious statements/actions of anti-AGW politicians are treated as having substantial evidentiary weight while the mountain of research supporting the mainstream view is ignored. And this is done by people who, in most cases, haven’t even read the IPCC summary of that research.

  10. John Mashey
    June 10th, 2009 at 06:32 | #10

    BTW: I just finished Ian Enting’s nice book “Twisted – The distorted mathematics of greenhouse denial” (2007). Sections 2,4, 2.5, and parts of others are germane to this thread.

    It isn’t the easiest thing to buy, but it did actually ship from Australia to California, so that’s an existence proof.

    Here is a list of chapters, and you can buy it here.

  11. Jonathan Baxter
    June 10th, 2009 at 23:56 | #11

    @jquiggin

    the interpretation of AGW as defined by the IPCC is the obvious one to discuss.

    Except that it is not the one most often discussed in public. What gets the most attention is headline-grabbing alarmist claims.

    But putting that aside, there are fundamental differences between “AGW as defined by the IPCC” and the smoking:disease link that highlight why skepticism about the former is far more prevalent than the latter.

    1) Despite literally decades of effort, the uncertainty in climate sensitivity has not narrowed appreciably. It is still 1.5C-4.5C. Contrast that with smoking: there is a huge body of empirical evidence supporting the link between smoking and all kinds of diseases.

    2) The same climate models that are unable to narrow down climate sensitivity are used to project future temperature increases. If they can’t agree on climate sensitivity what confidence should we place in their predictions? Again, for smoking the link is clear, well-documented, and well-tested. If you smoke, we can predict very accurately how much more likely it is that you will die young as a result. Try asking for a smoker vs. non-smoker term life-insurance quote. You can use the difference to reverse-engineer the difference in life-expectancy. (OT, this exercise can be fun even if you are not a smoker. I already have term life insurance, but I get a requote every few years so I can work out how much my life expectancy has decreased. You’d expect one year for each additional year lived, but it is usually less than that due to medical advances).

    3) The smoking:disease question did not spawn a multi-billion dollar industry whose very existence depends on promoting alarm.

    4) One of the iconic claims of the IPCC – that temperatures in the latter half of the 20th century exceeded anything for at least the last millennium – does not stand up to close scrutiny. (the claim may be true but the methods used to establish it do not achieve their goal). Yet the IPCC continues to back that claim. I know of no similar case in the smoking:disease debate where medical researchers stood behind false claims for so long.

    I could go on, but in short, the IPCC’s position on AGW is based primarily on modeling of dubious quality (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense: it is probably the best modeling we can hope for but it is still very limited in its predictive ability.) And as a field, climate science tends to overstate the effectiveness of their models, rather than focusing on the flaws. The smoking:disease link is based on hundreds (thousands?) of empirical studies.

  12. Jonathan Baxter
    June 11th, 2009 at 00:30 | #12

    John Mashey :
    BTW: I just finished Ian Enting’s nice book “Twisted – The distorted mathematics of greenhouse denial” (2007). Sections 2,4, 2.5, and parts of others are germane to this thread.

    I checked out the chapter headings you linked to (I am not going to order it – why can’t people make these things available as ebooks?). He seems to mostly attack the more extreme skeptical positions. But two can play that game: should we characterize climate science by the more extreme alarmist positions?

    Chapter 7 is more germane to this thread:

    7 The risks
    Is the IPCC underestimating the risks ahead?

    7.1 Feedbacks The issues where there is real scientific
    debate.

    7.2 Complexity and climate Some aspects of climate
    change are hard. Some are easy enough that as early
    as 1896, Arrhenius could predict a 5 degree Celsius
    warming from doubling CO2.

    7.3 Feedbacks in action Some of the data behind
    analysis of feedbacks, including the correlations
    between temperature and greenhouse gases in the
    Vostok ice core. Why criticism of Al Gore’s use of these
    data misses their true significance.

    7.4 What is alarmist? The distortions do not all come
    from one side – an attempt to ‘hose down’ some of the
    wilder claims about climate change.

    He likes to quote Richard Feynmann: “. . . reality must take
    precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be
    fooled”. I couldn’t agree more. Were he alive today, I doubt Richard Feynmann would have been much of a fan of modern climate science.

  13. Freelander
    June 11th, 2009 at 04:28 | #13

    It is a mistake to debate climate change deniers just as it is a mistake to debate flat earthers for purposes other than sport. You cannot win an argument with a fool (if winning is defined as convincing them that they are wrong). The best and most effective strategy is simply to laugh at them. Climate deniers usually are both intelligent enough and have access to sufficient education to be able to see that they have been wrong. Clearly, their problem lies somewhere else. They have some ideological or emotional problem which is not addressable by simple argumentation. Laughter is the best medicine.

  14. jquiggin
    June 11th, 2009 at 07:55 | #14

    “The smoking:disease question did not spawn a multi-billion dollar industry whose very existence depends on promoting alarm.”

    Actually, the parallel is exact. As with global warming, the science on smoking threatened large and powerful economic corporations and other vested interests. And as with global warming, those interests recruited publicists, ideologists and corruptible scientists to push their views. Finally, and I speak from personal experience here, anyone who advocates mainstream science on smoking is likely to be attacked as a tool of the health lobby, Big Pharma and so on.

    In fact, it’s not just a parallel. As can easily be checked, the same people and institutions on whom sceptics like JB rely for their info on global warming learned their trade working for the tobacco industry. For example, Ross McKitrick, the definitive critic of the hockey stick, is a Senior Fellow of the Fraser Institute, which has repeatedly attacked scientific research on smoking, using the Steve Milloy (ex-Cato, now Fox and CEI) line of “junk science”. His co-author Pat Michaels works for Cato, which is similarly part of the tobacco machine. The lines of attack used by the three M’s are precisely those they learned from their association with the tobacco lobby.

    The interesting point is that JB knows this and is also happy to assert that mainstream scientists are motivated by financial gain “a multi-billion dollar industry whose very existence depends on promoting alarm” (without any evidence showing that scientists gain any benefit from researching climate change rather than some other topic, or from reaching particular conclusions if they do), but wants to ignore the fact that, almost without exception, his preferred sources are demonstrably corrupt hacks.

  15. John Mashey
    June 11th, 2009 at 08:43 | #15

    @jquiggin
    Needless to say, the climate:smoking comaparison was not picked by accident.

    But, let us not forget:
    George C. Marshall Insitute (Frederick Seitz)
    SEPP (Fred Singer)

    The Heartland Institute, which has tobacco as a top-level subject, along with Environment (Global Warming is a level down, despite Heartland’s conferences and list of “experts”.

    Heartland is discussed by Sourcewatch:

    ‘The Institute sees its primary audience as “the nation’s 8,300 state and national elected officials and approximately 8,400 local government officials.”‘

    Of Enting’s list of 11 greenhouse skeptics:

    2 are deceased (Crichton, Daly)
    3 (Jack Barrett, Ray Evans, Bob Foster) do not appear.
    6 are on Heartland’s list (Bellamy, de Freitas, Lindzen, Lomborg, Plimer, Kininmonth)

    Heartland has a pretty good list (about 115 of the ~250 or so I’ve got in a spreadsheet vs afffiliations, with numerous examples for various taxonomies.

  16. Jonathan Baxter
    June 11th, 2009 at 11:45 | #16

    jquiggin :
    The interesting point is that JB knows this and is also happy to assert that mainstream scientists are motivated by financial gain “a multi-billion dollar industry whose very existence depends on promoting alarm”

    I am not asserting that mainstream scientists are motivated by financial gain. It is more subtle than that. Mainstream scientists do like to receive funding for their work, but not for personal financial gain. It helps to advance their research and their careers. Additionally, the global warming industry has spawned a vast army of hangers-on (bureaucrats, academics from non-climate-science fields, etc). A lot of those people would be out of a job if the alarm was found to be unjustified.

    but wants to ignore the fact that, almost without exception, his preferred sources are demonstrably corrupt hacks.

    My preferred sources are far more varied than you suggest. And even the ones you mention don’t pass muster as “corrupt hacks”. I took the trouble of looking up the “Fraser Institute”. Under “Controversy” Wikipedia has only the following line:

    In 1999, the Fraser Institute was attacked by health professionals and scientists[citation needed] for sponsoring two conferences on the tobacco industry entitled “Junk Science, Junk Policy? Managing Risk and Regulation” and “Should government butt out? The pros and cons of tobacco regulation.”

    And then the very next paragraph:

    In 2004, the Institute published a Crime & Drug Policy paper suggesting the prohibition on marijuana cannot be sustained with the present technology of production and enforcement

    Sounds more like an anti-regulation libertarian crowd than some tobacco industry shill. Same goes for the Heartland link provided by John Mashey, eg:

    This would place the lifetime odds of dying from smoking at 6 to 1 (45 million smokers divided by 100,000 deaths per year x 75 years), rather than 3 to 1. However, about half (45 percent) of all smoking-related deaths occur at age 75 or higher. Calling these deaths “premature” is stretching common usage of the word. The odds of a life-long smoker dying prematurely of a smoking-related disease, then, are about 12 to 1.

    You can dispute their definition of “premature death” but their reasoning is hardly controversial. Note that they are not claiming tobacco does not cause premature death, just that it has been exaggerated. And again, the whole tone is libertarian rather than anti-science (I don’t necessarily buy their argument. I am just trying to point out that demonizing groups like Fraser and Heartland as tobacco shills seems to be missing the message).

    It is hard to argue that governments are not hypocritical with respect to tobacco. On the one hand we demonize smokers, while on the other they’re treated as revenue sources (disclosure: I am not and never have been a smoker). If it so harmful, why not ban it instead of taxing it?

    And something else I have often wondered about: in this age of long retirement and expensive aged-care, do smokers really cost the state more than non-smokers? Seems to me someone dropping dead from lung cancer at age 70 is probably doing the state a favor. If true, that would pretty much neutralize the tax argument.

  17. jquiggin
    June 11th, 2009 at 12:07 | #17

    Dear me. Here’s the Fraser Institute getting stuck into the EPA over passive smoking, cited by the lunar right Human Events

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3827/is_199906/ai_n8858099/

    All the sources named are bought and paid for tobacco hacks, and the attack on the EPA (overturned by a higher court) was a disgraceful industry exercise in intimidation.

    What’s clear from our debate now is that there is indeed no difference between your views on global warming and on smoking. You’re on the anti-science side of both, and keen to make excuses for corporate shills while repeating their standard talking points.

  18. Jonathan Baxter
    June 11th, 2009 at 13:02 | #18

    What’s clear from our debate now is that there is indeed no difference between your views on global warming and on smoking. You’re on the anti-science side of both, and keen to make excuses for corporate shills while repeating their standard talking points.

    How is that clear? I already agreed that smoking:disease is well established. All I did was point out that the Fraser Institute seems to be more of a libertarian anti-regulation group than paid-for tobacco industry shills.

    Frankly, what is abundantly clear from this debate is that you will look for any excuse to smear someone who does not agree with you. Really quite disappointing from someone in your position.

  19. Ethistan
    June 12th, 2009 at 06:43 | #19

    @Jonathan Baxter

    Jonathan Baxter :
    @jquiggin

    But putting that aside, there are fundamental differences between “AGW as defined by the IPCC” and the smoking:disease link that highlight why skepticism about the former is far more prevalent than the latter.
    1) Despite literally decades of effort, the uncertainty in climate sensitivity has not narrowed appreciably. It is still 1.5C-4.5C. Contrast that with smoking: there is a huge body of empirical evidence supporting the link between smoking and all kinds of diseases.

    This comparison you make is flawed. Just because they cannot predict the exact temperature rise, doesn’t mean that the earth wont heat up. Just like the science can’t predict how long in each individual case it will take until a smoker develops lung cancer, only that smoking causes cancer and various other diseases.

    You say AGW can’t predict exactly the amount of heating and then say smoking has a causal link to cancer but no hard numbers and expect the two to equate…

  20. LB
    June 13th, 2009 at 17:53 | #20

    Abusive post deleted. You’re permanently banned

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