Randy Olson's Forthcoming Book: Don't Be Such a Scientist

By Chris Mooney | May 30, 2009 12:59 pm

Olson, a scientist and filmmaker whose work we much admire, has a book coming out in September that dovetails with many of the things we’ve also been saying about the problem of science communication. It has this provocative title: Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. A book website has just gone up, and the table of contents are thusly described:

Introduction – The need for a new approach to science communication in an age of information overload. In the words of communication theorist Richard Lanham (“The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information,” 2007), “style and substance, and our expectations for them, have changed places.” It’s not about “dumbing down,” it’s about using style as a means of communicating substance.

Chapter 1 – Don’t Be So Cerebral – The need to draw on other organs of the body than just the brain.

Chapter 2 – Don’t Be So Literal Minded – The need to arouse before fulfilling

Chapter 3 – Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller – The need to tell a good story while
still maintaining accuracy

Chapter 4 – Don’t Be So Unlikeable – The need to appreciate the dynamics of a negating profession in a society that prefers affirmation.

Chapter 5 – Be the Voice of Science – Carl Sagan exemplified each of these admonitions — able to act as much as think, willing to innovate in the communication of science, a great storyteller, and hugely likeable. With todays advancements in communication such as blogs and videos, scientists no longer need to sit and wait to be discovered by journalists. Today, they themselves can reach the mass audience through the internet. They can indeed be the voice of science.

All of which strikes me as very good advice if you want to communicate science to non-scientists…although also bound to be controversial.

Anyway, just as with ours, we recommend that you preorder Olson’s book. There seems to be a new wave of literature coming out about the importance of science communication, and the many incorrect assumptions that have until now impaired its effectiveness. And if there’s anyone riding that wave, it’s the Hollywood filmmaker and surfer Olson….


Comments (17)

  1. Erasmussimo

    I’d like to offer an observation that I’m sure some here will find objectionable: we don’t need to be so accurate, either. Now, this is a tricky idea, so hear me out. Think in terms of the old point about proceeding from the more knowable to the less knowable. The truth is infinitely complex, and no human being will ever grasp the full truth of the universe. We learn by a sequence of increasingly accurate approximations of the truth. For example, in physics, the high school student starts off with a simple non-calculus approach to dynamics. Then in freshman year we tell them that this was all wrong, that in fact the calculus approach is the way to think about dynamics. Then in junior year we again tell them that it was all a lie, and we introduce them to more complicated ways of thinking about motion. Then we do it all over again in grad school. Are we lying to the freshmen? Well, yes — but it’s necessary that they understand the simple view before they can appreciate a better approximation of the truth.

    Yet, when a science journalist writes about a topic, people are eager to jump all over him if he simplifies the story in a manner that yields a less accurate result. In science blogs, we see a lot of people (and I’m guilty of this myself) one-upping each other over picayune details of scientific truth.

    There is no such thing as “the correct answer”. There are only degrees of accuracy. And a fundamental principle of scientific teaching is that you MUST correctly match the level of accuracy to the audience you teach. It is just as bad to be “too accurate” as to be “not accurate enough”. If the science teaching community truly grasped this concept, then blog discussions such as this would show a roughly 50-50 balance between complaints that a news story was too accurate and complaints that it wasn’t accurate enough. Yet the balance I observe looks more like 5-95.

  2. Erasmussimo

    Damn, I hate English gender pronouns. It’s so difficult for an old geezer like me to catch every gender-biased usage. I slipped on the previous comment. Oops.

  3. A random passing physicist


    Yes, that’s commonly known as the ‘lies to children’ principle over here.

    Approximations and simplifications are fine, I’d say, so long as it is understood that they are simplified, and so long as the simplifications are ‘honest’ in the sense of not changing the core message. You can lie to schoolchildren, because you know they’ll be coming back so you can eventually correct the lies. The problem comes when people never come back for the next layer of approximation, and carry on thinking the lie is true. Or worse, get the correction from somebody out to discredit the science (whether for good or bad reasons), when they’ll start to distrust everything they’ve been told.

    If people know that you’ve simplified (sometimes it can be taken as read), and they know where to go to get a more accurate version, should they choose, there’s no problem with simplifying as much as you like.

    The problem with science presentation from my point of view is that it is too often presented as the voice of authority. Scientists become just another bunch of talking heads telling people what to believe, and not to bother their pretty little heads with ‘why?’, because they’d never be able to understand. People never get to see why science is different from all the others.

    They need to engage *with* the audience, to make it a process of joint discovery. And you have to tell the story of how you know, to tell people about the methods of science as well as the applications. Announcing only the final conclusions of your scientific achievement is like only showing the last ten minutes of a movie. It’s only exciting (or indeed, comprehensible) because of the hour and a half of context that led up to it.

    Richard Feynman said that if you couldn’t explain it to an intelligent layman, it meant you didn’t really understand it yourself. He was right to identify it as a problem. And sometimes, a lot of what even scientists believe turns out to be ‘lies to children’ that never got corrected.

    But regarding that title for chapter 1, I’m curious as to what other organs Randy has in mind?

  4. Why is it that people who are telling scientists how to communicate keep violating their own rules? 4 of the 5 ‘rules’ are negative, yet it includes a slam at scientists for being a negative profession. We are? Really? Perhaps the problem is not science and scientists, but the author.

    I’ve always thought that learning more about the universe and sharing the results of that learning was a positive thing. Instead, I’m told that I’m negative, indeed the whole profession is, unlikeable, a poor story teller (and we haven’t even met), devoid of passion (‘too cerebral’), and also necessarily a nit picker. Yeesh. Chapter 6 is what, ‘quit beating your spouse and kicking your dog’?

    And why, as they argue that scientists should listen to them because they’re professional communicators, is it that it is the scientists’ job to be the communicators of science? Folks, if scientists are supposed to be the communicators as well the scientists, then we don’t need journalists. Scientists already know the science better than the journalists do. If scientists are also supposed to be doing the journalism … what’s the journalist for again?

    Myself, I’d like to see a strong contingent of science journalists, science writers, science popularizers. I’d like that precisely because I think that these need different skills from the skills of doing science. I find it bizarre that it’s the journalists, etc., who think so little of their profession that it’s something that scientists can pick up by reading one book (of theirs), rather than some years of study and practice (and quite a few books, teachers, seminars, …). The journalists, journalism students, and so on, that I’ve known have struck me a generally a bright, hard working crowd. However egomaniacal I may get at times, I really don’t think I’ll be better at doing the thing that is their passion and which they have studied and practice for years, from a single book and maybe a little practice as I read it. If I could, what the heck did you all do for the other 3.8 years of college, plus (maybe) graduate school, plus the years on the job? If it’s that easy, either you think your profession is a bunch of lazy, stupid, bums — in contrast to my impression from the outside — or you think I’m way smarter and more talented than I ever have.

    News, apparently, for both Chris and Randy: Scientists are people. Period. Some are lousy story tellers, some are quite good — same as any other group. Some are ‘too cerebral’ (though I’m not sure what that means) and some, you’d have a hard time telling they were scientists as opposed to, say, plumbers (on the other hand I’ve also met some thoughtful plumbers, so what is meant by ‘too cerebral’ could be an issue). And so on through the list. If you haven’t been able to figure this out about scientists, I don’t think you have much meaningful to tell me. I figured it out about journalists … wow … many years ago.

    One thing about communication is, it’s seldom useful to set up a stereotype and slam an entire group for that stereotype. I’m not a big fan of stereotypes period. But certainly if you’re going to use a stereotype rather than real people, you’d better be talking to people other than the group you’re stereotyping. Nobody appreciates it that I’ve ever noticed.

    Given how few people are scientists, if Olson is writing to the scientists, he’s an idiot. If that’s his audience, and he does this kind of stereotyping, one wonders how he’s going to sell more than a handful of copies. If, on the other hand, his real audience is the vastly larger population of people who are not scientists, and who don’t know any, and who wouldn’t mind a book reaffirming a set of negative stereotypes, then he might do fine. In that other audience.

    With todays advancements in communication such as blogs and videos, scientists no longer need to sit and wait to be discovered by journalists. Today, they themselves can reach the mass audience through the internet. They can indeed be the voice of science.

    Chris, hasn’t it been your argument that this is doomed? That scientists can’t do the job, and that blogs can’t be the medium to accomplish it?

    In any case, there is no next Sagan or Gould. Nor is there a next Einstein or Darwin, nor … anybody. Things change. Things that coincided for Sagan to accomplish what he did, can’t do so again. In part because some don’t exist any more. They’ve been replaced by other technologies, with other requirements. The science itself has changed. The society that you’re trying to communicate that science with is different, and requires still different attributes. There’s no next Sagan. Wishing for it, and aiming advice towards making another one, is foolish. How about figuring out what the characteristics of the next great science communicators are going to be and sharing that information? Or taking advantage of it yourself and having your own major series? Either is ok by me. Telling me what a bad communicator I must be because of my profession, …, no, not ok. (Now if you have notes on my communication because you’ve read my attempts in journals, blogs, newsgroups, …, listened to me in public (last time was the 23rd of May), were a student of mine, … send them along. I know I’ve got plenty of room for improvement. But, like most people, I prefer to be taken as a person, not a stereotype.)

    So, yes, this note, I hit some negativity. Probably didn’t tell much of a story. A couple of mini-stories are at most implied. Unlikeable, well that’s rather redundant with the negativity. ‘Too cerebral’, certainly I’ve used some polysyllabics and invited some thought. So probably a check there. And, nope, I’m not Carl Sagan. So a perfect batting average w.r.t. the stereotype.

    Something I’d like to see is a book that:
    * dropped the stereotyping. If you don’t know enough scientists to know that there are different personalities in the profession, you don’t know enough to talk to me about scientists.
    * discussed mistakes to avoid, including illustrations of why they’re mistakes, and what to do instead. (Scientists, even me, are not perfect. If we recognize a mistake you describe as one we commit, we can change it.)
    * discussed things to do that were actively good (as opposed to merely avoiding mistakes)
    * gave insight in to the venues and methods that are currently available, and how to use them (not merely ‘there’s blogs out there people, write one’, but went back to the matters of what is special, in a science communication sense, about blogs and what special concerns we should hold in using them, and special opportunities we have. Repeat for all other venues)
    * related matter is, describe the personalities that will fit different venues better. Some people do well in a blog context, and are terrible in a public speaking setting, and vice versa. But, experts, shed some light about which will be which.

  5. 3: I’m guessing he’s going for the ‘have no heart’ stereotype. In any case, the ‘all brain, no rest of a person’ stereotype.

    1,3: I think of it more as a matter of successive approximation than ‘lies to children’. Suppose I’m asked what the melting point of ice is. I’ll almost always answer 0 C. In truth, that’s almost never the temperature ‘ice’ melts at. There are pressure effects, salinity effects, maybe there are other things happening. Conversely, I’d also answer 0 C as being the freezing point. But I know perfectly well that there are even more effects that can give a freezing point far below that (-40 C is not uncommon, and some liquid cloud drops have been seen as cold as at least -50, perhaps -60). So, what’s the melting point, or freezing point, really? Depends. 0 C is a fair number for most general circumstances.

    Since general public is vastly larger than scientific community, I’ll lay most of the responsibility for the following over there. Some scientists like it in part, and play in to it. That is, there’s an expectation that either the answer is exact, absolute, invariant, and ‘proven’, or science and scientists know nothing at all. So, do you give my quick answer of ‘0 C’, or, what I’m more likely to say ‘usually about 0 C’, or do you spend the next 30 minutes giving a run down on the thermodynamics of phase change in impure water systems? Give the latter, and … if nothing else, you’ll be alone long before the 30 minutes are up.

    Give the first version, and you’re toast as soon as they encounter clouds with liquid water at temperatures well below 0 C, or any other case where 0 is not the real answer. (“Those idiots, they don’t even know what the freezing point of water is, how can I trust them about climate change?!” — the only part I made up in that sentence was ‘the freezing point of water’, quite a few comparably ‘simple’ things have been substituted in that slot over the years.)

    Give the third version, and they’ve stopped listening to you long before you’ve compressed a year or two of thermodynamics in to only 30 minutes and without use of calculus.

    Give the second version, and you’re wishy-washy and obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. A Real Scientist ™ would know the exact number.

    I still give the second version sometimes, and hope I’ve encountered someone who understands successive approximation, or who at least will see my ‘about’ and ‘usually’ as the honest flags they are for the possibility that the right figure could be different in other situations than I’m guessing they’re asking about.

    What I most prefer is to find out what the real question is, and answer that instead. A major reason for this one is on the heads of scientists, rather than general public. Namely, they’re often compressing the question to the barest minimum they think will suffice, as they don’t think we’re willing to spend time on the longer real question (and enough scientists aren’t that it’s a real concern). Real question might be “I’ve just read in the paper something about water in clouds being far below 0 C and then freezing on contact with airplanes. Can that really happen?” (This or something like it did come up in 3d.) The answer to this question actually is unambiguous — yes. It’s a major concern for aviation safety … (and I can go on for a while on this if they’re interested. They may well be, because they know something about planes, or a friend is about to fly through cold climates, or …) The thing I like about this route instead of the others is, it provides some real science knowledge, rather than factoids, and in a way that is likely to stay with the person asking.

  6. Having met Randy on several occasions I think he’s spot on with the book. I haven’t read it yet but he has a way of bridging science to pop culture that is so desparately needed these days. Truth is…scientists and designers are huge celebrities in other parts of the world but in America, we only know actors and athletes. We absolutely need to change this up and Randy has started the conversation on how to do that with his book and as Chris points out…other authors are starting to chime in too. I think there will me a new Sagan, many new Sagans in fact but in different fields and media. In a recent blog I posted, I noted that science and design diva Neri Oxman is on the cover of Fast Company. That’s pretty awesome! I think we’re going to see more ‘Glabour Geeks’ as I call them in the near future…folks that can bridge science and other fields of study with pop culture. Lets have some fun with all this!

  7. A random passing physicist

    Robert Grumbine,

    If asked the melting point of water, the correct answer is that it depends on the circumstances, but in normal conditions it’s 0 C. You don’t need to say any more. Yes, that’s simplified and approximate, but it’s also clear to the listener that there’s more to be said.

    It’s a different question, though, when the scientist replies that according to his measurements of Antarctic sea ice it has recently dropped to -2 C, because of global warming, and if you don’t stop using electricity *immediately* WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

    A well-known quote of Steve Schneider’s is apposite here.
    “On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

    I’m sure we all hope for that.

    To take another example, Randy Olsen, the author of this book, also made the film ‘Sizzle’, in which to illustrate the human side of Global Warming Catastrophe he shows the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

    Now of course a climate scientist will start up with a list of objections at this point – weather not climate, no connection can be shown with individual events, no statistically significant increase observed, computer models disagree, high level wind shear over the Atlantic, blah, blah, blah…

    Wrong! That’s being *cerebral*, and drawing on your *brain*. If you want to use style to communicate your ‘substance’, you have to stop being so literal-minded, be a good storyteller, and tell a good story. If you start up with the uncertainties you’ll a) bore the pants off your audience, and b) make them doubt the terrifying urgency of the situation.

    “It’s time for the science community to realize they are getting out-communicated, and put more effort into understanding how today’s communication environment works. It’s not as simple as just spouting out the facts. There are effective ways to confront the skeptics, but you have to realize these guys are playing hardball. Good intentions count for nothing. This isn’t your father’s climate science world any longer.”

    Hardball versus good intentions.
    But you have to remember, Antarctic sea ice is melting away at -2 C now. That’s what this is all about.

  8. Erasmussimo

    ARRP, I would not recommend the kind of extravagance that Mr. Olsen used in presenting Katrina as the result of global warming. I think that when you present scientific results in a manner that is scientifically questionable, you only undercut your own credibility. After all, the science supporting the hypothesis that AFW is contributing to hurricane intensity is not yet solidly established; I would therefore avoid using that angle because, if it turns out to be wrong, we just discredit the larger issue. I have no problem with the images of polar bears swimming across empty seas because the habitat loss to polar bears does appear to be a fairly well-established consequence of AGW.

    If we’re just teaching people about black holes or genetics or geology, I think it’s fine to get poetic and rely on metaphors, tell tales, and so forth. And I have no problem with science fiction abusing the science a bit to tell a good story. The latest Star Trek, with Spock watching the planet Vulcan implode in the sky from a planet light-years away is a good example. Atrocious astronomy but good storytelling.

    But when we cross the line into politically sensitive material, I think it necessary to sacrifice impact for correctness. I was uncomfortable watching “An Inconvenient Truth”. Mr. Gore did simplify the science quite a bit, and a number of times he strayed over the line of what I consider to be appropriate simplification. Political activism is all well and good but this is a two-way street. If Mr. Gore can stretch the truth a little, then his opponents are justified in stretching the truth, too — and then what are the poor citizens to make of all this?

    Many years ago, while still an undergraduate, I had a conversation with a physicist about the irrational panic that many people felt (and still feel) about radioactivity and nuclear power. He agree with me that there was a lot of irrationalism on the subject. However, when I ventured the suggestion that perhaps it was appropriate for us to lean a bit in the other direction, in order to correct the falsehoods, he jumped all over me. We tell the truth as best we can, and we never, ever stray from the truth except to make it clearer, he told me. I immediately felt shame at the stupidity of my thought. But I was young then, and youth is the time to think stupid thoughts.

  9. Randy Olson

    Hi – Did you see my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy”? Nowhere in the movie was anything said to imply that Katrina was caused by global warming. We went there in the movie to test the notion that affluent countries do a good job of dealing with major climate events. After visiting the conservative think tanks in Washington D.C. and being told basically that, “wealth is health,” we decided to see if there was evidence of that on the two year anniversary of Katrina — did this affluent nation do a good job of returning a climate-damaged city to a healthy condition. What we encountered was very bad, and does end up doing an effective job of helping people appreciate the seriousness of major climate events, even in one of the most affluent nations.

    Anyone who says the movie blames global warming for Katrina probably hasn’t seen it.

  10. Erasmussimo

    Thanks for clearing that up, Randy. I was taking ARRP’s interpretation literally. Let’s just chalk this up to confusion.

  11. A random passing physicist


    Thanks for clarifying.

    But did you mean “weather-damaged” or “climate-damaged”?

    And in looking at New Orleans, did you find it was the wealthy or the poor who had recovered better? What did you compare it to? Against what baseline did you measure it?

    I think that given the number of media stories that had previously (and wrongly) made a connection, to juxtapose hurricane Katrina with a discussion of global warming in a film nominally about global warming makes the implication all on its own. It’s possible to use such an example as an *illustration* of what impacts might look like (or that even an affluent nation cannot recover instantaneously from a city-wide disaster), but it needs all sorts of caveats not to be misleading.

    However, this runs counter to the purposes of the film, as it did for all those media stories that made the connection in the first place. They want drama, and ‘Signs of the coming Apocalypse’ are certainly dramatic – it spoils the effect to have to add “… but on the other hand, maybe not.” You obviously want people to care about global warming. To have to spend five precious minutes of your film explaining that New Orleans being such a disaster wasn’t because of global warming, it detracts.

    If you actually did that, and the people I listened to *still* managed to misunderstand, then I apologise. But as a general illustration of the difference between simplification because it’s too hard (and too boring) to explain a complicated subject all at once, and simplification to makes sure it fits the ‘story’, I still think it works. The scientific mission of helping people to *understand*, and the polemic mission of getting people to *believe* sometimes come into conflict. People shouldn’t use simplification in aid of one to justify the other.

  12. Anthony

    As a civilian in this argument it is often hard to find balance between the far too simplistic and far too complicated. I want more detail, but cannot understand that detail when I find it.

    You are not lying to me if you give me a simple answer getting me closer to truth, if you tell me it is a simplified answer. It is those on the other side of the argument that are lying, seeking deliberately to mislead.

    Trouble is you are fighting fair. They are under no such restriction.

  13. Hank Roberts

    I sure hate to see these random passing nitwits reposting that Steve Schneider bit out of context.
    There are upwards of 480 copies of it found by Google:
    Results …about 483 for “Steve Schneider” +quote +scary

    But you really have to look rather hard to actually find the context.

    Here, a brief excerpt. You know how to find this. But I’ll give you the URL anyhow.
    Save it for the next time some nitwit posts the same little fragment yet another time.

    —–excerpt follows—–

    “… I’m not accusing advocates of immorality; I’m just saying that standard advocacy (i.e., defining only one side of an issue) it is a poor way to give non-specialists “full disclosure” of complex, controversial topics.

    But the problem is that scientists tend to think that advocacy based on a “win for the client” mentality that deliberately selects “facts” out of context is highly unethical. Unaware of how the advocacy game is played outside the cloister of the scientific peer review culture, some scientists stumble, perhaps naively, into the pitfall ….

    The fundamental question related to climate change, then, is: how can we make, or at least encourage, advocates to convey a balanced perspective when the “judge” and “jury” are Congress or public opinion, and the polarized advocates get only twenty second sound bites each on the evening news or five minutes in front of a Congressional hearing to summarize a topic for which it would take hours just to outline the range of possible outcomes, much less convey the relative credibility of each claim and rebuttal? For over three decades, this has been my repeated frustration in dealing with the climate change debate, and it seems to be getting worse. ….”

    —– end excerpt —–


  14. Hank Roberts

    And for the nitwits who didn’t bother to click the link, didn’t bother to read the context, and are winding up to type that Al Gore is Still Fat, excuse me, that Schneider is ….

    Here, kid. Read just a few paragraphs if you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing:

    —- excerpt follows —–

    “… Would you trust a scientist who advises his/her colleagues to use scary scenarios to get media attention and to shape public opinion by making intentionally dramatic, overblown statements? Would you have confidence in his or her statements if the scientist said that “each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest”? Understandably, you’d probably be suspicious and wonder what was being compromised.

    I confess: those were SOME of my words, yet their meaning is completely distorted when viewed out of context like this. You will find hundreds of places — especially on the web sites of industrial or economic growth advocates opposed to global warming policies that might harm their or their clients’ interests — in which I am similarly (mis)quoted alongside a declaration that my environmental cronies and I should never be trusted.

    I’ll spend a few paragraphs telling you what I really said and why, as I want to illustrate the sorts of pitfalls that will confront a scientist or other expert diving headlong into scientific popularization, media appearances, advocacy, or some combination of these. This example illustrates the risks of stepping from the academic cloister to the wide world out there. A scientist’s likelihood of having his/her meaning turned on its head is pretty high — especially with highly politicized topics such as global warming. ….”

    ——–end excerpt———-

    Will we hear from someone who fell for one or more of the misrepresentations and has actually learned better by reading the original in context.

  15. Erin Rasmussen

    Let me just interject that as a kid in science classes it ticked me off to no end to labor over understanding each version of the “truth” I was presented in science class only to be told the next year that it was all wrong and that I had to start over again. That sort of system of explanation does nothing to foster trust among those kids, who then grow up into adults, that survived science class with the nagging feeling that they were contiguously being lied to. That’s a hard row to hoe, and I think in communicating to adults that’s one of the factors we’re running into.

    Back to education, there’s no guarantee that you will get the opportunity to correct your oversimplification with each class of children. There are other factors that frequently pull kids out of classes mid sequence. If kids grow into adults without access to a better view of science, it’s our fault for not providing them with a more useful set of tools for understanding current science and our current problems.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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