Bad History of Science from ID Proponents

By Chris Mooney | November 16, 2009 3:45 pm

In my 2005 book The Republican War on Science, I wrote somewhat mockingly of ID proponents as follows:

ID theorists, apparently, have a very high opinion of themselves, believing they are fueling a scientific revolution of Copernican proportions. ID proponent Michael Behe has even written that the alleged discovery of design in nature “rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur and Darwin.”

Indeed, ID proponents regularly fling around the idea that they are on the leading edge of a scientific “paradigm shift,” about to dramatically change the course of science by reimporting appeals to a designer into a framework that had previously been dominated by an ideology of “scientific materialism.” Alas, this depiction of IDists as scientific revolutionaries is highly dubious. It’s very easy to for anyone to blithely say they’re causing a paradigm shift, especially as the claim is probably irrefutable except with the benefit of hindsight. The hard part is actually delivering the scientific goods.

In ID proponent Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Signature in the Cell–which I’ve been reading because I’ve agreed to appear with Meyer on the Michael Medved show today at 4 ET–we find the “paradigm shift” argument used once again–but with a dubious new twist. Meyer, trained as a historian of science, makes an argument that focuses on the medium in which an alleged paradigm shift in science is conveyed:

Since World War II, scientists have stressed the importance of publishing their work in specialized peer-reviewed journals, but throughout the history of science “paradigm-shifting” ideas and theories have typically been presented in books, including many that we might now call “trade press” (rather than academic) books.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, books allow scientists to make sustained and comprehensive arguments for synthetic new ideas…books have often been the go-to genre for presenting and evaluating new arguments for synthetic interpretations of a relevant body of evidence.

Perhaps, the best-known example of this form of scientific discourse was provided by Charles Darwin himself, who famously described his work in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection as “one long argument.” There, Darwin proposed a comprehensive interpretation of many diverse lines of evidence…Other scientists such as Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, and Lyell as well as a host of lesser figures have used books to advance scientific arguments in favor of novel and comprehensive interpretations of the scientific evidence in their disciplines.

Set aside the hubris of this for a moment (Meyer is essentially saying that his popular, non peer-reviewed book is capable of causing a paradigm shift, and is likening it to Darwin’s “one long argument”). Just focus on the history of science argument about books versus scientific papers as repositories of deep insight.

I have to say, I find this argument deeply misleading.

Throughout much of the history of science, specialized scientific journals didn’t exist in the form in which they do today. Neither did specialized “science” itself–the word “scientist” to denote a profession didn’t even exist until the 19th century. And so of course, sweeping argumentative books were often used to advance scientific arguments. Copernicus was an early scientific test run for the printing press, and surely wouldn’t be famous without it. As for Galileo, he didn’t just write books, he wrote lengthy Plato-style dialogues–nowadays a rare genre indeed.

But if the history of science shows any undeniable trend, it is towards increasing specialization–a trend that itself is virtually synonymous with scientific progress. As printing became cheaper, and scientists became more numerous, specialized journals emerged even as scientific fields divided and subdivided. And this was, for the most part, a good thing–for it allowed scientists in different disciplines to home more carefully in on problems, and to speak about them in a shared language addressed to a kindred group of specialists. Granted, such developments also made science less accessible to the broad public. But in terms of advancing knowledge, it was definitely a gain.

That’s why Meyer’s claim that writing a trade book, today, classes him with Darwin, Newton, Copernicus, et al, is so stunning. It ignores the great progress that has occurred over the course of science’s history, which is the very reason that we now have specialized journals. What’s more, contra Meyer, we do have a scientific genre today that exists to synthesize a large body of scientific knowledge: large peer reviewed scientific assessments, such as those produced by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academy of Sciences. (Let’s see Meyer get his pro-ID arguments endorsed by one of those.)

Trade books can be quite scientifically accurate, and quite thoughtful. But today they are largely for popularization–which, of course, is what Meyer is really doing for intelligent design. He’s very good at this, and he may win a lot of conservative Christian followers and book buyers; but that is hardly the same as initiating a modern scientific paradigm shift. I highly doubt such an achievement is even possible for ID theorists, in light of the inherent supernaturalism of their position, which makes it fundamentally irreconcilable with modern, naturalistic science. But the fact remains that if ID theorists want to win scientific credibility, the peer reviewed literature (and the peer reviewed assessments) are the only way for them to go–for good historic reasons.

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Comments (22)

  1. What Meyer forgets is that Copernicus’ de revolutionibus went practically unread and unknown outside astronomy circles. That’s the way many of these paradigm shifts go. You don’t make a big splash and expect a paradigm shift. A scientist or author cannot claim to have a paradigm-shifting idea. That’s not science (it’s egotistical which isn’t a Christian value either) and, well ID isn’t science either. These revolutions in science come from hindsight. At some point, the great ideas become unavoidable and you wonder at how we lived without the insight.

  2. Erasmussimo

    I’ll add another reason why specialized scientific journals didn’t exist prior to the 19th century: the torpid pace of international correspondence. If a journal couldn’t get around to all the appropriate people in a reasonable amount of time, what was the point of having a journal? With such slow delivery times, it was better to mass everything into one book and ship that out.

    However, I urge you not to use this argument with Mr. Meyer today — it’s too peripheral to the main issue of ID versus evolution.

    I have some tiny reservations about the notion that going through the peer-reviewed literature is the only way to achieve progress. Yes, peer review is the best way to shut out the cranks, but peer review has some serious flaws. I know of one case in which the leading researcher in a field had his paper rejected because it did not include references to any other work. The paper didn’t reference any other work because it presented a novel idea that bore no important relationship to any published work. While I concede that this is a rare situation, it’s important enough to deserve some consideration.

  3. Sorbet

    Excuse me, but all the important breakthroughs in twentieth century science were published in papers and not books. Sure, one can count extremely important books like Linus Pauling’s “The Nature of the Chemical Bond”, but that came after the papers. As you note, in the past peer-reviewed publication was simply not a tried and tested process. Meyer is making a rather trivial point and is just banging his head against the wall here.

  4. Obviously Meyer couldn’t pass peer-review on the most basic issues, like his poor understanding of what sort of life at least might be possible in the beginning, before organisms were around to eat life. His “predictions” of ID would be laughed at by any competent scientist, as being not at all entailed by theory-less “intelligent design.” His misuse of the now-obsolete uniformitarian principles of Lyell as the basis of his “science” doesn’t even follow Lyell’s or Darwin’s practices, let alone today’s scientific methods.

    That’s presumably the main reason he wrote a book, that and because it’s blatant propaganda.

    But it should be noted that even journals such as Nature sometimes discuss the problems that any kind of revolutionary science would have passing peer-review. Peer-review is not set up for revolutionary ideas, rather more for the typical discoveries done within current theories.

    Erwin Schroedinger did write an influential book on biology, called What is Life? Interestingly, his ideas on what the material of heredity must be like were predicated in part on evolution, something I seriously doubt you’ll find in Meyer’s book (I’ve read previews and reviews, not the whole book). Crick read it, and apparently benefited from it.

    So here, at least, is a more modern precedent for writing important ideas in a book, instead of in journals. Exactly why Schroedinger did so I am not sure, although I think it was probably more a collection of essays related to teaching, more than because he necessarily thought book form was better than peer-reviewed journals. Nevertheless, it was indeed a book, and not disregarded for being that instead of journal articles.

    No, I don’t find anything credible in Meyer’s excuses for writing his religious politics in a book, which also happened to be published by a publisher of religion. I’m not in the least trying defend such excuses, just pointing out that although ID is an old and properly discarded idea, rather than a revolutionary new one, there might indeed be reason for a person to write up truly revolutionary ideas in a book.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. Sorbet

    In his book Schrodinger asked the right questions, but as Freeman Dyson says, he was also woefully ignorant of chemistry and therefore did not consider questions of metabolism, only of inheritance. Now we know that both are equally important, and others had to fill the gaps in Schrodinger’s argument. Nevertheless he asked the right questions, which made his work provocative and important for people like Crick and especially physicist turned biologist Max Perutz who was a protege of Bohr. In contrast Mr. Meyer does not seem to ask any important relevant questions.

  6. John Kwok

    Chris,

    Good luck with the show since you’ll literally be in the lion’s den (Medved is a supporter of the Dishonesty Institute and, I believe, is listed as such on its website.). Stephen Meyer is a bad historian of science if he thinks that most scientific research from the late 1800s through the 1940s wasn’t published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Hate to tell him this, but peer review was definitely alive and well. What did prompt the post – World War II in the publication of scientific research was the development of new technologies (e. g. radar, nuclear energy) and new sciences (e. g. molecular biology) whose origins and growth are due to the scientific and technological breakthroughs made during the war itself.

    I received a review copy of Meyers’s latest mendacious intellectual pornography courtesy of the book’s publicist and will be reading it soon so I can provide a suitable review of it at you know where.
    But I am certain that its contents will not reveal the bold new ‘scientific revolution” which Meyers contends, but instead, the usual litany of major omissions, gross distortions, substantial half-truths and quite pathetic – and most blatant – lies. That is why I regard Intelligent Design – and other forms of creationism – as mendacious intellectual pornography. And yes, of course, this does mean that I regard Meyer as a rather slick, overbearing, example of the Dishonesty Institute’s nefarious cohort of mendacious intellectual pornographers.

    Regards,

    John

  7. Guy

    The chief problem that ID proponents claiming to be scientists is that pursuing ID is antithetical to doing good science. History has shown that as soon as you invoke the supernatural as a basis for a theory the pursuit of any meaningful scientific work stops.

  8. Erasmussimo

    Yuck! I just spent some time listening to the Michael Medved show and I’m appalled at the way he twists things. He seems to give Mr. Meyer the last word on every issue, which he uses to make the most indefensible claims, knowing that he can’t be challenged on their veracity. I must say, Chris, you are showing immense patience dealing with such a slanted set-up.

  9. SLC

    Re John Kwok

    It should be pointed out that Einstein published peer reviewed papers on all his ground breaking theories in the German physics journal Annalen der Physik. His ideas, which ere certainly paradigm shifting passed peer review, even though Einstein was, at the time of their submission, a rather obscure employee of the Swiss Patent Office.

  10. Chris Mooney

    Hey Erasmussimo,
    Michael Medved lets you say your point, doesn’t cut you off–I really appreciate that. I know it’s a conservative show, but that’s no reason not to go on; I think we have to go talk to the other side. I guess I would have preferred a less combative debate than with Meyer, one where more common ground could be found, but so it goes. Thanks for listening!

  11. John Kwok

    @ SLC –

    Thanks for your reminder, which is one Meyer apparently needs.

    @ Chris –

    I didn’t hear the broadcast but am glad Medved gave you your time. He was once one of my favorite movie critics, and even today, when I do listen occasionally to his program, I am often surprised – and pleasantly so – by his calm, professional demeanor.

  12. roger schmeeckle

    I am not a scientist. I try to respect truth. I have attended “debates” between proponents of ID and their “scientific” opponents, in which I have noticed that those opposed to ID always resort to ignoring the arguments of their opponents, but rather heaping scorn upon them, as if their arguments are intellectual and scientific garbage. So in the rest of this post I intend to only comment on some of the material in the original post and the comments on that post, which, so far, have not met with much critical assessment.

    First of all, the reference to the book THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE by the author of the post. It is a perfect example of guilt by association. I admit that most of the proponents that have come within my purview have been of right wing political persuasions, but it is a mistake to think that only Republicans, whom, as a party, I loathe, are influenced by the arguments of the ID.

    Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that, as a Catholic, I am predisposed to accept the arguments for intelligent design, for philosophical and theological reasons. Perhaps you want to add the Catholics to your list of those unremediably denied inclusion into the universe of scientific discourse, ignoring Copernicus, Galileo, LeMaitre, Curie, Mendel, et al.

    It may be true that specialization in science was, in terms of its advancement, a gain; but it was not without, nor does it continue to be without, something of a loss. Every time a path is taken, it tends to not only reveal the special discoveries of that path, but it tends to also completely shut off what might have been discovered by another path. Specialism has rightly been described as “more and more about less and less,” hardly a formula for increasing understanding and wisdom, unless someone comes along to synthesize.

    John Williams comments: “A scientist or author cannot claim to have a paradigm-shifting idea. That’s not science (it’s egotistical which isn’t a Christian value either) and, well ID isn’t science either.” The original post gave no evidence for thinking that Meyer was claiming to have a paradigm-shifting idea; it was an inference, without any citations to support it. Now John Williams picks up on this unsupported accusation and circulates it.
    Is that the current scientific mentality at work? Then he accuses Meyer of being egotistical. I have not read Meyer, but, if we are going to throw around accusations of egotism, which, after all, are insulting, we should include quotations.

    Thanks to Erasmusissimo for pointing out a case in which a peer-reviewed paper was rejected for the sole reason that it did not have any references . Too bad he grossly pits ID against evolution, without any qualification. Anyone who is familiar with ID, knows that it is not opposing evolution, only some of the allegedly false varieties of Darwinism, with the emphasis on the -ISM. Also, his emphasis on the amount of time it took for the circulation of journals, while correct, ignores the mass of correspondence that took place between philosophers and scientists in earlier centuries.

    John Kwok wrote: “That is why I regard Intelligent Design – and other forms of creationism – as mendacious intellectual pornography.” This equation without any qualification of ID and creationism is a gross distortion of the nuanced position of ID prop9nents with regard to creation. They do not, so far as I can tell, promote a literal seven-day sequence as described in Genesis. Since most of the public probably associates “creationism” with this literal seven day sequence, so absurd, the attempt to make the linkage between ID and “creationism,” without qualification is dishonest.

    My impression of this thread, so far, is that it is shared by a group of contributors who know each other and like to pat each other on the back. Or, a pack of “scientific” cheerleaders, who try to whip up enthusiasm by ignoring their opponents’ arguments, and responding with ridicule and ad hominem pseudo-intelligent attacks; otherwise known as hatchet-jobs.

  13. J.J.E.

    @ SLC

    It should be remembered that the concept of modern peer review isn’t very old. And Einstein published with very little peer review.

    Here’s an account from Einstein’s work ( http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v425/n6959/full/425645a.html ):


    The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, has published innovative papers that had failed to be appreciated by editors elsewhere, because the authors were academy members and so were able to publish by right.

    This is strikingly reminiscent of perhaps the most celebrated editorial judgements of all, in Annalen der Physik in 1905. That was the year in which Einstein published five extraordinary papers in that journal, including special relativity and the photoelectric effect. The journal had a great editor in Max Planck. He recognized the virtue of publishing such outlandish ideas, but there was also a policy that allowed authors much latitude after their first publication. Indeed, in journals in those days, the burden of proof was generally on the opponents rather than the proponents of new ideas.

    You might consider that to be some seriously high quality peer-review given that Max Planck himself was watching over Einstein’s shoulder. However, modern peer review it was not. This ability to publish truly paradigm shifting work comes at a cost. Occasionally bad papers get through. In fact, Lynn Margulis has recent communicated a big stinker of an article to PNAS (summarized here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=controversial-caterpillar-evolution-2009-10-29 ; rebutted here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/10/22/0910229106 ).

    This is not to defend the IDiots. They first need to get their ideas into the academic literature, peer review or no. The real test isn’t the peer review, it is the way in which the community processes the idea. Once they do publish, they need to survive any smackdowns that might come along. Williamson did not for his non-peer reviewed paper. Einstein did for his papers that were only edited by Planck. And lest we forget, Michael Lynch administered a beatdown to the only mainstream peer-reviewed idea by IDiots ( http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/121602881/ ). Even with peer review, you’ve only gained admittance into the market of ideas. Your idea still has to survive there.

  14. gillt

    roger schmeeckle: “I try to respect truth.”

    But where are all the qualifications or references to support this!?!? And the rest of your post suggests you only respect a narrow sectarian view.

    e.g.,

    roger schmeeckle: “I am predisposed to accept the arguments for intelligent design, for philosophical and theological reasons.”

  15. John Kwok

    roger schmeeckle –

    In its original configuration, as stated by William Paley at the dawn of the 19th Century, Intelligent Design was consigned to an early “grave” by leading scientists of the day – ironcially many both clergy too and “creationists” who accepted creationism only because ti seemed consistent to what the data told them, though they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, as strictly literal creationists as the current breed. However, this latest incarnation of Intelligent Design creationism has had more than twenty years to establish itself in the scientific community, but it hasn’t, since its “scientists” – who are really mendacious intellectual pornographers given their modus operandi of lying, grossly distorting, and omitting scientific evidence and of course attacking their critics – have yet to submit their work for scientific peer review in professional scientific journals. Why? Because, as the “godfather” of Intelligent Design, Philip Johnson, himself, admitted, that Intelligent Design is not yet a viable scientific theory (And to be perfectly frank, nor will it ever be, especially since it’s been rejected soundly not just once, but more than once since Paley’s time.).

    I think there is far more proof to substantiate the validity of Klingon Cosmology than there will ever be for Intelligent Design creationism. Indeed, one could make a serious of persuasive arguments that Klingons are real, since their language is now spoken around the world.

    May I suggest reading Robert Pennock’s “Tower of Babel”, Ronald Numbers’s “The Creationists”, and Paul Gross and Barbara Forrest’s “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design”? All of these books, which are written by two noted philosophers, a historian and a biologist, clearly demonstate how and why Intelligent Design has “evolved” from earlier forms of creationism.

    There should be no doubt. Intelligent Design IS creationism. And it should also be regarded as mendacious intellectual pornography, given the ample lies, attacks and other chicanery practiced daily by its leading advocates from the Dishonesty Institute.

    If you don’t wish to understand this, then I wish you well in enjoying your membership in the Dishonesty Institute IDiot Borg Collective.

    Peace and Long Life (as as DI IDiot Borg drone),

    John Kwok

  16. RickK

    Replying to Roger Schmeeckle,

    It is a common distortion used by believers in “supernatural speciation” to declare that “creationism” refers only to the 7-day Genesis variety. Roger, you do realize there are religions other than Christianity, don’t you? Creationism is the belief that the world or life as we know it was created by a deity or deities.

    Believing that an intelligent superbeing tinkers with DNA to make new species is, by definition, creationism.

    As John pointed out, Intelligent Design is the offspring of purely Biblical creationist beliefs. In addition, almost every major proponent of ID has gone on record saying they believe the “intelligent designer” is the Christian god. Certainly the vast majority of ID-defenders I converse with on the internet do not hesitate to declare their religious motivations – and more than a few quote scripture while defending ID.

    So, contrary to your post Roger, the public assocates Intelligent Design with God. Period.

    And then there’s the basic problem of ID’s lack of any features of a scientific theory: observability, testability, falsifiability, a proposed mechanism, and predictive power. ID has none of these, while evolution offers them all.

    Roger, there is no nuance here. ID is creationism.

  17. Erasmussimo

    Roger Schmeekle, I’d like to express my appreciation of the calm tone of your remarks. I don’t agree with them, but you make your arguments in a civil and reasonable tone, which I admire.

    It’s true that opponents of ID often heap scorn upon both the theory and its proponents — but I think that such scorn is justified, even though it is divagatory. The proponents of ID have indeed engaged in a great deal of deceitful behavior. The very notion that ID is a scientific theory just like any other is itself deceitful. The truth of the matter is that ID is an attempt by religious believers to reconcile their beliefs with objective reality. Science seeks truth, not rationalization. You yourself mentioned the relationship between your religious beliefs and ID. (BTW, the Catholic Church has no objections to the theory of evolution and does not endorse ID.)

    But I’ll cite a specific example from the few minutes that I listened in on the radio show. Mr. Meyer claimed that he had a list of over 800 scientists who have signed a statement dissenting with the theory of evolution. The implication of his statements is that the theory of evolution remains scientifically controversial. This is most certainly not the truth; in the scientific community, evolution enjoys all but unanimous support. I suspect that Mr. Meyer’s list is comprised of people whose scientific credentials, if any, are not in the life sciences.

    You write, “Anyone who is familiar with ID, knows that it is not opposing evolution, only some of the allegedly false varieties of Darwinism, with the emphasis on the -ISM.” You are welcome to interpret ID in any fashion you please, but I suggest that your interpretation is far removed from that of most ID proponents. Perhaps you could present the specifics of ID as you perceive it. There is one variant of ID that is — for the moment — scientifically not disproven. That variant is the claim that God set in motion the biochemistry of life in the early years of this planet, and once those reaction cycles were established, permitted evolution to take over. Since scientists have not yet established a broadly accepted theory for the initiation of life on earth, this variant is viable for the time being. However, it is vulnerable to the possibility that scientists will indeed eventually work out a solid theory explaining that process, at which point it will become untenable.

    You also write: “Also, his emphasis on the amount of time it took for the circulation of journals, while correct, ignores the mass of correspondence that took place between philosophers and scientists in earlier centuries.”

    Yes, correspondence was an important component of the development of science, but the whole point of journals (“journal” comes from the Italian for “daily”) was to provide the latest scientific news to the entire community. Correspondence made no such attempt.

    Lastly, I will point out that the most commonly cited argument in favor of ID is the claim that the probability of life forming by random processes is far too low. What is striking about this claim is that the proponents of ID never make any attempt to quantify that probability, and they do not consider the equally important factor of the number of trials available to life. For example, the odds against any individual winning the lottery are millions to one — but there are millions of lottery tickets and in the end, the odds in favor of SOMEBODY winning the lottery are infinite (at some point, somebody wins).

  18. SLC

    Re J.J.E.

    I take Mr. J.J.E.s’ point, although a review by someone of the stature of Max Planck was probably at least as useful as most peer reviews today which obviously are not done by individuals of so distinguished a reputation. However, it should be noted that Einstein, at the time, was not much known outside of a small group in Switzerland, certainly not by most of the academics in Germany. It is to Plancks’ credit that he was able to discern that the papers submitted were of an extraordinary character indeed. It is quite possible that only someone of his caliber would have seen past what appeared to be very slim credentials on the part of Einstein. By the way, in response to the comment by Mr. Erasmussimo relative to references, it is my understanding that Einsteins paper on relativity had no references at al, not even to the Michaelson/Morley experiment.

  19. John Kwok

    @ Erasmussimo –

    The scorn you refer to is one that rests solely on the shoulders of Intelligent Design advocates like such infamous Dishonesty Institute mendacious intellectual pornographers as Bill Dembski and Stephen Meyer. If they had chosen not to attack their critics, but instead, opted to pay heed to their criticisms and demonstrate scientifically how and why Intelligent Design is a better theory than modern evolutionary theory in explaining the diverse patterns and processes seen within biology that point to “descent with modification” – to use Darwin’s phrase for evolution – then you wouldn’t see ample vitriol stemming from REAL scientists and those who support their work. Believe me, I take no joy in referring to Meyers and Dembski as mendacious intellectual pornographers, but time and again, they have demonstrated a most ample propensity to make serious omissions, gross distortions and outright lies in defense of an idea – Intelligent Design – which was soundly rejected by the scientific community of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries (And moreover, in Dembski’s case, all but admit to stealing on behalf of his work – a morally reprehensible act for someone who is a professor of philosophy and theology at the Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Texas – which he did concede when he boasted how he had “borrowed” a cell animation video produced for Harvard University by the Hartford, CT-based scientific animation video firm XVIVO. during lectures he gave around the country in the Fall of 2007.).

  20. Fernanda

    Redalyc is a scientific system whose main goal is to make science visible by having online and completely free for download more tan 119805 scientific articles on wide text which users may read, analyze and criticise. http://redalyc.uaemex.mx/

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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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