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Thread: Is there such a thing as fact?

  1. #1
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    Is there such a thing as fact?

    I'm studying for a masters degree in history, and recently had a rather troubling seminar with a highly talented historian/literature professor who complained at the lack of interdisciplinarity in humanities research (this is a science-related question, I promise). He claimed that historians, in their relentless pursuit of "truth" have favoured the study of "documents" over "texts"; leaving literature and its historical contexts to be studied by language majors. The valuable insights into the hopes, aspirations and ideals of a period that literature can give is not seen as the domain of objective, rational inquiry. This is, he points out, rather incongruous. After all, simply studying the documents of the Cold War will give you far less of an idea of the public mood and uncertainties of the time than watching 50s scifi movies. Watching "The Taming of the Shrew" will give you a better idea of women's behaviour in the 16th century than reading "courtesy books" which discuss an ideal, rather than an actuality.

    Anyway, what he ultimately said was that many things, texts, artefacts, even pictures, could be read historically. He even went so far as to mention that archaeological and anthropological remains could be read historically. It was at this point that I began to wonder, where does history end and science begin? Of course, I am aware of the scientific method; hypothesis followed by experiment followed by repeatable result etc. However, at what point does this ideal of objectivity break down? I've often read that science and other forms of "rational" inquiry are based on fact. But it seems to me that what is really being spoken of is observations. Scientists make observations and then infer the facts from them. But how solid are these facts?

    My degree has already made it very clear that there is no such thing as historical truth; all that occurs is the reading and interpritation of a text. But where does that leave me as far as science is concerned? After all, the genetic code and the geological record are, in their own way, texts. How do I stand up to a creationist who claims that he is merely reading the text one way, and I another?

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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality
    My degree has already made it very clear that there is no such thing as historical truth; all that occurs is the reading and interpritation of a text. But where does that leave me as far as science is concerned?
    ...no such "thing" as historic truth?? I must disagree with an example...

    Back in 1852, ole' Ben Franklin was playing around with a kite during "inclement" weather. As a direct result of that "playing around", Lightning Rods started popping up all around the Country (and the World).

    The incidence of buildings being destroyed by Lightning dropped dramatically.

    How is that not "historic truth"?


    (There are many, many examples throughout history...this one just happens to be my favorite.)

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    We only have the historical record to tell us that Franklin's experiments inspired the lightning rod. It is quite possible that someone else inspired it; we take it for granted because it is what we are told from day one of our lives. And anyway, how can you connect one man's experiment with a phenomenon that spread all over the world? It might be that Franklin's discovery and the use of the lightning rod were independent. Of course, to prove this statement wrong, you look at historical records. But historical records are products of human bias and perceptions. For instance, it is "historical truth" that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. In another reading of history, the telephone was invented by an Italian years earlier, and Bell stole the credit.

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    That's quite a trick for Ben, since by 1852 he'd been dead for 62 years. I presume you mean 1752. There is also some debate about whether he did this himself, and at least one source states that he proposed the lightning rod concept years before the kite incident. The kite business was not "playing around" but a deliberate investigation into the state of electric charge in clouds.

    History is a debate now. All we have from times before the invention of the photograph are the writings or recorded memories of those who were there. And after photography, there is still the possibility of deception or misinterpretation.

    Edit to add: Science consists of repeatable experiments. History doesn't. One has to be objective when dealing with both, and try not to apply your own biases to your observations.

    Fred
    "For shame, gentlemen, pack your evidence a little better against another time."
    -- John Dryden, "The Vindication of The Duke of Guise" 1684

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    Photographs, even undoctored ones, are not any more reliable than texts. Most are of entirely staged events or of individuals specifically composed to record themselves as they wish posterity to see them. Even those seemingly of random events are coloured by what the photographer wishes to show and conceal.

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    It might be that Franklin's discovery and the use of the lightning rod were independent.
    ...and you have just made an extraordinary claim...backed up only by the idea that they "might" have been independent...

    Prove it...

    Quote Originally Posted by Nowhere Man
    That's quite a trick for Ben, since by 1852 he'd been dead for 62 years.
    Yeah, Ben was quite "tricky".

    I presume you mean 1752.
    Well, I got the "52" right!!

    The kite business was not "playing around"...
    Sorry...that was my "attempt" at humor...

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    Quote Originally Posted by R.A.F.
    ...and you have just made an extraordinary claim...backed up only by the idea that they "might" have been independent...

    Prove it...
    I don't think you are quite understanding parallaxicality's post. He is not claiming that Ben did not do those things, he is simply claiming there is no way to definitively prove that he did those things. Although it is far-fetched, there is at least the extremely remote possibility that it is all wrong. We are dealing with things that happened in the past based on incomplete and possibly faulty records created by a imperfect, possibly biased people. That does not makes it wrong. The case with Ben is very well-documented by a variety of sources with completely different biases and perspectives, so it is very unlikely to be made up. Nevertheless, no matter how much evidence we come up with, there is no way to absolutely prove that any historical event happened.

    To take an even more extreme example, I'll use the US Civil War. This is something that has such a mountain of evidence behind it that there can be no reasonable doubt that it occured. However, there is the extremely, extremely, extremely remote possibility that there was somehow some massive conspiracy that people thought up one day to teach everyone after that the civil war occured when in reality nothing of the sort happened. I understand this proposition is unbelievably silly, I picked it specifically for that reason, but there is still an extremely minute chance that it occured. It is not worth serious consideration, but the fact that there is a chance means we cannot be 100% sure that the civil war occured (even though we may way more than 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 99999% sure). It is the same thing as in science, no matter how sure we get nothing can be absolutely proven.

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    So let's return to the purpose of the thread: to understand the difference between a scientific fact and a reading of a text. Clearly, reproducibility is a key part of science, yet many experiments cannot be reproduced. We can't set up a Big Bang, but we can watch the show from the original version. Of course, as we do, we are in fact reading a text, complete with all our biases, and more importantly, our limited intelligence. So why is ID or creationism not simply another reading of the text? The answer is, it is just another reading of a text! But the point is, it is not a scientific reading. It is a reading that ignores most of the evidence, and is designed to reach a pre-arranged conclusion. That's a different reading all right. But we have to stop getting hung up on concepts like fact and truth, and realize that the debate is what is the scientific method of reading a text, and what isn't.

    Granted, it is really evolution, not the Big Bang, that is of greatest debate. Evolutionary processes can be reproduced, and are, yet we will probably never use them to generate a new species like homo sapiens (think of the ethical issues if we did!). So we will probably always be reading a text there. The issue is what method will be used-- what are the rules it must follow to be considered science. What has worked in the past? What has led only to ignorance and superstition?

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    Great thread! Great content in the original post and replies!

    My meager thoughts:

    A scientist makes observations and records them. Those records
    are historical documents. Someone-- maybe the same scientist--
    uses those observations as the basis of a theory. That person
    writes up the theory. It is a text.

    Other scientists will look at the records of the observations
    and/or the text of the theory, and try to determine whether the
    records are accurate, whether the theory fits the observations,
    and whether some other theory might fit better, or at least
    equally-well.

    Historians will look at the records of the observations and/or
    the text of the theory, and try to determine whether they were
    actually written by the person who claimed to write them, when
    and where they were actually written, how the writings may have
    been affected by other events going on at the time, etc.

    I see historians as scientists with limited opportunities to
    perform experiments-- a lot like astronomers.

    As for the title of this thread-- Of course there is such a
    thing as fact-- you just can never be completely certain what
    those facts are. Bad eyesight, bad records, bad theory, bad
    memory, can all lead a person astray.

    -- Jeff, in Minneapolis
    http://www.FreeMars.org/jeff/

    "I find astronomy very interesting, but I wouldn't if I thought we
    were just going to sit here and look." -- "Van Rijn"

    "The other planets? Well, they just happen to be there, but the
    point of rockets is to explore them!" -- Kai Yeves

  10. #10

    The Quantum Observer....

    There is a theory that concludes (theorizes?) that all experiments are influenced by the observer.
    see, http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/Num...g/observer.htm

    Suggesting, perhaps, that everything, except mathematics, contains a relative condition of ambiguity.

    Metaphysics ( a system of cause and effect that differs from everyday physics... take off your mind and enter) implies that there are two sets of reality:
    1) consensus reality wherein a vast majority agree upon something and make it a "fact" or belief.
    2) a transcendental reality wherein one receives information that violates the current consensus reality (Einstein's mind experiments [imagining] are a good example).

    My opinion is that all (non-mathematical) "facts" are current beliefs subject to modification.

    Here is (perhaps) an on-point example:
    The Great Pyramid at Giza (a GIANT 'text' artifact) was observed for thousands of years (since 2800 B.C.). The relationship of the pyramid's height to the sum of the length of its base sides is that of a radius to a circle ( 1/2 Pi ). Early civilizations, who (we are told) knew nothing about Pi did not recognize the ratio embedded into the pyramid's design. So, they interpreted the pyramid in the terms that they understood (big, rocks, slope,
    huh, grunt). When Hipocrates (325 A.D.) was credited with discovering Pi then the Great Pyramid gave up an additional secret. It took on an evolved (enhanced) meaning that could cause a reinterpretation of that period. The "facts" were changed by a new observation.

    It seems to me that your teacher is (partially) doing you a favor by weaning you from consensus reality and alowing for the creation of a measure of self reliance (a root, perhaps, of all new discovery). Perhaps, "fact" can be substituted with "current belief". Nevertheless, his (your teacher's) reference to movies (a mythological medium) seems a bit off-base.

    quote: "Scientists make observations and then infer the facts from them.
    But how solid are these facts?" end quote.

    The "facts" become more solid by recurrences and duplication, but are, never-the-less, subject to revision.... after all, Einstein turned (portions of) Newtonian Physics upsidedown. I guess that what your teacher is saying is to "question reality".

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by John_Charles_Webb
    The Great Pyramid at Giza (a GIANT 'text' artifact) was observed for thousands of years (since 2800 B.C.). The relationship of the pyramid's height to the sum of the length of its base sides is that of a radius to a circle ( 1/2 Pi ). Early civilizations, who (we are told) knew nothing about Pi did not recognize the ratio embedded into the pyramid's design. So, they interpreted the pyramid in the terms that they understood (big, rocks, slope, huh, grunt). When Hipocrates (325 A.D.) was credited with discovering Pi then the Great Pyramid gave up an additional secret. It took on an evolved (enhanced) meaning that could cause a reinterpretation of that period. The "facts" were changed by a new observation.
    What facts changed by the new observation?
    0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 ...

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    I think JCW means that the significance of a fact can change when we understand its full context, even if the fact itself doesn't change. For example, if we ever find that the digits of Pi contain a linguistic pattern of some kind, rather than being random in character, then that would be a new "fact" even though Pi itself has been with us all along. It speaks to the issue that even the results of a mundane observation could be telling us something amazing that we are simply blind to because we don't yet understand it in the proper context. Is that the idea, JCW?

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    Quote Originally Posted by John_Charles_Webb
    Here is (perhaps) an on-point example:
    The Great Pyramid at Giza (a GIANT 'text' artifact) was observed for thousands of years (since 2800 B.C.). The relationship of the pyramid's height to the sum of the length of its base sides is that of a radius to a circle ( 1/2 Pi ). Early civilizations, who (we are told) knew nothing about Pi did not recognize the ratio embedded into the pyramid's design. So, they interpreted the pyramid in the terms that they understood (big, rocks, slope,
    huh, grunt). When Hipocrates (325 A.D.) was credited with discovering Pi then the Great Pyramid gave up an additional secret. It took on an evolved (enhanced) meaning that could cause a reinterpretation of that period. The "facts" were changed by a new observation.
    Pretty much every western civilization, including the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, were aware of Pi. The Chinese were also aware of it. It even appears in the Old Testament. And that knowledge was not lost and rediscovered like some things, it has been consistently passed on. This is because it is a fundamental principle of mathematics, any civilization with even the slightest bit of mathematical awareness would probably come across pretty quickly.

    Secondly, Hippocrates died in about 380 BC (give or take 5 years or so), so there is no way he could have discovered Pi in 325 BC, not to mention 325 AD.

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    Hippocrates was probably related to Ben Franklin then.

    There is quantitaive study and qualitative study. i think when you call something like history a science, you mean something fundamentally different from something like astronomy.

    That lightning is electricity is the fact, whether Ben discovered that or someone else, does not alter that aspect of things.

    Historical documents or text - not sure what the distinction is there - may be less than accurate, but if a pyramid is 100 feet wide, it is 100 feet wide. We may change our minds on why it is that dimension or what it might signify, but it still will be 100 feet wide until it erodes away. Measuring it in meters doesn't alter its size, just the units of measure. History is not a quantitative science.

    The body of Custer on the ground is a fact. How it got there is more difficult to determine from historical records. We can measure his bones or weigh his remains and feel confident in our findings. Who shot him or exactly when might be a lot harder to determine with confidence.

    Science is the measure of something, it cares not a whit for the story. History is a story and an interpretastion. You can use some of the tools of science to flesh out your history, and history might suggest some lines of study for science. For me the line is where it crosses from quantitative to qualitative.

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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality
    We only have the historical record to tell us that Franklin's experiments inspired the lightning rod. It is quite possible that someone else inspired it; we take it for granted because it is what we are told from day one of our lives. And anyway, how can you connect one man's experiment with a phenomenon that spread all over the world? It might be that Franklin's discovery and the use of the lightning rod were independent. Of course, to prove this statement wrong, you look at historical records. But historical records are products of human bias and perceptions. For instance, it is "historical truth" that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. In another reading of history, the telephone was invented by an Italian years earlier, and Bell stole the credit.
    So, an ID proponent would say that the idea that lightning rods protect houses from lightning is just a theory. Since it cannot be proven, then we have to teach students alternate theories, like the theory that lightning rods are useless.

    Then students grow up and build houses without lightning rods, and their houses burn down.

    Edited to add: I'm reminded of a Douglas Adams paragraph about Man proving that black was white and then getting killed at a zebra crossing. Or something like that.

  16. 2005-Oct-31, 03:36 AM

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    If there's one fact I've observed in this thread, it's that everyone seems to be getting their initial dates for important evens wrong. I suggest we research our material a bit more before posting significant dates.

    Oh, and Khufu's Pyramid was constructed at aproximately 2600 BC, not 2800 BC. Google is your friend.

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    Quote Originally Posted by The Shade
    Oh, and Khufu's Pyramid was constructed at aproximately 2600 BC, not 2800 BC.
    I thought these things took centuries to build, and records are poor. Perhaps this is splitting hairs?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken G
    I thought these things took centuries to build, and records are poor. Perhaps this is splitting hairs?
    Historians and Egyptologists generally agree that the pyramid took about 20 years to build.

    Perhaps you're thinking of European medieval cathedrals?

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    2600/2800, darn, missed it by less than 5%.

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    Yep...very old thread bumped. But; these comments...
    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post
    ...But historical records are products of human bias and perceptions. For instance, it is "historical truth" that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. In another reading of history, the telephone was invented by an Italian years earlier, and Bell stole the credit.
    ...make me think this story is relevant.
    The Bell telephone: patent nonsense?
    More conspiracy and bribery claims against Bell.

    That kind of talk drives Ed Grosvenor up the wall. "It's just [expletive]!" he says. "What bugs me is that these things were litigated and litigated and litigated. So many courts looked at this."
    He's right about that. Bell's patent was challenged in literally hundreds of legal cases in the 1800s and each time the courts ruled for Bell.
    Even if the claims are true, Bell would have had to do some groundbreaking work to be able to file the patent.

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    I think the key in all this is to recognize that there really is no such thing as absolute truth, because it is hard to define and impossible to establish. But there is still a concept of "truth", which is related to the methods that arrive at it. In regard to history, if you analyze documents, you may arrive at one "truth", and if you interview people who were there, you might arrive at a different truth. Combine them, and you have a new truth again, more nuanced perhaps. So the best you can really ever do is report both the "truth" and the means you used to arrive at it. At least then people can agree "yes that is the projection of the objective truth onto that means", and one should not really hope for more. What makes science so special is that is so intentionally focused and quantified that objective truth always comes out the same even with different means or different observers, with the appropriate prescriptions for translation (like relativity).

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    Quote Originally Posted by NEOWatcher View Post
    Yep...very old thread bumped. But; these comments...

    ...make me think this story is relevant.
    The Bell telephone: patent nonsense?
    More conspiracy and bribery claims against Bell.


    Even if the claims are true, Bell would have had to do some groundbreaking work to be able to file the patent.
    Well, in Meucci's case, which is the one I was referring to, the issue revolves around how one defines the word "telephone," and how close to the modern day contraption one has to be before it earns the title.

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    Cool

    Parallaxicality, have you ever read Karl Popper's reflections on history? He had some interesting ideas. For example, he denied that there was any such thing as a "universal history". He said that, instead, there are infinite perspectives from which an author may choose to analyse the historical record, each of them just as valid as any of the others. In recent years, it seems that historians have been evolving in that sense; I see now books devoted to such topics as the History of Women, the History of Clothing, the History of Food, and so on. His argument was that each of these is just as valid and real as the more traditional history, which really comes down to the History of the Mighty and Famous (he used a harsher term).

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    I think the quote about history that was the most eloquent I've heard is when Ken Burns was asked about his "The War" research, he said that "history is our relationship with the past". I interpret that as saying history is not a list of every event that occurred and when, like if aliens who knew nothing about humans were just observing and writing down everything that happened, because that list would be both absurdly long and also completely useless all by itself. Instead, we choose our own relationship with that list, and take a "projection" onto both our modern concerns, and the techniques of inquiry we will use to address what parts of that list are accessible to that technique. This transforms the list into something else, something that actually has value to us now, and that's what Burns means history is. That also dovetails with the historian/literature professor in the OP, who seems to feel that if one concentrates on techniques that only tell you parts of the list itself, you miss out on the potential relevance of that list to us, a relevance you may learn more about by looking at transformations of that list such as literature. Will a creationist understand that? Probably not, or they wouldn't be creationists in the first place. But at least you can have that in the back of your mind to solidify your footing.

    In terms of the question in the OP, if we are just "reading the text" of genomic information, I would say that we are looking for a meaningful relationship with that "text". Yes, you can read the text any way you like, but the "proper" reading is defined by the relationship that you are seeking. If we seek a scientific relationship with that text, because of the power of a scientific relationship for understanding and controlling the power that text represents, then we have to read it scientifically.

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    Wink

    I suspect that Popper would agree with Ken:

    "A universal history of mankind would have to be the story of all men and women “the history of all human hopes, struggles, and sufferings” because nobody is more important than anyone else [...] But that history cannot be written, it is far too rich, all narratives have to be selective and focussed. But with this we arrive at the many histories; and among them, at that history of international crime and mass murder which has been advertised as the history of mankind." K. Popper

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    Quote Originally Posted by parallaxicality View Post

    My degree has already made it very clear that there is no such thing as historical truth; all that occurs is the reading and interpritation of a text. But where does that leave me as far as science is concerned? After all, the genetic code and the geological record are, in their own way, texts. How do I stand up to a creationist who claims that he is merely reading the text one way, and I another?
    Since you're a history student, what you say here is probably the most important thing to learn: "history is what is written by the winners".

    This is why I'm a scientist. I hate human interpretation of events, whenever a subject is brought up, certain people always divert away from the main issue with side issues. In my science classes, there is usually a "right " or "wrong" answer without too much wiggle room for interpretation.

    But in my view, a "fact" is something which can be measured with a scientific instrument. But even here, all instruments have a "tolerance" or maximum precision they can attain. Even the Hubble Telescope isn't infinitely precise, it has a diffraction limited resolving power.

    So in my view, if somehow you can write history with the "facts" such as above, you're probably on the right track. If for instance, you have a choice between (a) a journal excerpt from a Civil War general, or (b) an artifact on the battlefield ; always choose (b) over (a) in writing your "true" history.

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    This is certainly an interesting segment from Disinfo Agent's Popper quote:
    "and among them, at that history of international crime and mass murder which has been advertised as the history of mankind"
    Not to get into politics here, but this echoes HypothesisTesting's complaint, that if the winners write the history, they may have a vested interest in reinterpreting "crime and mass murder" as agents of positive change. This in turn may affect our own relationship with the past, by skewing our attention to what has the most significance, rather than on what is the most important. If you see the difference.

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    Well history IS written by the victors. Either that or peeps who stay up all night editing wikipedia.
    As for if there is any such thing as a FACT, I like the courtroom idea of 'reasonable doubt', it admits we can not know, but we can be sure enough to work with, and if new information comes up, that goes into the equation as well. In that way we can constintly refine our ideas, and never have to admit we are wrong.

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    Smile

    Agreed, and (since I'm in a mood for quoting) I see your final sentence as a companion to the well-known saying:

    "Insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result" -- author debated, apparently.
    Not only do intelligent people refine their ideas to prevent from admiting that they're wrong , but people who never revise their ideas can best be described as foolish.

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    Quote Originally Posted by R.A.F. View Post
    ...and you have just made an extraordinary claim...backed up only by the idea that they "might" have been independent...

    Prove it...
    It's not an extraordinary claim at all, in science and technology there have been quite a few instances of several people developing the same tool or idea without interaction between them.

    As for the lightning rod, IIRC, it was seperatly invented in Europe and in America at around the same time, the 1750s. In fact, I see that it is mentioned in the Wikipedia article on lightning rods.

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