In the culture war of fact: lead with the values

GMOs are not the only fashionably foolish denialism sloshing around the internet. Chris Mooney explains over at Mother Jones:

“So is there a case study of science denial that largely occupies the political left? Yes: the claim that childhood vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism. Its most famous proponents are an environmentalist (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) and numerous Hollywood celebrities (most notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey). The Huffington Post gives a very large megaphone to denialists. And Seth Mnookin, author of the new book The Panic Virus, notes that if you want to find vaccine deniers, all you need to do is go hang out at Whole Foods.

Vaccine denial has all the hallmarks of a belief system that’s not amenable to refutation. Over the past decade, the assertion that childhood vaccines are driving autism rates has been undermined by multiple epidemiological studies—as well as the simple fact that autism rates continue to rise, even though the alleged offending agent in vaccines (a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal) has long since been removed.”

The offshoot:
“If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction…

…You can follow the logic to its conclusion: Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.
— By Chris Mooney
Mon Apr. 18, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
Hat tip to Cami Ryan

See also Henry Miller’s take on Chris Mooney at The Heartland Institute:
Mad Science
Environment & Climate News > May 2006
Written By: Review By Henry I. Miller
Published In: Environment & Climate News > May 2006
Publication date: 05/01/2006
Publisher: The Heartland Institute

The Republican War on Science
by Chris Mooney
Basic Books, September 2005
342 pages, $24.95 cloth, ISBN 0465046754
available on

“I enjoy a spirited, well-argued political argument as much as anybody, but in The Republican War on Science, journalist Chris Mooney offers only a tiresome polemic. It makes one think of a debater who is assigned to one side or the other of a proposition on the basis of a coin flip: If it lands on heads, he has to argue that the Republicans are the bad guys… ” more at link

Further Update

The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin
“This IS a real tour-de-force”  — GMO Pundit
“This passionate defense of vaccination may be just what the public needs…a tour de force.” — The New York Times 

“A book that should be required reading at every medical school in the world. The Panic Virus is a lesson on how fear hijacks reason and emotion trumps logic.” — The Wall Street Journal
“Serious and gripping…Mnookin’s careful science and compassion for both sides are examples for all journalists.” — Nature

Syndicated ,


  1. Chris Mooney is rather a malodorous character, and I am not convinced that he actually has anything worthwhile to contribute to a strategy of not offending others. From what I’ve seen of him thusfar his main persuasive strategy is to whine loudly that others aren’t doing things his way, then switch sides for a while and whine loudly again that others haven’t made the switch with him. If he is correct on how we should be fighting this “culture war” then it is probably an accident.

  2. I think it would serve the folks that created this web site to pay close attention to this article and cited research. It hits home on some points I’ve been making here off and on:
    1. Facts alone won’t change belief.
    2. For belief to change the messenger has to be right.
    Regarding point 2, there are some writing on this site that make good messengers and others that are very poor and counter productive–if the goal is to change the beliefs of those resisting this information.
    For example, if you want those who fall in the “care for environment and political left leaning” spectrum to shift attitudes towards GMOs it doesn’t pay to bash organic agriculture, which I readily admit is non-perfect, but around here the bias against it can be just as ill informed as the bias against GMOs.

  3. “For example, if you want those who fall in the “care for environment and political left leaning” spectrum to shift attitudes towards GMOs it doesn’t pay to bash organic agriculture, which I readily admit is non-perfect, but around here the bias against it can be just as ill informed as the bias against GMOs.”
    Jason makes some good points here about how people approach the topic of GE crops. Indeed, many anti-GE people use someone’s opinion of organic crops as an indicator of whether they should trust them on GE, or similarly, their opinion of GE depends on whether they see GE as being fundamentally opposed to that approach. I for one would like to see (and write) more about how to get such opposing camps to talk more and find common ground.

  4. Yes, agreed. Also we should acknowledge those who would like to see greater adoption of organic farming methods would be better off and get a better hearing if they didn’t denigrate alternative scientific approaches. A good example of success in framing discussions without demonising alternatives is the book Tomorrow’s Table. But unfortunately, that tolerant encouraging approach is not always in play. What we see in practice is several different pro-organic groups actively demonising alternatives to organic rather than simply making their own case. They even introduce rules such as zero tolerance of accidental presence of biotech crops in organic produce, which is an impractical rule designed to demonise a competitor in my opinion.
    And we should also bear in mind this site allows a range of views, and reports different points of view. I don’t necessarily agree with the framing of every post I make, but they need to be circulated and scrutinised. If biotech gets scrutiny, so should alternative technologies.

  5. I concur with Emerson White – isn’t Mooney the whingebag who rants on about the new atheists being too in your face?
    Some people do well being concilatory and nice.
    Some people do well being dicks.
    Some people respond well to those who are concilatory and nice.
    Some people need a big serving of dickishness to have them re-examine their beliefs.
    I fall in the 2nd category both in the doing and the responding – I’ve learned a lot more having people call me out quite viciously on my errors rather than being wishy washy about it – possibly something to do with my general obliviousness – sans embarassment I’ll just assume a wishy washy response hasn’t the first clue, if someone shows me up I’ll at least examine what I say more closely to assess whether or not perhaps the opposing view has a point.
    To posit that a single approach will work to change minds is as mind numbingly stupid as to suggest that a single agricultural methodology is the solution to all the worlds hunger and resource problems – if it’s hurtful to say so then I guess the other option is to simply avoid the truth wherever it becomes a nuisance – obviously it’s better to have people feel warm inside than to be factually correct.

  6. As an aside my general approach has, according to responses I’ve had, changed at least a couple of minds – that’s good enough for me – it’s not always about persuading the person you’re talking to – if I can convince those on the fence (ie the folk less likely to engage but who are possibly reading) then I consider that a far greater success than persuading the person I’m debating (who is likely so entrenched in their beliefs that they ain’t gonna shift) – after all, the hardcore on both sides probably represent only a fraction of one percent of the population – to that end it may make more sense to ignore the feelings of the person you’re directly debating and simply go for the jugular – time and again we’ve seen the same from the other side.
    After the dust has settled we can tell Mr Mooney that his concern is noted.

    1. Facts alone won’t change belief.
    2. For belief to change the messenger has to be right.

    Two reasons that the world sucks. I won’t play by those rules. People who won’t change their beliefs on the facts are, in my mind, pointless distractions – there are enough intelligent folk out there (and perhaps here I’m being hopelessly optimistic about humanity – any number of popular polls would suggest this to be the case) that sticking to the facts and exposing nonsense as just that hsould suffice.

  7. My aim is, in general, to speak the truth (preferably with footnotes). If someone isn’t persuaded by the facts, that’s their problem, not mine.
    Often enough, calling an ignorant lout an ignorant lout is part of telling the truth. And those who don’t like ignorant louts will often applaud that aspect of the truth.
    That is especially the case with proponents of the organic farming movement. They are ignorant louts, often intentionally. Anyone who wants to play nice with these mendacious neo-Luddites is either naive, or unable to spot enemy action in the culture war. Or do I repeat myself.
    And this notion of ‘organic GMOs’ and incorporating the technology [sic] that organic farming has to offer is not plugged into farming. Modern farmers will make use of everything cost-effective and sustainable that they can lay their hands on. If the organic people are doing something right on these two measures, you can rest assured that conventional farmers will be doing the same thing.
    Funny how, by this measure, organic farming has less and less to teach to modern farmers. Reason #1: organic folks don’t want to do modern farming. They crave the disconnect.

  8. Sometimes I find your truth to be very well considered, factually based, and I am in agreement. Other times you claim to have decided about things when it is clear you know little about the topic, or are extremely biased, which I only happen to appreciate because you bump up against my core areas of expertise now and then. So, I would ask you to consider that you really don’t have a monopoly on the truth. Your rant on organic farmers here and what is modern, etc., is a great example of the above.

  9. Jason,

    Facts alone won’t change belief.

    Are facts necessary? If someone does the “right” thing for the wrong reason, is that ok?
    I’ve never been able to definitively decide myself, but am curious what you and others think?

  10. What a great question. My sense is that facts do matter, science does matter. But scientists don’t always make the best “politicians” sensu latu. It often takes political skill to find the ways to communicate information to the broader public, especially when this information is demanding cultural and behavioral changes.
    Then again, people often aren’t even very good at explaining what their motivations are. They may do things but have no idea why. Actions are rationalized after the fact. Much behavior is determined by subconscious impulses.
    The individual is living in a social system that gives positive and negative feedbacks to behavior, and the society is part of and creates via the built environment all sorts of behavioral suggestions and constraints.
    A good example of this may be religious converts. Imagine your life is a mess, you’ve bottomed out. You join a 12 step program, become socially plugged in, change your behavior, find you are now a functional part of society, and keep your wife and kids close to you. What did this? Jesus? Your willpower? The program?
    Whole academic disciplines study the relationship between science and society. The history of how science is used and influenced by broader political forces is a fascinating topic. Look at how Integrated Pest Management became strong in California, for example.
    And the Light Water Nuclear reactor designs we are concerned about currently. These were chosen over safer designs because they make byproducts that can be used in weapons. It was a Cold War Era political, not scientific, decision that locked the domestic power industry into a less safe technology. (Bypassed were molten salt reactors.)
    Social trust in the ability of us to govern us is very low because of all these historical facts. Regulatory agencies don’t have a lot of credibility. For example, it is clear that the financial system was practically unregulated and nearly brought itself down, but nobody has been punished legally for this. Food recalls keep happening but the system seems unable to fix the abuses, etc.
    It is in this broader context that you see the fear and mistrust that some people bring when confronted with technologies that impact health, such as vaccines and GMOs. In the strict sense it may not be logical, but in the broader sense these people are reacting because they feel bitten. Science and technology and corrupt regulatory systems and greedy corporations get lumped together.
    Those of us with doctorates in the life sciences often don’t appreciate how much more we can understand these issues than the general public. We may quickly begin speaking gobbly gook and come across as arrogant. I am not trying to dismiss the bad actors that abuse public trust even further by misrepresenting the science and developing specious arguments. Just saying that it helps me to consider the big picture because knowing something about the human animal makes it all more sensible. And from there it is possible–not inevitable–to find either personal peace with the situation, and/or to shape it.

  11. I think the more important consideration for light water reactors was that they can be made small and are what are used in nuclear submarines. The small size is mostly due to hydrogen being an excellent moderator. All the other reactors have to be physically much larger because the mean free path length of fast neutrons is longer.
    They don’t use light water reactors as breeders.

  12. I think I’d agree in that science does matter, but facts are not sufficient. For me, the optimum lies with understanding the problem more than knowing it’s details. HA!…, that came out a bit more holistic than I’d imagined it would.! Belief, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, and I find reliance on it distasteful. That said, I do find myself supporting those who I think are doing good things even as they do so for the wrong reasons (IMO). Religion you mention is a big one with strong history and emotion tied to it. For me personally, it has been Seed Savers. They are of a staunch anti-GM mindset that will likely never change. Yet, I feel they are doing a valuable service maintaining seed sources , in a primarily non-centralized, open source style network. I find that very appealing. But then I get the quarterly mailings with the sensationalized anti-corporate, anti-GMO schtick and my stomach turns :-/. The benefit out weighs the BS for me, I guess. I’ve got two decades in with them now. I always wonder how odd I would feel at their annual meeting….
    More to the topic, Two examples I can think of where people have tried Mooneys ‘hit em where it counts’ method. One would be E. O. Wilson’s book Creation where he tries to convince the right wing religious sect that enviromentalism is God’s work, not a liberal conspiracy. The other would be Stewart Brand’s about face, talking to the other side, i.e. main stream environmentalists, trying to convince them that they need to open up to new ideas. Neither one seems to have made much impact even though they each carry much clout. It would seem the value/belief side has limits too.

  13. He actually has good cause to “rant” against “organic” farming, because the claims the “organics” people make are b*llshit.
    I know whereof I speak: I called myself an “organic” gardener for years, and I worked at an “organic” farm for four years.
    Then one day I decided to open the certification manuals and started reading. Here’s what I found:
    –“organics” manuals have zero tolerance for “pesticides” while allowing pesticides use. No carbamates whatsoever, but copper sulfate, OK! Pyrethrum, OK!
    –they advise that “organic” livestock not be treated with “allopathic” medicine but allow “homeopathic remedies” for everything from mastitis to digestive disorders.
    –“organic” farming practices include “biodynamics,” a cult started by Rudolph Steiner, whose methods include stuffing cows’ horns full of manure and burying them in compost piles in order to focus “cosmic rays” and improve the compost.
    –“organics” rails against “synthetics” continually, but there would be no organic farms without the widespread addiction to plastics for irrigation, mulch, pots, greenhouses and packaging.
    Needless to say, I dropped the “organics” ideology like a bad habit once I discovered what it’s really about.
    BTW Jason, why don’t you tell us about your involvement in the “peak oil” doomer cult?

  14. “Tomorrow’s Table” is the best attempt that I’ve seen, though admittedly I’m a lay person (small farmer) and haven’t read all the literature.
    My impression of that book: the stuff on GMOs is fascinating; the organics stuff, not so good. They completely skip over the absurdities in the “organics” movement, and the authors are guilty of chemophobia: They mention “toxic pesticides” many times, and repeatedly refer to the “poisonings” caused by pesticides. They even say they won’t feed their children food that has come into contact with “toxic pesticides.”
    Anyone on this blog should be able to see the outrageous absurdity of that.

  15. While I understand the hype surrounding Organic (TM) you refer to, that is only the current regulated face of it. Writing off the whole organic paradigm (wow, did I actually just use that word!) because of that is as unfair as dismissing all GMO because Monsanto touched it once. Perhaps it’s time we stop letting the extremes of both sides define the terms. So when you point to the “manual”, don’t call organic BS, but rather call their definition of organic BS. Dismiss them, not the ideas.
    I am reminded of an article in a small paper here a while ago which covered local-vore restaurants in our region. The owners and chefs all started out gung-ho on “Organic” and sought out local organic producers. They soon moved away from that, however, for similar reasons you point out. The term simply had no real meaning. They decided that, in the end, it was more important to work with local producers, organic or not, who they could talk to personally and have an interaction with during the production process. They also found it had little to no effect on customer choice. They succeeded by redefining “Organic” to “Local”.

  16. Jason: It is in this broader context that you see the fear and mistrust that some people bring when confronted with technologies that impact health, such as vaccines and GMOs. In the strict sense it may not be logical, but in the broader sense these people are reacting because they feel bitten. Science and technology and corrupt regulatory systems and greedy corporations get lumped together.

    I am not convinced history plays a lasting role here. It is important to understand the “why” people feel bitten. For me, the role of propaganda is the major driving force determining why people believe what they do. It’s what they are told to believe. Anti-vaxers believe what they do because of the anti-science message they hear. On the other side, when I was growing up, we were constantly bombarded with a “Science and technology are the answer” message and grew up believing that. I don’t think people in general were “burned” along the way any more than they always have been. I do, however, think they were told they had been “burned” and that informed their opinion.
    This is why the facts are so important. They are the only objective standard to which we can measure. The only way we can cut through the noise. For a lasting and dynamic process of change, the facts will eventually need to enter the process in order to avoid the static dogma that belief leads to, no matter what side it comes from.

  17. This is exactly what I’d like to see. I can rattle off what I don’t like about the legal definition of organic just like Mike, but I can also rattle off positive attributes.
    You are saying what I am saying about this list–be careful because you sometimes act just as poorly as those you are acting against.
    This list is best when it discusses the positive attributes of GMOs, or openly discusses the social contexts in which they may or may not be best used. I would same the is true about organic promoters–they are best when they are for something, not when they are against GMOs (especially when they are mis-representing the science).

  18. I am in the same boat as you in many ways. Some of my friends believe in biodynamics, for example. I can’t comprehend the spiritual side of it, but I also see them doing some great things with their farm that I want to see perpetuated. Kept alive, at least, with the Darwinian perspective that we need variety to for selection to act upon.
    One of my big beefs with big ag is its bigness. It has become like the too big to fail financial institutions. More decentralized, regionalized, and diverse food systems are probably a lot more resilient, especially as energy gets more expensive and the markets destabilize due to inability to grow.
    What organics does in some situation (not all as plenty just buy in organic versions of conventional ag supplies) is look more carefully and indigenous and local resources to produce food. I think we need more of this since I believe in rate limits to the ability of us to extract more and more from the Earth.
    For biologists just think of Optimal Foraging Theory–we are not going to exhaust the population of our favored prey species, but we are going to need to switch to less favored ones and this will mean our own consumption levels will decline. The less favored ones = alternative/renewable energy. I am a bit supporter of alternative energy but I don’t see them as giving us the same society/economy we have now. It will be a macro-economically smaller and more decentralized economy. This is where many aspects of organic (and related techniques such as agroecological and permaculture) have advantages.

  19. As Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Combining consumers’ magical thinking with the distinctions which apply between ‘good magic’ and ‘black magic’, and you get a fairly sound explanation of what is going on in many cases.

  20. Eric,
    Then the answer is education. I would amend Clarke’s statement to ‘any technology sufficiently advanced beyond the observer’s understanding is indistinguishable to him from magic’. When someone sees chemotherapy and homeopathy as just two different kinds of Magic, then why wouldn’t they choose the one whose providers promise the cheaper, surer and most comfortable outcome? What we have to do is make Science less magic, and Magic risible.

  21. Going all the way back to Pdiff:

    Are facts necessary? If someone does the “right” thing for the wrong reason, is that ok?

    I actually wrote an essay some time ago on this, titled “Sixpack Rules.” The thesis is that there are certain rules for “Joe Sixpack” (the name representing someone who generally or specifically lacks expertise in a given area) that don’t apply to others.
    Joe shouldn’t think about knives when his kid has a belly-ache, but a surgeon can perform an appendectomy.
    Joe shouldn’t put cooked, oily or non-vegetarian scraps in the compost, but I, and the local food-waste processor, know how to discourage vermin and stench.
    Joe should heed the warning “Do not remove screws; no user-serviceable parts inside,” but _I_ am trained.
    I think Joe should follow the rules of OG (to keep him from trouble), even though _I_ don’t.
    The problem is, I can’t let Joe know the rules are not universal, or he’s likely to get all Dunning-Kruger and inappropriately presume that he’s got more expertise than he has. That’s why ALL dogs have to be on leashes.
    But if he believes the rules ARE universal, and worse, if he’s been given a not-quite-factual, even “catastrophizing,” explanation of the reasons for the rules, he’ll get all resentful, scared and fanatical if he sees me or someone else flaunting them, demand (or commit) action to stop me, and generally be annoying. He’s not likely to accede to my claim of sufficient expertise, but rather call me a “Planet Killer” or “Shill of Big $$$$$” or some other accusation that can only be addressed by changing his whole set of knowledge of the issue.
    The alternative? A “Certificate of Competency” or license in each area of life? A Darwin Award society? (‘Problem is, the rules protect not only him, but me too.) Make the rules universal? (cringe.)
    Of course, we are all “Joe” in most areas; if we know our limitations, if we know that we don’t know, we can stay out of trouble, but that introspection is far from universal; can we educate people to be able to know their limits of expertise? The Dunning-Kruger effect is depressing:

  22. I have had more than a bit of experience dealing with ‘Six-Pack’ Joes, and have a few observations.
    Nearly all Joes have not read a book since graduating from High School, and will even brag about that on occasion — even 40 years later.
    The few Joes who read newspapers (~2-3%) go immediately to the sports section and discard the rest.
    The gang-greens who purport to represent consumers, those comprised to a great degree of Joes (~50%, the rest being Jills), are lying. At least in the US. Europeans are far more politically engaged on nearly anything at all.
    The vanishingly small minority who are consistently amazed, appalled, afraid, shocked, scandalized, et cetera, control the Popular Narrative.

  23. And there was published (and reported-on in Pharyngula) a study that, despite their ever-earnest pleas to “just read the Bible,” religious folk, ESPECIALLY fundamentalists, have less knowledge of it, on average, than self-identified atheists. But that’s correlation, not causation, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

  24. First this: “So when you point to the “manual”, don’t call organic BS, but rather call their definition of organic BS. Dismiss them, not the ideas.”
    Then this: “The term [organic] simply had no real meaning.”
    Which is it? If those that write the manuals can’t come up with a definition that isn’t BS, then it’s probably time to retire the term.
    I opt for taking the word “organic” [outside of the sense used in chemistry] and throwing it into the trash bin of history–along with “resurrection,” “psychotherapy,” and “homeopathy.”
    The “organic” folks have no truck with the locavore movement outside of organics. See the following screed:
    “We believe that there shouldn’t have to be a choice between local and safe organic; but rather that consumers should look for food that is not only local or regionally produced, but food that is also organic and therefore safe and sustainable.”
    I want to SLAP this f—ing people.

  25. Mike,
    Me First! (I’m more anonymous and more likely to get away with it). GOD (or whoever) DAMN! Where did you find that piece of crap link? That many lies in one place is in danger of starting a collapse into a black-hole of prevarication. (I thought _I_ was bad!)
    The conflations, scare-words, unsubstantiated claims and outright lies are amazing.

  26. Why thankyewvarymuch:
    The basic idea has been around a while, but now we have numbers. The earliest unambiguous exposition (I know of) is here:
    “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing” or “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing” or “The unexamined life is not worth living” all have the same germ, at least on the one side. The error of UNDERESTIMATING your knowledge isn’t addressed (“that doesn’t look right to me, but he does this for a living, so I guess I’m wrong”).
    Sorry: Philosophy major….

  27. If those that write the manuals can’t come up with a definition that isn’t BS, then it’s probably time to retire the term.

    Fine by me as long as you take “Natural” out with it. The manuals stem from a desire to pigeon hole an idea and have a certified marketing advantage underneath that.
    you ask “which is it?” In regard to what? For me it is “forget about the label, and pay attention to what people are actually using” Observe and adapt as necessary.

    The “organic” folks have no truck with the locavore movement outside of organics. See the following screed:

    Case in point. Stop generalizing with “Organic folk”. More likely “Some vocal proponents of organic”.
    That aside, the link you have there is indeed a gem. They complain about local being a fuzzy term and then proclaim organic to be “legally” defined. 🙂 But, in the end, they are just trying to co-opt the term locavore. So, don’t let them. The author of the article admits straight up that the term was not coined with organic in mind.
    I believe it is probably a non-issue anyway as energy prices will force the majority of markets to become localized eventually. Some may be “Organic”, some may not.

  28. Yes, I second Anastasia. I was not familiar with D-K. It seems to be in the same vain as Tetlock’s expert opinion work or Kunda’s motivated reasoning synopsis (Psychological Bulletin, 1990, Vol. 108, No. 3, 480-498).

    The error of UNDERESTIMATING your knowledge isn’t addressed (“that doesn’t look right to me, but he does this for a living, so I guess I’m wrong”).

    Would you consider this a worse error? After all, if they do that for their living, isn’t that some assurance they might have more of a clue than J. Sixpack?
    Sorry: Statistics major …

  29. This is a very important point. It explains why those of us who admit the limits to our knowledge (something ingrained in me by scientific training) are at a disadvantage to those who are uber confident and think they know everything.
    Recent great examples of this are the financial industry and academic economists that supported deregulation. While this whole mess was being created there were plenty of expert voices saying it will be a train wreck. Meanwhile, powerful men in suits from the biggest companies and finest academic institutions said, no, trust us, we know what we are doing. The movie Inside Job covers this well, among others.
    Now there are a lot of people who no longer trust EXPERTS, of ANY KIND, if they are connected to INSTITUTIONS of POWER. What a total mess. Our inability to govern ourselves stems from the fact that we are a species that evolved in the wild but now find ourselves in a complex society of our own creation, the scale of which inevitably erodes the social trust needed for cohesion.

  30. Back when Dunning and Kruger were in diapers, the syndrome they describe was known as ‘cocksure ignorance’.
    “Education is man’s going forward from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.” — Kenneth G. Johnson,

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