The business of making unsubstantiated personal observations true

Feb 12 2010 Published by under Debate and Discussion

Poor Matt Nisbet takes his lumps around these parts because his academic field is spin, sorry framing. This is the process within professional communication whereby the strictest and most precise depiction of the current state of knowledge about objective reality is...undervalued. Undervalued relative to driving home whatever broader themes and ideas the communicator happens to favor. Undervalued relative to rounding up votes on "your side", regardless of why such voters may favor your position.
This annoys some scientists. The process of doing this in the news media or political setting annoys scientists to no end. Telling them that they need to start doing it themselves absolutely infuriates them.
Well, Nisbet has another version of his communication expert doucherocketry up today and it made me realize something. In this post, Nisbet declares war on that online discussion standby, the pseudonymous/anonymous commenter.

Over the next year, I have plans to invest in various content features at Framing Science, and one of the improvements I am looking forward to is an end to anonymous commenting.


Of course, who gives a crap? Bloggers can do whatever they like with their comment policies. His blogging does not seem to have much interest in discussion through the comments anyway. He's been accused in the past of wielding a heavy hand of moderation against comments he simply disagrees with. He's welcome to it.
But I get twigged, as always, by authoritative statements of fact that have no evidentiary backing. Like this one:

Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity. And with a rare few exceptions, if you can't participate in a dialogue about issues without using your full name and true identity, then what you have to say is probably not that valuable.

You will recognize the theme from recent discussions involving the Nature Network blogfolk.
Laelaps did a good job responding to the surface points:

This is nonsense, Matt. There are many commenters and bloggers who, whether out of personal preference or due to safety concerns, write anonymously or under pseuds. As with anyone else I may agree with them or disagree with what they write, but it would be pretty stupid for me to say that their view does not count because (for reasons that are frankly none of my business) they do not write under their own name.
And anonymity does not = incivility. There are plenty of bloggers who use their real names that, depending on your view and the "groundrules" of conversation in different places, might be considered incivil. If your real concern is incivility then it is something that involves all bloggers, not just the ones who write under pseudonyms. Indeed, you say that "Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity" yet you provide no actual evidence to back up this claim.
To me this looks like one big case of confirmation bias.

Tru dat!
But here is what I realized:

Just remember Laelaps, he is not in the business of understanding what is true about objective reality. He's in the business of manufacturing statements about reality out of whole cloth and then working as hard as possible with expert "communication techniques" to get people to believe it. Whether it happens to be true or not.

And that's the rub, isn't it? This is what drives scientists bonkers about the political process and the current state of the news media. Absolutely, sputteringly, gibberingly inchoate. This notion that there is no such thing as objective truth or reality. That all that matters is what you can convince a bare majority of your audience (or voters) to believe. This is bad enough in the political process but it is absolutely offensive to civil society when this is the legal process.
I think this broader theme, that of attempting to make things true by repetition and spin, is what makes it worth responding to these unsupported statements wherever they may be found. Sure, Nisbet is considered to be a blithering idiot among the framing warz crowd. But he does have real world cred and wanders about spouting his theories, trying to make them true by doing so from as broad a platform as possible.
This is not much different from the blithering about anonymous/pseudonymous online commentary you see from the direction of the higher-ups in the Nature Publishing Group. They have no data. They refuse to incorporate the results of blogs which set a civil tone with anonymous commenting enabled or from pseudonymous blog writers in their thinking and instead focus on uncontrolled, unmoderated political-ranting style blogs. Confirmation bias indeed, Laelaps. They live in some weird bubbles wherein their peers won't tell them they are being an asshole when they obviously are. This may be politer but it sure as heck isn't "better". It is demonstrable fact that when politeness is prioritized over acquainting someone with objective reality seriously bad stuff can happen.
Such blithering should be challenged.

42 responses so far

  • Ed Yong says:

    Well said.
    The guy's blog is pretty much the antithesis of what I think a good science communication blog should be about. He endlessly pontificates about science communication without actually doing any. He take simple concepts that anyone who's ever spoken to a marketing person would know, shrouds them in jargon and pretends to be speaking from a position of intellectual authority. Tailoring your words to your audience? Apparently, that's "framing". Using a wide range of channels? This is "going broad". My entire blogging life is spent trying to translate jargon into everyday language. He does the opposite.

  • Pascale says:

    Of course, I am so uncivilized that I'm having trouble with the English language. The noun for the condition we are discussing is incivility. But is an uncivilized individual (such as myself, even though I use my real name 24/7 online) uncivil or incivil when practicing incivility online?
    The ScienceBlogs spellchecker flagged the latter as incorrect, but then this forum cannot be trusted since it allows anonymous/pseudonymous commentary.
    Of course, this comment is completely boring; guess I should have posted it over at Nature, huh?

  • PalMD says:

    I think Nisbet is one of the best parodies on the web. Whose sock is he, anyway?

  • Interrobang says:

    I'm a communications professional, and I think he's full of shit. I feel about Matt Nisbet about like Orac feels about Michael Egnor. I think framing is a useful concept -- and it ain't the same as spin; it's the same as applied audience analysis -- when done correctly. Advanced rhetorical techniques don't give you a license to bullshit.
    I was reading George Lakoff before George Lakoff was cool. Likely before Nisbet ever heard of him, at any rate. Nisbet pisses me off because he's done more to discredit professional communication to scientists than any conceivable ratfucking exercise designed to do just that.
    Just explain one thing to me: How come we can all agree that Nisbet is full of shit all the time, yet too many scientists seem to think he actually knows what framing is? From where I'm sitting, he's just bullshitting...again.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    ok, ok, I confess, Interrobang, I am unjustifiably tarring the discipline with Nisbet's antics. Sorry.
    My personal view (having come along long after the Sb framing wars) is that objection to the specific frame Nisbet was championing was greater than the objection to applied audience analysis. After all, the prof-scientist is supposedly able to move from 101 undergrad to 404 undergrad to grad student to various academic audience levels seamlessly. They are fine with the principle of shaping the message for the audience.

  • This is the central point I was trying to make at our session at ScienceOnline. The blogger can set whatever tone they like and are free to manange the tone. What is more important is establishing goals for the blog and then evaluating your success in meeting them.
    I disagree that pseudonymity has any real influence. I find most of my pseudonymous commenters far more civil than many of the real name peeps I see around here.

  • Joe says:

    So -- let me get this straight:
    1) A blogger who spends a considerable amount of time stressing the importance of 'grantsmanship' thinks 'spin' is bad?
    2) You guys really think that bloggers and commenters would not think more carefully about everything they wrote if they didn't have protection of pseudonymity?
    These questions are not rhetorical.

  • Isabel says:

    "would not think more carefully about everything they wrote if they didn't have protection of pseudonymity? "
    Many of us have been very open (and thoughtful and honest) on this blog's cannabis threads, including openness about our own or loved one's cannabis use.
    While I have done so under my real name at times, I certainly wouldn't want it available for anyone to google easily. Even being outspoken about legalization...I am not sure if DM would agree. There is a lot of discussion of drug use in general around here.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    1) A blogger who spends a considerable amount of time stressing the importance of 'grantsmanship' thinks 'spin' is bad?
    and you could say the same thing about a professor who teaches first year courses through graduate courses and then presents research at a narrowly focused scientific meeting. Of course it is appropriate to shape a message for a particular audience. It boils down to detail in some cases. Really, the biggest problem is that people disagree with the content of his particular spin on an issue. and this gets more into the factual basis and the use of spin to, in essence, misrepresent reality. here, I'm disagreeing with his spin on anonymity.
    2) You guys really think that bloggers and commenters would not think more carefully about everything they wrote if they didn't have protection of pseudonymity?
    Nisbet referred to incivility specifically. We are not talking about content domains and how these might relate to pseud versus out blogging we are talking about tone of discourse. And no, I don't support his universal claims. Obviously.
    He also referred to "value" of what one had to say. Again, I disagree that pseud/anon versus out blogging/commenting has anything to do with "value". "Value" is a property of what is being written. In comparison with the actual text, the identity of the author is of much reduced importance.
    And I argue that those who make a big deal out of the identity of the author being most important to the value of what they say are those that have credentials but little of value to communicate.
    Even being outspoken about legalization...I am not sure if DM would agree
    I am considerably more open about my position on legalization in real life. This has little to do with my opinion being easily googleable and everything to do with what I want to accomplish on this blog when it comes to drug abuse science.

  • David says:

    "And anonymity does not = incivility."
    Of course is doesn't. At the same time, I believe it's disingenuous to not acknowledge that it certainly makes it a hell of a lot more likely to occur. The (imperfect) analogy I'd use is that most people who think nothing of stealing music online would not dream of shoplifting a CD in a store. Similarly, many people who will engage in all sorts of outrageous behavior under a pseudonym will not do so under their own names. I actually started to post under my real names in some of the forums I participate in because I realized that posting anonymously made me behave for the worse.

  • neurolover says:

    I'm with David. Whatever this Nesbit guy is talking about (I don't know), I think it's clear that pseudonymity influences behavior. The influences can be both for good and ill (good = ability to comment honestly about information you do not want to share with the entire world, i.e. drug use, or opinions about bunny hopping science; bad = potentially lying about your knowledge, "uncivility", etc.).
    You've now attacked attacks of pseudonymity without talking about what you think makes it valuable. I myself am starting to get uncomfortable about it, more so for the bloggers than for the commentors, who I can read or not read if I think they're being uncivil. But the awkwardness of pseudonymity (I hate when people talk about their science in hugely non-specific ways, especially when some differences of opinion are caused by field-specific differences), if nothing else, and the potential worry that assumptions I make (for example, what if "private medical school" means an alternative health institute, or an osteopathic school?) has made me start to question the pseudonymous blogger.
    The pseudonymous commentator has the same problem, but, that's less problematic, 'cause you just can't believe anything that's factual -- you can only analyze opinion, and that you judge on whether you find the opinion convincing.
    (And, though I find these comment threads generally civil, generally, and don't think a the discussion could be as good without pseudonymity, I think that many newspaper threads are basically unreadable, as compared, say, to letters to the editor).

  • Cashmoney says:

    And because you @#10 personally have no moral compass that means what for the rest of us?

  • neurolover says:

    "In comparison with the actual text, the identity of the author is of much reduced importance. "
    That's kind of true, but kind of not. For example, your ability to speak meaningfully about grants review depends on the fact that you are both an NIH-funded scientist, and that you have served on grants review. If those things are not true (and we can't tell, as long as you are pseudonymous) the value of the information itself is diminished.
    I'm all for blind-judging of value in a lot of cases (the data on musicians is fascinating, and I think the argument for not judging blindly very weak; I watched one season of project runway and decided I'd like the show a lot more if the fashions were judged blind). But, there are bounds to the separation of information/value and authorship.

  • neurolover says:

    "And because you @#10 personally have no moral compass that means what for the rest of us?"
    Oh come now -- does that mean that you're equally unlikely to copy a friend's CD to your itunes as to steal the CD from the store? And if so, is it purely because your moral compass is so sure that you'd never steal music? (Let's presume that you download the CD and then return it to the store).
    If the commentor at 10 had made the same argument at your sister's dinner table, would you have made the response you did here? What if "David" was actually your brother in law? Your father? Your nephew?
    Anonymity changes behavior.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I kinda see what you mean but I argue that over time, my words should build that categorical confidence, thus my specific identity is not necessary. If you start to suspect my opinions, then how would it help to know who I am? The words would still be offering bad advice

  • David says:

    "And because you @#10 personally have no moral compass that means what for the rest of us?"
    Ah, the *irony*. I acknowledged that I observed myself as being more likely to behave poorly (i.e. rudely) when posting anonymously. And what happens? A person posting under the name of "cashmoney", engages in a logical fallacy, twists my words, and behaves rudely by insulting me and suggesting I have no moral compass.

  • David says:

    #15. But aren't we discussing completely different things? I agree completely with some of the benefits of allowing anonymity that you mentioned. For instance, you pointed out that it may allow people to be more honest. I agree. Ironically, that honesty is also one* of the factors that probably makes us more likely to insult each other when posting anonymously. That is, if a person is posting anonymously I think it makes it more likely they'll say what they really think and call someone an idiot or worse.
    I could not agree more that over time your words should build categorical confidence, in fact one of the fun things about anonymity is that it potentially forces us to lose some bias when judging what people are saying (because if we don't know who they are we might not immediately accept or discount their opinion as we might if we knew).

  • Cashmoney says:

    True, if David were related to me there would be more swearing. And more insults if inmy nuclear fam

  • David says:

    Well at least we both have senses of humor :-). Though I must say you'd probably have to insult and swear at me in my absence, as if I were part of your family, I'd change my name and identity and move as far away as I could :p.

  • Isabel says:

    "I am considerably more open about my position on legalization in real life. This has little to do with my opinion being easily googleable and everything to do with what I want to accomplish on this blog when it comes to drug abuse science."
    I did realize after I posted that, that it would probably keep the threads more on topic if commenters did not discuss legalization or anecdotal evidence of their own or social circle's drug use. I am sure that would make some lurkers and commenters happy.
    But I do have to agree with those who have characterized some of your posts as "baiting" legalization advocates, and I still can't figure out why you are therefore so reticent to discuss your own position. I understand that you are claiming it's off-topic, sooo why the baiting? You stated recently that you are trying to win people over to your point of view on your blog; and you are starting posts with lines like "Those legaleeze folks should really stop and take a look at this latest research" which strongly suggests that you are not pro-legalization. Or you simply think the "legaleeze-it folks" are too starry-eyed and not looking at all the evidence, but there is no evidence for that! In any case it almost guarantees that the thread will veer off-topic.
    I also can't help wondering if it would affect an NIDA-funded scientist's career if they published blog posts criticizing policy and advocating reform (or if they discussed their own use of illicit drugs) using their real names.

  • david says:

    @ David
    Oh yeah, David, as in David and Bathsheba is your real name. You are still anonymous, no one can call you on the phone or send you a letter, or even know for sure what country you are in. You could put info down, you'd still be anonymous. You kid yourself that you are not.
    You could probably post something on Nesbit's blog, but fair warning he only allows those who agree with him.
    Nesbit's problem is obvious : he is full of crap. If he did know what he is talking about, he could "frame" it so people would like it, which he can't do. So where is he doing this touted framing? This voting? Not on his blog which is stiff, hostile and authoritarian. I would gladly take on the silly twit with any audience, except his mother.

  • Jaime A. Headden says:

    I have no beef with this blog or that blog; however, I've been posting under my own name for almost 15 years now, public and open (you can Google me!) and in this sense, it was to be public and open. When I started posting (forums, etc.) it was private, and I realized that scientifically speaking this was a rather closeted method of communicating. I could literally say anything without repercussions to ME. This changed simply because I felt it was dishonest to represent the name under which I posted was ME -- it is not.
    Thus, for the mere sake of personal honesty, I post using my own name, and it keeps me sane.

  • becca says:

    "I disagree that pseudonymity has any real influence. I find most of my pseudonymous commenters far more civil than many of the real name peeps I see around here."
    And this, dear Drugmonkey, is why this is one of the worst possible examples for an "I don't like these consensual reality truthiness shenanigans" argument. If ever there was something that was about common consensus, it's language and communication. I think that if we all agree that online anonymity should result in incivility, it assuredly will. Likewise, if we carefully cultivate a particular type of blogging atmosphere, we would find quite the opposite (as Isis does).
    If I were being snarky, I would speculate about the source of incivility, and whether people who think all anonymous commenters are suspect are themselves the sort of people who learned to not be goatfuckers be civil solely when they can be held accountable. I.e., those who feel you have to be "nice" to people, *to their faces*, but who are constantly strained by barely being able to contain their contempt for the people around them.
    Of course, we all know I'm never snarky and would not in any event advocate wearing one's verbal incontinence on one's sleeve as a valid alternative for keeping it all in as a seething ball of resentment.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Having been in the pseudo business for neigh on seven years, allow Eli to point out that at some point the costume becomes more real than the stuffing. In the Bunny's and monkey's cases, the suit is better known and more "real" (whatever the hell that means) to more people than the protoplasm. Staying in character is vital. What would a CPP post be without a few fucks?

  • David says:

    @ # 21:
    "You are still anonymous...You kid yourself that you are not."
    You are jumping to false conclusions about what I am saying and thinking. How do you know what I "kid myself" about? Did I indicate anywhere that because I am posting here under my first name that I an under some delusion that I am posting under my full public identity? I would post under my full name but it would be pointless (on this blog) because there are no unique user names, and 3 seconds later some anonymous poster could come along and post under my name pretending to be me.

  • david says:

    @ 25
    No, if you really thought true identify was best for posting you would be doing it now instead of trying to revise by qualification what you previously said . Also, maybe someone else already did write some comments as you, we would not know.

  • David says:

    "david", are you the same person as "cashmoney"?

  • J. J. Ramsey says:

    To be fair, there is something to Nisbet's claim, which is basically a rehash of Penny Arcade's Greater Internet F--kwad Theory. The problem is that (1) anonymity is only a small piece of the puzzle as far as incivility is concerned, and (2) anonymity has value for those who could face repercussions for telling the truth under their own names.

  • David says:

    @ #28. Thanks for that link, priceless.

  • PZ Myers says:

    Well, I'm convinced. I've been rude and most uncivil for my entire blogging career, and what I'm going to have to do to end that is stop using this silly pseudonym. From now on, you should address me by my real name, which I hope doesn't shock too many people out there. I was just afraid no one would read me if they knew who I really was.
    Scarlett Johansson.

  • Adi says:

    Unfortunately with a name like Adi, it's tough to blend in with one's surroundings (sorry David). Still, I have a deep appreciation for the topic.
    Many of the comments on my site, civil and not, come from anonymous or pseudonymous sources. I can't say that I've found a serious correlation between civility and identification, but I haven't run the analysis. I guess I'd have to go with a tetrachoric correlation in this case unless I somehow quantify civility.
    Try posting something on the addictive potential of marijuana, or actually, pick any side on that topic and incivility will drip out your proverbial pores...

  • You should change the name of "Pharyngula" to "A Study in Scarlett," Scarlett. It would make it easier to pronounce. Also having met you in person, I must say that I am quite disappointed that you are continually in disguise.
    I post under a pseudonym for good reason, and it is because there are things that I wrote under my real name which I had no clue nor inkling that could possibly be used against me or someone close to me that turned out to be damaging. Also, it turns out I have blogstalker who is trailing me who has an old axe to grind that is completely unrelated to anything that I do now and has posted libelous comments about me when she finds comments under my real name.
    Nisbett is making a false equivalence argument and I have no doubt that he is a supercilious snob both in life and on his blog. He drops names, he gives talks, he travels about "Fixing" science communications for people who don't need his help. The problem with science literacy is not in the way that scientists present, it is with the audience; most of which just don't give a shit about science.
    Our TV has been dumbing us down for decades and the good stuff is rare, while the large majority of programming is some sort of spinoff or offshoot from MTV's "Real World" or "Road Rules." Why would my teenage daughter care about whether or not it is ATP or ADP that is the byproduct of metabolism if she can also sit back and find out if Tia Tequila finds the girl or boy of her dreams? (Hypothecally, of course. My own teenage daughter doesn't watch that shit.) The large part of of the audience are reading People Magazine, or For Him or whatever rag puts scantily covered models on the cover to sell aftershave.
    Last night I was watching "House" on Braco network and what was once the home of quality broadcasting is in the business of making spinoffs of something called "The Real Housewives of Major Metropolitan Areas" and I just about threw up with the segments that they showed. People diving head first into shallow water, objectifyng themselves, and the ratings are apparently good enough to keep on spinning the show into new cities.
    And Nisbett thinks that by careful framing and telling scientists to shut up about being atheists (even though he is one himself) he will be able to turn this tide?
    He worries about the identity of the commenters over the content of the comments? He should use his supposed powers to do good and not evil by going to Network and Media execs and trying to convince them that they are the ones who are destroying the popularity of learning about science. Let me know when he takes his message to the audience that needs to hear it and stops nattering about "civility" and the value of content.

  • J. J. Ramsey says:

    PZ Myers: "I was just afraid no one would read me if they knew who I really was: Scarlett Johansson."
    How long has your wife known about this? 😛
    Sorry, couldn't help myself.

  • Regarding the last line of your post: "It is demonstrable fact that when politeness is prioritized over acquainting someone with objective reality seriously bad stuff can happen."
    This doesn't follow: I think you are confusing politeness with deference (which was the root of the problem in the Korean Airlines cockpit). An over-arching concern for politeness can inhibit free exchange of views but, to my mind, it's quite possible to have a robust and informed exchange of views while remaining on polite terms with your 'opponent'. Why does impoliteness or rudeness or incivility, whatever you want to call it, necessarily provide a fast-track to the 'truth'. It can often just inflame passions so that rationality is chucked out the window. Which is not to say that strongly held views should not be aired in strong terms - just that recourse to personal insults is usually not helpful (however cathartic).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    SC, I agree that many people confuse deference to their authoritah and standing with 'civility'.
    it's quite possible to have a robust and informed exchange of views while remaining on polite terms
    of course it is possible. it is also possible for remaining on polite terms (defined by some) to make it impossible to have a robust and informed exchange of views.
    Why does impoliteness or rudeness or incivility, whatever you want to call it, necessarily provide a fast-track to the 'truth'.
    this one is a highly personal viewpoint and one that I advance (see FWDAOTI in the archive link; I had a three parter on arguing) with less ferocity than my more general purpose views on the ways the demand for superficial civility is most often deployed. The general view is merely that sometimes you cannot get to the truth without incivility. *sometimes*. There is no universal prescription on the incivility side, unlike on the civility side. which should tell you something. absolutists are usually wrong..:-)
    recourse to personal insults is usually not helpful
    sometimes they are necessary to get the self-satisfied wielders of the levers of power to abandon their self-serving pretenses. Sometimes they are necessary to rally the troops. Most of the time, however, what is viewed as a 'personal insult' really isn't and the offended party is merely retreating to a position of martyred pique to avoid grappling with the issues at hand. pretty much any time someone says "what you said/wrote/did is offensive to X" and they say "stop calling me an -ist" you have this scenario...

  • You bastard - I think I might actually agree with everything that you've written!
    Wield that incivility weapon with great care, though...

  • mk says:

    What is anonymity in this regard anyway? I see plenty of what appear to be real names in these comment threads. J. J. Ramsey and Jaime A. Headden for instance in this one. But there is no link under their names. Who are they? Is that anonymous commenting? Should each person have a blog themselves?
    Maybe we need to produce IDs?
    I don't think Matt N. has thought this through.

  • Colin says:

    Hi there DrugMonkey,
    I've just got to take issue with your distaste for framing. I know Interrobang already brought up the point that framing and spin are different. While I'm no expert in science communication theory, I think framing has a really important role to play in science journalism.
    Talking to varying levels of undergrads is a totally different than trying to convey info to the public, and that's where I think framing really comes in to play. My response ended up getting really long, so I wrote it up here: http://dreun.blogspot.com/2010/02/getting-point-to-public.html
    I appreciate anyone who wants to set me straight, agree, or otherwise.

  • skeptifem says:

    I was under the impression that the anonymous/rudeness connection doesn't have much to do with knowing someones name so much as being unable to exchange subtler forms of communication. People can take things however they want to online, in contrast with face to face communication where non verbal communications shape how the words are received. Bumping into someone or saying something rude in person often causes people to exchange facial expressions or jestures of appology briefly that make the encounter less agitating. These are not possible online, or in the car (in the case of road rage). Knowing someones name isn't going to change that part of it.
    I am not sure why people who are not civil are automatically counted as not being worth listening to.

  • Vicki says:

    Mk makes a good point. I could sign these posts "Vicki Williams" and everyone would probably take for granted that was my real/offline name. (It's not.)
    Conversely, on Usenet years ago, in one of my hang-outs, people would periodically show up and accuse newsgroup regulars of using fake names. Almost always, it was aimed at one of two people, who had somewhat unusual names, and some controversial opinions. Both of those people were in fact using their actual legal names: each of them had changed their name to the one they wanted, rather than what their parents gave them, but the usual assumption is that "Mary Smith" is probably real, "Vicki Smith" almost certainly is, and "Aahz" is a pseudonym.

  • adagger says:

    I'm late to the party here, but... It seems to me that pseudonyms are (often) a lot less anonymous than legal names, which would seem to weaken Nisbet's argument even further. When I see a comment by drugmonkey or Comrade Physioprof, I can be pretty sure that I'm not mixing drugmonkey up with his distant relative who is also named drugmonkey, and I can easily find written records of CPP's opinions on... well, basically anything given who I used as an example here :), whereas that's most likely not true of Jenny Jones. The handles that many people come up with are easier to identify as someone I recognize, and to connect to previous commentary, than legal names are.

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