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Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 72, N 1, 2002
The successes of science are always accompanies by its "shadow", parascience and pseudoscience. Such a situation has always existed, but in our day the "shadow" has reached threatening dimensions. Pseudoscience is exhibiting an aggressiveness. It is penetrating scientific communities, the editorial boards of journal and publishers, organizes its own "conferences", and interferes in the process of higher education. In the natural sciences pseudoscience damages biological disciplines especially frequently since our knowledge about the origin, development, and principles of the life processes of the human organism and animals is still not sufficient and admits to different interpretations in a number of questions. The reasons for the origin and development of pseudoscience are discussed in the article published below.
Modern science is an enormous army of specialists with the highest skills, modern instruments which are able to heighten our understanding of the world around us by millions of times, approach objects at great distances from us, study high-speed and unusually slow physical, chemical, and biological processes, and perform an enormous amount of complicated calculations in a very short time. Science allows us to understand the principles and the details of the structure and properties of the world around us and the structure and mechanisms of the life processes of our own organism and all living creatures.
The importance of science to society is beyond any doubt. This is confirmed by results in such scientific fields as atomic physics, space research, and genetic engineering. And it is not at all easy to understand why there exists and is expanding a vague silhouette of some "research" activity which we call parascience or pseudoscience next to the powerful foundation of science.
ELEMENTS OF CLASSIFICATION
One can classify parascience as the pursuit of dubious or even intentionally spurious research and observations which are nevertheless performed for a period of time. They can even be useful in a certain sense. For the Middle Ages the most suitable example of pseudoscience is alchemy. In the 12th-14th centuries when alchemy flourished the study of various chemical reactions was important for the natural sciences although, of course, the search for the philosopher's stone and attempts to obtain gold from mercury were absolutely mistaken. In succeeding centuries under the pressure of science alchemy lost any meaning .
Unlike parascience pseudoscience is based on approaches which have never been proven and no one has proven scientifically but are dressed in scientific clothing. The unproven, purely speculative, and often completely fantastic claims of ancient physiology and medicine about the functions of a living organism and its individual organs [2,3] could theoretically be classed in this category of phenomena. However surprising this is, in our times far-fetched and even fantastic "scientific" concepts arise and figure in scientific publications. Often they exhibit a surprising tenacity like ancient physiological concepts which were in no way supported but existed for centuries. Evidently this aspect of pseudoscience is peculiar to all times.
One more category can be added to our approximate classification. These are crude, undisguised speculations on scientific or supposedly scientific hypotheses. For example, knowingly spurious theories about the possibility of transmitting thoughts at a distance and moving objects with a glance (telekinesis), curing various illnesses with miraculous medicines and procedures, an exhibition of "contact" with the world beyond, removing a "curse" or "evil eye", etc. All these phenomena ought to be given a single word - fraud.
One can only classify and separate parascience, pseudoscience, and fraud from one another in their most dramatic expressions. In the remaining cases these categories are often confused, hence any kind of accurate classification turns out to be impossible. Therefore henceforth we will use a single collective name, pseudoscience. Such a method, of course, reduces the accuracy of the description of the entire problem. However this is the only means of performing the initial categorization of the entire "mass" of "facts" which are unusual for science and for finding and presenting the clearest examples of pseudoscience most suitable for analysis. We will cite such examples from biology, physiology, and medicine, as those are the fields of science which are especially often and deeply affected by pseudoscience.
One might say that the first "classic" example of pseudoscience which we are presenting here is the "discovery" of so-called N-rays by Professor Rene Blondlot, a famous physicist and member of the Paris Academy of Sciences. Blondlot dealt with various problems of physics and never touched physiology. However in the autumn of 1903 he published an article about the discovery of N-rays in "Comptes Rendus Academic Science", the most prestigious science journal in France. In his opinion, these rays were emitted by various metals and had the biological property of sharply increasing vision. Blondlot claimed that under the influence of N-rays a person obtained the ability to see in almost complete darkness. A special spectrometer was made where a metallic prism served as the main part. With its aid Blondlot measured the increase of sensitivity of vision to light. He determined the length of the waves of the N-rays emitted by the metallic prism which supposed had the greatest effectiveness in increasing the sensitivity of the eye to light.
By the end of 1903 he had published 12 articles on the topic of N-rays in the same journal. By the summer of 1904 they numbered 20. Blondlot's articles were received with interest in France. However, they encountered many skeptics abroad. The English Physics Society sent the famous physicist R. Wood to Blondlot at the University of Nantes. During a demonstration of the action of N-rays, making use of the darkness, Wood removed the metallic prism with whose aid the inventor of N-rays measured their activity and put it in his pocket unnoticed. Blondlot did not notice this and continued with enthusiasm to "increase" the sensitivity of his vision in darkness. Wood made several more similar experiments and was quickly convinced that he was dealing with elementary autosuggestion. Several days later a report was published in Nature and an end was put to N-rays forever, although not immediately.
I do not in any way cite this example to describe the mistakes of one physicist in the field of biology. The problem is that more than 10 other laboratories in French universities hastened to confirm the existence of N-rays after Blondlot's article appeared in the press. These laboratories were not headed by novices or sensation seekers. One can name the laboratories of the famous French physicist A. Becquerel, the biophysicist N. Charpentier, the physiologist and biologist d'Arsonval, and many others. All these scientists not only unanimously confirmed the "discovery" of Blondlot but also "developed" it. By the end of 1904 the number of articles about the various phenomena of N-rays in Comptes Rendus Academic Science had reached 100! And still this was not all. The Paris Academy of Science gave powerful support to the "discovery" of Blondlot, awarding the scientist the Lalande Prize, the most prestigious scientific prize for physics in France, although Blondlot's "discovery" had already been exposed by Wood and all N-rays research had practically ceased. A critical description of this quite instructive episode in the history of science was later made in the scientific literature [4,5]. Now I will permit myself to switch to later examples.
In 1981 in [issue] N? 4 of the popular magazine "New Show Week" printed in Hong Kong scandalous material was published about the "treatment" of starvation with drugs. The publication was preceded by tragic events in the republic of Bangladesh where in 1980 famine intensified and many people began to die from exhaustion. By agreement with the authorities foreign drug companies flooded the republic with very cheap drugs which supposedly had "miraculous" properties to head off apathy and famine during malnutrition and starvation. As a result, many people who had taken these "miraculous" medications suffered. Of course, it is not surprising that the foreign companies perpetrated a deliberate fraud for profit. Another thing is surprising: the means by which the Ministry of Health of the impoverished republic, where a number of highly-skilled doctors and scientists worked, permitted such commerce, for a second-year student already knows that a shortage of food is a shortage of energy and no medicine can make up an energy deficit in an organism. The licenses of the corresponding pharmaceutical firms to do business in Bangladesh were taken away after counting up the number of victims of such a means of treatment for hunger. A brief description of this incident was provided in the weekly "Za Rubezhom [Abroad]" (1983, N? 20) based on foreign press materials.
Recently the foundations of scientific biology and physiology were threatened by disruption as the result of a sensation. This was the "discovery" of a process of animals and humans obtaining nitrogen from inhaled air . Nitrogen comes into the human organism in the protein of food and is mainly assimilated by cells after it is broken down into amino acids and subsequent synthesis of new protein molecules. Of all living organisms only a few of the simplest (some bacteria and Cyanophyceae) are able to take atmospheric nitrogen directly into their bodies. For higher animals and man the existence in tissues of a process of direct assimilation of nitrogen from inhaled air is also as incredible as the process of photosynthesis, which is inherent only to green plants. Acceptance of such a "discovery" would require an announcement that all the findings and consequences of the theory of energy of living organisms were invalid. It is understandable that this would lead to an absurd situation since modern bioenergetics is based not only on theoretical concepts but also on indisputable practical results. Nevertheless the concept of assimilation of nitrogen from air was developed entirely officially in one of the scientific research institutes in Gor'kiy. The staff of corresponding laboratories participated in scientific conferences, made reports, and wrote articles. At the beginning of the 1980s a large commission of prominent scientists from the USSR Academy of Sciences completely rejected the conclusions of the authors of this "discovery" since it had found no satisfactory quantitative (numerical) proof of their main idea. However speeches and publications about the assimilation of nitrogen by humans continued for some time.
The next example is generally far from any sort of strict scientific research. In 1985 a drug to treat cancer was proposed in one of the Soviet republics which acquired the name "katreks". The inventor of this drug stated that he had isolated an active anti-carcinogenic element from the livers of Black Sea sharks, comparatively small, completely harmless animals. Their body length and weight are approximately 10-15 times smaller than ordinary average-sized ocean sharks. No one explained why the internal organs of Black Sea sharks served as the source material for the preparation of the drug. In the words of the inventor, his drug underwent testing in a clinic and allegedly received a high appraisal. Such statements and citations are not unusual. Judging from the published reports of various clinics some of its specific actions on the illness were not observed during the testing of "katreks". Nevertheless the hype about the drug did not fade away.
The story of "katreks" had certain differences from other similar cases, which can serve as a basis for analyzing the origin and spread of pseudoscience. The first difference was that for a short time this obvious pseudoscientific idea received wide notice and unusual popularity. The mass media constantly reported about the drug and the inventor for quite a long time. The second, more important, difference was that the USSR Ministry of Health was actually sponsoring "katreks". On 10 February 1988 Ministry of Health Instruction N? 92 about the advisability of conducting clinical tests of "katreks" appeared. In the same year a broad and detailed discussion of this "problem" was held in the Ministry of Health Collegium. The quite long meeting was relayed by television from beginning to end, which unquestionably intensified the hype, but did not promote the establishment of the truth.
This story ended as it should have. After some delays the yellowish liquid under the name "katreks" came to the RF Ministry of Health's Leningrad Oncology Institute for research in the biochemistry laboratory. A careful comprehensive biochemical analysis did not detect any active elements in "katreks". The liquid contained traces of protein and the bacillus of the pathogen of a disease which was called "fish cholera". The results of the analysis were printed in the public press. Subsequently, as far as we know, the story of "katreks" had no sequels. Who now remembers this intriguing event?
Still one more example illustrates the dramatic consequences of the mistakes of modern scientific research projects in the field of physiology. Such mistakes lead to a useless waste of personnel, resources, and time and eventually become a cause of the rise of pseudoscience. I'm talking about artificial blood.
It is known that donor blood, that is, blood which is directly taken from a person, has certain shortcomings. It does not withstand storage for any long period; it is necessary to record the blood group of the patient and the donor during transfusion, which is not always easy and convenient; it does not withstand sterilization, etc., and therefore the problem was raised of making artificial oxygen-carrying blood substitutes. The first attempts of this sort were made in the US at the very beginning of the 1930s. From the 1970s to the 1990s an entire army of scientists worked on this problem in scientific research institutes in American, British, French, and Japanese universities. Corresponding research was conducted in the USSR at the same time.
There existed (and exists now) two methods of preparing oxygen-carrying blood substitutes. The first is with the aid of a solution of hemoglobin which is acquired after the hemolysis (destruction) of erythrocytes. The creators of artificial blood completely ignored the most important functions of the complete undamaged erythrocyte which were formed during lengthy biological evolution. It is therefore not surprising that such a solution revealed a multitude of shortcomings and even life-threatening properties. For 50-60 years the scientists of various countries together tried to overcome the shortcomings of a solution of hemoglobin. They managed to improve its oxygen-carrying properties and prevent the complex molecule of hemoglobin from disintegrating after it was transferred from the erythrocyte to the solution. However they could not prevent a solution without erythrocytes from other serious shortcomings. In addition, overcoming individual shortcomings led to the appearance of new ones.
R. Winslow, one of the most renowned specialists in the physiology of blood and hemoglobin, recently summed up the results of the work of the world scientific community in the field. According to his data, in 1997 nine firms from various countries were making an oxygen-carrying blood substitute on the basis of a solution of hemoglobin and were offering it for clinical use . Nevertheless, as Winslow stressed, as a consequence of a series of serious and even dangerous shortcomings not one specimen passed clinical tests. Yet this "product" appeared on the blood substitute market. It is being advertised and offered for tests. In essence, this is pseudoscience since there is not yet a scientific basis in practice to "introduce" a blood substitute into clinical practice.
A second means of making an oxygen-carrying blood substitute is by using perfluorohydrocarbons. These liquids are practically harmless to an organism and have the ability to absorb (dissolve) a comparatively large amount of oxygen. If they are added to blood they can dissolve a certain quantity of oxygen in the lungs and then release it to the tissues. The appearance of such a blood substitute first in laboratories and then in clinics was received with enthusiasm. However the simplest calculations showed that the small quantity of perfluorohydrocarbons which could be added to blood were not capable of any substantial improvement of the transport of oxygen .
Quite recently our very famous hematologist Academician A. I. Vorob'yev applied common sense to the problem of perfluorohydrocarbons. He quite clearly proved the uselessness of employing solutions of various perfluorohydrocarbons as oxygen-carrying blood substitutes . At the present time the efforts of physiologists and doctors are directed at the development of entirely different, completely physiological means of solving the problem of replacing lost blood. This is the intensive, very high-speed stimulation of erythropoiesis of the victim of blood loss and the very high-speed reproduction of the erythrocytes of the patient in a cell culture of erythrocytes with the aid of the recovery of stem cells from bone marrow . These scientific projects are completely consistent with physiological and evolutionary mechanisms and have a good chance of success.
The list of examples of pseudoscience could easily be continued. However, it seems to us that the examples cited are sufficient to try and draw some general conclusions and assumptions about the reasons for the origin and development of modern forms of pseudoscience in biology, physiology, and medicine.
THE ORIGIN OF PSEUDOSCIENCE
As a rule, pseudoscientific ideas arise and develop among educated people and especially people of science, hence the origin of pseudoscience cannot be associated with a lack of education or any general ignorance in society. One of the causes of the appearance of pseudoscientific ideas is a researcher's mistakes plus certain scientific ambitions. Mistakes most often arise when a specialist in one field of knowledge intrudes into another specific field of knowledge where his competence is limited or absent but the scientific pretensions are great. Such was the case with the physicist Blondlot. The situation with artificial blood and the "discovery" of the process of human assimilation of nitrogen from the air have a similar origin.
Not only biologists and physiologists work in modern biological or physiological laboratories, but also engineers, programmers, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists. Their knowledge and way of thinking are usually very useful for conducting biological and physiological research. Nevertheless, without a basic biological education and research experience, specialist component makers often remain dilettantes in this field. Pretensions of original ideas in biology and physiology can appear among them (also including prominent scientists). Their hypotheses and concepts are not always scientifically based at all. However, ambitions remain and can even grow. (The author of this article has led a quite large research laboratory for almost 40 years and has encountered the ambitions of dilettantes many times. In this regard I remember the words of J. Bernal, "mathematics is very useful to biology but if mathematicians are left to their own devices they quickly carry things to the point of absurdity in their theorizing."
Another reason for the origin of far-fetched, scientifically unfounded ideas and concepts has its roots in mercenary motives. In a desire to obtain or increase one's scientific prestige by unscientific means a researcher might attribute non-existent (or spurious) facts to himself or his laboratory and them build intriguing concepts on them. Such a falsification in science was described in the famous American magazine Science . The British psychologist S. Burt, a famous scientist and editor of a quite respectable scientific journal, advanced and developed several interesting, but quite controversial and inconsistent hypotheses about the origin of intellectual giftedness. His prestige gradually fell and Burt could not tolerate this. It happened that one of his opponents came to Britain and wanted to familiarize himself with the protocols of the experiments to which Burt had constantly referred. However he did not notice any materials. It turned out that Burt had fabricated the protocols and moved [them] from article to article. An attempt was made to contact the two scientists who had constantly spoken in journals in support of the completely inadequate and improbable hypotheses of Burt. But here, also, a falsification was encountered: no such authors existed. Burt wrote these articles himself and published them in his and other journals under assumed names.
This case brought about a scandal in the scientific world. It was recognized that is was necessary to verify the scientific data in a number of journals. Examination showed that, although the falsification of "scientific" facts and concepts was not on a large scale, Burt all the same was not alone in this sort of juggling of facts . Similar phenomena are undoubtedly encountered even now. For example, at the last very large and prestigious international conference on ecology and economics in Dortmund (Germany) everyone's attention was directed to a large beautifully documented posterboard presentation in which it was stated that that electromagnetic radiation from cell phones very strongly affects human physiological functions. Drawings and tables were presented according to which a cell phone conversation causes a quite strong increase in blood pressure . It was somewhat mysterious that this sort of effect was manifested only in some cases. The authors of the report were asked whether they knew the subject of the conversation and whether the increase of blood pressure was the result of psychological and not a physical influence. The authors could not answer such a simple question. Then there arose the assumption that they had intentionally not considered this simple factor in order to attract attention to the physiological influence of electromagnetic radiation.
Yet one more mercenary source of pseudoscience is purely economic interest. The sale of "drugs" against hunger in the republic of Bangladesh which was mentioned above is the most vivid example of this. Hence one could add the case of "katreks" if this "medicine" had been sold; the preparation and sale of "pharmacological" drugs for quick "burning" to rid oneself of fat and weight reduction; magical treatments for various ailments by "control of bioenergy", etc. etc. Books and even "textbooks", from which the publishers and authors earn money are published on these subjects. We will add two authentic cases of fraud in science to these arguments.
For seven years in the 1970s one of the researchers of the Massachusetts General Hospital submitted false reports about research into the causes of Hodgkin's disease which he had supposedly conducted. He developed a pseudoscientific theory of the origin of this disease. In seven years he managed to get $750,000 from one of the government foundations that support science. Another researcher from a university in Boston created a pseudoscientific theory of the origin of several specific forms of cancer. He conducted no research but managed to receive more than $1 million in private funds for the support of science for false reports .
Finally, we note one more, possibly the most important reason for the origin of pseudoscience, at least in physiology and medicine. This reason is in their relative theoretical weakness. We speak of "relative" weakness because modern physiology and medicine are developing quite irregularly. On one hand, the study of the cell, the metabolism of the substances in it, the energy of the cell, the cell membranes, the ion channels in the membranes, the functions of cell organoids, the process of the synthesis of protein, and the transmission of physiological signals to and inside cells has achieved brilliant successes. Pseudoscience parasitizes relatively rarely in this part of physiology, biology, and medicine inasmuch as very high scientific skills are required in the corresponding research and the facts are usually strictly documented and checked. On the other hand, by no means can several fundamental problem of physiology and biology always be solved sufficiently clearly. These are the ones that pseudoscience attacks especially often.
I will dwell on problems of the general energy aspect of the existence of the entire organism, an approximate sense of which might be understood by a non-specialist and even a person with no education beyond secondary school. An entire bunch of unproven pseudoscientific theories, assumptions, concepts, and even "laws" have been formed in this area of physiology. The opinion about the possibility of a person's surviving long without oxygen and consequently without a supply of energy belongs to them, for example. There exists a "concept" according to which during a shortage of oxygen the organism itself is capable of "manufacturing" it in tissues and using it for oxidizing reactions and obtaining energy. The idea that it is possible to "charge" a person with energy via some kind of objects is quite widespread. The possibility of the transmission of "bioenergy" from person to person by willpower, etc. etc. is seriously discussed. To a considerable degree these concepts appear because the physiology of energy of the entire organism is presented in textbooks and guides quite briefly and insufficiently clearly: the corresponding section usually takes no more than 1-2% of the total amount of the textbook. Hence some awkwardness, which pseudoscience exploits, arises.
For example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, equally valid in both the living and inanimate world is constantly subjected to attacks from biological or physiological dilettantes. The opinion is gradually being formed that a living organism is free of "the bonds of the Second Law of Thermodynamics" which, of course, is completely out of agreement with reality. Students and often instructors have a poor idea, for example, of how all the energy used by a living organism is completely converted to heat. If elementary knowledge of thermodynamics is lacking this question might actually baffle a student, instructor, or researcher.
Another example. It is well known that the energy of the chemical bonds of food substances entering an organism are in the final account converted into the energy of the chemical bonds of molecules of adenosine triphosphate acid (ATF). The organism obtains and uses the energy of these substances as a result of the reaction of ATF hydrolysis in the cell to perform various kinds of biological operations. A very simple calculation shows that the mass of ATF in the human organism which is synthesized many times a day, is subjected to hydrolysis, and is synthesized again, is equal to 45-60 kg! This fact evokes surprise even among experienced physiologists and biochemists. Meanwhile, it has enormous importance not just for theory. There is a medical prescription which recommends the injection of 20 mg of ATF intramuscularly in solution if there is a drop in strength or fatigue, exhaustion, etc. After such an injection the doctor is completely confident that he has substantially improved the patient's energy balance. Meanwhile the energy of the hydrolysis of this amount of ATF is barely sufficient to satisfy the current energy requirements of a person for one ten-thousandth of a second. Such gaps in the elementary knowledge of energy can also lead to more serious mistakes in the practice of medicine. At the same time "scientific" ignorance can become a source of the formation and development of pseudoscientific ideas and concepts.
As a rule, no information is given in the chapters on the problems of energy metabolism in modern textbooks and guides about physiology concerning the most important energy parameters for any living tissue and organism as whole, the coefficient of the useful operation of various kinds of biological operations. Without knowledge of this parameter and its regulatory mechanisms it is hard for a student to understand, and it is hard for an instructor to explain, what determines the comparatively high level of energy consumption during complete rest of a human and warm-blooded (homiotermal) animals. Physiologists, engineers, and physicists are greatly surprised by the fact that the total annual amount of energy of the metabolisms of the entire human population expressed in kilowatt-hours exceeds the production of electrical energy of all the power stations in the word during that period .
The decrease in physiologists' attention toward integral, or general, physiology of the entire organism opens the way to a real outburst of unfounded scientific ideas and concepts. The impermissibility of ignoring integral physiology was noted at the International Congress of Physiologists in 1997 .
THE DEVELOPMENT OF PSEUDOSCIENCE
The first thing that ensures the popularization and spread of pseudoscience is support of pseudoscientific concepts by the population, the scientific community, and civil authorities. The best example of this is Blondlot's N-rays. It was the support of the Paris Academy of Sciences that provided N-rays unprecedented popularity in France and caused several outstanding scientists of this country to share Blondlot's ideas.
The "treatment" of hunger in Bangladesh had a somewhat different nature, although in this case, too, the main role was played by the Ministry of Health, which supported the foreign pharmaceutical companies and issued them the licenses to sell the drugs. The official approval by the authorities of the pharmaceutical methods of the "treatment" of hunger misled the population: people began to buy cheap drugs instead of expensive food.
An almost analogous situation arose with the "katreks" drug. If the USSR Ministry of Health had taken a principled critical position, had not set up official tests of the "drug", and had not arranged demonstrative meetings on this question with a television relay to the entire country then many patients would have turned to "official" medicine and received effective medical aid in time. The mass media provided an unprecedented scope of advertising and "blue blood". Support from medicine and the mass media led to this drug becoming used to treat the most varied diseases without a sufficient basis. It is impossible now to reckon the damage from this treatment.
In essence, the existence of almost every pseudoscientific idea is provided by certain support from the population, scientific authorities, and commercial organizations. This means very diverse support, from ministries and agencies to the private publishers who print the corresponding brochures and books.
Of course, the development of pseudoscience is also facilitated by the relative weakness of physiology and biology in certain aspects which have already been mentioned. This is a very big problem which is in need of further research. I consider it necessary to stress that the relative weakness of modern science, at least in the field of biology and physiology, is also still manifested in a lack of active resistance to pseudoscientific concepts. Many scientists who spoke at the RAN Presidium [meeting] during the discussion about the problems of pseudoscience drew such a conclusion . Actually, one almost never encounters examples of sufficiently severe criticism or denunciations of pseudoscience in contemporary scientific literature.
We share the alarm of the scientific community about the strengthening of the influence of pseudoscience. The facts show that, at least in the biological sciences, pseudoscientific ideas and concepts are not the result of accidental and fleeting mistakes in research but are a normal and unavoidable "product" of the rapid development of contemporary science. It needs to be recognized that not everyone in the enormous army of scientists is so experienced and talented so that the subject and methods of research are correctly chosen. Researchers' mistakes are a common occurrence in scientific work. Of course, they do not at all have to lead to the formation of pseudoscientific ideas and concepts. Nevertheless mistakes in the selection of the subject and direction of research, incompetence, and scientific ambitions compose the "genetic material" of pseudoscience, which not only discredits real science and not only causes turmoil and division in the scientific community, but also presents a real threat to human life and health.
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17. The Problems of Combating Pseudoscience. A Discussion in the Presidium of the RAN. Vestnik RAN, 1999, N? 10.
K. P. Ivanov, Professor and Head of a Laboratory,
Translated by Gary Goldberg
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