• August 31, 2015

What if They Gave a Science War and Only One Side Came?

Ask the American Anthropological Association

What If They Had a Science War and Only One Side Showed Up?d   What If They Had a Science War and Only One Side Showed Up? 1

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

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close What If They Had a Science War and Only One Side Showed Up?d   What If They Had a Science War and Only One Side Showed Up? 1

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

In November the executive board of the American Anthropological Association, of which I am a member, met for one and a half days. In preparation for the meeting, we were expected to read a 250-page briefing book. About three pages of that 250-page book were taken up by what the meeting will now be remembered for: a revision of the association's statement on its long-range planning. We did not know it, but those three pages were to set off a short "science war" within anthropology. Now that tempers have died down, we can ask what the controversy shows about the force of the word "science" and about anthropology, a discipline that has always stood at the crossroads of science and the humanities.

Most of the 250 pages, and most of our time in the executive-board meeting, was given over to issues that many of us saw as more urgent than the long-range-planning statement: a detailed review of the association's budget in a time of national recession; a discussion of our publishing model in a context in which most of the association's journals operate at a loss and their content is increasingly available free via the Web; an analysis of our publishing partnership with Wiley-Blackwell; a briefing on the introduction of a multimillion-dollar computer program to facilitate the association's business; a conversation about recurrent issues in organizing the annual meeting and issues that had already arisen with regard to next year's meeting, in Montreal; a discussion of the search for a new editor of our flagship journal, American Anthropologist; a performance evaluation of the association's executive director and the staff he oversees; and a tricky discussion about whether, or how, to make available as an archival document a 10-year-old official report of the association's that had since been repudiated by the membership through a ballot.

At the end of the 12-hour meeting, in what seemed like routine business, we briefly discussed and approved two documents that had been revised by subcommittees of the executive board. (For the record, I was on neither one.) One was a statement called "What Is Anthropology?" It was intended to give an overview of our discipline to interested outsiders. The other was the AAA's statement on its long-range planning.

In view of the furor that has followed, it is important to note that the second sentence of the "What Is Anthropology?" statement, approved back-to-back with the long-range plan, reads as follows: "To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences." While the word "science" was front and center in that document, it was absent from the new long-range plan. That was a change from the former plan, which began, "The purposes of the association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archaeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists." In the process of making revisions, that sentence was replaced with, "The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research."

Within a few days, the executive board began receiving angry e-mails from self-identified scientific anthropologists who were irate about dropping the word "science" from the long-range plan. Some announced that they would be resigning from the association. Most had not seen the "What Is Anthropology?" statement, with its reference to science, and they were not mollified by protestations that science was implied by the new long-range plan's references to archaeology and biological anthropology. The word "science" had taken on a talismanic significance, and our critics wanted to see it in the long-range plan.

It was becoming clear, as a sympathetic colleague put it to me, that the executive board had "stepped in something it didn't mean to." The revisions had been intended to make the long-range plan more inclusive and to give an enlarged sense of the increasing body of research paradigms that anthropologists these days embrace. It had never occurred to the subcommittee rewriting the plan, or to the executive board, that the revised wording would be seen as excluding or attacking science.

The temperature of the debate rose when the news media began to report on it. Articles featured quotes from some anthropologists, speaking in the name of scientific objectivity, characterizing the process by which the new wording was adopted in ways that were often quite wide of the mark. A common theme was that the executive board had been overrun by postmodernist extremists on a vendetta against science. An article on the Web site Inside Higher Ed quoted an anthropology-department chair as saying that the change in wording reflected the power of "scholars who are actively hostile" to science. It also quoted a blog post on Psychology Today's site by Alice Dreger, a pundit and professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, who regularly comments on anthropology, attributing the new wording to "fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing." Most bizarre was a posting: "No more science in our mission? Now the terrorists and Sarah Palin have both won. ... Welcome back to the middle ages."

By far the most inflammatory and inaccurate coverage was in The New York Times, by Nicholas Wade, a reporter who has also written a number of books popularizing evolutionary biology and anthropology. In one article, he traced the new wording of the long-range plan to "a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines—including archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and some cultural anthropologists—and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity, and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights." He, too, quoted an anthropology professor who saw behind the new language "the postmodernist critique of the authority of science" and denounced "so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with." (Yes, according to Wade's source, there are lemming anthropologists who want to do away with their own discipline.) In a follow-up article, Wade referred to a "longstanding cultural gap within the association between the evidence-based researchers, who include some social anthropologists, and those more interested in advocating for the rights of women or native peoples."

What is there to say about all this? First, to state the obvious, it is clear that the process of consultation between the executive board and some sections of the association did not work well. Unaware of concerns about the new wording, we did not discuss the excision of the word "science" when approving the document. Had we known the strength of feeling its removal would provoke, we surely would have retained it. As the AAA president, Virginia Dominguez, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made clear in a letter to association members in response to the controversy, and as the executive board further clarified in a subsequent press release, the wording of the long-range plan will be revised again, taking account of feedback from the membership. The word "science" will surely find its way back into our long-range plan.

Second, neither the public nor anthropology was well served by news-media accounts that presented the new wording of the long-range plan as the work of postmodernist extremists, or that mischaracterized anthropology as divided between those who adhere to the scientific method and those preoccupied with the politics of race and gender or with activist advocacy.

Far from being a cabal of postmodern insurgents, the executive board, which approved the long-range plan unanimously, included three archaeologists and three practicing anthropologists. (Practicing anthropologists, until recently known as applied anthropologists, use their training as the basis for social interventions, and tend to be oriented toward broadly predicting the outcomes of such interventions.) The supposed schism between archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and positivist cultural anthropologists on one side and radically relativist cultural anthropologists on the other turns out to be more complicated.

As for the alleged divide between "evidence based" and "activist" anthropologists, plenty of anthropologists who write critically about race and gender do so within a "scientific" framework, and many anthropologists who advocate for indigenous or underprivileged peoples claim science as the ground for their authority to speak. For example, those who speak up for indigenous peoples' being damaged by climate change do so on the basis of empirical studies of such peoples' ecological settings, and it would be bizarre to think that those anthropologists have any interest in undermining the science that allows us to understand climate change. Similarly, anthropologists concerned with race and gender often use scientific methods, broadly construed, to demonstrate inequities in income, access to housing, education, health care, and so on.

But perhaps the most serious misrepresentation in news-media coverage of this affair was the depiction of cultural anthropology as overrun by "postmodern fluff-heads" on a crusade against science. In the mid-1990s, when the "science wars" were at their height, and you had to be either for or against Foucault, there might have been some truth in such a characterization. Those were the years when it was fashionable to talk about "the social construction of scientific knowledge." As a sign of the times, the Stanford University anthropology department split into two departments, one of anthropological sciences and one of sociocultural anthropology.

But times have changed. The two Stanford departments have remarried; the French anthropologist Bruno Latour, high priest of the "social construction of science" school, has long since published an anguished article in Critical Inquiry—"Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern"—worrying about the tacit complicity between "postmodernist" social thought and oil companies seeking to deny the reality of climate change.

In my experience, younger cultural anthropologists tend to describe themselves as pragmatists, and they see the debates in the 1980s and 1990s about "writing culture" and the politics of knowledge, which were so formative for an older generation, as a part of the discipline's history they have assimilated and are moving beyond. While the self-identified scientific anthropologists were filling my inbox with angry messages about the hegemony of antiscientific postmodernists, many anthropologists who use French critical theory in their work also e-mailed me to ask if the word "science" could not be restored, given its importance to colleagues. It is important to note that throughout this whole episode of e-mails, blogs, and news-media coverage, not a single anthropologist whom I am aware of insisted that the word "science" should stay excised.

Let me close by observing two ironies. The first is that the scientific anthropologists seem, more than they might want to admit, to have internalized aspects of the postmodernist point of view. One of the essential insights in Foucault's work was that the words we use have the power to shape reality. Race and gender activists likewise attach great importance to language; hence all the energy they have put into contesting the use of exclusionary pronouns and racial epithets and critiquing mass-media representations of women and minorities. Discourse matters, they have taught us. In pitching their discipline into a fight over whether or not a particular word, "science," is used in a planning document, the scientific anthropologists seem to have accepted a core part of the postmodernist and activist sensibility—the preoccupation with representation and the formative power of words.

Second, at just the moment that scientific anthropologists were pressing the fight about the long-range plan, a little video went viral of Rep. Adrian Smith, Republican of Nebraska, inviting ordinary Americans to join him in hunting down grants in the National Science Foundation's budget that waste taxpayer money. By inviting citizens to circumvent and cancel the system of peer review that has anchored the NSF since its inception, Smith implicitly negated the regard for expertise that undergirds both scientific and humanistic knowledge. It is Smith and his cohort, not the residual influence of Foucault, that represent the real danger to scientific research. And I fear that Smith may be quite happy to use some of the recent misleading rhetoric about postmodernism in anthropology to further his cause.

In the end, after the word "science" is restored to the planning document, one can only hope that scientific and humanistic anthropologists can make common cause against the real danger to our fractious, untidy, and glorious discipline that the distinguished anthropologist Eric Wolf once aptly described as "the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences." E pluribus unum.

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University and a member of the executive board of the American Anthropological Association.


1. dmarshak - January 10, 2011 at 10:06 am

It would be good to hear from the people who actually revised the lon-range plan. What were they thinking at the time?

2. mottgreene - January 10, 2011 at 11:31 am

I sympathize with Prof. Gusterson's approach and position, but as a reader of hundreds of research proposals by anthropologists for funding, and a consumer of the results in the anthropological literature, I am afaid that something like the "divide" in Nicholas Wade's article (referred to above as "inflammatory and inacurate) really does exist, and is abundantly documented wherever anthropologists publish. The problem is not however, as Wade claims, what one studies (biology and archeology on the one hand and race and gender on the other: read "physical vs cultural") but the extent to which ones work is involved with political and social advocacy for the groups or phenomena one studies. This is a big problem where federal funding (like NSF) is at issue, because NSF does not (and should not) fund advocacy: yet one often sees advocacy aims plainly spelled out in research proposals that have a core study component. Would that we could resolvse such things with "long range plans"!
The problem is not unique to anthropology. Look at pharamaceutical research if you want to see a witches' brew of science and "advocacy." The US syle of approaching such conflicts of interest, on the model of adversarial jurisprudence, is not much help, as evidenced by the shrill name calling among the anthropologists quoted above.

3. walsh05 - January 10, 2011 at 01:48 pm

This article is useful in trying to moderate the poles of the discussion, and in trying to locate anthropology in a sensible place in relation to "hard scientists" vs. "postmodern fluffy types." This seems to me the right direction to go. As an outsider, one problem that strikes me is that by the term "postmodernism" people often have in mind the most extreme elements of the field, and so making any reference to postmodernism is perceived as problematic. For instance, I think Foucault is a serious thinker who deserves to be considered for his ideas; but Derrida is a terrible theorist with little to offer (along with extreme relativists, deconstructionists, etc.) But many people don't know that Foucault was a critique of Derrida. So I think it will help move things forward to recognize the moderate elements among social theorist who have something useful to say, and distance oneself from the more extreme elements (as with your note about Latour). This has been going on in philosophy for a while now with Searle, Boghossian, and others.

4. hughgusterson - January 10, 2011 at 02:56 pm

From Hugh Gusterson: I'm afraid I'm going to insist that the putative divide between those who do advocacy and those who do not is overblown. An example: two years ago at the AAA business meeting someone made a motion from the floor to write to the census bureau and complain about some of the categories they were using. The motion, which was informed by decades of rigorous nthropological research, passed overwhelmingly, enjoying the support of "scientific" and "postmodern" anthropologists at the meeting. Maybe some of those who voted for this motion didn't see it as "advocacy" in the way that voting to condemn the war in Iraq would be, but it clearly was advocacy and it had almost unanimous support at the meeting. So most anthropologists endorse some advocacy some of the time, but some support more of it than others.

As for NSF, they may not endorse advocacy, but they do favor proposals that are "relevant" rather than ivory towerish. And so they should. Should NSF fund a good proposal to look at the census bureau's categories?

5. simon - January 10, 2011 at 06:29 pm

It is true that NSF does not and should not fund advocacy, but NSF applications are required to explicitly state impact of proposed activity on participation of underrepresented groups as well as education and learning, dissemination and benefits to society (NSF Merit Review Criteria). Some people may read these as sounding like advocacy. NIH applications (also science) must specify implications for advancing public health. I'm a reviewer for both agencies.
If the study impacts disparities (my research does), you could read that as advocacy too. I'm faculty in a medical school and assure you my research contributes to science, in my methods and my analyses, as well as hopefully the application of its findings.
Medical anthropologist, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

6. monkeydoc - January 10, 2011 at 07:21 pm

As a "self-identified scientific anthropologist", I am heartened to learn that there is consensus among my colleagues that the word "science" should be reinstated in the LRP. However, I am very disappointed by the characterization that scientific anthropologists were merely "pitching their discipline into a fight over whether or not a particular word, "science," is used in a planning document." Many of us were at a minimum concerned about the change in wording, but not merely because of some word fetish. Many (if not most) biological anthropologists I know already felt the AAA was irrelevant at best and unwelcoming at worst. The change in wording served to strengthen that impression. I am concerned that subsequent focus (such as this essay by an EB member) on the bizarrely dichotomous media reporting of the controversy rather than acknowledgment that there have been ongoing conversations and tensions around anthropological identity may serve to further divisions.

7. sand6432 - January 11, 2011 at 10:19 am

I think a more interesting question about anthropology is not whether it is a "science," but whether anthropologists agree that there is a "scientific method" common to all branches of the field. The positivist doctrine that there is just one scientific method common to all disciplines calling themselves sciences has long since been repudiated by philosophers of science (see, e.g., Richard Miller's 1987 book titled "Fact and Method"), and it is generally accepted now that each science has its own method that differs in important respects from that used by other sciences, though no doubt there are commonalities sufficient to justify calling them all sciences in the Wittgensteinian sense of language games and family resemblances. But since anthropology itself borrows from other sciences like biology and archaeology, one wonders if the methods associated with those separate sciences also get imported into anthropology, so that anthropology itself may have multiple scientific methods embraced within it? --- Sandy Thatcher

8. 11245928 - January 11, 2011 at 10:59 am

While my professional life has been outside the current debate fir sometime, I think Professor Gusterson is being somewhat disingenuous in his presentation. I have no doubt that the EC if the AAA did not intend a disservice to anthropology as a science, but I cannot believe that the excision was an oversight. The current EC clearly consists of professionals steeped in the traditions of the discipline. The tagline "one side showed up" is somewhat misleading in that the "other side" was clearly represented in the new vision. THe reunification of the departments at Stanford was pushed, quite rightly, by the administration. Bruno Latour is first and foremost a positivist in his assumptions about science, and does not represent the "death knell" of deconstruction of the critique of science.

The debate wiin anthropology is still alive, and I am hopeful that the balance currently represented in the structure of the AAA will continue. If it does not, we will be witnessing the death knell of anthropology as we know it, rather than a healthy debate about the nature of understanding humankind.

9. squidward - January 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I agree that the worst threats are external to the field, and external to academia in general - this is where the AAA Executive Board should be focusing its advocacy for the field in general. External damage control is going to be harder to effect than internal efforts to soothe the offended anthropologists.

But one point that was off base is the implication that the Stanford departments were happily re-married. It was really an externally imposed un-divorce and had nothing to do with anthropologists resolving their differences. And of course you cannot blame all the bad blood there and elsewhere on theoretical schisms in the field, since ego and personality play a big role - sometimes theoretical differences are just an excuse for bad behavior.

10. squidward - January 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm

And I should add that many of us (Stanford included) get along just fine despite different theoretical approaches.

11. greensubmarine - January 11, 2011 at 02:34 pm

I make no pretense of being well versed enough in the specifics of the issue to comment on this case in particular, but this article made me realize the similarities between the reactions you get when implying that something is "not a science" and implying that something is "not a sport." Try out the latter on a rabid cricket fan or NASCAR enthusiast some time.

As for the case of the word "sport" I advocate questioning seriously the notion that being a sport carries with it some privilege that makes the activity in question better at fulfilling its goals than something that isn't. Perhaps something similar is in order for the word "science"? I'm not speaking of anthropology in particular, but how does being a science help certain fields achieve their professional goals? Do some fields pursue paths in the name of science that might actually be counterproductive to those goals? And would it be better for everyone involved if, through some miracle, we could de-stigmatize the state of not being a science?

12. quidditas - January 11, 2011 at 05:07 pm

"I'm going to insist that the putative divide between those who do advocacy and those who do not is overblown. An example: two years ago at the AAA business meeting someone made a motion from the floor to write to the census bureau and complain about some of the categories they were using. The motion, which was informed by decades of rigorous nthropological research, passed overwhelmingly, enjoying the support of "scientific" and "postmodern" anthropologists at the meeting."

But in your example, "vigorous research" *preceded* advocacy. The concern with eliminating the idea of scientific research from the mission statement is that advocacy not drive (the results of) scholarship or that the perspective of the scholar not drive anthropological scholarship in the absence of disciplining methods.

This *shouldn't* bother those who wish to engage in advocacy or other "critical" work as part of their careers as anthropologists, but as the article seems to acknowledge, the discipline already has a history of division on this issue.

Consequently, when those who favor the discipline of method saw that "science" had been eliminated, they reacted. This statement *is* fuzzy, invokes every *other* discipline under the sun, relays little about the methods of anthropologists per se, and even eliminates the traditional hallmark method of ethnography:

"The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research."

Who can say what it is? It looks like journalism to me.

13. jffoster - January 13, 2011 at 09:08 am

A member for 40 years and Fellow of the American Anthropological Association, now resigned, I join Quidditas (12). Greensubmarine (11), your treatiselet general is not germane to the issue. The fight in Anthropology is about what the "goals" of Anthropology are and include. There are those who would deprecate science, drive it out of the field, and tell students that an ethnography is just another genre of literature.

14. hrotic - January 13, 2011 at 03:09 pm

I agree that the rhetoric on this issue became somewhat extreme, and that a simplistic view of anth is suspect. I even suspect this committee meant no harm. However, with all due respect, my own experiences seem to have been rather different from HG's -- I've no doubt there is a tension running through the AAA associated with science, and that anth sciences are less integrated now than they were a decade ago.

But this tension is a good thing. Especially in an era of increasing specialization, a multi-disciplinary enterprise like anthropology must occasionally be re-energized. I'm sorry HG was caught in a cross-fire, but I can't regret that the issue is being discussed. A little identity crisis might be just the ticket . . .

15. gahnett - January 15, 2011 at 07:31 pm

Anthropology isn't a science. Astrology, now there's a science.

Have you seen the flak over the proposal to go to 13 signs? I just found out I'm an Ophiuchus. I can't even pronounce Ophiuchus.

What's in a word, anyways?

16. elikatz - January 18, 2011 at 03:13 am

Kissinger needs quoting here: "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

17. geddymurphy - January 18, 2011 at 08:38 am

As a journalist, I see much similarity here between scientists and social scientists. Neither group can write. That explains the original controversy, the long-winded statement here explaining it, and comment #13.

18. bmerker - January 18, 2011 at 10:54 am

Two brief comments: It seems that if the executive board had "stepped in something it didn't mean to," much trouble could have been avoided by an instant declaration to that effect, with a promise of correction, as soon as the inadvertence came to the board's attention.
And it seems that the revised wording of the key sentence of the long range plan does a lot more than omit the word "science". It redirects the basic purpose of the Association from its old purpose "to advance anthropology as the science that..." to a very different one, namely "to advance public understanding of humankind". To advance a science and to advance public understanding would seem to be quite different goals, and though they need not conflict, they would steer the Association's efforts in different directions.

19. mshulgasser - January 18, 2011 at 11:22 am

The phrase "is not limited to" is legalistic and inappropriate. It reveals that differences are being papered over. Like #17 said: Bad writing.

20. nondualquantifier - January 18, 2011 at 11:26 am

Anthropology as a forum for ideas may be an appropriate location to grind away at this problem. Assumptions are flying in all directions. Reductionisms and simplifications abound and, as with egos, come in all sizes. What constitutes evidence may be argued about(see Alison Wylie for example.) Texts ambiguate. Scientism becomes the great ironizer. The dogs keep barking but the caravan moves on.

21. zankou - January 18, 2011 at 01:12 pm

This article reads as though it was painstakingly drafted by a lawyer. And I'm a lawyer.

Ironically, to the extent anthropology does 'welcome a multiplicity of research paradigms' (to roughly paraphrase the writer), it will become increasingly vulnerable to competitive threats within academia. If you disentangle 'scientific' anthropology from 'cultural' anthropology, the 'cultural' side becomes the sort of nebulous humanities field that must fight for its life to survive. When it strays from the safety rope of scientific claims, cultural anthropology risks becoming a defunded also-ran discipline.

22. granitesentry - January 18, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Let an English major help you folks out. Prof. Gusterson doth protest too much. www.granitesentry.com.

23. mdfischer - January 19, 2011 at 02:02 am

While welcoming Gusterson's contribution to the discussion, he doesn't go far in clarifying much. There was no 'Science War' outside the media reports constructing such. Much of the discussion he refers to arose from the reaction at the annual meeting in the AAA of the Society for Anthropological Sciences (SASci - http://anthrosciences.org), where the wording changes approved for the Long Range Planning Document were reported. A motion was passed to rescind these changes at that meeting to be directed to the EC. This motion mentioned the replacement of the word 'science' but focussed rather more on the replacement wording.

Effectively, the new wording directed focus away from supporting the discipline and its practitioners to supporting a rather vague and unfocussed 'public understanding of Humankind'. The word 'anthropology' is almost incidental in the new statement. We were well aware of the composition of EC so assumed this was a combination of oversight together with active lobbying to promote relatively new splinter orientations favouring public anthropology and advocacy.

It was agreed at the meeting there was no objection to injecting these new strands into LRPD, but that it was counter to the discipline's and the association membership to focus on such a narrow perspective on anthropological research.

In the initial discussion arising outside the meeting there were some heated and ill-tempered comments made, but the discussion rapidly moderated towards the issues that stimulated SASci's original response, together with the external political dimension invoked by @zankou above -- Anthropology as a whole is not a science, but it is the combination of science, social science and humanities in one discipline that provides anthropology its significance in the world of ideas, including public understanding. Without any one of these anthropology must perish.

24. nondualquantifier - January 19, 2011 at 04:42 pm

Yes indeed. Thank you zankou and mdfischer for analysis and clarification. But, who is to say all is lost (perish is the word)? Perhaps a good jostling would allow some pocket-lint to find its way to the public's eye, measured on the way, of course. How are we to know the public's understanding if internal affairs remain hidden? Or do we merely divulge without expectation? Or do we not divulge?

25. yandoodan - January 20, 2011 at 07:43 pm

The author talks only about what the executive board did -- which was to rubber-stamp a committee report without discussion, and then circle the wagons.

Was the subcommittee packed with post-modernist activists? Possible. Perhaps likely. But the author never mentions this.

And what value is science done by an advocate? Can you really trust an advocate to reveal data that contradicts his/her position?

26. jamesrcole - February 08, 2011 at 11:48 pm

So why did they leave out the mention of science in the first place? I find it hard to believe that it couldn't have been a conscious decision to do so. If they chose to leave it out then that very much undermines the view put forth in this article.

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