Why Bad Science Happens

Via the Linguistic Anthropology blog, I came across this excellent post by Lauren Squires, entitled “The social life of prescriptivism.” In it, Squires explains to the more positivisticly minded just what social science can contribute to understanding why bad linguistics happens. She brings together several related strains of linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics research: language attitudes, language ideologies, linguistic awareness, linguistic capital (although she doesn’t call it that), etc.

For those of us trained in linguistic anthropology none of this is new, but I think we tend to forget just how little other people are aware of this research. The linguistics section of most bookstores is one of the smallest, and the anthropological sub-section is usually confined to one or two readers on language and gender. But what struck me about this post is that the same kind of thing could easily be written for any subject where scientists gripe about people not understanding their work, whether it is evolutionary theory or climate change, etc.

Take Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion for instance. The rational argument against the existence of god has been around a long time, and it hasn’t made much headway for a reason. Those reasons are complex, to be sure, but there is a large literature in anthropology that can help us at least begin to understand the continuing appeal of a divine creator.

The trick is to assume that people say and believe the things they do not simply out of error or ignorance, but because within the world in which they live these beliefs make sense and are actually helpful to them. The very fact that church attendance is so much more a part of people’s lives in the US than in Europe should clue us in to the fact that there are important sociological factors going on here. While American’s may not fair as well in math and science as Europeans, I don’t think that math and science education alone can explain these differences.

UPDATE: I forgot to plug the prescriptivism page on my wiki!

45 thoughts on “Why Bad Science Happens

  1. Dawkins’ book is patronizing to be sure, but the suggestion that people believe in a divine creator because the conditions of their wikkle lives make it so they can’t hep it is even *more* patronizing than is Dawkins’ approach.

    For a brilliant (& hilarious) thrashing of Dawkins — that directs the patronizing where the patronizing is truly due — check out Terry Eagleton:


  2. Kathleen,

    I am arguing that error and ignorance are not sufficient sociological explanations. I fail to see how this statement is patronizing. Where exactly do I state that people can’t help themselves?

    I am familiar with the Eagleton piece, actually recommended it to Rex on his blog in relation to another topic, but his is basically a theological argument, not a social scientific one. He is showing that Christian doctrine is not as simplistic as Dawkins characterization of it.

    This is all well and good, but it doesn’t really do much to counter Dawkins central contention that, in Eagleton’s words, such beliefs are “no more plausible than the tooth fairy.” Showing that Christianity is a complex system of beliefs simply doesn’t make it good science.

    Which isn’t to say that we can’t construct a social scientific critique of the concept of science put forward by Dawkins, but that would be another post. For now I just wished to make the simple point that Dawkin’s positivism prevents him from being able to make the kinds of sociological explanations we (or at least those of us not afraid of being accused of denying human agency) regularly make in Anthropology.

  3. Not to side track this too much, but I thought the last statement was very interesting and made me wonder: how would positivism prevent someone from seeing sociological explanations? The first thing that springs to my mind is Durkheim, but I guess that rests on the assumption that Durkheim was (or was trying to be) a positivist (which I couldn’t be sure, but I think is a fairly widespread intepretation). And, of course, his explanations are sociological…

  4. Positivism has a wide range of meanings, I tend to use it in the sense that Parsons uses it in the Structure of Social Action: the limiting of explanations to that which can be empirically observed and the refusal to except interpretive explanations which are based on empirical research but not limited to such data. For all the problems that might exist with Parsonian sociology, I think his critique of utilitarian positivism hit the mark.

  5. A very confused post is what I would, in my humble opinion call this.

    …and I do believe it is written by someone on the front line of Anthropological research.

    If only the linguistics section in the bookstore down the road was a little larger. Perhaps then, the general public or “other people” would be better informed.

    Perhaps we should advise this bookstore of its duty to provide mankind with less fiction and more science.

    Although I do believe ‘The God Delusion’ is usually placed in the Popular Non-fiction section.

    Although you seem to be hinting at a variety of unfounded ideas here, I feel with the Dawkin’s section it probably stems more from an American unfamiliarity with his ‘popular science’ status.
    Concerning that later part:

    Anyone who takes someones theoretical stance as somehow a barrier for their argument is hanging upside down.

    If I make a non-nonsensical argument and then call myself an idiot, it is not my argument that should be the subject of analysis but my stance as an idiot.
    It seems that as humans we set up these theoretical barriers in an effort to allow as little cross-debate as possible

    since GOD/faith is founded upon the rejection of

    “the limiting of explanations to that which can be empirically observed”

    anyone who adopts this latter stance to refute theism has already concluded his argument the moment he adopts the position.

  6. When did anthropologists get into the business of determining whether or not Christianity is “good science”?

    Anthropology has a strong methodological commitment to taking everything seriously, on its own terms: whether it be science (Latour’s much-misunderstood approach comes to mind here) or witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard “throwaway” line about how he “saw witchcraft once” while living with the Azande comes to mind here).

    Dawkins is as bad on theology as he is on genetics: he refuses to learn anything about either subject matter that doesn’t fit the point he intended to make before he ever got down to writing. It’s a misreading of Dawkins to think he is interested in *either* science *or* religion; he’s built a career out of gleefully misrepresenting both for fatuously self-congratulatory audiences.

    so to say — oh, whatever else you may say about him, Dawkins is right, religion fails the science test — is to give Dawkins far too much credit as a legitimate evaluator of either.

    As for being patronizing, I think Latour’s and Evans-Pritchard’s approaches are the *only* ways to go: that is, relentless and literal-minded credulity about other people’s representations of how the world works (be they scientific or magical).
    Otherwise one gets into the position of positing that “as an anthropologist, I can see that scientists are motivated by social pressure X and Christians are motivated by social pressure Y, which they — poor darlings — are unable to perceive themselves”.

  7. KL:

    “When did anthropologists get into the business of determining whether or not Christianity is “good science”?”

    I did not say that.

    Science is perfectly capable of determining this without the help of anthropology. What it can’t do so well is explain why such beliefs persist.

    I worry about anthropologists who wish to relativize science. I suspect it as disingenuous moral posturing, unless you are willing to tell me that when you or a loved one has a serious illness you are willing to forgo modern Western medicine. I think one can be both intellectually honest about these things and still take other people’s ideas about the world seriously.

    Jo: I don’t understand. Are you saying you don’t believe there is a middle ground between positivism and magic?

  8. At which point we should probably all go off and re-read the first chapter of Pandora’s Hope (however effete the writing).

    The fight for or against absolute truth, for or against multiple standpoints, for or against social construction, for or against presence, has never been the important one. The program of debunking, exposing, avoiding being taken in, steals energy from the task that has always seemed much more important to the collective of people, things, and gods, namely, the task of sorting out the ‘cosmos’ from an ‘unruly shambles’.

    But anyway, Anthropology has never really been interested in truth, just in explaining how systems of belief work in their contexts. There’s nothing patronising here, there is no necessary assumption that these systems are inhabited by “wickkle poor darlings”…and I dont see that what Kerim is proposing is very much different from Latour – or at least it could, depending on your reading, easily be compatible. And since Jo mentions it (apropos of what I don’t know) it could easily be a phenomenological statement. I also doubt whether Latour would endorse your view Kathleen that Science, Magic, Christianity etc are “representations” of the world.

    I don’t mean to interfere, but you guys just seem to be arguing for the sake of it.

  9. “When did anthropologists get into the business of determining whether or not Christianity is “good science”?”

    Historically speaking, round about the time that Tylor was writing about culture and Frazer composing The Golden Bough. Remember Frazer’s three step model: Magic (the primitive thinks that his rituals act directly on nature), Religion (whoops, it doesn’t always work; must be some other invisible beings out doing things that offset what I’m trying to do), then Science (laws of nature demonstrated by reason and experiment).

    Tylor and Frazer themselves were, of course, drawing on an already strong tradition of Enlightenment skepticism (Hume, Voltaire, etc.) that regarded all religion as a means by which priests and nobles manipulated the masses. They were themselves staunch adherents of science, which they saw as eventually replacing religion as the ultimate source of all answers.

    The 20th century would see a retreat to the more modest view that, when science applies, it provides better answers than anything else, but it doesn’t apply to everything. 20th century anthropology would also have room for scholars like Gluckman (an orthodox Jew) and Turner and Douglas (staunch Catholics), whose contributions to the anthropology of ritual and symbolism would have a lot to do with their being what Max Weber calls “religiously musical,” i.e., able to understand emotional and intuitive appeals uncomprehended by the tone-deaf ears of strict rationalists.

  10. Middle ground between positivism and ‘Magic’?
    I guess thats where Anthropology must be. Right in the middle, especially since its not too bothered about ‘truths’ but rather concerned only with explaining how belief systems work from a neutral position (FROM outside of these belief systems?)

    Believe me… the stance you take and THE PRECISE PROBLEM is pretty well explained by the way you make use of the term ‘magic’ in opposition to positivism.

    I think Talal Asad(CUNY) has worked with these ideas and the religion-secularism construct/dichotomy in his work.

  11. On a different note…

    Kerim — have you seen David Crystal’s “The Fight for English”? I read it recently and it has a nice discussion of the history of language standardization in England and the emergence of English prescriptivism. Much of the discussion is not very sophisticated from a ling anth (or historical) perspective, but there is a lot of useful information. Crystal is specifically writing for a broad public audience, and I think this book could be very nice in an undergrad course when it comes time to teach about standardization and prescriptivism. The book also has a number of LanguageLog-style debunkings of some of the more famous prescriptivist dicta, which are nice to have at hand. Anyway, I didn’t see a reference to this book on the prescriptivism page of your wiki, so I thought I would mention it.

  12. science is religion, religion fights science. science throws religion a right hook, religion stumbles a bit but comes back clever and willing to integrate. ah yes, but science becomes more controversial…

    it would be interesting where more money goes, in the collection basket on sunday or research foundations.

    the debate will probably never end but that’s half the fun of the topic. the one thing i will say for sure is that kerim’s post may not SAY the evolutionary approach to religion is good, but it certainly SOUNDS that way. ah those silly savages and their magic finally understanding religion for the masses; hopefully one day they will be able to read the books WE read and understand the truth in the world.

    well, that’s exactly why “science” (social or otherwise) will never be able to explain belief. rationalize the irrational…right.

  13. it’s nice to be worried about. And the argumentative feint — that I have to either fess up that I secretly believe in science, or hand over my refrigerator & reverse my immunizations — is a robust discussion-quasher, I’ll admit. So to go to confession in order to be allowed to speak in re: magic, science, and religion, I will cop to being an atheistic compulsive hand-washer who believes that invisible juju emitted by malevolent others makes people sick *all the time*. Can I have my fridge back?

    With that off my chest, I’ll repeat that *methodological* agnositicism on all three domains is a disciplinary necessity. The anthropological method is to say golly! Microbes! What does a world in which microbes exist look like and how does it work? Golly! Witches! What does a world in which witches exist look like and how does it work? Golly! The heavenly father! What does a world in which the heavenly father exists look like and how does it work?

    The anthropological method is NOT to say — wottabunchasuckers (or manipulators), believing in microbes and witches and the heavenly father. I’ll figure out the angle they’re working.

    It’s a difference of method, and an important one. The first method is decent and intellectually defensible; the second method is not.

  14. Ya, but that method is pretty similar to “The trick is to assume that people say and believe the things they do not simply out of error or ignorance, but because within the world in which they live these beliefs make sense and are actually helpful to them.” In fact, that is basically what E-P does. Despite that one passage you mention, he basically explains witchcraft as filling some kind of need for causation etc. He describes how witches work in a social sense… not in a literal sense…

    Also, the second method (“I’ll figure out the angle they’re working.”), well interesting to hear that criticized as intellectual dishonesty now. Because, you know, that is the exact approach taken around here to, say, Jared Diamond or Steven Levitt. And, though I would have to look back through the archives to be sure, it seems to me the argument was that anthropologists don’t have to bother addressing any actual arguments because they can just “bracket” that and find the “underlying patterns”. Or something like that. Not that I necessarily disagree with this approach, just pointing it out before we get all too excited about “let the actors speak for themselves!!!!”

  15. The anthropological method is to say golly! Microbes! What does a world in which microbes exist look like and how does it work? Golly! Witches! What does a world in which witches exist look like and how does it work? Golly! The heavenly father! What does a world in which the heavenly father exists look like and how does it work?

    Very nice. Now, on to the next question, what do we mean by “work”? Can we give an account of “works” that is not implicitly offensive to the True Believer? Is it a rule of anthropological method that we can only attempt to articulate what the believer is thinking and feeling in the believer’s own terms (becoming, in effect, empirical theologians, when theology itself may be alien to the people we are trying to understand, e.g., in the case of Stevan Harrell’s Taiwanese villagers, where of a sample of fourteen, one was the village atheist, three had constructed their own, somewhat idiosyncratic, versions of the cosmos of Chinese popular religion, and ten said only “It’s the custom”)? How do we handle the confusion, ambivalence, or real doubt that may also be part of the religious or magical scene we are trying to explore?

  16. Thanks lmichael. I find it interesting that little of the discussion over what kind of social science I am supposedly endorsing is grounded in the actual article I link to on Linguistic Anthropology. Lets not talk about witchcraft about which I have done relatively little work (although I happen to be a big fan of EP, and like maniaku find KL\’s use of him against me somewhat odd), but stick to what I know better: Language Police.

    The linguistic position is one of methodological utilitarian positivism. What people actually do with language is what constitutes language. Hence, it doesn\’t make sense to argue that double negatives lead to logically flawed statements because we can empirically show that such sentences are used without confusion, that they exist by necessity in various languages (including old English), etc. So this creates a question: why do people believe these sentences to be logically flawed when clearly they are not?

    At the same time, I think it is important to realize that the methodological approach of linguistics creates a problem for answering the question it has asked. For one thing, linguistics defines the object of its study in terms of the production of grammatically correct speech by individuals, it is not particularly concerned with the social norms about what constitutes correct speech within the community. Those norms are evidenced empirically within speech, but are not reducible to those speech acts. It is an interpretive task to extrapolate from such statements (along with other forms of empirical evidence such as participant observation and interviews) to construct a narrative about what that communities beliefs about language might be.

    Obviously, the above example could be elaborated and better articulated (especially if I\’d had my morning cup of tea), but I hope that my critics can be generous in reading this example in order to better explain to me what exactly it is they object to in what I had thought was a rather innocuous and uncontroversial post. Because I have to admit being rather dumbfounded at the reaction it has received, and I still fail to grasp exactly where the point of contention might be. Although I suspect that it is my rhetorical style which offends, rather than the specific methodological approach I advocate. But perhaps I\’m missing something … ?

  17. “I think in Structure Parsons calls Durkehim (at least early Durkheim) a positivist.”

    He argues that Durkheim’s thought was initially grounded in positivism, but moved away from it, eventually overshooting the mark and going over into idealism. (To paraphrase Parsons.)

  18. I think it is ironic that Kerim originally framed Squires’ post on the linguistic anthropology of prescriptivism as being enlightening to `positivists’, when a lot of the posts on this thread make it seem that non-positivists actually stand a lot to learn from this body of work.

    Language prescriptivists and others make claims about language that are demonstrably false (I think that the `bad science’ that Kerim indexes). If you go over to LanguageLog you can find innumerable posts on this topic. The fact that people make demonstrably false claims of this sort is both practically important (e.g. in language planning and education, and in politics) and theoretically interesting (in anthropology and linguistics). And work by linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, and just plain old positivist linguists has shed a lot of light on why certain prescriptivist claims are made. I think Kerim’s original point was that this body of work is an exemplar of how social scientists can come to understand the social embeddedness of particular ideological and scientistic discourses. (I apologize in advance if I have made a hash of Kerim’s point here.)

    Some posters have reacted negatively, I think, to what they perceive to be a distinction between `true’ claims by scientists and `bogus’ claims by non-scientists. Methodological relativism is clearly invaluable in research on prescriptivism, since it allows scholars to develop a better understanding of the processes and motives that lead to the claims by prescriptivists and others (false claims, ones that are neither true nor false, and ones that are true). However, it is also helpful to keep in mind which prescriptivist claims are false, since the fact that they are incorrect is actually an important datum in tracing the interested nature of the language ideologies at play. Certainly, it is methodologically helpful at times to set aside the fact that prescriptivist claims about, say, split infinitives are bogus, but a stronger relativistic position which epistemically equates the judgments of prescriptivists and linguists results in the loss of important information about language and the language ideologies at play. Sole commitment to either methodological extreme, infinite relativisitic credulity or “wottabunchasuckers”, will be poorer than work that tacks between the two extremes, such as the scholarship on prescriptivism that was one of the subjects of the original post. Is anyone really willing to defend uniform methodological committment to infinite relativistic credulity? If not, I think that much of the criticism of Kerim’s original point is misplaced.

  19. For one thing, linguistics defines the object of its study in terms of the production of grammatically correct speech by individuals, it is not particularly concerned with the social norms about what constitutes correct speech within the community.

    I find myself a bit confused by this assertion, which seems to rest on the assumption that grammatical rules and social norms are categorically different sorts of things, instead of both being examples of rules that govern human behavior in the same sort of law-like but non-mechanical manner.

    Given my own assumption that there is no categorical difference here, it makes no sense to say that linguists are concerned only with the production of grammatically correct speech by individuals and are not particularly concerned with social norms concerning what is correct speech within the community. How is what is grammatically “correct” to be distinguished from what is socially “correct”?

    Notice that both forms of correctness entail compliance with rules that may, either consciously or unconsciously, accidentally or deliberately (for dramatic or comic effect, for example) be violated, while what is said remains intelligible,thus satisfying the utilitarian criterion that Kerim evokes, while recognized as a violation.

    Can someone sort this out, please.

  20. John — The distinction you draw attention to depends on predicating that grammar is autonomous from other dimensions of social life. On this view, a grammatical phenomenon, such as subject-verb agreement, is a fact about a given language’s grammar, and is not dependent on social facts about the interactants, or the social context of the interaction. There are obvious problems with this view, and even Chomsky, who licensed this analytical stance with his framing of the object of linguists as the idealized (socially decontextualized) speaker-hearer, framed this perspective as a simplification.

    I think there are few linguists, even positivist ones, who think that grammar is truly 100% autonomous in the way I’ve indicated, and many linguists actively argue against this simplified perspective. Nevertheless, many linguists distinguish (correctly, in my opinion) between language structure on the one hand, viewed as relatively isolable from contexts of concrete language use, and patterns of deployment of linguistic resources in interaction on the other, which display the context-sensitivity of, e.g. comic effect. I think this is what the distinction between grammatical correctness and compliance with social norms seeks to maintain. The point that grammatical correctness is, in an important sense, a social fact (i.e. a phenomenon one can only speak about in relation to human groups) is no less true for all this. Strictly speaking, both the relatively context-independent and the relatively context-depent aspects of language are social facts, but the latter is more closely tied to the particulars of social organization and interaction. And it is true that linguists *tend* to be more concerned with the more context-independent facts of language, and that linguistic anthropologists are more concerned with the context-dependent ones.

    Anyway, that’s my take on the quote you included in your post.

  21. Strictly speaking, both the relatively context-independent and the relatively context-depent aspects of language are social facts, but the latter is more closely tied to the particulars of social organization and interaction.

    Again, I find myself confused. Consider two cases of one-on-one linguistic interaction.

    Case 1: A linguist, using the method of minimal contrasts, presents two nearly identical utterances to an informant who renders a judgment, right or wrong. The utterance judged right becomes part of the corpus on which the linguist’s analysis of the the language in question is based, on which future judgments of grammaticality are based.

    Case 2: A student presents two sentences to an English teacher. The sentences differ only in that one uses a split infinitive, the other does not. The teacher renders a judgment, one is wrong, the other right. If the student is paying attention, the one judged right becomes part of a learned corpus on the bases of which future judgments of grammaticality are based.

    Yet, we are, for various sociological reasons, including implicitly the power differential between the researcher (higher) and the informant (lower) and the student (lower) and the teacher (higher), to regard the former as a case of scientific research and the latter as a case of language ideology. Yet, in both cases, precisely the same thing happens: Someone presumed to be an authority on his or her language is asked to render judgments on whether forms are correct or not. Plus, in both cases, said judgments are constrained by rules believed to be specific to a particular linguistic community.

    The distinction between the linguist’s science and the teacher’s ideology appears to turn out, at the end of the day, to be no more consequential than members of one political party claiming to speak only truth and reason while labeling their opponents’s speech ideologically motivated.

    Here, I hasten to add, “consequential” refers only to the context of academic theorizing. The political implications of choosing or constructing a dialect and asserting that it and only it will be deemed the national language do, of course, have consequences. The role of language standardization in nation-building is a well-recognized phenomenon.

    The ball is in your court.

  22. John — Thanks for being persistent; now I better understand the kind of situation you had in mind in posing your questions. If I understand correctly, you are concerned with the social embeddedness of metalinguistic judgments and those who render them. You raise a number of fascinating and deep issues, but I want to begin by focusing on one issue: the meaning of `rule’ in descriptive vs. prescriptive linguistics.

    The nature of the `rules’ in Case 1 and Case 2 is radically different. In Case 1, the `rules’ behind the phonological contrast are never taught *as* rules (Now Johnny, remember: palatalization is not contrastive in our language, but aspiration is!). Instead, in so far as it is correct to speak of rules, these rules are patterns in the way we process and and produce language. Humans acquire these through exposure to everyday speech, and we are not explicitly taught these rules in they way that we are taught, say, chess. In a certain sense, it is misleading to call these rules at all, sort of like referring to the fact that objects fall to the ground `The Rule of Gravity’.

    In Case 2, the `rule’ is not a generalization about language processing and production, but rather a statement about how people would like language to be. And where does this rule come from? Well, in the particular case of split infinitives it’s the brain child of a prescriptivist who liked Latin, where it is impossible to split infinitives, and who thought English would be `better’ if it were more like Latin. The reason why this rule has to be taught (Don’t split your infinitives!) is that it actually runs contrary to the patterns of language production that derive from the `rules’ in Case 1. (Which is why prescriptivists frequently violate their very own rules.) This rule is deontic in nature (it talks about the way language `should’ be), and demonstrably fails as a generalization (`rule’) about English syntax — people split infinitives right and left. And note, prescriptivists will readily admit this.

    The fact that the rules in Case 1 and Case 2 are different kinds of creatures has, I think, important consequences for your point regarding the similarity of linguists’ and teachers’ metalinguistic statements. The linguist aims at generating falsifiable metalinguistic statements concerning patterns to be found in tokens of language use (statements about the `rules’ of language). The prescriptivist’s rules, on the other hand, are not meant to be generalizations about how a language actually works, but rather, how language *should* be. They a demonstrably false as empirical generalizations, but since they are actually deontic rules, they are immune from falsification.

    If one accepts that descriptive and prescriptive rules make different kinds of statements about language, then I think the distinction between “the linguist’s science” and “the teacher’s ideology” remains epistemically very consequential.

    I know I haven’t responded to all the issues in your post, but let me leave it at this for now.

  23. lmichael, allow me to thank you for also being persistent. Let us agree that it may useful to distinguish descriptive and prescriptive rules as what, to borrow other terms from Clifford Geertz, we might also label “models of” and “models for,” respectively.

    Let us further agree that the arguments advanced for the models for may be weak, as they are in the cases of double negatives and/or split infinitives.

    May we then say that our problems have been solved? I would say they have only begun.

    I note,

    A. Your reference to the linguist and the teacher as the key figures in your argument. I would have said that if my examples have any force at all it is because, in judgments of grammaticality, it is the informant and the teacher who taken to be the authorities, with the linguist and the student in the humble learner’s role, i.e., Linguist:Informant as Student:Teacher. Your rebuttal seems to invert this relationship with Informant: Linguist as Student:Teacher, so that the Linguist and Teacher become the authorities in question.

    B. Whether models of or models for the rules we are talking about are models that assume agents who can (and frequently will) violate the rules. Both are human laws and distinct in this regard from the Law of Gravity, which is absolutely indifferent to human preferences.

    C. It could be argued, then, that the linguist who observes that some dialects of English allow double negation and may, in fact, require them in the way that Spanish does, has said nothing of any relevance to the social and political issue of whether some other dialect of English should be labeled “standard” and taught in the public schools. Which dialect is so chosen will, of course, reflect the vagaries of history and who is in power when the choices are made. Still, it may be better to make some choice, albeit an arbitrary one, than to make no choice at all. One can strip away the rationalizations for choosing the particular dialect in question (which may be every bit as silly as the purported illogic of double negation) and still observe that if your project is nation-building, a choice needs to be made.

    For political reasons one may, of course, reject nation-building as a goal. But the logic sketched here applies, I suggest, to any form of supra-local social organization. A standard is chosen willy-nilly, and those whose insist on their local rules wind up like players of Australian Rules football, barred by their choice of game from the rewards that playing soccer instead might offer. In debates over which game is better, the academic who notes only that, “Both are games, you know, equally good in principle” adds nothing constructive to the debate over which should be given priority in Australian or other schools.

  24. John — very interesting points, all of them. In an effort to be brief in my responses I have oversimplified somewhat, so I beg for charitable readings!

    A. I treated the linguist and the teacher as similar not because of their similarity in expertise or authority, but because of what I see as their common professional task: creating and/or communicating metalinguistic generalizations about the grammar of a language.

    But here is my take on the authority/expertise issue: In the case of teacher and student, the former is the acknowledged expert, the latter the novice. In the case of the language consultant and linguist, I think *both* are experts, but at different things. The language consultant is a fluent speaker of the language in question and is expert at creating grammatical tokens, and at distinguishing between grammatical and ungrammatical tokens. The linguist, on the other hand, is expert at creating metalinguistic generalizations about the grammar of the language based on the linguistic knowledge of the speaker. It is their complementary expertise and collaborative relationship that makes linguistic research possible.

    So, I don’t see that the teacher/student pair and the language consultant/linguistic are quite as similar as you suggest. But I’m not sure that this is problematic for your argument. Is it?

    B. Do speakers of a language actually violate (descriptive) grammatical rules? I’m not so sure. Hmmm. Certainly, a linguist can deduce or posit a descriptive rule, only to find a counter-example. But wouldn’t it be more cogent to say that the linguist simply got the rule wrong, than to say that the speaker violated a rule? I think its clear that some grammatical rules tolerate gradient deviations from the prototypical case, which gives speakers wiggle room for innovation and being creative. Is this what you are thinking of?

    C. Certainly linguists are frequently ignored when bringing up descriptive facts like the one about double negation you mention. But I’m not sure that’s because what they have to say is not relevant. I suspect its mostly because many people in decision-making positions don’t want to hear the kind of things linguists have to say. In the controversy over African-American English, for example, linguists say inconvenient things like the fact that AAE is perfectly grammatical and that it is not a degenerate or imperfect form of English. This does not mesh well with the racism that pervades much of the debate over AAE.

    I have colleagues working on standardization in Mayan languages, both gringos and Mayas, and they have found that the contributions of descriptive linguists are very useful in the effort to construct standards that native speakers will take seriously. So, I think that descriptive linguists *can* contribute to issues of standardization and language choice, if those in power are interested in listening.

  25. lmichael–no need for charitable readings here. For me, at least, this is one of the most enjoyable and productive exchanges in which I’ve engaged in a long, long time. For example, you write,

    In the case of the language consultant and linguist, I think both are experts, but at different things.

    I find this formula compelling and generalizable to all of the human sciences. I am instantly reminded of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Response to Novy Mir, in which Bakhtin asserts that all cultural understanding must be dialogic, since all humans have blind spots whose discovery requires an “other”to reveal them.

    When you write,

    I think its clear that some grammatical rules tolerate gradient deviations from the prototypical case, which gives speakers wiggle room for innovation and being creative. Is this what you are thinking of?

    I have to answer no, but now I am. Those “gradient deviations from the prototypical case”are not only necessary to account for the kinds of sound shifts described by Grimm’s Laws but also, more generally, the on-going change that is always and everywhere part of the life of language. For me, they also evoke George Lakoff’s critique of construing human reason in terms of classical logic, with its rigid categories requiring uniformity in attribute for membership, in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, which remains for me one of the most exciting books I ever read.

    Finally, when you write,

    I suspect its mostly because many people in decision-making positions don’t want to hear the kind of things linguists have to say.

    I concede a large element of truth here. I would, however, counsel less reliance on this excuse when linguists attempt to influence public policy. It not only sounds petulant, it positions the person to whom you are speaking as a yahoo whose views can simply be dismissed. Not a good way to win friends and influence people.

    Let us agree that historically, denunciations of non-standard dialects have often incorporated the notion that these dialects are, as language sub par. As students of linguistics we know that such notions are nonsense, since all varieties of human language share the basic design features that allow the use of small numbers of sounds to say an infinite number of things.

    Still, allow me to return once more to my Australian rules football example. Noting that Australian rules football is a game with the same basic design features as American football, rugby, soccer, etc., e.g.,competing teams attempting to capture and move a ball past each other to one end of the field or another, doesn’t address the educator or politician’s issue. The choice remains open, to support Australian rules (thus cultivating local pride and a characteristic Australian national chauvinism) or to support soccer (making it possible for students to play and appreciate what is now a truly global game). Given a world of unlimited resources, it might be possible to do both; but this is rarely the world in which either pedagogical or political decisions are made.

    Did I say “finally”? I am also intrigued by your colleagues working on standardization of Mayan. My memory flashes back to my first attempts to learn Hokkien and a day when the late Nicholas Cleveland Bodman asked our Taiwanese consultant (himself a graduate student in linguistics) how far he would have to travel to notice dialect differences. “The next village,” the consultant replied.

    That leads me on to wonder how the decisions were made to standardize the grammatical forms taught in the Maryknoll missionary textbooks we used to study Hokkien in central Taiwan. These ramblings are further stimulated by a set of “Learn Taiwanese” CDs purchased last fall. Designed for Mandarin speakers who want to learn Taiwanese, its drills combine “standard” Mandarin with what is to my ear an audibly Taipei/north Taiwan accent, including bits of usage that vary the grammatical patterns I was taught.

    More generally I wonder if there are any historical studies of efforts to standardize national languages in places like China, Japan or France and what these might contribute to debates on language ideology.

  26. Scientists gripe because many people refuse to accept an abstract, totally logic based exposition. The rational argument against existence is too disturbing to many people for them to even listen. Many can not except that there might ever be the non-existence of self. If the self has always been and always will be, that presents logical dilemmas. The general public while acknowledging that scientists have high IQ’s, often believe that they concomitantly have a low “spirtual quotient”. The counter-gripe perhaps is that the scientist will not concede openly the fact that “all of us at some point will die.” Putting this aside…
    Identification, empathy and fusion with the personality of another as an extension of self, measured by a constellation of attitudes similar to the “oceanic state”, could be used as a measure of the “spirtual quotient”. It is the difusion of self and the all encompassing that has something to do with spirituality. The identification with body can not stand when one embraces the fact that all of us, at some point, will die. Do we go out of existence in such a way that we will not know that we have ever been — if that is true, then nothing we have ever done will matter to us who in non-existence will not know of any triumphs or sins etc.. If that were so, we could do anything now as we would eventually be nothing with no responsiblility for what we have done in this world. Can anyone conceive of not being aware of anything we have done — to be in a state of unawareness — to make our lives as perceived by ourselves to be ultimately futile and non-existant to ourselves? Doesn’t this demand an endless existence. Otherwise, since death will come to everyone, why bother living if nothing will be remembered, and we will not have known that we did anything from our own perspective. A separate perspective in spiritual dimensions seems a logical necessity.

  27. Amy Jagnow
    In response to one of your final sentences,

    “Otherwise, since death will come to everyone, why bother living if nothing will be remembered, and we will not have known that we did anything from our own perspective.”

    This may be true that the in-depth abstract thought of life or lack thereof after death could cause people to evaluate their lives as meaningless and therefor give cause for blithe, sinfull existences. I would agree that religion makes sense to those within it and does a good job of comforting individuals who dare to think abstractly about the termination of their existence. However, I do not think that we can lump those who do not ascribe to a religion as people who believe that because their life is going to end and they will have no recollection of it, that anything they accomplish is worthless. This is oversimplifiying the matter, especially since so many people (religious or not) strive for ideals in a similar since, even though they realize they can never achieve their ideals.

  28. Investigators may feel that savages can be unreasonable, but savages may sometimes believe the odd visiting anthropologist is the primitive one. I would call this the “reverse photography paradox”.
    First, the familiar forward story: a scientist carrying an old-fashioned film camera(not instant) goes into the field and wishes to photograph the savages. He/she/they, the scientist(s), explains an image is in the camera. The savage demands to open the camera in the sunlight to see it.
    The Reverse: An anthropologist participates in a ritual, and by outward appearance performs it admirably and well with every nuance dutifully followed. The anthropologist asks, “where is the magic?” The savages try to explain their version of an altered-state-of-consciousness. They tell him he had failed to enter the mind realm of magic actionable power. If the poor savages knew about the electroencephalograph, they would say, “your performance of the ritual is invalid unless you show theta waves.”

  29. Maniaku — that’s a good point, that I think has to do with the difference between an anthropological stance and a critical stance and under what circumstances one might wish to utilize one or the other.

    Dawkins writes about religion from a starting-point of assuming its malevolent idiocy, and then demonstrating the same. I’d be the first to admit that I wrote about Diamond and Levitt assuming the malevolent idiocy of their approaches, and set about demonstrating the same. The Dawkins-on-religion or the me-on-Diamond/Levitt I’d call the critical stance.

    It’s not a method I’d take with me to the field, however, nor a method I think of as properly anthropological. Diamond’s work or Levitt’s work, despite their popularity, are not phenomena at the same scale as “religion”; Dawkins constructs a type of religiosity (demolished by Eagleton) which he then takes down as malevolent and idiotic and ends by declaring he has therefore taken down “religion”. Kerim takes Dawkins’ assertion more or less at face value, and says, actually Dawkins has failed to take down religion _enough_; the take-down has to happen at a social-scientific scale. But really the critical stance isn’t appropriate to that scale.

    In the case of Diamond and Levitt, you don’t have to construct a prototype taken to represent something larger; their work is already a type that can be criticized directly at the scale at which it exists. Now, the wide popular reception of their work obviously does have something to do with a larger social phenomenon (namely racism, in both cases).

    But racism is not a phenomenon that is blameless in itself the way magic/science/religion are. So I don’t think the emphatic credulity anthropologists use to examine the latter is appropriate to the former (though an approach like “races! golly! what does a world in which races exist look like and how does it work?” can be quite illuminating. But that’s treating racism only in its avatar as a kind of “scientific” method for classifying people, and racism has other dimensions; as anyone who has taught 101 can attest, teaching students that races are social and not biological categories rarely makes the racist ones less racist).

    Kerim suggests that just as proving the logical confusion of the “race” notion is insufficent to overcome racism, that proving the logical confusion of “belief in a supreme being” (what Dawkins does) is insufficient to overcome religion. That, just as we would have also to understand the sociological ramifications of racism, we would have to understand the sociological ramifications of religion. In short, Kerim champions taking (what I call) the ‘critical’ rather than (what I call) the ‘anthropological’ approach to religion (as one might — much more usefull in my view — to racism)

    Dawkins uses the critical approach because he sees religion as something that *cannot* be blameless in itself; this is the same way that some science studies folks see science. But I think both those perspectives are quite confused, and seriously pernicious. That’s why I took issue with Kerim’s take on Dawkins (“that’s all very well, but doesn’t go far enough”)

    Either you affirm that domains like “religion” and “science” are necessarily and directly sociologically motivated in the same way a domain like “racism” is, or — which I think is much the more interesting approach — you begin from the premise that they are not.

    You can use a mix of the critical approach and the anthropological approach to either (racism and science/religion), but *seeing the difference* means that the critical approach is going to be “right” for racism and the anthropological approach is going to be “right” for magic/science/religion, and, finally, that the fact that racism intersects with religion or with science (which we all know has happened and does happen) doesn’t make them phenomena of the same order.

  30. Kathleen Lowrey says:
    “…I’ll repeat that methodological agnositicism on all three domains is a disciplinary necessity. The anthropological method is to say golly! Microbes! What does a world in which microbes exist look like and how does it work? Golly! Witches! What does a world in which witches exist look like and how does it work? Golly! The heavenly father! What does a world in which the heavenly father exists look like and how does it work?”

    Golly! Anthropologists! What does a world in which some are immersed in culture look like and how does it work? Isn’t there also the issue of whether to just observe behavior and outward measureable manifestations, or to also get into the mind of an individual who is a master of the culture by participating and being temporarily “brain-washed” until perhaps one can say, “well that doesn’t work” — the healer can’t really heal in a measurable way, or let’s take that herb to the lab and see if it has any active ingredients. Are there any elements of religion that contain active “ingredients” that can be measured in the lab. A ritual may have elements unnecessary for its efficacy, but in a crude way may work. The theoretical underpinnings of a ceremony may be total poppycock, but if what is done induces a trance state that is used to unleash creativity or reveal the unconscious motivations and workings of a culture then the dance however silly looking may be worth doing with glee, just as a painting is worth examining however flawed the techniques used in making it may be.

  31. John — In response to your comments about Hokkien and Taiwanese, certainly the default way of creating `standards’ is to pick the variety spoken in a given region. Even much descriptive linguistic work does this inadvertently by virtue of the linguist living and working in one place

    In this respect, it is interesting how the people who I know who are working on standardization of Mayan languages are approaching the task. First, they are not elevating the variety of a given region to that of the standard (which is effectively what happened in languages like English and French). As I understand it, they fear that this would simply lead to the speakers of other varieties simply rejecting the faux-standard. Instead, they are reaching compromises by incorporating elements from multiple dialects into the standard (which of course requires linguistic work to know what the differences are in the first place).

    One especially interesting thing they told me about was a pattern they have developed to deal with possible impasses in negotiating these dialectal compromises. Since there has been a good amount of historical work done on the Mayan languages, it is usually possible to determine which dialectal form (say, a given word or a given construction) most closely resembles the historically prior form. It seems that the Maya linguists and intellectuals who are working on the creation of the standard find relative faithfulness to the older form desirable, and this allows them to `break the tie’ between dialectal variants when it is not so clear which way to go.

    Btw, if you enjoyed WF&DT, you would probably be gratified to know that the radial, or prototype-based, semantics discussed by Lakoff is central to much of modern cognitive and functional linguistics.

    Also, nice point about Bakhtin; I’m not sure if anyone has talked about old-fashioned grammatical linguistic fieldwork in terms of dialogicality, but now that you mention it, I don’t see why noone has.

  32. Kathleen — I want to make sure I understand your position: are you suggesting that it is appropriate to evaluate claims (made by individuals we are trying to understand) as true or false (= “the critical stance”?) only when we are critiquing “malevolent idiocy”? And otherwise, as anthropologists, we should restrict ourselves to “emphatic credulity”? At the end of your latest post you indicate that one can mix the two approaches, but in the context of the rest of your post, I think that you would say that the critical stance is licensed only insofar as one is facing a facet of malevolent idiocy in the phenomenon at hand. Is that right? Or is it sometimes appropriate to consider the facticity of claims without adopting a critical stance?

  33. lmichael-The Mayan standardization work is intriguing. Dare we hope that anyone is keeping good notes for a book on an effort to standardize that flies straight in the face of the usual historical process in which what the king-court-metropolis speaks becomes the de facto standard? It is also interesting to note that faithfulness to older forms provides the rationalization for agreement among Maya linguists and intellectuals, who seem to be buying into a primordial identity view of what it is to be Maya.

    But, switching topics, would you care to recommend a couple of good sources on that “modern cognitive and functional linguistics” you mention. My awareness of what’s going on in anthropological linguistics stops with an only passing acquaintance with the contents of Duranti & Goodwin (1992) Rethinking Context, and Duranti (2001) Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader .

  34. lmichael writes,

    I think that you [Kathleen] would say that the critical stance is licensed only insofar as one is facing a facet of malevolent idiocy in the phenomenon at hand. Is that right? Or is it sometimes appropriate to consider the facticity of claims without adopting a critical stance?

    I look forward to hearing Kathleen’s response. Again, however, I find myself contronting a pair of alternatives couched as a binary opposition and note to myself the existence of other possibilities. For example, in an article titled “Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language,” American Ethnologist Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1995, I write,

    I start with the working assumption, nicely stated by Erving Goffman, that applies as well to the presentation of self in ritual as it does to everyday life:

    When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be. [The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959: 17]

    I assume, then, that the [Taiwanese Daoist] healer is doing, in fact, what he seems to be doing: negotiating with demons. He is neither charlatan, preacher, nor pedagogue; nor is he an actor performing a play that he and others know to be fiction. He is what he says he is: a magician, trying to achieve a ceertain effect in the way he knows best, by magic.

    This stance is not critical; I am not trying to tear down a theory in which I disbelieve. But neither is it credulity. I make no claims one way or the other that the demons exist or that what the magician does affects them in any way.

    The respect I extend to my brother in the art–we studied with the same master, me for my dissertation, he as part of his preparations for setting up his own practice–follows Confucius’ advice that when a gentleman participates in rituals, he behaves as if the spirits are present. He does not concern himself with whether they exist or not.

  35. lmichael: can you give me an example of what you mean? I mean do you mean something bone-headed like “if someone offers you some delicious chocolate cake — and yet they have no chocolate cake — you might evaluate the factual basis of their claim-to-be-able-to-offer-cake without necessarily taking a “critical” stance on it”?

    (I mean, I’d feel critical about that — being tempted to no avail — but not everybody would; some people might just cooly note the absence of cake).

    Or do you mean something broader and more profound?

  36. Well, the kind of question that I would be wondering is if, say, you were examining North American families and you found that your informants said that monogamous relationships are natural (because ducks form monogamous relationships, that kind of thing). To explain, examine, whatever the social construction of kinship in North America would therefore be challenging the “facticity” of this claim, while not necessarily being critical of monogamous families per se. And anthropologists do this kind of thing all the time. I would be surprised if you had nothing of this form in your own work, but I suppose it is possible.

  37. I’m not sure what broader point you might try to make on that basis, but just a first distinction that comes to mind is that people make some sorts of claims that they know to be “ideal-type” claims themselves. I mean, no one needs an anthropologist to point out to them that a claim for the “naturalness” of the monogamous heterosexual family faces robust empirical challenges. So if I were to use the “exaggerated credulity” response I’d actually be outdoing my informants.

    With magic/science/religion (and I think there are very good reasons anthropologists treat these together, as special domains with special commonalities), it’s a bit different: when people say god exists, they aren’t saying it b/c they *wish* it were true or b/c they are trying to win an argument or trying to fit in with dominant value-systems or make friends or have something to do on the weekends or whatever.

    Claims of religious faith (or scientific authority, or belief in witches) are often treated this way — and no doubt in specific instances they deserve that treatment — but for the most part that type of statement has a different status *for the people making it* than the “heterosexual monogamy is normal” statement does. People making the latter type of statement know it is contested and contestable.

  38. Let me clarify, my point is not that they think that heterosexual monogamy is desireable, moral, or proper. My point is that they think it is natural, given, just-the-way-the-world-is (this is the point of the ducks). Perhaps it is an ideal type claim, but ideal type in the Weberian sense rather than “we would like it if people were in heterosexual monogamous relationships”. Their claim is not that everyone is in this kind of relationship, but that it is the natural order of things, ie it is not historically, culturally, or socially contingent. Not “normal” but “natural”. Empirical challenges notwithstanding (which I find to be a red herring because that applies equally to many religious phenomena).

  39. John — Yes, I think the various stories of the ongoing efforts to standardize indigenous languages in the Americas will make for fascinating contrasts to the better-known European stories. In this regard, you might find the following piece by Nora England interesting: “Maya Linguists, Linguistics, and the Politics of Identity”, available at: http://studentorgs.utexas.edu/salsa/proceedings/2002/papers/Engand.pdf

    When you asked about good introductory books on cognitive and functional linguistics I was stumped as first, but synchronicity intervened, and I came across these reviews for two new introductory books on cognitive linguistics that look interesting:



    I don’t know of any parallel, truly introductory works for functional linguistics, so I would recommend Talmy Givón’s “Syntax: A Functional-Typological Introduction” (two volumes). These get pretty technical pretty quickly.

    You will notice, I think, that these works take a very different approach to language from the books you mentioned by Duranti and Duranti & Goodwin. There is a fascinating story in all this about the split between linguistic anthropology and linguistics, but I think that might be too much of a tangent, even for this thread…

  40. No doubt there is a guy somewhere sincerely thinking, how could my wife be having an affair with the plumber? consider the ducks of the pond — how they neither fool around nor go all dykey.

    But more generally, it’s a bad-faith argument, intended to accomplish something other than what its manifest content suggests. This is exactly Dawkins’ critique of religion (it’s also my critique of GG&S and Freakonomics), and it is the form that many social-scientific treatments of m/s/r take. I’m not saying those treatments are wrong in every specific instance (nor that Dawkins is wrong in every specific instance — many a hypocrite has sat in a church pew. See sepulcre, whited, for more detail).

    What I do think is wrong is the idea that such treatments really get at what make m/s/r social-scientifically interesting. I mean, that they are potentially and often actually motivated by some kind of latent content (will to power, loneliness, whatever): sure. You’ll get no argument from me (or anybody, which is why that line of analysis is a bit low-wattage).

    But that m/s/r are completely explained by those kinds of analyses: absolutely not. The analyses that I find *most* compelling are the ones that say, hey, let’s take a “flat” (rather than an “ooh, I can see through THIS”) approach to what m/s/r is all about and see where it gets us. It’s a much more difficult kind of analysis to do and one that yields much more illuminating results.

  41. Kathleen — I was thinking of situations like the one faced by people looking at language prescriptivism, although I think that this situation is far from unique.

    Some things that prescriptivists say about language are demonstrably false, others are roughly accurate. Its relatively easy to understand the origin of the roughly accurate rules: observation and generalization. The inaccurate, or wildly false, rules, however, are very interesting. The fact that they are so inaccurate is a sign that something very interesting is going on, and that there is something remarkable for the anthropologist or linguist to figure out. So in part, distinguishing between true and false prescriptivist claims is a way of locating ideological hotspots in the social phenomenon of language prescriptivism. But the distinction between true and false prescritivist claims needn’t necessarily be wedded to a critical project.

    Another plausible reason for distinguishing between true and false prescriptivist claims is that the very falseness of these claims is important in understanding their social efficacy. I think a good case can be made that erroneous prescriptivist rules are means for accruing linguistic/social capital precisely *because* they are based on bogus arguments about how a given language works. As a consequence, they must be arduously learned in educational institutions and continually reinforced in social interaction, which means that these bogus rules become great resources for the social construction of asymmetry.

    Prescriptivist rules that are essentially accurate statements of language structure do not have this quality because, well, people `know’ these rules by just being everyday speakers of, say, English. They are not good resources for creating asymmetry.

    So here, I submit, is a situation in which knowing whether a prescriptivist statement about language is true or false helps us understand the social life of prescriptivism, without necessary being part a critique of prescriptivism.

    Clearly, my comments are narrowly focused on language prescriptivism, but I think that you can see how they might extend to other areas of inquiry.

    John — I wrote a brief post yesterday with a link to an article on Maya language standardization and some others on cognitive linguistics. It didn’t post, however: I got the message that the post was “awaiting moderation” (maybe it was the URLs?) Hopefully our Moderating Overlords will let it through 😉 .

  42. Either you affirm that domains like “religion” and “science” are necessarily and directly sociologically motivated in the same way a domain like “racism” is, or—which I think is much the more interesting approach—you begin from the premise that they are not.

    You can use a mix of the critical approach and the anthropological approach to either (racism and science/religion), but seeing the difference means that the critical approach is going to be “right” for racism and the anthropological approach is going to be “right” for magic/science/religion, and, finally, that the fact that racism intersects with religion or with science (which we all know has happened and does happen) doesn’t make them phenomena of the same order.

    Essentially, you appear to be arguing that Dawkins is wrong because he is not an anthropologist. And that is entirely correct; he is an advocate for a particular moral position; one that religion is wrong and evil. Affirming that they are both sociological domains is not the same as affirming that they are morally equivalent. Or that they provide equally reliable and useful knowledge about the world.

    Kerim’s remark that Dawkins is ineffective because his critique is not informed by the right knowledge may be nearer the mark as an effective critique of Dawkins’ approach.

    Dawkins constructs a type of religiosity (demolished by Eagleton)

    It would be more correct to argue that Eagleton constructs a type of Dawkins, which he proceeds to demolish by the familiar procedure of an onrush of ad hominems and rhetoric (excellent rhetoric), some sleight of hand (My favorite: “The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever.” Now that is a rhetorically brilliant bit of midirected hack. I’ll have to steal that structure someday. Orz Orz Orz.) interspersed with unsupported claims that anyone with a knowledge of New Testament studies can easily show are arguable, if not outright wrong.

    Carry on. It’s fascinating to watch a bunch of anthropologists discuss Dawkins.


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