A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Writing for the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report – which I will comment more on soon – Isabel Sawhill offers a summary of Moynihan’s prescience. Here’s an excerpt:

…the trends [Moynihan] identified have not gone away. Indeed, they have “trickled up” to encompass not just a much larger fraction of the African American community but a large swath of the white community as well. Still, the racial gaps remain large. The proportion of black children born outside marriage was 72 percent in 2012, while the white proportion was 36 percent.

The effects on children of the increase in single parents is no longer much debated. They do less well in school, are less likely to graduate, and are more likely to be involved in crime, teen pregnancy, and other behaviors that make it harder to succeed in life. Not every child raised by a single parent will suffer from the experience, but, on average, a lone parent has fewer resources—both time and money—with which to raise a child. Poverty rates for single-parent families are five times those for married-parent families. The growth of such families since 1970 has increased the overall child poverty rate by about 5 percentage points (from 20 to 25 percent).

Rates of social mobility are also lower for these families. Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that the incidence of single parenthood in a community is one of the most powerful predictors of geographic differences in social mobility in the United States. And our research at the Brookings Institution also shows that social mobility is much higher for the children of continuously married parents than for those who grow up with discontinuously married or never-married.

At least three things wrong here:

1. This is a very common logical sequence followed by those who say that the decline of marriage (or rise of single parenthood) is the major social welfare problem we face today. They point to the rise of single parenthood. Then they say that children of single parents are doing worse on a variety of indicators. What they don’t say is that while single parenthood has, in fact, skyrocketed, most of the problems they’re concerned with have gotten better, not worse. While single motherhood has been rising, education is up, poverty is down, life expectancy is up, and (since the 1990s) crime is way, way down – for Blacks as well as Whites. The proportion of Black children living with single mothers has almost doubled since the 1960s, but the Black poverty rate is less than it was in 1974.

2. It is one thing to observe that children of single parents do worse in some ways than children of married parents. But Sawhill knows, and should tell you, that studies seeking to identify the direction of causality in that relationship are plagued by unresolved problems of selection bias. We know for sure the effects of single parenthood on children are dwarfed by other social trends.

3. That use of Chetty is completely wrong, a meme started by Brad Wilcox and fueled by credulous reporters. Notice the pivot in Sawhill’s text. First it’s, “Rates of social mobility are also lower for these families.” Then, “Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that the incidence of single parenthood in a community…” As if the second (the one that mentions Harvard) is related to the first. It’s not. The Chetty paper did not study single-parent families. What they did was look at rates of single parenthood in communities, and use them to predict social mobility. But – and Sawhill would know this matters if she had read the beginning of her own piece, which mentioned the big racial disparity in single parenthood – the paper did not control for race! Please, before spreading this claim, or retweeting (without necessarily endorsing) the supposed experts who do, read this. Because you know what really affects social mobility in the U.S.? Race.

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Bogus versus extremely low-quality, Sullins edition

https://flic.kr/p/e6sfpP

Photo by CTBTO from Flickr Creative Commons (modified)

Calling a study “peer-reviewed” gives it at least some legitimacy. And if a finding is confirmed by “many peer-reviewed studies,” that’s even better. So the proliferation of bogus journals publishing hundreds of thousands of “peer-reviewed” articles of extremely low quality is bad news both for the progress of science and for public discourse that relies on academic research.

Two weeks ago I briefly reviewed some articles published by D. Paul Sullins, the anti-gay professor at Catholic University, on the hazards of being raised by gay and lesbian parents. I called the journals, published by Science Domain International (SDI), “bogus,” but said you could make an argument for extremely low quality instead.

After that Sullins sent me an email with some boilerplate from the publisher in defense of the journals, and he accused me of having a conflict of interest because his conclusions contradict one of my published articles. After correctly pointing out that a sting operation by Science failed to entrap an SDI journal with a bogus paper about cancer research, he said:

SDI is a new and emerging publisher. … While I would not say SDI is yet in the top tier, and I don’t like their journal names much either [which mimic real journal titles], for the reasons listed above I submit that this publisher is far from ‘bogus.’

How far from bogus?

Since that post, the reviews on the third of Sullins’ papers have been published by Science Domain and its journal, the (non-) British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science. So we have some more information on which to judge.

The paper, “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-sex Parents: Difference by Definition,” was reviewed by three anonymous reviewers (from the USA, Brazil, Nigeria) and one identified as Paulo Verlaine Borges e Azevêdo, from Brazil. I summarize them here.

Anonymous USA

This reviewer only suggested minor revisions (nothing in the “compulsory revision” section). These were the suggestions: Avoid the first person, clarify the race of study participants, discuss the results in more detail, don’t use the word “trivial,” add citations to several statements, grammar check.

Anonymous, Brazil

This review demanded compulsory revisions: Clarify the level of statistical significance used, explain acronyms, clarify use of “biological parents” when discussing same-sex parents. And some minor revisions: one typo, one font-size change, standardize number of decimal places.

Anonymous, Nigeria

This reviewer included compulsory revisions: mention instrument used in the abstract, clarify measures used in previous studies on children’s well-being, test all four hypotheses proposed (not just three), clarify use of instrument used, shorten the discussion. Minor revisions: check for typos.

Paulo Verlaine Borges e Azevêdo, Brazil

This reviewer requested reorganizing the text, like this:

Would be better to redistribute the lengths of results (lessened), discussion (up) and conclusion (down) sections. In many moments, in the Result section the author deal with I believe would be better located in the Discussion (e. eg., between lines 345 and 355). I suggest that the subsections of Results would be reviewed by author and parts that discuss the results be transferred to the Discussion section … Strengths and Limitations would be better located in the discussion section too.

A few additional minor text modifications were included in the marked up manuscript.

Round two

Upon revision, Sullins was subjected to a punishing second round of reviews.

This included an interesting if ultimately fruitless attempt by Anonymous Brazil to object to this somewhat nutty sentence by Sullins: “biological parentage uniquely and powerfully distinguishes child outcomes between children with opposite-sex parents and those with same-sex parents.” What he meant was, when he controlled for the biological relationship between children and their parents — since hetero parents are more likely to have any biological parentage (and they’re the only ones with two bio parents) — it statistically reduced the gap in children’s mental health between married hetero versus same-sex parents. Although the exchange was meaningless in the decision whether to publish, and Sullins didn’t change it, and the reviewer dropped the objection, and the editors just said “publish it,” you would have to say this was a moment of actual review.

OK then

That’s it. None of this touched on the obvious fatal flaws in the study — that Sullins combines children in all same-sex families into one category while breaking those currently with different-sex parents into different groups (step-parents, cohabitors, single parents, etc.) — and that he has no data on how long the children currently with same-sex couples have lived with them, or how they came to live with them. So it leaves us right where we started on the question of same-sex parenting “effects” on children.

Of course, lots of individual reviews are screwed up. So, is this journal bogus or merely extremely low quality? Do we have a way of identifying these so-bad-they’re-basically-bogus journals that is meaningful to the various audiences they are reaching?

This matters is because journalists, judges, researchers, and the concerned public would like some way to evaluate the veracity of scientific claims that bear on current social controversies, such as marriage equality and the rights of gay and lesbian parents.

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Quick note on Patricia Arquette and White feminism

Inez Milholland, representing the social kind of White women's feminism that elevates "women" to special symbols of national pride. (Image from Wikipedia)

Inez Milholland at a suffrage parade in 1913, representing the special kind of White feminism that elevates “women” to symbols of national pride. (Image from Wikipedia)

I have just a little to add to the controversy over Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. She said:

To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.

Backstage, she doubled down:

And it’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now!

Arquette is not a major feminist, not the organizer of a major activist group, and not in charge of messaging for all of feminism. So I don’t think we need to try to get too into her head, or attack her individually for the way she expresses her feminism. But there is a history to this way of looking at things that is important.

Nyasha Junior, writing at the Washington Post, gave some historical context:

Historically, white women’s efforts to support greater women’s equality have been directed toward greater equality for white women. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and some other white suffragists supported the right to vote for white women and refused to back the 15th Amendment, which allowed U.S. citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” At the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, African American women were told to march separately—at the end of the parade.

My comment

This takes me all the way back to my master’s thesis — “Nationalism and Suffrage: Gender Struggle in Nation-Building America” — which was all about this.

Junior’s history doesn’t go back quite far enough. Because White women’s feminism was very constructively tied up with abolitionism before around 1860 (Frederick Douglass spoke at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention). Even though they frequently juxtaposed “women” with “slaves” in a way that made it clear they were thinking first of White women, there was nevertheless a strong undercurrent of solidarity, as when Sarah Grimke said in 1838, “Woman has been placed by John Quincy Adams, side by side with the slave…. I thank him for ranking us with the oppressed.”

It was the controversy over the 14th Amendment (not 15th), which for the first time in the Constitution specified voting rights for men, that sent the White suffrage leaders into a racist rage. And it accompanied a philosophical shift from women as equal to men, with natural rights, to women as inherently different from men, as the basis for a claim of democratic rights.

Gender essentialism fueled White racist nationalism. Saying women are different and therefore special required them to explain what real womanhood was, which is where the racism, nationalism, and exclusionary politics came in.

When Arquette says, “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation,” I hear Carrie Chapman Catt in 1915:

We appeal [for suffrage] in the name of our foremothers … in the name of those women who unmurmuringly bore the hardships of colonial life, who kept their high courage despite the wild beast and the savage lurking ever near their door, and planted the noble American ideal deep in the hearts of their children; in the name of those women of revolutionary days who kept the fire of freedom burning in their breasts, who fed, clothed, nursed, and inspired the men who won liberty for our country.

This is the ideology under which Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained that the 14th Amendment elevated “the lowest orders of manhood” (Black men) over the “highest classes of women.” And Susan B. Anthony said, “if intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”

The wrinkle I want to add to Junior’s history is that the racism and exclusionary politics followed the shift from natural rights to gender essentialism. So, at least in the U.S., when White women start saying things like “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation,” racism is often lurking nearby.

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Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:

totalpb

So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:

youngoldpb

One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:

asb-pinkblue

That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.

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Children in same-sex parent families, dead horse edition

Not that child well-being in different kinds of families isn’t a legitimate research topic, but this idea of proving same-sex parents are bad to whip up the right-wing religious base and influence court cases is really a shark jumping over a dead horse.

Without getting into all the possible detail and angles, here are some comments on the new research published by D. Paul Sullins, which claims to show negative outcomes for children with same-sex parents. Fortunately, I believe the legal efficacy of this kind of well-being witch-hunt research evaporated with Anthony Kennedy’s Windsor decision. Nevertheless, the gay-parents-are-bad-for-kids research community is still attempting to cause harm, and they still have big backers, so it’s important to respond to their work.

Research integrity

Below I will comment a little on the merits of the new studies, but first a look at the publication process and venues. As in the case of the Regnerus affair, in which Brad Wilcox, Mark Regnerus, and their backers conspired to manufacture mainstream legitimacy, Sullins is attempting to create the image of legitimate research, which can then be cited by advocates to the public and in court cases.

Although he has in the past published in legitimate journals (CV here), Sullins’ work now appears to have veered into the netherworld of scam open access journals (which, of course, does not include all open-access journals). Maybe this is just the decline of his career, but it seems they think a new round of desperate “peer-reviewed” publishing will somehow help with the impending legal door-slam against marriage inequality, so they’re rushing into these journals.

Sullins has three new articles about the mental health of children with same-sex parents. The first, I think, is “Bias in Recruited Sample Research on Children with Same-Sex Parents Using the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).” This was published in the Journal of Scientific Research and Reports. The point of it is that same-sex parents who are asked to report about their children’s well-being exaggerate how well they’re doing.

The second paper is “Child Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Same-Sex Parent Families in the United States: Prevalence and Comorbidities.” It was published on January 21 in the British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research. It claims that children living with same-sex parents, surveyed in the National Health Interview Survey, are more likely to have ADHD than “natural” children of married couples.

The third — the one I call third because it doesn’t seem to have actually been published yet — is, “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-sex Parents: Difference by Definition,” in the British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science. It’s point is the same as the second, with slightly different variables. (The author’s preprint is here.) This is the one Mark Regnerus referred to in a post calling attention to Sullins’ work. (The legitimacy strategy is apparent in Regnerus naming the fancy-sounding journal in the opening sentence of his post.)

What makes these scam journals? The first clue is that two of them have “British” in the name, despite not being British in any way (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They are all published by Science Domain, which is listed on “Beall’s List” of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” They are not published by academic societies, they are not indexed by major academic journal databases, they publish thousands of papers with little or no peer review (at the expense of the authors), and they recruit authors, editors, and reviewers through worldwide spam campaigns that sweep up shady pseudo-scholars.

For the first two, which have been published, Science Domain documents the review process. The first paper, “Bias in Recruited Sample…,” first had to overcome Reviewer 1, Friday Okwaraji, a medical lecturer at the University of Nigeria, who recommended correcting a single typo. Reviewer 2, identified as “anonymous/Brazil,” apparently read the paper, suggesting several style changes and moving some sentences, and expressing misgivings about the whole point. After revisions, the editor considered the two reviews carefully, and then wrote to the managing editor, “Please accept the paper, it is okay.” It was submitted November 18, 2014 and accepted December 17, 2014.

The second paper, “Child ADHD…,” also shows its peer review process. Reviewer 1 was Renata Marques de Oliveira at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. In 2012 she was listed as a masters student in psychiatric nursing, and is now an RN. This is the entirety of her review of Sullins’ paper:

sullinsreview1

OK, then.

The second review is by Rejani Thudalikunnil Gopalan, described as a faculty member at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, or maybe Gujarat Forensic Sciences University, Gujarat, India. She was recently spotted drumming up submissions for a special issue of the scammy American Journal of Applied Psychology (“What? We didn’t say it was the same journal as the Journal of Applied Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association!”). The journal AJAP is published by the Science Publishing Group (see Beall’s List), but I couldn’t investigate further because their website happens to be down.

Unlike Oliveira, Gopalan seems to have read the paper, and offered a few superficial questions and suggestions – not quite the very worst review from a legitimate journal that I have ever read. After a cursory reply, the editor responded (in full): “The authors have addressed all reviewers’ concerns in a satisfactory way. This is an outstanding paper worthy of publication in BJMMR.” It was accepted two weeks after submission.

I don’t want to imply that three journals are illegitimate just because they are run for profit by low-status academics from developing countries. But looking at the evidence so far I think it’s fair to call these journals bogus. However, I wouldn’t argue too much if you wanted instead to say they are merely of the very lowest quality.

Why does a guy at a real university, with tenure, publish three articles in two months at a paper mill like Science Domain? I fear our dear Dr. Sullins has fallen out of love with the scientific establishment. Anyways.

Content

You might say we should just ignore these papers because of their provenance, but they’re out there. Plus, I want people to take my totally unreviewed blog posts seriously, so I should take these at least a little seriously. Fortunately, I can write them off based on simple, complete objections.

Combining the 1997-2013 National Health Interview Surveys, about 200,000 children, Sullins gets 512 children who are living with a same-sex couple (about 16% married, he says). In both the second and third papers, he compares these children to those living with married, biological or adoptive parents who are of different sexes. The basic problem here is obvious, and was apparent in the infamous Regnerus paper as well: same-sex couples, regardless of their history — married, divorced, never-married, just-married, married before the kid was born, just got together yesterday when the kid was 15, and so on — are all combined in one undifferentiated category. This just can’t show you the “effect” of same-sex parenting. (When Regnerus says this research supports the ” basic narrative … that children who grow up with a married mother and father fare best at face value,” he’s slipping in “grow up with,” though he knows the study doesn’t have the information necessary to make that claim.)

However, if Sullins did the data manipulations right — which I cannot judge because I don’t know the data, little detail is provided, and the reviewers have no expertise with it either — there is a simple descriptive finding here that is interesting, if unsurprising: children living with same-sex parents over the period 1997-2013, the vast majority of whom are not married, and presumably did not conceive or adopt the child in their relationship, have more emotional problems and ADHD than children living with their married, biological parents. We have to be smart enough to consider that — if it’s true — without falling into accepting the claim that such problems are the result of same-sex parenting, because that has not been established. Of course, this supports an argument for marriage equality, but it’s also just an empirical pattern worth understanding. If Sullins, Regnerus, and their ilk weren’t so hellbent on opposing homosexuality they could actually provide useful information that might be part of a knowledge base we use to improve children’s lives.

Sullins’ judgment is no doubt clouded by his overarching religious objection to homosexuality, which, he believes, like abortion and contraception,

contravene the natural operation of the body in order to conform human sexuality to the ideals of modernity… By severing the link between sex and children, both [abortion and homosexuality] increase privatization, diminish the social intentionality and form of the sexual union, and undermine the unitive good and the transcendent goal of marriage.

So for him it’s already settled — long before he extruded these papers (and Regnerus has expressed similar views). Apparently they think they just need a few bogus publications to bring the public along.

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Exceptions overwhelm the rules in economics

I wrote a short essay for the New York Times Room for Debate feature. The question was, “Have we given economists too much authority?” Here’s my answer, as edited by the Times. You can read the other essays and comments here.

rfdecon-sfSpan

Exceptions Overwhelm Economic Rules

There is a lot to be said for the common critique of economists: They see society as the product of freely acting, rationally calculating individuals for whom monetary reward is the primary source of motivation. Free markets, to them, are the pure expression of social function and economic growth through their realization is the only outcome that matters.

But people do not simply act rationally to maximize their economic rewards, because they can have incomplete or inaccurate information, ideological biases, conflicting desires or collective interests. Exploitation, dishonesty, violence, ignorance and demagoguery set vast areas of social life apart outside the model. The multiplying exceptions overwhelm the rule bringing the model’s utility into question.

Group behavior and social structure are central to understanding society. Collective identity yields networks of solidarity that drive social interaction in ways individual self-interest alone cannot determine. Economic growth is one of many legitimate goals.

In reality, many economists don’t hew so firmly to these mainstream dogmas. But economists’ influence is largely proportional to the degree with which their analysis comports with the interests of those who make the most influential decisions. The free market orientation, individualist logic and materialist values of some economists serve well the captains of industry (or, nowadays, of finance), who in turn reward their compliant consultants with privileged perches around the seats of power.

Jeb Bush reflected this alliance in his speech to the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday, when he asked, “If a law or a rule doesn’t contribute to growth, why do it?” Going out on a limb, other justifications for government action might include reducing inequality, improving social cohesion, reducing conflict, enhancing health or protecting the environment.

If their influence is dependent on their contribution to already-powerful agendas, maybe economists don’t have as much real influence as it seems. On the other hand, people with training in the other social sciences have more impact than we often think, partly because they work not as “sociologists,” say, but under job titles such as analyst, demographer, statistician, consultant, teacher, organizer or survey director.

Of course, the common belief that economists have outsized influence is not wholly false, and they have worked hard to build it, but the uncritical acceptance of that image is part of what makes it a reality.

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Some politicians lie (Maryland edition)

That’s just my opinion.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is responding to the tax shortfall in his (our) state with a plan to cut taxes. And his justification, repeated during the campaign, and now during his State of the State message, includes these two claims:

“We’ve had the largest mass exodus of taxpayers fleeing our state – of any state in our region, and one of the worst in the nation.”

“Businesses, jobs and taxpayers have been fleeing our state at an alarming rate.”

As a dedicated public servant — who just got furloughed, lost a cost of living pay increase, and lost a merit pay increase, while our students are getting a tuition increase because of the state’s disastrous tax shortfall — I remain doggedly committed to pursuing truth.

So, the “mass exodus of taxpayers” fleeing our state:

Book1

Yes, population growth was a little slower than the regional and national averages for a couple years there. But the 25+ population has grown every year but one since 2001. Checking my definition of “exodus” now…

And the “jobs … fleeing our state at an alarming rate”:

Book1Job growth faster than the national average, no (net) “fleeing.”

The source for both figures is my calculations from the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org.

Addendum: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Maryland employment trends here. Here is the employment trend from 2004:

IMG_2349

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