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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future [Hardcover]

Michael Shermer , Donald R. Prothero
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

25 Sep 2013
The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country - all are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Donald R. Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain. He describes how major scientific ideas that are accepted by the entire scientific community (evolution, anthropogenic global warming, vaccination, the HIV cause of AIDS, and others) have been attacked with totally unscientific arguments and methods. Prothero argues that science deniers pose a serious threat to society, as their attempts to subvert the truth have resulted in widespread scientific ignorance, increased risk of global catastrophes, and deaths due to the spread of diseases that could have been prevented.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press (25 Sep 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0253010292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0253010292
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16.3 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,123,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"Prothero is a skeptic. So am I. When we call ourselves skeptics we mean simply that we take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims. Science is skepticism and scientists are naturally skeptical because most claims turn out to be false. Weeding out the few kernels of wheat from the substantial pile of chaff requires extensive observation, careful experimentation, and cautious inference to the best conclusion. Donald Prothero is a scientist's scientist in this regard... In this volume you will indeed get a reality check on some of the most important issues of our time." - Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

About the Author

Recipient of the 2013 James Shea Award of the National Association of Geology Teachers for outstanding writing and editing in the geosciences. Donald R. Prothero is Emeritus Professor of Geology at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He has published 32 books, including Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres (IUP, 2013); Earth: Portrait of a Planet; The Evolution of Earth; Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters; Catastrophes!; and After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (IUP, 2006).

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mugged by reality 16 Sep 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
Donald Prothero's book "Reality Check" is a scathing, sceptical look at various alternative (or pseudo-scientific) notions the author believes are hurting American society and culture, and sometimes that of other countries, too. The author takes on creationism (including Intelligent Design), climate change denial, denial of peak oil and overpopulation, AIDS denialism, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths and astrologers. The first part of the book is almost a mini-encyclopaedia of various erratic notions, and some of the scientific counter-arguments. I admit that I didn't know chiropractors are considered quacks! I always assumed they were some kind of real experts on back pain.

A later section of "Reality Check" borders Kulturkritik. Prothero bemoans how Americans have been turned into mindless consumers of commercial entertainment, often of a pseudo-scientific kind. The crisis in education and the generally low level of knowledge of the average American are also mentioned. The "best" Americans are really "smart idiots", fanatics who can persuasively defend a viewpoint which is really bizarre (such as creationism, climate change denial, etc). Prothero, who is a liberal, points out that the Republicans have adapted heavily to the anti-science agenda since at least the 1980's. Today's climate change denial is similar in character to the previous denial campaigns of the dangers of smoking, or the existence of acid rain or ozone depletion. Prothero believes that the various forms of denialism are connected: the Discovery Institute (DI) promotes both creationism and climate change denial, while prominent DI supporter Phillip Johnson was an AIDS denialist, as well.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Close to a Defintive Book on Science Denialism 2 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover
Donald Prothero's new book on science denialism, "Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future", belongs on the shelves of everyone. Not just those interested in the political and policy implications on the latest developments of science and technology, but anyone who is truly literate and seeks to understand contemporary science and technology; in plain English that should be anyone in the English-speaking world. What distinguishes Prothero's new book from others, is its encyclopedic scope, which covers everything from the anti-vaccination movement to creationism (which, contrary to its defenders, does include Intelligent Design) to rejection of global warming and the evolution of HIV/AIDS from similar simian immunodeficiency viruses in tropical West Africa, and even the acceptance of homeopathic medicine and chiropractors by some as "legitimate" forms of medicine. One of Prothero's chapters, Chapter 7 "Jenny's Body Count: Playing Russian Roulette with Our Children", should be required reading for anyone who thinks the anti-vaccination movement deserves credible recognition by many; instead, Prothero delves into its history and arrives at conclusions that are damning to prominent anti-vaccination movement leader actress Jenny McCarthy and her acolytes. He applies the same high standard of scholarship and analysis on other subjects, whether it is on global warming denialism (Chapter 5) creationism (Chapter 6), AIDS denialism (Chapter 8) or the finite nature of our natural resources as seen through the lens of petroleum (Chapter 11).

Prothero's book demonstrates repeatedly how science deniers work.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book. Must read for all! 26 July 2013
By Timothy R. Campbell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
REALITY CHECK
By Donald R. Prothero
Foreword by Michael Shermer
2013 Indiana University Press 269pp
Review by Tim Campbell

Donald Prothero is the author of one of my favorite books about evolution. EVOLUTION: WHAT THE FOSSIL S SAY AND WHY IT MATTERS defends and explains the modern synthesis of biological evolution-as seen from the perspective of a professional working paleontologist and geologist. He is Emeritus Professor at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of 32 books.

Now, in his latest book, REALITY CHECK, Donald takes on the equally complex task of defending evidence-based science and reality against the Denial-Virus that has stifled this nation since the 1920s. Denial of biological evolution, the origin of the Universe, along with anti -Human-caused global warming, anti-Vaccination, anti-environment, quack medicine, astrology, all come under fire here in an entertaining, well written, and mostly scary book.

This book was not written for the hard-core right-wing fundaloons and fundaliars who--funded and supported by right-wing organizations, right-wing ultra-wealthy individuals, and fundamentalist churches, fight a never-ending battle AGAINST truth, justice, and the American Way!

The loons will never "get" it. They are unlikely to read this book and if they do it will be only a cursory read followed by screaming, burying their heads under their pillows and possibly plucking out their offending eyeballs!

No, critical thinking and evidence-based science will never break through a certain segment of our population. This book WAS written for those on the fence. Are you uncertain about the facts of science? Do you wonder who to trust, who to listen to, and where to go for truthful unbiased answers? Do you suspect that Jenny McCarthy and the Creationist/ID proponents are not actually telling the whole truth?

Then this book IS written for you! The science is here--though written as easily for the layperson as for the professional scientist. The logic is here. The references are here for those who wish to go further and learn more about how the fundaliars have been working hard to deliberately destroy American democracy, the actual Constitution, and our freedom to worship or to not worship as we see fit! And to be blunt, the truth is here as well!

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." Aldous Huxley
"To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another." John Burroughs

Evolution.
Hundreds of books have been written denying and denigrating, or explaining and defending the Fact of Evolution, its original theory as proposed in 1859 by Charles Darwin, and its modern synthesis: the result of 154 years of research and experiment by tens of thousands of scientists working in a multitude of relevant but independent fields.

Fact: "Life has evolved. It is still evolving and we can watch it happen. Scientists, scholars, and virtually all educated people in the developed world (except for fundamentalist Protestants, Jews and Muslims) recognize this fact" Donald R. Prothero
More than 99% of scientists around the world accept his fact, especially those who actually work in the relevant fields of geology, paleontology, and biology. Yet, the fundamentalists continue to deny this well-confirmed and easily researched fact. (And easily disproved! No need to argue; just show a series of fossils out of place or film an actual act of divine creation!)

It is not just evolution that comes under attack from those suffering from the Denial Virus. There is some definitive relation between fundamentalist religion and the Denial Virus. While not all Global Warming deniers are fundamentalists, for example, pretty much all fundamentalists are global warming deniers. And anti-environment, anti-stem cell research, and basically anti any sort of science that even hints at contradicting their literal interpretation of the Bible.

Prothero demolishes the deniers' arguments, but he also shows how much of this denial-virus is not just harmless fun (like Santa and Nessie and Bigfoot), but is extremely harmful to all of us. The Jenny McCarthy anti-Vaxx movement is a form of science-denial that has helped to bring back such childhood memories as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and polio. All based on their denial of actual science, their distrust of vaccine makers, and their complete acceptance of a fraudulent test done by a discredited and unfrocked quack doctor, who was working for a lawyer trying to find support for an anti-vaccine lawsuit, and who was trying to open the door for his own vaccine by fomenting fear of the existing MMR vaccine!

As a result of his criminal behavior and the misguided (at best) rantings of former Playboy Playmate and actress Jenny McCarthy (and the god-awful power of the Internet to spread lies as easily as facts), the refusal of parents to have their children vaccinated has resulted in actual deaths and the resurgence of the above-mentioned childhood diseases that vaccination had pretty much eradicated!

As Donald points out (and this can easily be verified), not a single valid scientific test--by ANY legitimate unbiased testing organization--has shown any link between the MMR vaccine and the symptoms of Autism. That symptoms begin to appear at about the age when children begin their MMR vaccinations (about eighteen months) has been shown to be nothing more than coincidence.

Again, this book is especially pertinent for those who are unsure, who have doubts, and want to know what is true. Of course, the rest of us will enjoy it as well!

TRC
7/24/13
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stop denying and get a reality check! 15 Aug 2013
By Michael D. Barton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In July 2013, former model and actress Jenny McCarthy was announced as a new cohost of ABC's daytime talk show, The View. Soon after, geologist and paleontologist and author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters Donald Prothero wrote a post for Skeptiblog, an online column from Skeptic magazine, arguing why the decision to give McCarthy - who pushes the notion that child vaccinations cause autism - a public platform is irresponsible - and dangerous In "Lethal nonsense on `The View'," Prothero writes: "McCarthy's false ideas are more than just another idiot talking head blathering on about stuff they don't understand on TV. As the leading celebrity spokesperson for the anti-vaxx movement, she is a symbol of this form of virulent anti-science, and everything she says (even if she never speaks a word about anti-vaxx on the show) is colored by that perception." Then in August Prothero reviewed the latest book about intelligent design from The Discovery Institute, Stephen C. Meyer's Darwin Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, and wrote: "Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards. But as one of the few people in the entire creationist movement who has actually taken a few geology classes (but apparently no paleontology classes), he is their "expert" in this area, and is happy to mislead the creationist audience that knows no science at all with his slick but completely false understanding of the subject."

The common theme here, and similarly with many of Prothero's pieces for Skeptic, is that the public more often trusts celebrities or non-experts than scientists when it comes to scientific knowledge. McCarthy nor Meyer fully understand their subjects, yet one continues to speak out falsely about vaccines (and in so doing, some parents are not vaccinating their children, and this has unfortunate consequences) and the other publishes a book that many will see on a shelf and mistake for a proper book about science. Not knowing how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience surely contributes to the general lack of science literacy in the United States, but it also speaks to the influence that politics, religion, fame, and money have on the public understanding of science (just think of The Discovery Channel's recent show that made countless Americans believe that the giant prehistoric Megalodon shark still swam the seas or earlier in 2013, Animal Planet's program on the existence of mermaids). Scientific topics which are influenced by nonscientific ideologies are the core of Prothero's new book.

The value I find in Reality Check is that Prothero brings together important scientific information along with descriptions of the groups of people that deny the scientific evidence for each topic. He counters each groups falsehoods and biases with accurate science, and provides useful resources. In the second chapter, Prothero discusses what science is (noting that it is never "the final truth" and clarifying for the reader what "theory" in science means). But he notes that "science is also a human enterprise." Mistakes and errors happen; so does fraud. Yet such things get weeded out by the scientific process: "science is checked against an external reality that other scientists can check." Experiments are checked for accuracy and the process of peer review keeps what is good and throws out that which is bad. Yet, nonscientific ideas persist in the public perception of what constitutes science. "[I]t is often hard to tell who is telling the truth, and who is just a shill for a powerful industry or political faction or religious group," Prothero writes.

In the following ten chapters, he details the most pervasive scientific topics that some groups of people deny the scientific evidence for: the link between cigarettes and cancer, environmental topics such as acid rain and DDT, climate change, evolution versus creationism, the modern anti-vaccination movement, AID denialism, alternative medicine, astrology, oil and nature resources, and human overpopulation. I won't go through each of the chapters specifically, for I believe that's part of the fun of reading Prothero's book (if it can be "fun," because much of it is rather a sad state of affairs). I was already very familiar with a couple of the topics (evolution and creationism, DDT) but got a lot out of other chapters (anti-vaccination, climate change) with which I was not very familiar. Prothero applies what Carl Sagan called a "baloney detection kit" to all of the claims made by science deniers, and gives some of the most common examples of ways that scientific information is misrepresented, distorted, and at risk of influence: quote-mining; not having expertise in the topic being discussed; conflicts of interest; not placing the burden of proof on the dissenter; the use of subjective anecdotes over objective data, not understanding that correlation does not imply causation, and using ad hoc explanations. One can find these in all of the cases set out in Reality Check. In others, the public relations strategy to push doubt on the public's mind that a claim is true or not is often used, such as in the tobacco industry.

I particular liked this sentence: "Scientists are human, they are not perfect, and they can be misled by their own biases and ideologies, but in most cases, the harsh scrutiny of other scientists soon weeds out the bad data and gives us some basis on which to decide whether an idea has merit. Scientists are not immune to cultural forces, but by and large they are not openly ideological, either." However, perhaps Prothero's disdain for religious conservatism (which is fine with me, by all means) paints a picture of the history of science that is less accurate than "reality" (or, this speaks to an unfortunate lack of "history of science literacy"). In his second chapter, Prothero rightly notes that "[s]cience and technology have produced the practical benefits of our modern society," but continues erroneously with "which were held back for the entire Dark Ages while religious dogma held thrall over the human mind." The lack of inquiry and knowledge through the Dark Ages is a notion not held by historians of science (see myth 2 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, "That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth off Science").

Prothero's final chapter bring it all together to consider the state of science literacy in the United States, and how the denial of science is dangerous. He notes the increasingly recognized notion that simply pushing more evidence into the faces of deniers is likely to counter the goal of persuading someone that something is true. Showing more evidence of evolution by common descent to a creationist most likely will urge them to hold on to their cherished beliefs. And the media does not help, what Prothero calls the "Science TV Wasteland." I grew up watching The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, and am saddened by what those channels have become. For now, I will stick to watching BBC documentaries for science and nature programming, either online or DVDs from the library, for I don't have a TV at home (perhaps that's the key: get rid of your TV!). Prothero then discusses reasons for why a significant portion of the American population can't or refuse to accept scientific evidence for a wide variety of topics. There's the influence of politics and ideology, lack of science education, and lack of critical thinking skills. The influence of media, the sorry budgets given to scientific research, and the short attention spans of American youth. Prothero also shows that the acceptance of evolution within a country is "a very strong predictor of overall science literacy." You have probably seen graphs over the last few years that show the United States very low in a list of countries for either science literacy or acceptance of evolution. We're always down at the bottom, one up from Turkey. Prothero notes the influence of all those other things above, "but they all miss the elephant in the room... the stultifying influence of creationism in U.S. science education."

But why is this important? My children are exposed to all manner of science learning (some at school; but mostly through my parental initiative). Should I be concerned about what others' kids - and their parents - are learning? The obvious answer is Yes. If someone pushes creationism in my son's school, that affects us. If someone does not vaccinate their kid and sends them to a public school, that might affect us. If children don't learn the importance of our environment and the effect our consumer lifestyle has on the planet, that will affect us all. So, for all those antievolutionists, anti-vaxxers, and anti-climate change advocates, the science is clear. Stop denying and get a reality check!
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mugged by reality 1 Sep 2013
By Ashtar Command - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Donald Prothero's book "Reality Check" is a scathing, sceptical look at various alternative (or pseudo-scientific) notions the author believes are hurting American society and culture, and sometimes that of other countries, too. The author takes on creationism (including Intelligent Design), climate change denial, denial of peak oil and overpopulation, AIDS denialism, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths and astrologers. The first part of the book is almost a mini-encyclopaedia of various erratic notions, and some of the scientific counter-arguments. I admit that I didn't know chiropractors are considered quacks! I always assumed they were some kind of real experts on back pain.

A later section of "Reality Check" borders Kulturkritik. Prothero bemoans how Americans have been turned into mindless consumers of commercial entertainment, often of a pseudo-scientific kind. The crisis in education and the generally low level of knowledge of the average American are also mentioned. The "best" Americans are really "smart idiots", fanatics who can persuasively defend a viewpoint which is really bizarre (such as creationism, climate change denial, etc). Prothero, who is a liberal, points out that the Republicans have adapted heavily to the anti-science agenda since at least the 1980's. Today's climate change denial is similar in character to the previous denial campaigns of the dangers of smoking, or the existence of acid rain or ozone depletion. Prothero believes that the various forms of denialism are connected: the Discovery Institute (DI) promotes both creationism and climate change denial, while prominent DI supporter Phillip Johnson was an AIDS denialist, as well. Since "Reality Check" is to a large extent a polemic against the American right and far right, it strikes me as odd that it mentions Truthers, Birthers and the Tea Party mostly in passing, while astrology and homeopathy are extensively treated.

Prothero isn't overly optimistic about the current state of affairs. He believes that the human brain simply doesn't function in an entirely rational manner. For this reason, people won't change their minds by hearing rational counter-arguments to their delusions. Rather, they will change only if and when reality becomes too pressing to deny. Presumably, climate deniers won't come to their senses until the eco-disaster is already well upon us. What it will take to convince creationists of the reality of evolution is less clear. Half a cow on the White House lawn? Prothero (probably correctly) belives that religious fundamentalism is a major culprit in the spread of pseudo-science and conspiracy theory, but he never explains why fundamentalism is so strong in the United States compared to, say, Western Europe.

Another problem is Prothero's insistence that conservatives and liberals use their brains in two vastly different ways, with the former category using a more basic "system" leading to dogmatism, while liberalism use a "system" that is more flexible. Really? Have Prothero never met dogmatic, inflexible liberals? Or scientists, for that matter? Conversely, what about people who experiment with so called pseudo-science for non-dogmatic, "liberal" reasons? Another problem: if Prothero seriously believes that most Americans are "smart idiots" (or just plain dumb ones), impervious to rational discourse, he should logically propose that sceptics or liberals use appeals to emotion, fear or prejudice rather than to rational discourse. Why not demonize conservatives as crazy, crypto-Nazi enemies of the human race? Why write books like "Reality Check" at all? Also, there is a contradiction running through the book between Prothero's stated belief that peak oil is real, and his strong support for modern science and a modern society. However, if peak oil is a real phenomenon, then Western civilization is unsustainable, together with large chunks of modern science. What should we do when it comes tumbling down? Is there perhaps a reality the author himself doesn't wish to see? Mugged by reality...

"Reality Check" is a somewhat uneven book, with Prothero trying to cover a lot of ground, jumping back and forth between somewhat different subjects. This being said, the book is nevertheless quite interesting, and I therefore give it four stars. It also contains extensive suggestions for further reading.

Of course, Donald is wrong about Bigfoot. He's out there, period. But that's a show on another channel...
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lots of great stuff; little one-sided & needed a good proof-reader 4 Nov 2013
By A D BRASH - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I very much enjoyed this book and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why astrology, creationism, climate change denialism, etc are rubbish. (Or for anyone who knows they're rubbish but wants some useful ammunition for when they're next arguing the toss with someone who does believe in them...) While it necessarily skims the surface to some extent, I thought it was a good balance of breadth and depth, covering many important issues.

The author's targets come from both ends of the political spectrum - as I've found that while it may be largely right-wingers who deny climate change, it's most left-wingers who are into alternative health therapies (like homeopathy), astrology, and/or are anti-vaxxers.

Which leads me to one small criticism: While he's clearly written this for a US audience, certainly in many parts of the world (like here in New Zealand) the idea that it's only conservatives who have non-scientific, non-rational views (I'm paraphrasing) simply doesn't stack up. I have many nutty acquaintances who believe all sorts of non-scientific rubbish and they tend to be liberal/left-leaning. They don't see the government as being influenced by "greenies" who are pushing some socialist agenda on them. Rather, they see governments - and by extension anyone from "the establishment" (doctors, scientists, etc) - as being in the thrall of big business. This means they reject the science of vaccines because they think it's a Big Pharma conspiracy. They reject a lot of conventional medicine (like chemotherapy) because they assume doctors are similarly corrupt whereas as "natural health practitioners" are unsullied by capitalist influences (yeah, right...). Also, once or twice I felt the author made very confident assertions on issues that I felt were more nuanced than he suggested (world population pressures, peak oil, the safety of fracking and nuclear power). But on the whole I thought his argument that people with religious, political or dogmatic biases were attacking the work of scientists based solely on their prejudices was an important point that was well made.

My only final quibble was that there were a reasonable number of typos which I felt made the book appear less professional which was a shame. Hopefully these can be corrected in any future editions of the book. But aside from that: an excellent book that I'd happily recommend.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Overall Excellent Book With Some Flaws 4 Nov 2013
By Book Fanatic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Overall this is just an excellent book on the current anti-science nature of some public policy positions. It is very well written and documented. It doesn't focus on any one thing but covers a variety of current science denier issues. While the author seems to cover a lot of ground he also goes pretty deep on each topic. Quite a remarkable feat in my opinion.

Despite the overall excellent quality of this book I do have several complaints. First of all I can't understand how the author can give a pass to one of the major left-wing anti-science issues - GMO foods. Especially in the author's science loving paradise of Western Europe. His obvious political biases come through constantly throughout the book and the failure to address this issue seems glaringly convenient on his part.

Also despite the overwhelming evidence of the failure of predicting the future on things like resources and population and virtually everything else the author seems to think that he can predict the future and the evidence to the contrary be damned. I found this almost laughable from such an "evidence-based" thinker.

He also seems to think that scientific evidence of something like global warming (which I totally agree with) entails certain prescriptive actions. Not so.

Despite these issues with the book, I'm still giving it a 5-star rating because overall it is such a good book. The topic is very important and dear to my heart and I will forgive the shortcomings and I think you should too.

Very well done and highly recommended.
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