Culture Magazine

Ghost Hunting and Philosophy

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance

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Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

Do you believe in ghosts? The belief that the souls of the deceased may remain among the living is commonly held among Americans, with a CBS poll in 2005 showing 48% of Americans in this camp. A surprisingly large group of 22% even reported that they had had a direct experience with what they believed to be a ghostly presence. The acceptance of ghosts is more common in women than in men, at 53% and 38% respectively. For the more general question of life after death, a significant majority of 78% of Americans said they believe, but only 8% think that an afterlife will ever be proved by science. Despite the pessimism about empirical discoverability, there are researchers of the paranormal who seek to find objective evidence of ghosts and the afterlife. Some of these paranormal investigators are even on the Sci-fi Channel reality show Ghost Hunters, which depicts those that searches for the scientific truth about haunted locations across America. The purpose of this essay is to explore three basic questions about ghost hunting. Is ghost hunting a hoax, is it actually science, and is it possible to discover objective knowledge about an afterlife?

The Ghost Hunters show follows The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), a Rhode Island based organization founded by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. The group purports to be using the methods of science to obtain evidence for or against true paranormal activity. As depicted on the show, the team approaches a typical case with a systematic procedural method that is designed to achieve a professional and unbiased approach to paranormal research, establishing credibility with clients and viewers. A case begins when TAPS gets an offer or request to investigate a location with claims of strange activity, which could be a private home or public building, vacant or otherwise, some quite infamous.

The TAPS team visits the location, gets a tour of the places where activity has taken place, and interviews the locations caretakers and claimants. They devote some research into the historical circumstances of the location for evidence of correlation between fact and rumor, usually regarding deaths on the premises. After wiring the place up with night vision video cameras, the investigators turn of the lights and head into the darkness in small teams armed with personal cameras, a camera crew, and a plethora of unorthodox detection technology and strategies. After working through the late night and early morning the teams pack it up, and begin the arduous duty of carefully watching all of the video footage and listening to all the audio recordings they captured the previous night. Unexplainable phenomena are then revealed to the client by Jason and Grant, along with a professional judgment regarding the status of the haunting.

It is claimed that there are roughly four general categories of ghostly haunting, residual, intelligent, poltergeist, and demonic. A residual haunt is one in which a previously living entity has left a trace psychical energy behind which causes paranormal activity, but which is not consciously aware or not able to communicate, exhibited by visual and auditory phenomenon that does not interact with investigators. Residuals haunts could be footsteps in the attic around a certain time of the night, or an apparition that appears in a same window from time to time. Intelligent haunts are previously living entities that are seemingly interactive and responsive to the investigators, with some sort of established back and forth communication. Poltergeist haunts are characterized by noisy paranormal phenomenon which center around a living individual rather than a place, and which may either originate psychically from the individual or from an obsessive ghost. Demonic haunts are those paranormal situations in which ghostly activity does not originate from a source that was ever originally human, living or dead, and which has inhuman goals and intentions. With the introduction of something like a theory of demonic entities, the scientific status of ghost hunting should be considered seriously doubtful as there are clear theological questions to consider here which go well beyond the afterlife. For this reason I will not be discussing demons any further, and will focus on ghosts only.

The very best evidence for ghosts that I can imagine would be un-doctored visual proof of an unequivocal human apparition, with distinguishable human features which could be matched to a real person, whose life or death was significant to the location of the sighting. Paranormal investigations are lacking in this ideal evidence, and this opens the door for controversy and skepticism. Evidence that has been documented by TAPS are things like personal experiences, unexplained knocks, bangs, sounds, voices, or seeming footsteps, electronic voice phenomenon (EVPs), unexplained electromagnetic readings or temperature changes, the movement of physical objects, vaguely human or animate infrared images, and the rare shadowy apparition. Besides the lack of direct and undeniable evidence of ghosts, the accumulated evidence that TAPS has on record is compelling and deserves serious consideration, assuming it has not being faked or doctored.

Is Ghost Hunting a Hoax?

If one is to be properly skeptical about the paranormal evidence that TAPS has accumulated then the first question should be whether or not the evidence is fraudulent. Could any of the TAPS members or the Ghost Hunters production crew be faking the alleged paranormal activity they show to viewers? The investigators go out of their way to demonstrate that they are legitimate and scientific. Their modus operandi is to approach a haunting by first trying to explain the reported phenomenon in mundane terms, and they profess that the great majority of all cases can be debunked. On Ghost Hunters many of the hauntings are shown to be explainable, turning out to be things like groaning pipes, leaky faucets, loose doorframes, headlights from passing cars, matrixing, fear cages, and the occasional attempt by a client to hoax the investigators. This last scenario came up when TAPS was investigating the Queen Mary and discovered that one of their cameras had been tampered with in an attempt to make it appear as if the comforter on a bed was being pulled down by an invisible force, a trick that was revealed to be nothing more than poorly executed stop animation. Of course these demonstrations of credibility, like any truly good con, could be an elaborate case of misdirection used to fool the viewers.

There is an organization of skeptics called Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society (SAPS), who targets TAPS on a mission to show people that the Ghost Hunters show is either fraudulent or misrepresenting its evidence. They have challenged the veracity of the reality show’s talking points, such as claims that TAPS investigations are scientific, whether they are an actual non-profit organization, and whether the TAPS founders are really Roto-Rooter plumbers by day. In addition, SAPS has called into question the investigatory tools and techniques depicted on Ghost Hunters, as well as the types of things that are presented as evidence of spirits. To supplement the attacks on the credibility of TAPS, the researchers at SAPS have recreated some of the most compelling evidence on Ghost Hunters in order to illustrate how simply the scenarios shown on TV can be faked. By showing the potential untrustworthiness of TAPS, together with such illusion dispelling reconstructions, SAPS seeks to show that TAPS is in fact defrauding its clients and audience.

While I think SAPS is successful in calling into question much of the Ghost Hunters show, their case that fraud is in fact taking place is still mostly circumstantial. There is a direct accusation that fakery was spotted in action during the live Halloween special at the Stanley Hotel, in which Grant’s shirt collar is supposedly tugged on by an unseen force a few times, but for which allegations stand that he was controlling this himself with a fishing line. Charges of this nature are problematic for the show’s credibility, but much of the evidence collected by TAPS has not been directly refuted. If all that has been shown is that fraud could be happening, and not that fraud is in fact happening, then the jury is still technically out, and I suspect it would be the end of the show if a smoking gun of massive trickery emerged. I assume, and I think it is quite obvious, that some of the show is scripted with poor acting, but most of the time the dialog appears to be unscripted and organic. The scripting, as well as some accusations that the show primes viewers with its sensationalist format, can be explained by the fact that we are talking about a TV show.

If it is assumed that Ghost Hunters is a hoax with 100% contrived or manipulated evidence, there are some serious implications to consider. Is there fraud being committed, and if so by whom against whom? TAPS founders Jason and Grant would be the most obvious suspects for a hoaxing scenario, but does this extend to the entire TAPS family, the show’s producers, and the Sci-fi Channel itself, or have Jason and Grant fooled even those closest to them? Are clients in on the hoax or being defrauded themselves? The clients are portrayed on the show as being impressed with the reputation and professionalism of TAPS, and want to get serious answers, but some of the locations are also infamous haunts with a business interest as a tourist attraction, such as the Queen Mary, the OK Corral, and Alcatraz Island. If there is fraud going on it seems unlikely that clients are in on it, even in the latter circumstance where there is a financial interest in positive evidence of ghosts. TAPS has failed to turn up evidence at such interested locations as the Winchester House and the Lizzy Borden House, places that advertize their haunted status and would be those most likely to be complicit. If clients are not in on the hoaxes then they are themselves being hoaxed, and therefore it seems unlikely that the Sci-fi Channel would be in on it, considering the liability and brand damage an exposure of fraud could do.

This does not demonstrate that fraud is not taking place, but it does present difficult implications if it were so. If the TAPS family and the Ghost Hunters producers, or any subset of thereof, are pure hoaxers, then they are very bold and exceptional illusionists, and they have managed to fool a lot of interest parties. My own intuition is that of a skeptic, and I think that much of what happens of Ghost Hunters is somewhat silly on its face and not valid as evidence of ghosts. I am not willing to say with determination that it is outright fraud though, as this case needs more building. This question remains ambiguous and controversial, so in order to explore my other questions I am going to assume that Ghost Hunters and TAPS are not hoaxers, knowing that this remains a fanciful postulate nonetheless.

Is Ghost Hunting a Science?

The problem of demarcation is a common thread in the philosophy of science, because it seeks to define the foundational principles which distinguish science from religion and pseudoscience. The most famous example of a pseudoscience is astrology, a methodological endeavor that uses measurements of the heavenly bodies to make predictions about people. Astrology ceases to be science when it reaches past the parts that are purely astronomical and begins to posit mysterious forces from the stars with the power to shape human destiny, a claim that is prone to overgeneralization and sporadic success. I discussed astrology earlier this month in my article The Viral Mysticism of Oracles if you care to go further down that path. For our purposes here the question of demarcation is about ghost hunting, an especially pertinent inquiry since TAPS claims to be conducting scientific investigations of the paranormal. By implication TAPS is claiming its paranormal evidence to be scientific.

There is a strong cased to be made that Ghost Hunters is pseudoscience. There are no controllable experiments. There is no peer review process, by which an objective community of scientists can test each other’s claims by repeating and recreating experiments. TAPS uses scientific technology to measure and make observations, but the connection between these usages and any mainstream scientific theories about biology, the human brain, and consciousness are not established. The paradigm of serious scientific research in these areas is primarily functionalist, which assumes that subjective conscious experience is a function of the brain and nervous system, from which it is produced and on which it depends. No brain, no consciousness. This has all but ruled out a scientific explanation for survival of a personal identify after death, or at least shown that this question is beyond science. Given the lack of mainstream scientific agendas for ghost hunting, it seems obvious that it would be seen as pseudoscience by most scientists and philosophers of science. As far as I know there is no serious consideration that paranormal investigation is legitimate science.

Much of the evidence of paranormal activity shown on Ghost Hunters is very dubious when considered as science. This is mostly due to the fact that the various devices that are used to catalog activity lack solid theoretical foundations which explain the nature of ghosts and why the instruments employed are able to detect them. Devices are used that detect electromagnetic (EM) fields, and those which originate from unknown sources are supposed to be a hallmark of the paranormal, but this does not explain how it is that EM fields are produced by spirits, or whether the fields and spirit are one and the same. TAPS’s EM detectors are apparently most useful when they discover a mundane source of high radiation from something like improperly shielded power boxes or electrical wiring. These result in so-called “fear cages”, which are claimed by TAPS to cause all kinds of physiological and psychological disturbances that can be mistaken for paranormal activity. The auxiliary hypothesis that ghosts are found in EM fields is needed to support ghost hunting with EM detectors, and this has no scientific basis, something I will discuss further in the next section.

Another common source of evidence is electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), which are disembodied voices that are picked up on recording equipment, but which were not audible to the investigator at the time. For an EVP to make sense theoretically it implies that a spirit has an ability to create an audio recording without audible sound at the time of the recording, and this suggests that the spirit is able to affect the magnetic waves that govern the conversion of sound to recording. This is consistent with other EM theories about ghosts, however EVPs are often very difficult to make out clearly and leave a lot of room for interpretation and suggestion. I often have a hard time hearing the same thing that investigators say they hear. Even if the investigators are entirely genuine in their assessment of EVP evidence they could be falling victim to something called pareidolia (SAPS). There is a human cognitive bias in pattern recognition that causes us to read the most familiar pattern onto something unknown, especially where we have an expectation of encountering a familiar pattern. With the inspection of visual evidence this problem is also called matrixing, something that TAPS has used before to debunk claims made by its clients. Given this tendency, and the built in lack of visual controls on the circumstances that the microphones are in when they record EVPs, I think that this evidence cannot be considered scientific. I am not saying that EVPs might not truly be evidence of ghostly voices, they very well could be, just that they do not meet the standards of science for the purposes of demarcation.

Evidence for an intelligent haunting usually needs to record some sort of interaction between a ghost and an investigator. This could be a direct vocal response or, as is more often the case, a situation where a ghost is capable of making a knocking sound, or turning a light on and off, such that an investigator can ask questions formulated to get yes/no or numerical responses in return. This is a scenario which comes up from time to time in investigations on Ghost Hunters. I see an inherent problem with this form of communication, and I believe it casts doubt on any conclusion that this evidence shows that there is any intelligent interaction with a ghost. Consider an investigator that asks the basic question, “Can you understand me? Knock once for yes, or two for no.” A paradox arises from asking this question, because an answer of “no” is not possible since this would mean that the ghost understood enough to answer that it did not understand, a contradiction. But this means that even a supposed answer of “yes”, delivered by one spectral knock, should not be taken to mean the true understanding of an intelligent haunting either, since there is no way to judge a correct from a coincident answer. There is no grounding or basis for presuming that actual communication with a sentient being is taking place, let alone that it is providing clear information through this method. That is not to say there could not be significant and abundant coincidences in the knocking, enough such that an investigator would find the evidence for paranormal interaction compelling. But this should be carefully scrutinized.

Sir Karl Popper, a British philosopher influential for this analysis of science, contends that scientific investigation does not verify scientific theories. All that can be done with any certainty is attempt to falsify theories, and when we fail to falsify a theory through a scientific experiment we are not verifying a theory but keeping it alive for future testing. For this reason a scientific theory can be demarcated from a nonscientific theory by its potential to be falsified by some experimental test, along with its boldness in making novel predictions. Einstein’s theory of relativity is science since it has the potential to be falsified in this way, because it makes testable predictions about reality. On the other hand, Marxist theories of communism are not science, because they are broad enough for seemingly contrary evidence to be interpreted in hindsight to also explain the failure of any predictions made by the theorists, being thus not falsifiable.

The debunking method used by TAPS, if we assume it to be genuinely and expertly applied, could be seen as an attempt to falsify paranormal claims. If the evidence for a haunting can be debunked in principle, and honest and professional investigators are not able to do this, then presumably the paranormal theories employed in explanation are yet to be falsified. Under Popper’s criteria for demarcation, the investigation methods used by TAPS, if we are to take them at face value, might be fairly considered scientific. But by the same criteria we may need to allow that skeptics are also doing science when they demonstrate the ease of falsifying the evidence that appears on Ghost Hunters through recreations and debunking in a fashion that resembles the debunking that TAPS purports to do.

The British philosopher C.D. Broad argues in his Lectures on Psychical Research that the investigation of sporadic paranormal phenomena cannot be researched in a laboratory, and that the best we can do is attempt a methodical and structured catalog of reports for cross analysis. He points out that coincidence is a likely explanation for sporadic incidents of paranormal phenomenon that are not otherwise explainable. This is because a real instance of paranormal activity, such as the sight of a real apparition of the dead, would violate certain basic limiting principles of reality. Basic limiting principles are more fundamental to human expectations than scientific laws because they are the general assumptions about reality that we take for granted in our everyday activities. For example, we take it as a basic limiting principle that other people are not able to telepathically read our thoughts. It is more plausible to conclude that a seemingly real incidence of the paranormal is a mere coincidence than it is to conclude that a basic limiting principle has been violated. However, Broad suggests that an accumulation of seemingly paranormal events, otherwise unexplained, cannot be simply chalked up to coincidence, since the plausibility of coincidence in the face of a suitable repertoire of evidence is less than the plausibility that a basic limiting principle is incorrect.

Considering both Popper and Broad, and assuming that TAPS is genuine, the methods it employs of attempted falsification and accumulation of the remaining unexplained evidence might be about as scientific as one can get in the field of ghost hunting. But I would suggest that the only valid evidence, once again assuming no trickery by TAPS, is the visual evidence that they have collected. It comes in a few different forms. There is footage that shows moving objects, footage that shows the quick movements of shadowy figures that look strangely human, as well as infrared footage which shows human looking heat signatures that move about. It is possible that the shadowy figures, visual apparitions, and infrared entities are all explainable by matrixing, but if fraud and coincidence are ruled out, then moving objects caught on camera is evidence which is more difficult to toss aside. Objective and discerning accumulation of this kind of paranormal evidence could potentially be seen as scientific.

The best example of moving objects evidence that I have seen is from an investigation of an old armory from the first season of Ghost Hunters, which you can watch and judge for yourself here. A soundman named Frank was apparently injured when his heavy audio equipment suddenly defies gravity, lifting itself forcefully upwards into his chin, sending him reeling, a dramatic scenario that is caught on camera by investigators. The soundman appears extremely shaken up and reports a very traumatic experience, and he is attended to by the onsite military personnel for quite some time before he gets up off the ground. It is hard to see this as a hoax considering the status of these participants, either wittingly or unwittingly. This evidence is compelling if it is true, although it has had controversy with skeptics and can plausibly have been faked. The general belief that fishing line may have been used by TAPS has disillusioned fans of the show and can be applied to the armory investigation too, although this skepticism is still no more than speculative.

In the end I would have to demarcate ghost hunting as pseudoscience rather than science, even if TAPS and the evidence collected is truly genuine. This is because the theories used to explain the evidence are inherently implied in the name of a show called Ghost Hunters, and this hopelessly clouds the objectivity needed for actual science. Beyond this conflict of interest problem, which is specific to the demands of a cable TV show like Ghost Hunters, the whole notion of scientifically hunting for ghosts has a massive reputation issue with the general public and common sense which calls the whole endeavor into question. Since TAPS is potentially the most credible ghost hunting organization out there and because virtually all of their evidence is controversial and has been seriously challenged, I think ghost hunting has a long way to go before it could truly considered science.

Can We Have Knowledge of an Afterlife?

For ghosts to exist, at least the of intelligent kind, there must be immortality of the soul, or something like it. If you are a person of faith there is no question about the immortality of the soul, and whether or not ghosts are controversial for a religious person, ghosts are certainly taboo for science. Immortality of the soul is not a mainstream scientific theory, and this is likely due to the fact that the soul is not a valid scientific theory. This is not to say that most scientists and philosophers do not believe in the soul or the afterlife, a great many may in fact be true believers. However, I suspect that a significant majority of scientists and philosophers of science in today’s world do not consider the search for evidence of the immortal soul to be a valid research agenda in the field of science. So if we are to discover whether there can be something like empirical truth about the immortality of the soul we will need to turn to philosophy.

In Plato’s dialog Phaedo he describes the final philosophical conversations of Socrates, a sentimental and moving discussion which takes place in the moments before Plato’s own teacher is executed by drinking of hemlock administered by the Athenian authorities. Socrates tells his students who attend him in his last minutes that he is not afraid to die, because in some sense the whole philosophical life is about preparation for death. Socrates, according to Plato, was a believer in the immorality of the soul, and he was looking forward to his afterlife because it would allow his immaterial soul to contemplate pure truth, something that can only be done without the distractions of flesh and the material world.

His students are keen to the fact that Socrates is begging the question by pre-supposing the immortality of the soul, and thus they question. He gives three arguments, none of which does much convincing to a group that really wants to believe him. First Socrates suggests that it is natural for things to derive from their opposites in a cyclical fashion, so that day comes from night and turns back into day, and we wake from sleep and fall back into sleep from wakefulness. So it is that we are born into life from death, and from life we die, and in between dying and living we are in another plane such as Hades. The second argument for immortality is mentioned by Cebes, Socrates’ student, and it is Socrates’ typical theory of knowledge, that all knowledge is recollected from pervious lives, and that there exists a state of immaterial being with access to the realm of perfect forms, those ideal abstractions of things like justice and geometry. The third argument given by Socrates is that a body is a thing that can be broken up and scattered, while a non-composite soul is a thing that cannot be scattered. For example a beautiful material thing can be destroyed, but the form of beauty itself, the idea of beauty cannot be destroyed. None of these arguments is logical when examined closely (Bartlett), and they certainly do nothing to support the idea of ghosts.

The American philosopher William James has suggested that the evidence for functionalism between the brain and the mind is not able to distinguish empirically between a scenario in which the specialized parts of the brain function to produce different conscious faculties or a scenario in which the specialized parts of the brain function to transmit different conscious faculties which originate outside the brain. The latter theory of functional transmission leaves open the possibility that an eternal immaterial soul could be the source of identity and consciousness, and is only dependent on the material brain for its normal transmission and interaction with physical reality. This way of thinking does not contract the empirical facts about the world and leaves the findings of science intact and exhaustive of what is conceivably observable, while allowing for the potentiality for a dualist explanation of consciousness and mind that avoids empirical contradiction. Obviously a dualist theory of consciousness is hopelessly too metaphysical for science to address, so it is hard to say we could have knowledge of an afterlife even if we can never close the door on the possibility.

A theory of consciousness that has been cited on the TAPS website is Johnjoe McFadden’s consciousness electromagnetic information (CEMI) field theory. McFadden’s theory is an unorthodox view that places the location of consciousness within the indigenous electromagnetic fields that are produced by neuronal firing in the brain, rather than the physical neurons themselves. Apparently members of the TAPS family have taken this scientific theory of consciousness to form a possible base of support for their electromagnetic theories of ghostly evidence. There is a scientific sounding article with a justification for how McFadden’s theory can be applied to ghost hunting on the TAPS website. I am extremely familiar with the CEMI theory, and for what it is worth I happen to think that it is an excellent theory of consciousness that is not only convincing, but does a better job explaining certain features of the mind than a purely functional account. However, this theory does not lend any support to ghosts, a question settled by McFadden himself in the FAQ on his website.

Neurons in the brain fire randomly, asymmetrically, and incoherently in relation to each other until some pertinent perceptual stimulus, such as the recognizable pattern of a human face causes a symmetrical propagation of neuronal firings throughout the brain, beginning in the visual cortex and promulgating quickly to all of the needed and relevant brain regions. Whenever a neuron fires there is an electrical impulse that moves along the neuron, and this impulse creates a corresponding electromagnetic field that moves in the same direction. When groups of neurons fire together in a pattern, the EM waves that are created overlap and amplify each other, becoming an integrated field. One effect of this is that the segregated bits of information that are present in each individual neuron are pooled and integrated within the entire electromagnetic field in a holistic conflagration of the information active in the mind, which solves the binding problem of consciousness. Another feature of the brain’s EM fields are that they move faster and farther through wave dynamics, similar in principle to the movement of ocean waves, and this means that the fields have the potential to activate of influence other parts of the brain such as the motor cortex.

McFadden’s very compelling account defines consciousness as those EM fields generated by our brain which can influence the outside world after the integration of neuronal information into one assimilated field. What is feels like to be conscious and aware is to what it feels like to be on the inside of this integrated field of information. While this is an intriguing notion of mind, it should be clear at this point why the CEMI theory is not directly supportive of electromagnetic theories for ghosts. There is no clear explanation for how information can be encoded and decoded by an electromagnetic field absent a functional brain with synchronously firing neurons that have a specialized ability to influence motor neurons for speech and bodily movement. McFadden does not rule out the connection to an afterlife that his theory could allow for given the mysteriousness of quantum reality. However, this is in no way a serious or testable proposition of his CEMI theory.

In conclusion I would say that the only knowledge that we can have about the afterlife is through faith. The immortality of the soul cannot be proved or disproved using science or logic, but must be embraced in belief. Personal experiences given foundation for our understanding of the world, and in the end these will decide the intuitions we have about our ultimate fate. None of us can see beyond our own death, and this is why science cannot replace religion in these matters. I for one have had experiences that I cannot explain rationally, and have heard many direct reports from others who have had similar experiences, and who judge them to be ghostly. I trust these accounts, as I trust my own. Ghosts and paranormal phenomena must be seen to be believed, but even then we need to draw on faith in order to contextualize and interpret these experiences. I stand with the 92% of Americans who think the afterlife is not discoverable through science. To believe in ghosts we must appeal to mystery and faith.

Jared Roy Endicott

Ghost Hunting and Philosophy
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Works Cited

Broad, C.D.. Lectures on Psychical Research: Incorporating the Perrott Lectures Given in Cambridge University in 1959 and 1960 (Routledge Revivals). UK: T & F Books, 1962. Print.

Bartlett, Robert C.. “The Socratic Revolution Revisited - Phaedo”. Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2008. DVD.

James, William. Human Immortality. Google Books. New York: Houghton Mifflin & Company, 1901. Print.

Popper, Karl. “The Problem of Demarcation”. Popper Selections. Ed. David Miller. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. 118-130. Print.


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