The Case For A Presidential Science Debate

A group of science advocates say the American president should have the basic scientific know-how to understand policy challenges, evaluate options and devise solutions. Ira Flatow and guests discuss how a presidential science debate can help voters decide if a candidate is up for the job.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Every member of the House of Representatives and a few from the Senate - about a third of the Senate, I believe - is up for re-election this year. There will be hundreds of debates, local and national. Candidates will be asked questions about unemployment, the deficit, gay marriage, budget-cutting. But will any of them be asked about their opinions, or their knowledge, of science and technology?

We have politicians who claim global warming is a hoax; others who don't believe in evolution. Shouldn't we want to know what the candidates know about the basic things in science? Will any moderators of the inevitable presidential debates even ask one question about science?

These are some of the reasons that a grassroots coalition of scientists, engineers and science advocates is calling for a televised presidential science debate. Their goal: for candidates to give us more than canned responses, and for voters to make an informed decision in November - informed meaning, knowing something about the candidates' views about science.

Joining me now to delve into some of these questions: Shawn Otto is the CEO and co-founder of ScienceDebate.org, the group trying to organize a presidential science debate. He's also author of "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." He joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome back to the program, Shawn.

SHAWN OTTO: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Dr. John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University, and author of several books including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper." He joins us from Philadelphia. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Paulos.

DR. JOHN ALLEN PAULOS: Thanks much.

FLATOW: And former Congressman Vern Ehlers is a Republican, former Republican congressman from Michigan. He's also a physicist. He joins us from Grand Rapids. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. VERN EHLERS: It's a pleasure being here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Shawn, you've been - I remember you calling for a science debate back in 2008.

OTTO: Yes.

FLATOW: No one wants to listen - about that, do they?

OTTO: No. Well, the candidates did participate online, but they were scared to do it on television. And I think it's probably just because it's something new.

FLATOW: And so are you calling - are you again looking for a TV debate this year, then?

OTTO: Yes, we are. It's a really important way of bridging the science gap that is emerging as science begins to influence more and more aspects of our lives; and lies at the center of more and more of our unsolved, major public policy challenges. And yet the people that we're electing, often don't seem to have much knowledge of science, or the ability to tell the difference between a knowledge-based argument and one that just sounds good.

FLATOW: John Paulos, in 2000, you proposed presidential candidates take a "who wants to be scientifically literate" quiz. What was the idea behind that?

PAULOS: The idea behind that was just to determine - to some limited extent, at least - whether politicians could think on their feet, whether they could solve simple puzzles, make simple estimations. I mean, high-tech firms routinely ask little puzzles of prospective employees and yet our number one employee, arguably, never has to respond in real time to a question that's not canned.

I mean, it's very easy to plug into well-memorized, well-rehearsed sets of answers.

FLATOW: Congressman Ehlers, do you think any congress-people would, you know, be in favor of talking about science?

EHLERS: It all depends on the member of Congress. There are very, very few scientists there right now. I recall -I believe since I left, there's only one in the House of Representatives, and that's Rush - come on, I'm blanking on his name right now, but he's from...

FLATOW: Rush Holt, from New Jersey.

EHLERS: Rush Holt, yes, of course. I had a strange illness last year, and I lost various cells in my brain memory. And so it's very frustrating to not recall someone. I know him very well.

FLATOW: I wish I could use that as my excuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EHLERS: Yeah, at least I have an excuse. At any rate, Rush is a very fine person. I worked well with him. He was, obviously, a Democrat, and I'm a Republican, but that didn't matter to us. We both worked together very closely. But I know why the - in fact, I wanted to mention, Shawn, I really appreciate your effort to arrange the debate on the presidential candidates.

OTTO: I appreciate you writing the book you did. I rushed right out and bought it. And it's - we all have to do that kind of effort. But the - it's no surprise to me: No presidential candidate is going to want to enter a debate involving much mathematics or science. They just don't understand it. They don't know anything about it.

They may have taken one course on it in high school, and the last thing they want to do is publicly display their ignorance. So you have to go at it at some other avenue rather than direct contact, where they would be saying things without studying them or knowing them. But most...

FLATOW: Congressman, if you ask - but if you ask some of the simplest of questions - like, how old is the Earth? - that would tell you a lot about the candidate; many different things about the candidate, would it not?

EHLERS: Yeah, right, but for certain candidates, their belief in the Bible would overwhelm any knowledge of mathematics they might have. And so they might be influenced more by their religious beliefs than they are by any knowledge of math.

FLATOW: But wouldn't that tell you - but wouldn't that be useful to know that?

EHLERS: Yes, it would, but only if you're wanting to judge candidates on the basis of their religious beliefs. I would be more concerned about, will they understand the financial structure of the United States government? And will they be able to tell, by themselves, what is dangerous - a dangerous direction to take, and what is a safe direction to take?

And that requires far more sophistication than knowing the age of the Earth. You know, as you say, it may be of interest to a lot of people to know what their religious beliefs are, and how that affects their thinking. But I'd be far more concerned about how they're able to deal with all the intricacies of government - particularly from the standpoint of science, and the mathematics of the budget.

But I really want someone up there who is sharp in all fields of knowledge - not just science and mathematics, but just a well-rounded, well-educated individual able to deal with all the many issues that come before the president of the United States.

And if they can't do that, I don't care which party they're from. I wouldn't support them.

FLATOW: Mm-hm; 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Give us a call; tell us what questions you would like to see the candidates address, and we'll get to your calls. We have already asked this online, and we got some interesting questions. One that I mentioned before is, how old do you think the - Madge Minarosa(ph) wrote: How old do you think the world is? That was right at the top of the list.

Some - Clay Bunyard(ph) wants to know: Do you know what the scientific meaning of theory is, versus hypothesis? Steve Raleigh(ph): Describe the scientific method; explain how it differs from faith.

Shawn, we've been talking about the presidential debates. But you could easily - you know, when every member of Congress and - what is it? - a third of the Senate is up for re-election, you could easily take this to your hometown - could you not? - and ask your local candidate these questions.

OTTO: You can. There's two different ways to do that, actually. One is, is asking them these sorts of questions - not necessarily how old is the Earth, but what their position is. You know, we're more interested in their positions on the big science policy questions; how are they - you know, whether they understand that climate change is occurring - according to scientific knowledge, and the measurements that we're doing of nature - and if so, what their plan is to deal with that.

Or, how do we deal with our slipping science and math education standards? Or, since science and education - or science and technology drive so much of our economy - about 60 percent of our economic activity right now, in one way or another - how are we going to ensure our continued innovative dominance.

There's another way to do it, too, and that's to ask them to take something called the American Science Pledge, which you can find on my website, at shawnotto.com. And that is a pledge to base public policy decisions on evidence instead of opinion or belief.

EHLERS: And this is Vern again. I hate to - I'm not trying to dominate this. But I would be very interested in what they know about the importance of science; that science is - the scientific research is the basis of the economy because it's the research that leads to new discoveries. New discoveries lead to manufacturing of new products, and that leads to jobs.

And if you're not going to fund basic science research, you're not likely to improve the economy as much as you could with allocating funds to research. I would also be interested in how much a presidential candidate knows about the National Science Foundation. That's a very good question to ask them. What is the National Science Foundation? What do they do? Would you support increased funding for them, in an effort to improve the economy? And a question like that would really wake them up, as to some of these issues.

FLATOW: John Paulos, what questions would you ask? Would you want to be moving into what advice they might take from other people...

PAULOS: You know, I think I'd also ask - I'd like to ask a few specific questions about elementary arithmetic. I mean, if there's a small town, and a new policy would result in - let's say, a $2,000 reduction in the mean tax bill; but the median reduction would be $100, what does that say about the town? And if they don't know the difference between mean and median, it's hard to see how they could - as the congressman said - understand the financial structure of the United States. Or just simple questions - what fraction of the world is American?

Would you be more upset about a $3 million earmark that's somehow relevant to a hot-button issue, or a $50 billion new weapon system? So they have to know the, you know, relative magnitude of millions and billions.

FLATOW: Right.

PAULOS: Well, I mean, simple questions like that. If you ask general questions, they'll kind of plug into bromides and platitudes, and it will sound good. But when you press them, you know, what comes out won't be consistent with their general platitudes, anyway.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Kate in Santa Fe. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KATE: Oh, thank you for taking my call. Hi, Vern. It's Kate Lynnes. I live in New Mexico now.

EHLERS: Oh, really?

KATE: I was - hi. I was telling the screener that I was the sacrificial Democratic candidate against Vern in 2002, and I'm an engineer and environmental lawyer. And so we were joking about what a nerdy candidacy this was - when a campaign it was. But I would like to know if the president understood anything about risk assessment. I deal in environmental cleanup all the time. And if you don't have any way to assess relative risk, if you don't understand that concept, you're so easily swayed by politics versus science. Whether you're on the environmentalist side or the industrial side, it skews it so widely from one end to the other and nothing really ever gets accomplished.

FLATOW: Good question, risk assessment.

PAULOS: I think that's very important. You know, former Vice President Cheney was - had his famous 1 percent doctrine. If there was a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack, you have to act as if it were a certainty. On the other hand, if there's a 99.9 percent chance of global warming, you have to say, wow, maybe it's not - I mean, many people say, wow, maybe it's not established. So people, politicians in particular, too often use numbers as providing declaration and not as providing real information. They don't interpret it literally. They just kind of decorate sentences with numbers.

FLATOW: All right, Kate. Thanks for calling.

KATE: Thank you.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about science policy with Shawn Otto, Dr. John Allen Paulos and Vern Ehlers. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Congressman, you are a Republican, as you say, and it's certainly a different mood in Congress since you were there. How would you explain the views of the candidates on climate change and evolution in the Republican primary?

EHLERS: Well, it was never an issue when I ran. And the - in my district, I was pretty well-known, and that's one thing. You know, I have encouraged a lot of scientists to run for office, and they want to jump right in and run for Congress. It's very hard to win that way unless you have previously established a good local reputation. In my case, I was a reluctant candidate initially. I got involved just because of a local solid waste problem. And it was going nowhere.

And so I was persuaded by friends since I'm very environmentally minded. They said, look, a scientist with an environmental interest would be the ideal candidate. So I ran for the county commission. It was an eye-opener to me but I basically solved the solid waste problem in our community. And many of the people who know this are grateful to it to this day. But from there, I went to the statehouse. I was there a few years, then the state Senate and then ran for Congress.

By then, almost everyone in the congressional district knew me and knew about my work, and they weren't the least bit interested about my scientific views. They just knew that I worked hard, that I kept contact with the constituents and that I was a good guy, and so they voted for me. So for scientists who are thinking of running, recognize - you can try to run on the basis that you're a scientist, and you'll add a lot to the Congress, and you might win.

But basically, it involves getting known in the community first and being willing to work for the good of the community without remuneration in many cases. And they see you at work. They see your name in the papers. They say, hey, you know, this guy knows something. And it's much easier to get elected to the Congress. So I encourage anyone who's thinking about running, you know, get active at the local level, run for the school board, the city commission, whatever, and just work your way up the ladder.

The - in most case - in most states, it's not a full-time job until you reach Congress, so you can continue with your professional work. You just have to spend a couple of evenings a month, and you can do some really good things for your community, but also, you are building a base for a congressional run if that's what you want. I really think it's important that scientists, even if they don't want to run for office, get involved. And my first involvement rose out of a meeting in the American Physical Society in San Francisco some years ago.

And at that time, I was at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado. And I went to the meeting in San Francisco, and Mike McDermott, who is a chemist from the Hanford plant, he was a congressman from the state of Washington, and he gave a great speech and said: Now, why are you all sitting on your hands? Why aren't you politically involved? I want you to go home and write your congressman and offer to give free scientific advice for him.

FLATOW: That...

EHLERS: And I...

FLATOW: That got you started.

EHLERS: ...I said...

FLATOW: I got - we have to take a break. We'll be right back with Shawn Otto, John Allen Paulos and Congressman Vern Ehlers. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about making science a topic of discussion in this election year. What kinds of questions would you ask the president or maybe even members of your Congress? And we're actually conducting a poll here, and we would like to ask you to participate in that poll. And if you go over to our website at sciencefriday.com, we've already started the poll and sort of narrowed down the questions.

And we want you to vote in there for the kinds of questions that you'd like. See the poll there, choose which of those questions there and go for it and tell us what you would like to see. Also, you check out the link to a poll, Science Debate 2012, Science Debate 2012 at sciencefriday.com. And you can cast your vote right at that spot. We're talking with Shawn Otto, CEO and co-founder of ScienceDebate.org, Dr. John Allen Paulos, who's professor of mathematics at Temple, and former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, one of the last few scientists in Congress, a physicist.

Our number - 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Shawn, have you ever tried to get through to any of the people who ask any of the questions at these televised debates to even get one or two science questions in there?

OTTO: We have. We've been talking actually this time around to a couple of the different television networks about that, not to the moderators directly, but to the different networks. And there's a little bit more interest this time around than there was last time, I have to say, partly that's just because the - so many science issues have become so politicized and much more of the presidential discussion is focusing on questions of science.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones and see what topics come up there. Shirley(ph) in Iowa City. Hi, Shirley.

SHIRLEY: Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi there.

SHIRLEY: My concern has been - and there's been a lot in Congress about legislation regarding medicine and also the Internet, which there seems to be very little understanding of either of these things in Washington. And it's sort of like legislators are acting like doctors. I think the president also needs to have kind of a good basis in both of these topics. So I think we need questions that kind of reveal whether they have any understanding of this at all.

FLATOW: Hmm.

OTTO: I remember a time when Vern - this is Shawn here - had to rush to the floor to clarify for a member that ATM research shouldn't be cut. He thought the banking industry should pay for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OTTO: And the member didn't realize that that stood for asynchronous transfer mode, which was an Internet protocol.

FLATOW: Ugh.

OTTO: Yeah.

EHLERS: Well, if I may respond to that, that's - the point I was getting at before we had the break, the most important thing a scientist can do is think about running for Congress and preferably run for Congress because you just have to be there. You know, I was sitting in my office, listening to the floor debate when this person talked about cutting funds for the National Science Foundation for two reasons, first of all, because they were going to do research on ATMs and, secondly, because the - well, I won't get into too much detail. But the point is I was right there.

I could rush to the floor. I could speak against what the previous speaker has said, and I'd try to avoid him becoming a laughingstock. But every scientist who was listening indeed thought it was a laughing matter. But I end my story about how to - earlier I was telling about how I became involved directly was when Mike McDermott spoke at an American Physical Society meeting and said write your congressman and offer to give him scientific advice, no charge.

And so I got back home and wrote a letter to Gerry Ford, who was my congressman; offered to put together a science advisory committee in my area, and told him I would pick scientists from several disciplines. We'd meet with him whenever he wanted to, and answer any questions he had. I dropped the letter in the mail and thought oh, well, in a week I'll get a response saying, thank you for your letter; we'll keep you in mind; etc. But instead, the day they got the letter, I got a call from Gerry Ford's chief of staff saying hey, thanks for the letter. Gerry is all excited about it. What - can you give us some idea of the structure?

And I said well, I'm coming to Washington next week for a science meeting. I'll be happy to meet with him. And it - I knew Gerry just slightly but not very well. So I got there, and met with Gerry and his chief of staff. And I thought a very telling moment was - and I said - we decided how we'd arrange the committee, how it would operate and so forth. And I just appreciated Gerry's attitude. And I asked one tough question. I said, do you want me to have the scientists on the committee be all Republicans or a mix - regardless of their political view? And his aide immediately popped up and said oh, they should be Republicans, of course. And Gerry said, I don't see why. He said, pick the best people you can.

And we had a very good relationship. We'd meet with Gerry at least quarterly. And if he had a tough issue, he would ask us to meet with him again. And it's the old story.You have to be there at the right time, to act. And I encourage every scientist to make that same offer to their member of Congress or to their U.S. senator, or even their state legislatures. You can grumble all you want about those idiots in the Congress. But if you're not helping to educate the idiots, you're not doing your job.

FLATOW: But you also have to have someone like Gerry Ford, who was interested in the truth.

EHLERS: Yeah. Well, if you don't, then you should run against the congressman you have.

OTTO: Yeah. This is Shawn here. I want to re-emphasize that point; that we've kind of gotten away from science in our public dialogue because, in part, scientists have gotten silent over the last 40, 50 years. And the voice of faith and values is important in discussing public policy dialogue, and the voice of economists and industry leaders are important. But the voice of scientists are also important, especially when so many of our big challenges that we're stuck on revolve around it.

So we really do need scientists as part of that process, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they have to run for office. Like Vern said, they could volunteer to form a science advisory committee. They could just even show up at local school board meetings. And when talk of teaching creationism in science class comes up, or dumbing down standards on geophysics, and telling people that there's a scientific controversy about climate change when there isn't, they could speak up and educate school board members and members of the public about why that is.

FLATOW: Dr. Paulos, you agree?

PAULOS: I do agree. And I think part of the resistance is just the word debate, science debate. I mean, maybe it should be billed as a science discussion. I mean, what's important is not so much science as a noun, but science as an adverb ever - how do you think scientifically, whatever the topic. That's why, I think, you know, kind of in a sense, trick questions or questions regarding math or whatever, that they require them to like, think through a problem on estimating or scaling or sequencing. I mean, not so much it should be an SAT test, but just to see how they think analytically. Again, that's not surprising that the - you'd meet resistance because politicians are used to, as I say, just giving canned, rehearsed answers.

And I agree with the congressman. It behooves people with a scientific and mathematical background to engage themselves in the public domain. There's - you know, it's kind of scary, in a way, because if you just forthrightly say something that's true, you're libel to incur the wrath of all kinds of people who feel that what you said has contradicted their religious or cultural beliefs. But - and it's also, in a sense, harder to be a politician than it is to be a scientist, and less fun. I mean, to be a politician, you got to assuage and placate various desperate constituencies, and that's harder to do. Science is fun. Math is fun. So - and on top of that, you sometimes have to incur the snide remarks of colleagues who, you know, directly or indirectly, chastise you for trying to, you know, commune with the hoi polloi, so to speak. And that...

OTTO: Let me...

PAULOS: ...they're necessarily my...

OTTO: Can I pick up on ...

FLATOW: Go ahead.

EHLERS: I have just a little - excuse me. Go ahead.

OTTO: I just wanted to underscore...

EHLERS: I just wanted to say I had a little bit of this when I would meet with scientists, and many of them would basically say something along the lines of: What ever led you to go to Congress? I mean, what was wrong with your mind that you decided to do that? And scientists tend to look down on it. And I just thought it was a great opportunity to continue educating, which I had done for many years as a professor.

FLATOW: Interesting. Shawn, did you want to jump in there?

OTTO: I just - yeah. I wanted to just underscore what John was saying, that there's really no politician that is going to be excited about debating anything to do with science. Politicians are in business when they're running for election to do one thing, and that's to get votes to get elected. And if they don't see a payoff for them in this, and if they see undue risk, they're not going to want to do it. There's a reason why in 2008, we set up a science debate at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and the candidates turned us down and instead did a faith forum at Messiah College. And that's because they perceived a lot of noise and a lot of votes at stake from that community. They didn't hear anything, comparatively, from the science community, even though there are millions of scientists working in the United States.

FLATOW: So you're saying that scientists could become a voting bloc, an interest that they would have to pay more attention to?

EHLERS: And to that, you should add the engineers and the MDs. As it is, quite a few MDs run for the Congress already and win. And in many cases, they are the only scientifically trained people in the body. And you know as well as I that the medical doctors are very, very well-trained, but they are not necessarily that adept at science or know that much about science. So it's important to have a broad spectrum, as I say, of scientists, engineers and medical doctors or others with scientific background working in the Congress, and then you can have quite a bit of clout.

When I was the only one there, it was tough. I just had to go around, continuously talking to people about issues and educating them. It took an immense amount of my time. You can't do it through floor debate. It has to be one-to-one conversations. So the more scientifically-trained people we can get in Congress, the better. It doesn't have to be physicists and chemists. It can be a lot of different professions representing it.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Shawn Otto, Doctor John Paulos and former Congressman Vernon Ehlers. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Does - you know - how many scientists or how many engineers, mathematicians think of Congress or working in government as a career path for them?

PAULOS: Not too many. I think another problem is kind of the macho nature of being a politician, you know, the can-do, I can solve this and kind of - it's not unrelated to American exceptionalism, so-called. And science is about - sometimes, at least - about constraints, and constraints are part of science, and the politicians don't want to say, well, I can't do this and that because of that and this. So, you know, but I can do anything. And it's better if I'm, you know, kind of vague and don't specify the, you know, limitations or constraints, which in some sense, I know exists, but I don't want to stress that much.

FLATOW: Do you think Jimmy Carter's background as a scientist, knowing what you just said, hurt him as a politician?

PAULOS: Possibly. I'm not - I don't quite buy into the fact that he had such a great scientific background. He has a - had a bachelor's degree, and he studied under - he worked under Rickover, but he didn't have a bachelor's degree on in nuclear engineering. But, yeah - I mean, science - another factor is the diffidence that the skepticism - in science, you have to suspend belief, and it has to be shown to you, whereas politicians have always be certain. And the problem is that most things aren't very certain, and scientists will say, well, it might be, that might not be. We don't have enough evidence yet, or this or that. And, you know, nobody - that's not a way to inspire voters, to say maybe.

FLATOW: I think it was...

EHLERS: That's a great answer(ph).

FLATOW: I think it was Rush Holt who was quoted when he got into Congress, his saying, when I was a scientist, facts meant everything and illusions meant nothing. When I became a politician, illusions meant everything and facts meant nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EHLERS: Well, you know, there's another aspect to that, too. Most of the work I did with my fellow colleagues was not on the floor, not even in committee meetings so much - although that more important than anything I said on the floor - but the social context. Almost every night, there's a fundraiser for someone or another, and I made a habit of trying to go to those and make myself available to others, to talk in a very friendly and formal manner about science and about science issues.

I recall on time someone who was dead-set against any ideas of global warming. I happened to be - ended up sitting next to him at a table. And he said: Vern, is there carbon dioxide in this room? And I said, yes, and explained where it was from, et cetera. And we ended up with quite a discussion about CO2 and what caused it, where it comes from, how it affects people and things. And I think in that 20-minute conversation, I certainly made him doubt his opinion that global warming was just a farce.

He realized there was a scientific basis for it, and it made him much more cautious from that time on in making public comments about it, and he gave up a lot of his preconceptions. So that one-to-one activity that you can do outside of the chamber and the committee room is very, very important, and that's why you just have to be there. So the more scientists we get there, in the Congress, the better.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to end up in that hopeful note. We've run out of time. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us, talking with former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, a physicist. Dr. John Allen Paulos, professor of mathematics at Temple University, author of several books, including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper." Shawn Otto, CEO and co-founder of ScienceDebate.org and author of "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America." And Shawn Otto also has a guest blog on our website, at our website at sciencefriday.com, where we also are conducting a poll. It's poll, Science Debate 2012, at sciencefriday.com. And we invite you to go over to our website. It's brand-new. Holy mackerel. Somebody has totally redone it. Take a look at it and tell us what you think.

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