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Popper, Ignorance, and the Emptiness of Fallibilism

Shterna Friedman

Forthcoming in Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies, ed. Matthias

Gross and Linsey McGoey, April, 2015.

The starting point of Karl Poppers philosophy of science is epistemological

humility: We are ignorant and prone to error. This much may seem trivially true, but

Popper (e.g., 1963: ch. 1)1 thought that it had too often been neglected. Such neglect,

particularly for philosophers of science, is egregious because it is our ignorance of the

world that makes science itself necessary. We need science not only because the world is

vast and we are not, but because our senses do not infallibly yield the truth about the parts

of the world with which we come into contact.

Science, then, is for Popper a middle way between ignorance and knowledge, an

alternative to both epistemological pessimism and optimism. The pessimist is impressed

with human fallibility and ignorance, as Popper was. But if we thought that it was not just

difficult but impossible to gain access to the truth, there would be no point in doing

science. On the other hand, if we were able to get at the truth easily, as the optimist holds,

then science would be unnecessary. Common sense would do.

Popper argued that unalloyed optimism leads to the doctrine of manifest truth.

This is the idea that truth, if put before us naked, is always recognizable as truth. Thus

truth, if it does not reveal itself, has only to be unveiled, or dis-covered. . . . We have

All citations lacking an author are to Popper.

been given eyes to see the truth, and the natural light of reason to see it by (1963: 7).

The doctrine of manifest truth, in turn, leads to dogmatism about what we (think we)

know and to an inability to accept our ignorance. Moreover, the doctrine of manifest truth

tends to go hand in hand with the conspiracy theory of ignorance, where ignorance is

seen as the work of powers conspiring to keep us in ignorance, to poison our minds by

filling them with falsehood, and to blind our eyes so that they cannot see the manifest

truth (ibid.). Those who tacitly accept the doctrine of manifest truth demonize those with

whom they disagree since only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the

manifest truth (ibid.: 8). Anything that contradicts the optimistic epistemology of

manifest truth must be the result of deliberate efforts to mask the self-evidence of the


Against the doctrine of manifest truth, Popper contrasted the doctrine of

fallibility (1963: 16)the presupposition, as he saw it, of science. According to the

doctrine of fallibility, ignorance is our natural state, not the result of a conspiracy: All

knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain (1992: 4), and we are always or almost

always capable of error (ibid.: 33). Thus, truth is often hard to come by, and . . . once

found it may easily be lost again. Erroneous beliefs may have an astonishing power to

survive, for thousands of years, in defiance of experience, with or without the aid of

conspiracy (1963: 8). However, recognizing our natural ignorance does not mean

pessimistically accepting it as permanentthe position taken by the skeptic of science.

The proper attitude of the scientist is to acknowledge that weeven scientistsare

fallible. Our beliefs may be false. But the fact that we may be wrong does not mean that

we must be wrong.

Yet science, according to Popper, risks being co-opted by the doctrine of manifest

truth because of scientists optimism about our ability to close the gap between reality

and our perceptions. Arguably, it is the task of the philosopher of science to ask whether

this optimism is warranted. But Popper did not just think that science might progress, he

assumed that it did. He wanted to analyse the characteristic ability of science to

advance (1959: 49) and to explain how empirical statements can be criticized and

superseded by better ones (ibid.). Did he, too, succumb to over-optimism? On the one

hand, he thought that all knowledge was fallible. On the other hand, he defanged the

skepticism to which fallibilism might lead. Thus, he tried to explain how evidence can

arbitrate between competing scientific paradigms so that even the most dogmatic

scientists would be forced to change their minds.

This raised serious problems in the philosophy of science, some of which I shall

review. 2 My guiding question in this discussion is whether anything useful can be said to

follow from fallibilism. Like the science that is supposed to follow fallibilist precepts,

fallibilism itself is a middle way between skepticism and optimism. But as Popper

struggles between his optimism about scientific progress and his insistence on scientific

fallibility, one must wonder if the via media accomplishes anything.

Countering Dogmatism

According to Popper, science works by giving us a way to check-mate the optimists

dogmatism by showing him the errors in his doctrine. Thus, in Poppers view, the most

suitable scientific method is one that exposes hypotheses to the detection of their flaws.

For frequently raised objections to Poppers philosophy of science, see Godfrey-Smith 2003, ch.
4. See Miller 1994, ch. 2 for a more comprehensive and sympathetic overview of the objections
to Poppers philosophy of science.

This negative approach to knowledge was Poppers attempt to counteract the

dogmatism he found among Marxists, Freudians, and followers of the once-popular

psychological theorist Alfred Adlerideologues with whom he came into contact in

early twentieth-century Vienna. These ideologues unfailingly interpreted even seemingly

contradictory evidence as consistent with their belief systems (1963: 35). Adlers theory,

for example, used the same analysis to explain both self-interested and altruistic behavior

(ibid.). Poppers explanation for ideologues dogmatism is that they optimistically leave

no room for the possibility of their own ignorance. Effectively, then, the ideologue has

accepted the manifest truth of the ideology.

Poppers philosophy of science was designed to provide freedom from

dogmatism (1959: 38) by breaking through the ideologues closed interpretation of the

world. If everything counts as evidence for an ideology, then nothing counts as evidence

against it. The theory is effectively garrisoned from reality; it may as well be a

theological revelation. Popper (1963: 33-35) found this imperviousness to evidence to be

unscientific, where science is equated with responsiveness to evidence. On first glance it

might seem as if ideologues are responsive to evidence since all evidence is grist for their

mill. Nonetheless, their theoretical conclusions remain insensitive to evidence because

nothing could prove the conclusions wrong. Popper thus proposed, in The Logic of

Scientific Discovery (1959), that we demarcate science from pseudo-science by

defining responsiveness to evidence as falsifiability (1959: sec. 6). According to this

principle, a theory is scientific only if it concludes that certain phenomena cannot occur if

the theory is true. For example, Newtons theory of gravitation implies that if the theory

were true, then a range of phenomena is impossible: to use Poppers examples, teacups

cannot dance, fallen apples cannot pick themselves up from the ground, and the moon

cannot suddenly drift away from the earth (1974: 1005). Potential falsifiers (1959: 86)

of a theory do not have to actually occur in order to render the theory scientific; that

would mean that only false theories are scientific. But specifying what might falsify our

theory forces us to distance ourselves from it, to look at it critically instead of taking its

truth for granted. The criterion of falsifiability thus operationalizes fallibilism, and it was

their own fallibility that ideologues ignored.

Answering the Skeptic

The ideologue thinks he has found the truth in the form of a comprehensive theoretical

interpretation of some aspect of the world. In contrast, the skeptic maintains that causal

theories are never fully justified given our ignorance. If the ideologue has too much faith

in the power of his theory to explain reality, the skeptic has too little faith in the power of

any theory to explain anything.

Popper directed his work as much against the skeptic as the ideologue. In

particular, Popper took on the ultimate skeptic, Hume, who based his doubt on the

problem of induction.

Induction is the practice of inferring from past observations of some conjunction

of phenomena, such as whiteness and swans, a universal law, such as all swans are

white. To infer from particular instances to a universal law is to assume that the course

of nature continues always uniformly the same (Hume 1739: 89)that the future will

resemble the past and that the parts of the world we have not observed will resemble the

parts that we have. We base this assumption on our experience, but it is circular to answer

the question of whether the future will resemble the past by pointing to our past

experience. However, without an assumption of universal laws based on observational

verification, natural science (as opposed to history) would seem to be impossible.

Evidence of a certain type of phenomenon in a given place and time would count for

nothing in another place and time. Popper assumed that science seeks to discover

universal laws, not mere collections of facts (1959: 106), so he felt he had to ground

science in something other than induction.

The problem with induction, according to Popper, is its reliance on confirmatory

or verifying instances to prove a universal law. Part of Poppers solution was to point out

a basic logical asymmetry between verifiability and falsifiability (1959: 41).3 The

asymmetry is illustrated by the fact that the existence of a single black swan falsifies the

universal law that all swans are white despite millions of confirmatory white swans. 4

Conversely, until a black swan appears we can rely on confirmatory sightings to

corroborate claims about all swans being whitebut only on a tentative, hypothetical,

or fallibilistic basis.

As Popper saw it, by pointing out the unprovability of the uniformity of nature,

Hume had establishe[d] for good that all our universal laws or theories remain forever

guesses, conjectures, hypotheses (1974: 1021). But theories are not equally

questionable, as a skeptic might hold, because all evidence is not equal. Evidence that

falsifies a theory is more important than evidence that confirms a theory. Evidence that

falsifies a universal law adds to our store of knowledge about what is not true.

See 1959: sec. 79 for the other part of Poppers solution to the problem of induction. See also
1974: 1013-27.
As J. S. Mill (1962: 7) had adroitly put it, One single well-established fact, clearly
irreconcilable with a doctrine, is sufficient to prove that it is false.

Thus, Popper idiosyncratically defines scientific progress as consisting in the

accretion of falsified theories. We attempt to solve particular scientific problems by

proposing bold conjectures about the world, where bold means that a conjecture has

high empirical content. The more facts it tries to explain, the bolder it isbecause it is all

the more exposed to falsification. Pseudo-sciences, such as Marxism and Freudianism,

also have high empirical content, but the difference is that scientific boldness makes a

theory more vulnerable to refutation, not less.

This may not sound very optimistic, but compared to Hume, it is. If the conjecture

is (as we like to say) that the sun will rise tomorrow, it is easily falsified if the sun does

not rise tomorrow. But until the sun fails to rise, we can treat the law that it will rise as

tentatively corroborated as a universal law because, thus far, it has not been falsified.

Humes mistake was in thinking that our knowledge must consist of certitudes (1959:

42). Between the false and the unfalsifiable is the fallible.

Real-World Falsification

Popper is no longer taken seriously by many philosophers of science. A criticism often

leveled at Poppers criterion of falsifiability is that the compelling logical asymmetry

between falsifiability and verifiability is usually inapplicable in the real world.

Falsificationism should force scientists to demolish scientific theories left and right

because there is no end to potentially falsifying evidence. But Thomas Kuhn (1962: 81)

pointed out that scientists routinely categorize potentially falsifying facts as anomalies

or as non-threatening discrepancies. And if they are categorized as falsifying evidence,

scientists tend to propose ad hoc addenda to their theories to make the theories fit the

facts, instead of rejecting the theory. 5 In short, there is nothing about a piece of evidence

per se that automatically falsifies a theory, at least as science is really practiced. When

confronted with evidence, scientists tend to act more like verificationists, not

falsificationists (ibid.: 77). Scientists actual practices might seem to exemplify the very

type of ideological shenanigans that Popper tried to prevent. In principle, therefore,

Popper might have responded to Kuhn by turning against science as a sophisticated form

of dogmatism.

The problem with real-world falsification is not merely that scientists can disagree

about the significance of a fact (e.g., does a black swan falsify the theory that swans are

white?), but that they can interpret that fact in different ways (e.g., is that a black or a

muddy swan?). The interpretive problem, in turn, has two closely related aspects. The

first is the fact that it is hard to know when an experimental finding should be treated as

falsifying the theory under investigation or whether there might have been countervailing

factors at work. This might mean that it is not the theory that is at fault; instead, the

problem is that that the theorys implicit ceteris paribus clause was not upheld (Lakatos

1970: 101-2).6 There may thus never be a compelling reason to treat a theory as having

been falsified.

The problem of how to interpret evidence becomes more pressing in light of

confirmation holism. W.V.O. Quine pointed out that there is no hard and fast

distinction between empirical and theoretical beliefs. Instead, empirically based

beliefs are embedded in a web of other beliefs that may be impossible to test. It would

5 Kuhns portrait of normal science has been thought to challenge Poppers account of science
on a number of levels. My focus, however, is only on the difficulty with real-world falsification.
Popper (1974: 1186n75) thought that scientific theories should avoid using ceteris paribus
clauses since it was impossible to hold all things constant (at least in the natural sciences).

seem, then, that we are never testing a theory in isolation, but testing, instead, the whole

web of beliefs (Quine 1953: 41). Popper agreed that in every test it is not only the theory

under investigation which is involved, but also the whole system of our theories and

assumptionsin fact, more or less the whole of our knowledgeso that we can never be

certain which of all these assumptions is refuted (1963: 112). However, confirmation

holism not only permits, but also requires, that we make ad hoc adjustments to our

theories when confronted with counterevidence since reevaluation of some statements

entails reevaluation of others. . . . The total field [of beliefs] is so underdetermined by . . .

experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the

light of any single contrary experience (Quine 1953: 42-43).

Confirmation holism, as well as scientists ability to use the ceteris paribus clause

to dismiss counterevidence, suggest that we may not be able to distinguish between

legitimate and illegitimate attempts to save a theory since we often do not know whether

we are explaining or explaining away counterevidence. In fact, it was precisely because

we can interpret a potentially falsifying fact in several ways (1963: 192) that Popper

maintained that our knowledge is always conjectural (cf. 1959: 50).

However, if counterinstances to a theory can be bracketed, how can evidence

break through the ideologues dogmatic theoretical carapace? If adopting falsifiability as

ones criterion of science does not change how one responds practically to evidence, then

falsifiability may be just an interesting but impractical ideal.

Critical Rationalism as an Attitude


Popper clearly did not think that the criterion of falsifiability was impractical, nor did he

think that individual scientists are doomed to live in the closed framework of an

unfalsifiable scientific paradigm (1994: 53). How then did Popper explain how evidence

allows scientists to change their minds?

The answer is that the individual scientist must maintain a critical attitude towards

all theories, includingand especiallyhis own. In searching for the truth, it may be

our best plan to start by criticizing our most cherished beliefs (1963: 6). Popper named

this version of his philosophy of science rational criticism (e.g., 1992: 54)or, as it is

commonly called, critical rationalism.

Critical rationalism functions as an injunction to open-mindedness. This might

make us less self-protective of, and defensive about, our hypotheses. Indeed, Popper

thought that the critical tradition of science has tamed us by turning the potential

deadly violence of disagreement into mere verbal sparring (1992: 29). This is where

Poppers philosophy of science meets his liberal political philosophy. But within the field

of science itself, Popper thought that a self- (and other-) critical attitude was necessary in

order to further the growth of scientific knowledge. You must remain open-minded or

you will never benefit from experience, and never learn from it how wrong you are

(1959: 50). Thus, Popper thinks that the open-minded attitude embodied by a critical

rationalist is necessary to weeding out error, thereby contributing to the accumulation of

falsified and falsifiable theories.

This sounds very good in principle. However, if enjoining people to be self-

critical or open-minded were enough to make them responsive to evidence, we would not

have the problem of dogmatism to begin with. Even the most ardent ideologue thinks he

is open-minded. Open-mindedness is a mere abstraction. It amounts to holding a

fallibilistic attitude about ones beliefs. A belief itself, howeverits contentis

concrete. If one believes some particular thing about the world, what can it mean to

believe it open-mindedly?

If we equate open-mindedness with fallibilism, as Popper did, then we would

remember that our beliefs may turn out to be wrong. But if we knew that a belief was, in

fact, wrong, we would already have abandoned it. To continue to hold a belief, no matter

how false one thinks it might be in the abstract, is to continue believe that it is true. Nor is

it the case that changing ones mind makes one any less dogmatic. One has simply

replaced one belief with another, but ones conviction about its truth value is the same.

Arguably at least, belief is involuntary. It is the result of the evidence and

interpretation that have had the effect of persuading someone that something is true. Call

the involuntary process of belief formation the determination of beliefs by evidence

and interpretation. The fact that we think of ourselves as open-minded confirms that we

understand ourselves not as choosing our beliefs, but as having them chosen for us by

realityas we involuntarily see realitythrough the lens of evidence and interpretation.

A corollary, however, would seem to be the inefficacy of injunctions to be open-minded.

That is what we already think we are. By the same token, changing ones mind is

determined by an interpretation that seems to compel a change of beliefs. But if evidence

can be interpreted as not compelling a change of belief, it would be irrational, not

critically rational, to change ones mind.

Is critical rationalism, then, simply a high-minded but impractical ideal? Popper

recognized that it is difficult to maintain a critical attitude towards ones theories. And he

thus tried to find a way to turn open-mindedness into more than an attitude. To this end,

he developed fallibilist rules of thumb.

Critical Rationalism as Rules of Thumb

These rules of thumb are what constitute Poppers scientific methodology. The collective

decision to adopt a given methodology is not a rational one (1959: 37), according to

Popper, but some such decision does have to be made, however implicitly, if a scientific

community is to be able to judge evidence as falsifying a proposition or failing to do so.

Popper thus suggested that we view his methodology as a proposal for an agreement or

convention (ibid.).

The view that science works by methodological agreement is commonly called

conventionalism. Some form of conventionalism becomes necessary once one rejects, as

Popper did, the view that science has firm foundations in experience or some other

source of manifest truth (1959: 51-52). However, Popper thought that a shared scientific

methodology could rescue science from the temptation (as he saw it) of dogmatism. This

would ground the objectivity of science, where objective is defined as intersubjective.

What are the rules of thumb? One is that the scientist should specify in advance

what evidence would falsify his theory (1959: 86). He should also commit himself in

advance to refrain from trying to save a theory by adopting ad hoc modifications that add

no empirical content to it (1959: 82). In fact, a scientist can treat his theory as having

been falsified if he finds himself adopting empty ad hoc changes. On the other hand,

severely testing a theory requires that we do not give it up the moment it is attacked but

try to amend it by adopting auxiliary rules that increase the empirical content of the

theory, making it more susceptible to falsification (ibid.: 82-83; 1974: 986).

Poppers methodology is an attempt to institutionalize open-mindedness and yet it

leads to a strange dilemma: the rules amount to a dogmatic commitment to follow them

precisely when one interprets them as derogating from the best interpretation of the

evidence. Kuhn (1970: 15) therefore described them as amounting to an ideology. A

Kuhnian normal scientist might, in fact, claim that he is the one being open-minded if, for

example, he disregards evidence that he had initially said he would treat as falsifying his

theory. For example, he may see other factors as counteracting the seemingly solid

falsifying evidence. To ignore the countervailing factors is to be insensitive to evidence

of their presence, and falsification of ones prediction may constitute such evidence. If

the Kuhnian normal scientist is just as open-minded, or perhaps more so, than the

Popperian scientist, then at best, the rules of thumb are useless at inducing open-

mindedness and, at worst, induce the dogmatism that the rules were designed to avoid.

This suggests that the emptiness of fallibilism is retained even when it is

translated into concrete rules. It might seem as if were in a bind: we need to assert

fallibilism given our ignorance of the truth, but we still have to make decisions, such as

which research direction to follow and which theory to discard. The need to make a

choice, a decision, leads us to fall back on some procedure, which we treat as a rational

method. Indeed, Popper recognized that while there is no absolute reliance that a

theory is true, since we have to choose, it will be rational to choose the best-tested

theory. The one which, in the light of our critical discussion, appear to be the best so far

(1974: 1025). Popper maintains that what appears best is a theory that has withstood

attempts to falsify it.

However, Poppers appeal here to what appears to be the best theory begs the

question of what is rational. 7 Just as there is no such thing as a contentless belief, there is

no such thing as a contentless procedure; belief in the procedure one decides to adopt is

just as subject to determination by evidence and its interpretation as is the conclusion to

which the procedure leads. After all, if one thought that a given procedure was likely to

lead one into error, one would not use that procedure.

Thus, Popper smuggled into his conventionalist philosophy of science a non-

conventionalist criterion of the truth, namely that the method of falsification is more

likely, overall, to allow one to detect errors (in more than a conventional sense).8 On the

surface it seems as if, by proposing that scientists adopt a series of conventions, Popper

provided a way for conventional-following individual scientists to accept or reject

theories in a non-arbitrary manner. But Poppers conventionalism does not fully escape

arbitrarinessit simply transfers it to the level of the scientific community that adopts

conventions. Doing so provides some order to scientific endeavors, but Popper wanted

more than order; he wanted to explain why that order might, overall, lead not simply to

agreed-upon progress, but to progress in the sense of getting closer to the truth. Given

that the criteria of what counts as science are established by convention, it might seem

that what counts as scientific progress, too, is a matter of conventionbut Popper did

not quite want to go that far in the relativist direction.

See Salmon 1981: 120 for this question-begging aspect of Poppers theory.
E.g., 1974: 1021-22.

Strictly speaking, Poppers conventionalism, however modified it may be, does

not allow him to posit the stronger view of progress. This makes it all too similar to

Kuhns historical account of the process by which one paradigm is replaced, in a

scientific revolution, by an incommensurable paradigm. In this view, progress becomes

meaningless because there is no Archimedean perch from which to judge new paradigms

as closer to the truth than old ones. Similarly, if a theory is falsified not objectively but

merely (inter)subjectively, how can scientific progress, in an absolute sense, be affirmed?

Some of Poppers defenders have argued that although we cannot tell when our

theories are true, we can nonetheless know that they are approximating truth. Bryan

Magee, for example, argues that for Popper, truth is a regulative ideal; just as we do not

have to know the exact width of a piece of steel, down to the last molecule, to judge its

thickness within a certain degree of accuracy (Magee 1985: 23), so too science can

allow us to get nearer to the truth even if we can never know if we have reached our

goal (ibid.: 24). However, this assumes that we know that science is heading toward

truth, which is what is at issue.

Inscrutable Ignorance

Where does Popper leave uswith scientific optimism or skeptical pessimism? Was

Poppers philosophy of science too heavy a burden to place on the fragile foundation of

ignorance? Can we do more than pay lip-service to fallibilism (Lakatos 1970: 114)?

Are the injunctions to be aware of our ignorance, to be critical, and to be open-minded

anything more than trite slogans (Feyerabend 1975: 177)? These questions are pressing

lest a focus on ignorance become a byword, a mere symbol of ones epistemological


sophistication, or a weapon to use only against those with whom one disagrees. Yet if our

beliefs are determined by our perceptions of the truth, what would it mean to apply this

weapon to ourselves?

One way out might seem to be the distinction made by Donald Rumsfeld (2002)

between two types of ignorance: ignorance of known unknowns and ignorance of

unknown unknowns. We might call these two types of ignorance, respectively, scrutable

and inscrutable. Stuart Firestein (2012), for example, considers scrutable ignorance to be

essential to driving scientific developments since scientists use their knowledge of what

they dont know in order to guide future research questions. This type of ignorance might

very well benefit from applying at least some of Poppers views on what counts as good

science. 9

In contrast the type of ignorance upon which the Humean skeptic bases his

pessimism is inscrutable. This type of ignorance, perhaps, must remain an abstraction.

Ignorance of unknown unknowns can never be operationalized. It is inescapable, it is

important, and it may mean that evidence will come to light that falsifies a theory that

now seems true, or that revives a falsified theory by pointing to a countervailing factor

that explains away the falsifying evidence. Once we make this claim, however, we can

no longer fault Poppers philosophy of science for not adequately taking this type of

ignorance into account. At least on these grounds, all philosophies of science must fail,

since inscrutable ignorance is always inescapable and important. So it is not clear that

Poppers theory fares worse in this respect than do others.

See, for example, Poppers discussion of the searchlight theory of knowledge, where one
begins with a question, the answer to which one is scrutably ignorant of, and thus uses a
provisional theory as a searchlight, to pick out evidence (1972: Appendix).

For example, all philosophies of science will have to face the problem of

dogmatism and to explain what counts as responsive to evidence. Likewise, all

philosophies of science will have to explain how we can treat a theory as false when it is

always possible that unknown factors have created the spurious appearance of failure.

The inability to take into account our inscrutable ignorance might explain why

philosophers of science tend to have faith in scientific progress. Even the pessimistic

skeptic has to make decisions, which requires that he believe that his interpretation of

relevant evidence justifies the decision. The decision-making process is thus immune to a

practical awareness of inscrutable ignorance. Not just ordinary people but scientists and

philosophers of science must decide which theories seem to be true. Since such

decisions are determined by plausible interpretations of the evidence known to the

decision maker, they will be optimistically oblivious to what the decision makers do not


The optimism of the scientist and the philosopher of science may thus be part of

the human condition, even if the occasional skeptic, such as Hume, points out the logical

baselessness of optimism. It may not be, as Popper put it, our duty to remain optimists

(1994: xiii) as much as it is the unavoidable precondition of human life. Attempting to

hedge optimism by opening our ideas to falsification does not turn out to work because

we would not believe ideas we thought false, and we should not judge false ideas that fail

to meet a prescribed test but nonetheless seem to fit the evidence as we interpret it.

Therefore Poppers magnificent discovery of the asymmetry between verifying and

falsifying evidence does not get us anywhere. These observations do not solve the

problem of dogmatism with which Popper began, however. In fact, they may indicate that

the problem cannot be solved.


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