i-9c0faa708c14af1ae96cfeb520b25df7-diskborste.jpgDear Reader, welcome to the 76th instalment of the Skeptics’ Circle, your bi-weekly portal to the best skeptical blog writing on this or any other world-wide web.

Well, folks, that’s all for this time. Tune in to Whitecoat Underground on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 105th birthday, 3 January, for the next carnival. And don’t forget to submit good stuff!

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Comments

  1. #1 MarkH
    December 20, 2007

    Martin, sorry I can’t link as long as you’ve got that JFS crankery in there.

  2. #2 Martin R
    December 20, 2007

    Whoops, did I grab a bad apple? According to Google, this is the first time that anybody on Sb mentions Junk Food Science. I’d be grateful for a link to some reasoned criticism of this blog.

  3. #3 PalMD
    December 20, 2007

    Mark has a good one (I think he’s brushing it up in the shop or something). I have a quick one as well. (http://whitecoatunderground.com/2007/10/30/why-does-sandy-hate-science/)

  4. #4 RNB
    December 20, 2007

    An interesting selection. I’m particularly impressed by Skeptico’s psychic predictions and have also contemplated Christian’s growth of religion and the ethical dilemma of homeopathy. Am a bit disappointed that my submission didn’t get in, I thought I had suggested one, though my whole blog is intrinsically skeptical …

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    December 20, 2007

    I don’t think “Junk Food Science” is the same as Junk Science.

  6. #6 Barn Owl
    December 20, 2007

    Does the dish brush have anything to do with this quote from your post on the new exhibit at the Historiska Museet?

    I wish the Museum of National Antiquities had skipped all this pretentious rhetoric. It makes it harder for the visitors to think for themselves, and it hopelessly obscures the exhibition itself, which does contain a few oddities — a bunch of modern dish brushes, for instance — but also many beautiful and interesting pieces.

    ;-)

  7. #7 Orac
    December 20, 2007

    I don’t think “Junk Food Science” is the same as Junk Science

    No, but there is a lot of Junk Science-like writing on JFS.

  8. #8 Martin R
    December 20, 2007

    Maybe I was unconsciously influenced by that newspaper review! As always when I switch into absurdism mode, I cast about for something that didn’t have any associative links with the matter at hand. The first word that came to mind was diskborste.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    December 20, 2007

    I stand corrected.

  10. #10 Clay Jones
    December 20, 2007

    I must say that I am ashamed. While I have no such expectations from Panda Bear MD or the Denialismist,I expect better from you Orac. Is your skepticism in approaching the natural world so weak that it can’t stand up to an alternative point of view. Must we as a community of skeptics shield ourselves from contrary opinion lest we stray from the path. The post from Junkfood Science was removed simply because one person said that it didn’t meet his standards of non-crankery. That kind of ad hominem attack is beneath what skepticism as a way of life is all about isn’t it?

  11. #11 Martin R
    December 20, 2007

    I’m responsible, not Orac.

    I put the carnival together really fast without reading any of the entries in their entirety. After Mark H. pointed out that JFS doesn’t really belong in a skeptical carnival, I checked Sandy’s posts out more carefully. I found that I agreed, and so I struck them off. Had I read the JFS entries beforehand, nobody would even have known that they had been submitted this time.

    I apologise for this mistake. It isn’t the first time I make it.

  12. #12 Clay Jones
    December 20, 2007

    I thought that the point of skepticism is to look at all of the evidence, and to hear all takes on a subject, before passing judgement. I don’t even know if I agree or disagree with what the post claimed, but I know that dismissing something submitted just because we don’t agree with it seems wrong. I’m glad that not every skeptic takes that approach to contrary opinions. Maybe next time I’ll skip the Skeptics’ Circle and reread my copy of The Demon Haunted World. Oh how we miss you Dr. Sagan.

  13. #13 Flavin
    December 20, 2007

    I don’t even know if I agree or disagree with what the post claimed, but I know that dismissing something submitted just because we don’t agree with it seems wrong.

    I think if there’s a dispute, though, the prudent thing to do is remove the link when a question comes up. If, after discussing the available evidence on the status of JFS, we conclude that Sandy Szwarc is actually being skeptical rather than obscurantist, then the link can come back up.

  14. #14 Clay Jones
    December 20, 2007

    I just reread that and it wasn’t very clear. I meant that I haven’t read the post yet, and thus naturally can’t form an opinion on it, but that removing the link just because we don’t agree with the conclusion (obesity isn’t bad) isn’t very skeptical. It’s cynical. I’ve read many of Swarcz’s posts in the past and I sincerely doubt that this post was so out there that it warrants being dismissed as crankery or quackery so easily.

  15. #15 Martin R
    December 20, 2007

    I thought that the point of skepticism is to look at all of the evidence, and to hear all takes on a subject, before passing judgement.

    Weeeell, no, not really. Some takes on a subject are just too far out to deserve us spending our time hearing them out. Most skeptics aren’t universally and indiscriminately skeptical, we tend to accept the consensus opinion of knowledgeable scientists. That’s what scientists are for, really. Not everyone can be an expert in every field.

    Examples of this is the fact that “climate skeptics” and “Holocaust skeptics” are not considered part of the skeptical movement. Their views go against scientific consensus.

  16. #16 Flavin
    December 20, 2007

    removing the link just because we don’t agree with the conclusion (obesity isn’t bad) isn’t very skeptical.

    I don’t think that’s what happened. It has nothing to do with this article in particular, and everything to do with the trackrecord of JFS in the past. There have been articles written on the quality of analysis by Sandy Szwarc ( http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/10/doctors_are_conspiring_to_conv.php , http://whitecoatunderground.com/2007/10/30/why-does-sandy-hate-science/ , and http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/12/obesity_crankery_a_growing_pro.php ), and the consensus is that she is a crank and not actually a skeptic. So taking down the link wasn’t about the content or views of the article, it’s about upholding good skepticism in general.

  17. #17 PalMD
    December 20, 2007

    A skeptic looks at things critically, but not absurdist-ly. To be skeptical of the link between, say, cigarettes and lung cancer is silly.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The converse may also be true.

  18. #18 eran
    December 20, 2007

    … anyway, there’s some good reading there. The Digital Cuttlefish was a new one; his poetic commentary stuff turns up on PZ’s comments all the time along with a few others and he’s a winner of the Molly for October, so it’s cool to see that he’s got a regular gig as a bloggist. Good entry to choose there, more verse for the verse!

    The one by podblack.com was really well researched, did you ever use a lucky toy in an exam? First time I’ve seen a Mr Bean reference in a blog entry along with research papers by Dr Wiseman, that’s a lot of integration! Clioaudio was really good too, those homeopaths are just froot loops.

  19. #19 Clay Jones
    December 20, 2007

    It seems awful convenient to just invoke the term denialism, lump a person in with the holocaust skeptics et al, and claim that there ideas are not worth are time. Kind of a slippery slope if you ask me. I don’t agree with everything Sandy writes about but there is a lot there to mull over. Much of it has very large nuggets of truth. She also often writes on topics other than obesity such as homeopathy and health scares regarding mercury. But you are stamping her with a gross generalization and then using it to malign her. Accepting scientific consensus if of course what often must be done, but it is very easy to drift into the logical fallacy of accepting an argument from authority as well appealing to popularity.

  20. #20 Mary P
    December 20, 2007

    As much as Iike Marks’ blog, I must say that I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “denialism.” (This is, of course, not the first time I’ve said this.) It’s a powerful label that should be used only very sparingly. Certainly it’s absolutely appropriate in the case of Holocaust deniers, evolution denialists, antivaccinationists, and HIV/AIDS denialists, to all of whom the term clearly applies. However, I see a very real danger of diluting its meaning by applying the label too liberally, which is an easy trap to fall into, given how seductive it is as a shorthand for cranks.

    I agreed with Orac when he wrote the above on the occasion of L’Affaire Offit: Paul Offit is not a denialist.

    I’m similarly unhappy that Sandy Swarcz is being labelled as a denialist. Particularly when PalMD has previously said:

    It is the inconsistency of Sandy’s work that I find troubling–posts range from excellent to horrible—mine do too, but my horrible is not the same as her horrible; my horrible is at least well-researched.

    Well, yes, everyone has glitches from time to time. The majority of Sandy’s posts refer to primary sources and are amply researched, even if you disagree with her emphasis or conclusions. As such, there is little reason why she would not be entitled to use the Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research icon if she were so minded.

    Labelling someone a denialist on the basis of a couple of take-down posts but mostly snarking and unsubstantiated assumptions about her agenda seems wrong: it’s a serious charge and one would have thought that the case and evidence would need to be commensurately serious and documented.

  21. #21 PalMD
    December 20, 2007

    What an interesting discussion.
    The problem I have is that one particular writer happens to be in “denial” about the overwhelming evidence regarding a particular subject, and she uses her (modest) influence to twist facts and spread her unconventional beliefs. That makes her a denialist rather than a skeptic.
    She does have some “stopped-clockisms” as well, especially when she stays away from the obesity issue, but when I follow her “research” I find her knowledge is shallow, and her understanding of what she reads is poor. She tends to quote-mine as well.
    It is disturbing because it is a style shared by denialists, creationists, and other cranks, rather than scientists and skeptics, who don’t mind being proved wrong, but insist on evidence.

  22. #22 miller
    December 21, 2007

    To point out the obvious, Sandy has been in the Skeptic’s Circle many times. I see one in the 75th, 74th, 73rd, 71st, and the 69th (I stopped searching after 67). Further searching revealed that she was also in the 57th Skeptic’s Circle, which was hosted on this same blog!

    Deciding to take down the link this one time is inconsistent, at the very least. Was there something particularly non-skeptical about the particular post in this carnival?

  23. #23 windy
    December 21, 2007

    That entry from Shakesville on recent human evolution is not so much “skeptical” as plain ignorant.

  24. #24 Martin R
    December 21, 2007

    Miller, Sandy’s continued insistence that obesity isn’t such a big problem (e.g. in the blog entry about the Dutch fertility study) goes against scientific consensus.

  25. #25 Clay Jones
    December 21, 2007

    Can you at least take her name, and the obnoxious strike out of the description of her post, down. It’s rude.

  26. #26 Clay Jones
    December 21, 2007

    Also, I didn’t realize that scientific consensus must be agreed with on all counts to be accepted. I’ll be sure to double check my future entries for any disagreement with it, if you’ll be so kind as to fill us in on which scientists you are referring to.

    I also didn’t realize that the Skeptics’ Circle was merely an opportunity for us all to sit around and jerk each other off with our mutual brilliance and ability to label outsiders as denialists, forever banishing them from debate with us. Imagine how horrible it would be for our fragile world views to be faced with contrary discussion. We might shatter into a million pieces with no hope of recovery.

    Thanks for the otherwise nice edition. I’m off to practice scientific consensus medicine on my patients.

  27. #27 Mary P
    December 21, 2007

    when I follow her “research” I find her knowledge is shallow, and her understanding of what she reads is poor. She tends to quote-mine as well.
    It is disturbing because it is a style shared by denialists, creationists, and other cranks, rather than scientists and skeptics, who don’t mind being proved wrong, but insist on evidence.

    Wow – and nobody here has quote-mined Sandy to find points of disagreement? You’re not at all uncomfortable about ignoring some of the analyses that she has done or the debunking work on shoddy media reporting? Again, she frequently blogs on primary papers and resources has anyone gone through one of those and documented their points of disagreement? I’ve seen MarkH’s post (presumably as a partial response to Christian Bachmann’s letter) and yes, I’m always unhappy about conference papers and that does seem like a blip that I would style as uncharacteristic?

    Ironically – where is your evidence for your very damaging assertions that seem to be leaving the boundaries of polite disagreement and heading for vindictiveness. I just note this as it seems to contradict the healthcare blogging code of ethics that some of you have signed up to.

    Now – I think it would be wholly inappropriate to make this comparison, but to a hostile outsider, it might look as if (Seed) media-financed bloggers are ostracising and deriding a lone, independent blogger. Yes – I am aware that most of you make enough money from writing to just about cover your ISP costs (if that) but that is how this can look to an outsider.

    In a UK discussion, one blogger asked if this means that SBloggers will not link to blogs that have JFS blogrolled. That is how ridiculous this is getting. It’s like a story from Keillor with a sect splitting and splitting until you end up with the Bird Bretheren or Cold Water Bretheren and all of 12 members. It seems that Skeptics’ Circle is fast approaching a position of advocating Shunning on this issue.

    Please do Sandy Swarcz the courtesy of providing evidence as to your charge of denialism or stop this vindictiveness. Otherwise, yes, i agree with Clay that this has the seamier elements of puerile group ritual.

  28. #28 Magnus W
    December 21, 2007

    She really has low understanding of statistics and uses it wrongly she also links to sites that no one that is sceptic could do…

  29. #29 Martin R
    December 21, 2007

    Not puerile group ritual, puerile dictatorial decision. Welcome to blogging.

  30. #30 Orac
    December 21, 2007

    Is your skepticism in approaching the natural world so weak that it can’t stand up to an alternative point of view. Must we as a community of skeptics shield ourselves from contrary opinion lest we stray from the path.

    Give me a break. There’s skepticism, and then there’s pseudoskepticism in the service of an agenda. Sandy falls into the latter category far too frequently for my taste. She cherry picks data, intimates vague conspiracies (the scientists are all in it for the grant money, don’t you know?), and attacks the concept of a scientific consensus, all the while expressing “skepticism” that is always hyperskeptical towards any claim that obesity is a health risk and hypercredulous towards any study that claims obesity is no big problem.

  31. #31 Orac
    December 21, 2007

    Well, yes, everyone has glitches from time to time. The majority of Sandy’s posts refer to primary sources and are amply researched, even if you disagree with her emphasis or conclusions.

    So what? Referring to primary sources is pointless if it’s clear that they’re being used to push an agenda. Also, anyone linking to Fumento or Milloy is automatically highly suspect when she claims to be a skeptic.

  32. #32 Orac
    December 21, 2007

    Labelling someone a denialist on the basis of a couple of take-down posts but mostly snarking and unsubstantiated assumptions about her agenda seems wrong: it’s a serious charge and one would have thought that the case and evidence would need to be commensurately serious and documented.

    I’ll admit that Sandy Szwarc is a difficult problem. Most of her non-obesity-related stuff is actually not too bad. However, whenever she blogs about diet and obesity, there’s usually a problem. And it’s not the sort of thing that jumps right at you off of her blog; it’s the sort of thing you have to read her blog closely for a while (which I did) to start to realize. As I read her blog, more and more it bothered me that all of her “skepticism” was inevitably in the direction that being obese is just not unhealthy but as healthy or healthier than not being obese, that eating fatty foods is perfectly fine, and that virtually any study she looks at that says that eating fatty foods or a bad diet is a pile of crap while any pile of crap study claiming otherwise that she looks at is the latest and greatest. Naturally, this all leads her to conclude that virtually every warning about diet is fearmongering. Worse, she has a distressing tendency to use denialist tactics, such as cherry picking data and alleging conspiracies.

    As I said, it was very hard for me to finally admit this, but I think that Mark Hoofnagle has it right and that she is, at least when it comes to issues of diet, obesity, and health, a bit of a crank. Clearly, almost anything she writes about obesity and diet is almost certainly inappropriate for the Skeptics’ Circle, but I guess that the question really is: Should posts that she submits that aren’t about obesity and diet be permitted? I’m not sure of the answer to that one.

  33. #33 Mary P
    December 21, 2007

    She really has low understanding of statistics and uses it wrongly she also links to sites that no one that is sceptic could do…

    There comes a point where most of us have a “low understanding of statistics”. I had a real problem with some stats in a report that I reviewed the other day because they made no sense to me and the authors hadn’t provided nearly enough detail (effect size without stating the technique and w/out providing SDs, CIs etc). I emailed several colleagues, one of whom has literally written a textbook on stats. He scratched his head and professed himself unable to help because it wasn’t his area and he now only felt up to commenting on stochastic techniques.

    I think the fascinating series of articles about NNT, OR and RR in the BMJ indicates the difficulty that a number of researchers have with this issue. I imagine a number of researchers might be prepared to defend the use of the 1-tailed t test in the Hitlan paper but I should think others are still puzzled that this was published in a reputable, reviewed journal.

    It is not difficult to find people who regularly criticise medical researchers and reviewers for their poor understanding of stats. Epidemiology seems to be low-hanging fruit when it comes to interpreting the findings that are less in-your-face than smoking and ill-health.

    Are you sure that Sandy’s understanding is so much less than that of other bloggers. And, yes, she writes a blog, she is not writing for the Lancet or NEJM.

    As for being shunned for linking to other sites – it is skirting dangerously near some very unpleasant territory.

    It seems as if people are advocating that Sandy Swarcz should have her work ignored for reasons relating to scientific rigour but ultimately people are really describing an emotional response and feeling of something being ‘off’.

  34. #34 Mary P
    December 21, 2007

    Referring to primary sources is pointless if it’s clear that they’re being used to push an agenda.

    Is she demonstrably distorting the interpretation of that primary research or is she providing a sustainable counterpoint to the sorts of over-enthusiastic reporting in mainstream media that bloggers deplore? I’ve seen what looks like valid criticism of her take on the conference paper that MarkH reported. I haven’t seen any indication of a track-record of mis-reporting peer-reviewed research.

    At the risk of sounding wilfully obtuse, I don’t understand what you think her agenda is.

    she has a distressing tendency to use denialist tactics, such as cherry picking data and alleging conspiracies.

    Again, on this point, is this alleged tendency greater than any other U-blogger? As for alleging conspiracies, I see that Darshak Sanghavi included Dr Oakley talking about one in an essay in the NYT about folic acid in flour:

    ‘The vaccine-industrial complex works like a charm,” Dr. Oakley said. But with folic acid, things are slow: ”Nobody’s making any money off this.”

    Maybe Oakley is a conspiracy theorist, I have no way of knowing. However, it seems to me as if strong rhetorical devices like that are commonplace, if unfortunate, in the public discourse surrounding such matters. Perhaps I read the wrong blogs or newspapers, but I must see a similar sort of comment from a doctor, senior academic researcher or similar, several times a week.

    Not puerile group ritual, puerile dictatorial decision.

    Absolutely, founder’s circle, founder’s rules. But, if someone is being denounced for being a denialist, it would be more satisfactory if this were based on more rigorous grounds than the mostly emotional ones being offered at present. Is crank intended to be less harsh than denialist or a synonym? Because, although I would welcome the denialist label being used less liberally than it seems to be, I doubt that the crank label is much of an improvement.

    At this point, it’s like watching a re-take on Eddy Izzard, offering Church of England fundamentalism (“cake or death”) or an over-abundance of jihad. I’ll be interested to see if somebody draws up a list of U and non-U sceptics and guidance on assessing blogrolls.

  35. #35 Kristjan Wager
    December 23, 2007

    As I said, it was very hard for me to finally admit this, but I think that Mark Hoofnagle has it right and that she is, at least when it comes to issues of diet, obesity, and health, a bit of a crank. Clearly, almost anything she writes about obesity and diet is almost certainly inappropriate for the Skeptics’ Circle, but I guess that the question really is: Should posts that she submits that aren’t about obesity and diet be permitted? I’m not sure of the answer to that one.

    As someone stated before, I did include one of her posts in the 75th circle, but it was a post that had nothing to do with obesity, and actually fitted a common theme. Even so, I mailed Orac about it, and didn’t feel quite happy about including her post.

    Had I known the inclusion would be used as an argument for including her in future circles, I would perhaps have left it out.

    In general, I think it’s okay to include relevant posts by people who might not live up to our preferable standard on all subjects, but perhaps we should write some kind of disclaimer?

  36. #36 Martin R
    December 23, 2007

    The JFS post I included in an earlier Circle was about the non-riskiness of aluminium kitchenware. Nothing wrong with it, and as it was the first entry I ever read at the JFS, I never gave it a second thought.

  37. #37 Christian Bachmann
    December 29, 2007

    I see a lot of ad hominem reasoning here but I strongly miss the distinction between established scientific consensus (vaccines, HIV/Aids, smoking/cancer) and a field like obesity where debate is open and scientific facts are in part contradicting (obesity paradox). My skeptic heart beats faster whenever I come across such controversial findings, and I wonder why so few in the skeptic community are dealing with the obesity issue, and why this issue seems to be banned from Skeptics’ Circle.

  38. #38 Skeptyk
    December 30, 2007

    Hmmm.

    A couple of my own pieces have appeared in the Skeptics Circle, (on the Cherrix case and on the Alternative Ethics of “alternative medicine”), but if I were to be judged by my entire Googled output, should my future posts be banned from the Circle because I was an altie in my twenties? I even recorded a song a couple decades ago that was as paranoid altie as could be. Mine is a common story, as is James Laidler’s and Monica Pignotti’s and I could go on. If we, in the past, “inhaled”, do we lose our skep cred?

    I think that, in the face of so much misinformation and emotionalism in the zeitgeist about obesity, Sandy Szwarc is planting seeds of critical thinking that should be engaged. To strike her off an existing SCircle seems excessive. Much of what Sandy takes on is about weight-loss, an assumed cure for obesity.*

    As Mark H points out, primary prevention and dealing with co-morbidities is where medical science is at. But here on the ground, in the lives of millions, weight-loss is being flogged as the golden ring of health and beauty. I applaud the few voices, (few even among the skeptical movement), who are willing to try to take a critical look at obesity. Actually, Mark Hoofnagle is one of those folks who is willing to deal with the issue comprehensively, (thanks, Mark). This is better than the reflexive “3500Kcal=1#” chants, or the spectacle of bloggers telling us their body stats to “prove” that weight loss is possible. (Call me back in five years, bro, m’kay?)

    Mark H and Sandy S are both voices against the wrongness of the popular media treatment of fatness. Hopefully they are learning some things from one another by having it out in cyberspace. I know that I am learning from reading them both.

    JFS is not the only place out there where these issues are being examined, but, considering what a big fat deal it is in our culture, I am surprised more skeptics are not taking dis-info about obesity on. Or maybe I’m not. If you see how nasty the comments get when fat people just ask for a little kindness, I can see why few have the stomach to wade through the mud to even attempt conversation.** Also, there are other sites which have had posts in the Sceptics Circle which do not have comments threads. So why toss Sandy out on her ear?

    Plenty of bloggers regularly contributing to the sceptical dialogue may have blind-spots. Witness the ongoing “framing science” conversation, or the NOMA debates. Panda Bear, MD is a theist, and there are plenty of skeptic bloggers who are. Are they bad skeptics? Do we atheists dismiss their skeptical writings and refuse to link to them?

    Some skeptic bloggers have only recently come to accept the scientific consensus on AGW. Watching their struggles with this, live-on-your-desktop, has been invaluable to understanding critical thinking and cognitive dissonance.

    My husband and I have been writing little essays, monthly, for well over a decade, before many folks were on BBS newsgroups. Over the years, we, like many skeptics, have – gasp! – changed our minds about a lot of things.

    Viva la conversation. La lucha continua.

    Skeptyk

    *Lasting weight loss is so rare that I do not know whether research has been able to quantify just what it can do for/to the average dieter (someone who has lost and gained lots of weight lots of time already). Has the history of weight-cycling, the history of fatness, already contributed to chronic morbidities? Are there just not enough such folks to study? Anyone have any research on that?

    **A few fat people get kudos IF they are seen publicly to be trying, drastically, to get UNfat. And unless they get unfat enough, they are still despised as “failures”. Hence the freakrealityshow docs about bariatric surgery “success stories”. Most of these were one-off tales no more journalistic than infomercials.

  39. #39 Chris @ Martial Development
    December 31, 2007

    If any of you are interested in debunking the existence of chi, you can try to win a free T-shirt:
    http://www.martialdevelopment.com/blog/chi-kung-skeptic-to-iron-shirt-master/

  40. #40 Ampersand
    December 31, 2007

    I don’t think you should have removed the link (although of course it’s your blog, your right). Once you posted the link, the controversy was created; it’s not unreasonable of readers to want to read the specific link you included so that they can form their own judgment of it.

    In general, I think that editorial alterations that preserve the original record (such as crossing out text rather than removing it, as you did) are preferred to ones that remove content after a discussion has already begun (such as removing the link so that readers can no longer follow it).

    Saying “someone is most likely a crank if they oppose scientific consensus” is reasonable when talking about an area in which there is a strong scientific consensus (“is the earth flat?”). It seems like a way of trying to exclude reasonable views from debate, however, when it’s used as a way of dismissing the less dominant view in a debate that is actually taking place amongst credentialed people, and in legitimate publications. The debate over obesity and weight-loss is, I would argue, more in the latter category than the flat-earth category.

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