Templeton Prayer Study FAIL!

Farm Prayer

Way back in 2006, the John Templeton Foundation published the results of its study on prayer and its effect on people who were suffering from major heart conditions and undergoing heart surgery.  The study was double-blind and used a control group.  Two groups were chosen, one of which were prayed for and the other which was not, but neither were told which group they were in.  A third group served as a control were prayed for and told this.

After 2.4 million dollars invested from the Templeton Foundation and 2.3 million invested from the federal government, here are the results:

  • More people (59%) in the control group suffered more complications than in the groups who did not know if they were being prayed for (51%).
  • 18% of those in the uninformed prayer group suffered major complications (including heart attack) as compared to 13% in the group that did not receive prayers.

These results have precedent: the New York Times reports on a study done in 1997 studied 40 alcoholics in recovery.  Those who were prayed for did worse than those who were not.

Flaws of the Study

According to the research team, one of the issues may have been that those who knew they were being prayed for had “preformance anxiety,” which could complicate a heart condition.  “It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?” Dr. Charles Bethea said.  This does beg the question that if God were interested in healing people based on prayers for them, could he have not also prevented complications for these patients?  Would God not be invested in being a part of this study if it were designed to prove his existance?

The other issue that is noted by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion is that there really are issues with how the study was done in the first place.  The full set up of the experiement, assuming that those involved believed in the power of prayer, was subjecting some people to what could be considered cruel because they were not chosen to be in the “prayed-for” group.  Those who were part of the study could very well have gotten prayers from people that cared about them.  Yet, why would they especially considering that those recieving prayers did worse?

No Results; Nothing Studied

The problem with the study was based in the hypothesis itself: if we pray for someone then God will intervene in some supernatural way to restore a person’s health.  No doubt this is a wonderful concept, but it eliminates the truth about he subject being studied.  In the same way that the Prosperity Gospel cult has undercut the basis of Christian belief, this study is based on a lie.  Somehow people have come up with this idea that if we ask for something then we can obligate God to deliver.

What kind of God would he be if we were able to say just the right words or preform just the right action that would somehow get God’s attention and thus getting a desired result?  This concept makes God not God at all, but rather some cosmic vending machine (insert prayer) or light switch.

In John chapter 3 Jesus describes to a religious leader, Nicodemus, the nature and action of God.  “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”  This makes the scientific study more akin to the study of psychology.  If God is a volitional being, then we cannot expect that God will preform based in a regular standard and without fail.

In essence this study was not about prayer at all, but about the effect of positive words and their impact on a person’s health.  Masaru Emoto has conducted studies on the effect of kind words, prayers, and curses on molecules of water.  While the scientific basis of his studies are questionable, it is interesting in the sense that these studies attempted to define a benefit to prayer but only resulted in demonstrating the conscious way that positive words can affect a person’s psyche and connecting physiological response.

Prayer’s Power

This is not to deny the power that abides in prayer, but it does stand in the face of a fallacy.  Prayer is not about getting our goodies from God, but it is about trusting God to do what is best.  It is about building a relationship and leaning our the truth that comes from that relationship.

This study would be just as flawed if it were conducted on child-parent relationships and we expected that the child would receive everything she asked her parents for.  No doubt we would think very poorly of a parent who did that and it would be no stretch to expect that the child would be a lazy, fat brat.  No doubt we would be in quite a big mess if God also fulfilled every request to our liking.  It frankly gives me much satisfaction that this study was a failure, because it strengthens my trust in a God that cannot be contained and who works toward our best, even if we do not agree that our best is.

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About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

27 responses to “Templeton Prayer Study FAIL!

  • Renier

    Aaron wrote: “It frankly gives me much satisfaction that this study was a failure, because it strengthens my trust in a God that cannot be contained”

    I’m calling you on this one. Would you, as a Christian, not have had more satisfaction if the split was 80/20 in the favour of prayer, validating your beliefs and showing many non-believers a glimpse of The True God(tm)?

    Aaron wrote: “If God is a volitional being, then we cannot expect that God will preform based in a regular standard and without fail.”

    If God is a being that does perform, we could at least expect to observe his actions from time to time. What, was he not in the mood to listen to prayers during the time the study was done?

    Aaron wrote: “Prayer is not about getting our goodies from God, but it is about trusting God to do what is best.”

    Oh man. It is the old copout. A prayer is answered, and it is all glory glory hallelujah. A prayer is not answered, and it is still glory glory hallelujah because it is god’s will.

    Aaron wrote: “The problem with the study was based in the hypothesis itself: if we pray for someone then God will intervene in some supernatural way to restore a person’s health. No doubt this is a wonderful concept, but it eliminates the truth about he subject being studied. In the same way that the Prosperity Gospel cult has undercut the basis of Christian belief, this study is based on a lie. Somehow people have come up with this idea that if we ask for something then we can obligate God to deliver.”

    Does your god, in the bible, not state that he will answer prayer and heal the sick? Then you claim the study is based on a lie? Since the study is based on the understanding that certain promises made by your god, ie, healing people and answering prayers etc, well, you are in fact stating that your god or the Bible is lying.

  • Aaron

    No… Renier you are not calling me on anything. I mean what I said and I said what I meant. I would not have been happy with a more positive result to this study for the same reasons that I stated above. There were plenty of people that God could have healed, but for whatever reason did not. There were groups of people where Jesus could not heal, and that is stated plainly in the gospels.

    God requires relationship before he “will heal.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 says that God will heal if the people will turn to him and leave their “wicked ways.” When Jesus healed, he told the people that it was because they believed in who he said he was that they were able to be healed. Many scholars see this as the belief that they were set free from their sin, and in the ancient world sin and sickness were tightly associated together.

    I do not think that the Bible is lying, I think that the interpretation that suggests that God is a Pez dispenser popping out healing every time we tilt his head back is preposterous. That has only been a belief propagated in the US in the last few hundred years. We have many centuries of history that would counter that as well as the Biblical text itself if people actually spent time reading it again.

  • Renier

    Aaron wrote: “If God is a volitional being, then we cannot expect that God will perform based in a regular standard and without fail.”

    So the whole “God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow” is bunk?

    Aaron wrote: “I would not have been happy with a more positive result to this study for the same reasons that I stated above.”

    That’s a bit weird to me. Being happy that your god was not shown to take an interest and heal people with serious illness.

    Aaron wrote: “There were plenty of people that God could have healed, but for whatever reason did not.”

    Question. Do you consider it a viable option that the reason he did not heal any people (detectible) was because he does not exist?

    Aaron wrote: “There were groups of people where Jesus could not heal, and that is stated plainly in the gospels.”

    “Could not” instead of “want not” is problematic for a doctrine that said deity is almighty. Agreed? And if it was “want not” it is a problem for a doctrine that said deity is good. Agreed?

    Aaron wrote: “God requires relationship before he “will heal.”

    Taking this in the context of the Templeton study I need to point out that the conclusion you appear to draw is that God will only heal Christians. Now I wonder if you will stand by such a claim when we compare healing rates between Christians and Non-Christians. I, for one, would predict there is no difference between the healing rates of Christians and Non-Christians, while your opinion that God only heals people who have a relationship with him would predict that Christians would have a higher healing rate than all the other people on earth. Does this make sense to you?

    Furthermore, I need to ask you if you consider yourself more moral than your god. The reason I ask this could perhaps be grasped in a little thought experiment. Imagine you are in possession of some extremely good medicine. There are 2 children with the same deadly disease and you could cure both. Do you only give medicine to the child that “knows” you and believe you possess the medicine, or do you distribute medicine to the other, the sceptic child as well? If you choose both children, you are in fact worshipping a god whose morals are lower than your own. If you choose to refuse medicine to the sceptic child, then your morals are on par with your god’s morals, although it is pretty poor and could be argued to be bad.

    Aaron wrote: “I do not think that the Bible is lying”

    The verse “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” should then perhaps have been “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you, unless you ask for healing of an unbeliever, or the Father is not in the mood, or when the Father decides to withhold healing from you in time of need, or when you need to suffer a bit to make you a “better” person, or when it is “your time”, or if the Father has “greater” plans, or if your faith is not good enough, or or or or.”?

    Aaron wrote: “I think that the interpretation that suggests that God is a Pez dispenser popping out healing every time we tilt his head back is preposterous.”

    Do you consider it preposterous that people expected your god to listen to the prayers of his children and heal some people in need of healing? People where not asking for money to rain from the sky. Is it unreasonable to ask god to heal some people when they are sick?

    Goodness, the mental gymnastics to consolidate you belief with the Templeton prayer study is amusing. The claims you make about what god is and how he acts and why he refuses to act is even more so, considering that it is your opinions on what god is supposed to be and what he is not supposed to be and in the end of the day still your opinions. I say this because I do not think you know any more about god than me, Sabio, my next door neighbour and Lenny’s pizza delivery guy. Perhaps I am mistaken, but you do appear to think you “know” something about god. As fow what you interpret scripture to mean, is your interpretation any more valid than mine or Lenny’s pizza delivery guy’s?

  • Aaron

    Renier, I have been thinking a lot about your comments. To be honest I have many of the same questions. But the main idea that I am trying to communicate in this post is that the study itself is based on the fallacy that a volitional being cannot be studied this way.

    Have you seen the movie The Truman Show? Granted there was much about Truman’s life that was predictable, but using the scientific method, it is difficult (while perhaps not impossible) to predict each and every action of any person in any situation. Any study on human behavior is essentially unreliable when N=1. Just because it works with most people or just because most people behave a certain way, when I am sitting opposite someone in my office, there are no guarantees that any of those methods will work.

    When and how God heals is a completely different conversation, which I am willing to have, although I am not sure that I can contribute much. Again, what I am saying here is not about how and why God heals, but more about the fact that I do not believe in a God that is foolish enough to have his will usurped by a crazy experiment that, even with the opposite results, likely would not have proved anything anyway. No doubt that even with the opposite results, someone would have found a way to explain how it does not prove the existence of God anyway.

    Had this experiment worked, and those prayed for were healed, then to me it would not have proved existence of God any more than falling off a roof proves gravity. It would have instead suggested that there is some impersonal force out there that is impacted somehow by human thought, even at a distance. That is definitely an intriguing idea, but far from what I see as the activity of a volitional being.

    My reference in the post to Masaru Emoto is in regard to his study of the formation of ice crystals in relationship to the thoughts and words of people when water was spoken to or prayed for. An interesting study, but I am not sure that there is any connection to a deity… I am not sure what to think about it, frankly.

    I am not trying to claim that I know anything more than anyone else. But I am trying to say that the Templeton Foundation seems to think that they can “get God” to do something, when I cannot even get another person to get me a glass of water. Granted sometimes they will and sometimes they will not. Sometimes I can make it more likely that they will agree to fill my request, but reliably enough to use to argue proof of their existence? Without my other senses, people would challenge me to consider that the glass of water appeared as the result of coincidence.

    Believe me, I wish that God would do everything we asked! If that were true then my aunt would not have died of cancer at 53 having devoted her entire life to her faith. It does not make any sense to me, and that puts the Lenny’s pizza guy and I on the same intellectual level. Ugh! and even with the answers, I am not sure that I would feel any more comfort in experiencing loss of my dearest friends and family.

  • Renier

    Okay Aaron, we can agree to disagree on this one. Not an attempt to have the last say, but I do want to comment on some things again, even if it is just to clarify my own view.

    Aaron wrote: “Have you seen the movie The Truman Show?”

    I have not. Not much of a movie fan, unless there are swords involved :-)

    Aaron wrote: “but more about the fact that I do not believe in a God that is foolish enough to have his will usurped by a crazy experiment”

    And by implication a god who would let his ego get in the way from listening to prayers of his children. I need to point you to the little thought experiment again. Would you refuse to give the medicine when asked for it simply because people are trying to observe if you would? I don’t think so, and therefore I once again think you are a better moral being than your god.

    I need to ask you another question. Do you think hell is real?

    Aaron wrote: “Had this experiment worked, and those prayed for were healed, then to me it would not have proved existence of God”

    I agree, although it would have pointed that there might be something to prayer, allowing us to narrow down on the experiment. Belief based on knowledge is nobler than belief based on faith, for various obvious (to me) reasons.

    As for Masaru Emoto, I admit I have done minimal reading on it, a long time ago. I do recall that the experiment was thoroughly debunked. If you honestly consider Emoto’s experiment to be valid then we can delve in together to get to the truth. For one, the experiments could not be reproduced, pretty much ruling it out as science. Secondly, cherry picking is evident in “In the day-to-day work of his group, the creativity of the photographers rather than the rigor of the experiment is an explicit policy of Emoto. Emoto freely acknowledges that he is not a scientist, and that photographers are instructed to select the most pleasing photographs.” – There are references to interviews on wiki that you can follow. In short, it’s crack pottery. And the dishonest sneak into “peer-review” by using Dean Radin is severely dishonest and deserves nothing but contempt. Lastly, use your reason to consider the preposterous claims.

    Aaron wrote: “But I am trying to say that the Templeton Foundation seems to think that they can “get God” to do something”

    Does god not state that you can get him to do stuff through prayer and petition? If not, then why pray at all. Simply saying “I love you, I adore you, I think you are so great, ooh, aah” appears to be foolish when requests for good things are frowned upon or ignored.

    Aaron wrote: “Believe me, I wish that God would do everything we asked! If that were true then my aunt would not have died of cancer at 53 having devoted her entire life to her faith. It does not make any sense to me, and that puts the Lenny’s pizza guy and I on the same intellectual level.”

    A person very close to me also died at age 53, also cancer. The person was the most devout, sincere Christian I have ever met. Now what I am an atheist, it makes sense, perfect sense. In fact, a lot of things now makes sense (even the Bible) since I have stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality. Like you, I look up at the stars at night and I am now more awed than what I ever was at God.

    We can hardly blame Bronze Age goat herders for trying to explain their harsh, cruel world and life with a deity. But what the old goat herders knew is not 1% of the knowledge we as a species now have. To think they would have known more about gods than what we do today is really what a lot of religions are all about.

  • Aaron

    Your conclusion… YES!! Much of my reaction against Christianity is to say that there are those flaws that make it, as a religion, square. But I hope and want to believe that shaving off the square corners brings us back to a round peg that can fit firmly and easily in the round hole.

    In fact, just a few hours ago, I was challenge by a new friend, a Christian, who suggested to me that I do much more about condemning Christianity than I do about supporting it. And that may be, at least in terms of this blog. But the intention is to help to make Christianity less a religion and more of a way of life again.

    Regarding prayer, I think that the difference that I am suggesting is this: modern Christianity (and I realize that is quite a blanket statement) has perverted prayer into something where if we ask for whatever we want, then God should give it to us.

    To me prayer is about a relationship. Agreed, it is more than “ooo’s” and “ahh’s” but it is about asking for the strength to supplant my own will and desires for what God wants. And it is not because of being afraid of God, but it is trusting that God knows better what is good for me and for our community and our world than I do.

    Put it another way: I am stupid compared to an infinite mind, so I want to trust God’s intention instead of my own.

  • Brandon

    Hey Aaron!

    Nice blog.

    Considering your statement “Prayer is not about getting our goodies from God, but it is about trusting God to do what is best”, do you think Christians are unwittingly telling fellow Christians “Work on your personal relationship with god” whenever they make say things like “Pray for my grandma, she’s sick” or any other prayer request you might read in a church bulletin or hear from a friend?

    Or could there be *some* sort of chance that their prayer might have an effect?

  • Aaron

    You know, I just had a debate about this with a fundamental friend of mine. He challenged me by suggesting that God does not change his mind, and he does not believe in intercessory prayer.

    I am not trying to say that prayer requests fall on deaf ears. God says to Moses at the burning bush that he has heard the cries of his people and that he was ready to act. But it was certainly a very long time (400 years) before God did act.

    It has been said often that prayer changes us, not God. I think that sharing our deepest desires does not mean that those desires will be met, but that we will be changed, believing that God has all our best interests at heart.

  • Renier

    Aaron wrote: “has perverted prayer into something where if we ask for whatever we want, then God should give it to us.”

    I don’t want to accuse you of setting up a straw man here, but notice I argued for prayer about good things, like healing, not “whatever people want”. The Templeton study is not about “whatever people want”.

    You replied to Brandon: “believing that God has all our best interests at heart.”

    And healing? What about the healing asked for in the study? Not best interest at heart?

  • Renier

    Aaron wrote: “But it was certainly a very long time (400 years) before God did act.”

    Humour. Waiting 400 years for a prayer of healing to be heard might be irrational :-)

  • Aaron

    Renier, if you do not believe in a life after this one and if you maintain a position of “what is good for the individual” then no of this makes any sense.

    In some ways it is quite an evolutionary benefit for people to not be miraculously healed, since it would prevent certain traits from continuing in the population, thus making the human race more viable as a species.

    Seriously, though I completely agree that my argument means nothing if you do not believe in God or a “here-after.” You and I have walked up to opposite sides of the Grand Canyon and are trying to build a bridge across.

  • Renier

    Aaron wrote: “In some ways it is quite an evolutionary benefit for people to not be miraculously healed, since it would prevent certain traits from continuing in the population, thus making the human race more viable as a species.”

    Sounds a lot like eugenics. Besides, we can, with science deal with a lot of those traits and try to save people from death and keep them healthy. It is, in my opinion, noble to at least try.

    Aaron wrote: “Seriously, though I completely agree that my argument means nothing if you do not believe in God or a “here-after.”

    Well, I honestly tried to argue from a biblical perspective. If there were any flaws in my quotations or arguments then please point them out. I prefer to be corrected that to stay in err.

  • Randy Schatz

    Often when I read a blog I have a tangent thought process that bumps up against the blog at hand…while not really addressing it head on. Your prayer blog is one of those.

    Some time ago I gave up on Santa Clause prayers (aka: vending machine prayers). They don’t appeal to my ‘scientist brain’, now days I pray for peace. Peace for me and peace for people directly impacted by a situation.

    For a real world example: A young mom I know was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She was single and has 4 daughters…the oldest being 13. That’s a tough deal. I don’t think that prayers are effective against cancer, but I KNOW that prayer can bring peace to my heart. So, my prayer for myself and the family is for peace.

    Continuing that exact same real world example: The mom in the picture didn’t have health insurance. Her boyfriend did. Mom was diagnosed on a Monday, the wedding was announced on Wednesday, and the ceremony was Friday. Those 4 little girls got a new step-dad for health coverage. I don’t know how to pray for ‘healing’ from this mess. I do however know how to pray for peace. Peace for myself, and peace for the people directly impacted.

    Peace,
    Randy Scahtz
    @rschatz56560

  • Aaron

    Thanks, Randy!

    @ Renier

    Some thoughts on the topic from Gerald May, MD from his book Simply Sane:

    I want to reiterate my belief that authentic prayer and prayerfulness are not really means to any particular ends. If I am sick or distressed, my prayer may naturally be for healing. That is honest prayer, the expression of my condition and desire. But it is not something I do in order to be healed. It is not a method, technique or procedure. The same understanding much apply to all kinds of prayer, even to intercessory prayer for others. In praying for others we express our honest desire for their well-being. But it is not the broadcast of a spiritual energy beam, bouncing off an angelic satellite to hits its target with waves of healing power. Having said this, I must also say I am convinced that honest prayer does make a difference. Petition, prayer for ourselves, really helps us. I know from experience that intercessory prayer is absolutely helpful for others…. It is one of God’s tricks on us that while prayer “works,” we can’t “do” it that way.

    Logically, all this is paradox. There are many good works on theology of prayer, but those that are truly good always come back to an affirmation of its fundamental mystery. Logic is a wonderful tool for helping us understand something of ourselves and of the world, but the essential nature of things simply will not fit inside logic.

  • starcrashx

    I’m fascinated by this blog and your responses. Whether or not I disagree with the blog or any of its comments is rather irrelevant to the point I want to make – it just moves me to see such intelligent debate. And your responses, Aaron, admitting to your own doubts and questions… that’s refreshing honesty while also a smart tactic. While I disagree with your view (still irrelevant) I thought it wiser simply to share my thoughts on how you conduct your blog. Well done. It’s a tough stand on a tough issue, and you played it well.

  • Prayer is Pointless « Don't Censor Me

    [...] that ended with the unexpected result that prayer didn’t work. While Christians have tried to rationalize this result, it’s clear to say that this experiment could have had a positive result, but [...]

  • Bob

    While I agree nearly 100% with the views and arguments
    of Renier and applaud him his intellectual honesty – I also
    want to add to the comments made by starcrashx regarding
    Aaron’s somewhat humanist approach to this blog. Thank you.

  • davethehappysinger

    What kind of God would he be if we were able to say just the right words or preform just the right action that would somehow get God’s attention and thus getting a desired result?

    The kind of God who would allow Mark 11:24 past his editors?

  • Paul

    @ davethehappysinger

    Good find. It looks like that passage negates Aaron’s entire argument about prayer not being intended to alter God’s will/actions.

    P.S. I find that entire passage rather comical. Jesus is hungry, so he goes up to the fig tree, and when he finds no fruit on the tree, he curses it and it dies. There was no fruit on the tree because it wasn’t fig season… How Jesus would not have known this prior to walking up to the fig tree is rather puzzling. Also, it seems a little immature to kill a tree because it didn’t have any fruit for you to eat at the moment.

  • Aaron Gardner

    Paul, I didn’t reply to Dave’s comment simply because I have tired of hearing that argument. It is as if we Christians blindly believe to the extent that we simply skip over those verses, if only when we are attempting to make an argument for our faith. On the contrary, the verse does not even underscore what I have said in my post. I argue that the Templeton study is flawed at its inception because it assumes that God is some inert force that must comply when certain circumstances present themselves. The fact that prayer often has the goal of changing God’s mind does not mean that God must change his mind. There are just as many arguments from Scripture that suggest that prayer does not change God as it is meant to change us.

    But thanks for the prompt to demonstrate that I once again need to burn that straw man to make room for the truth.

  • Dave The Happy Singer

    In other words, sometimes prayer works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And hey, if it seems that prayer works no better nor worse than chance, well hey! That’s just God’s will!

    Right?

  • Aaron Gardner

    I suppose if you think that a child asking a parent for something relies on simple chance. I think you miss my point about God being a volitional being. I suppose if George decides which team gets the kick when he gets tossed in the air, but I can’t prove that one either ;-)

  • Dave The Happy Singer

    You’re asserting that prayer is akin to a child asking a parent for something.

    If that were true, we might imagine the child and parent would engage in some actual, detectable interaction. We might expect the child to be able to reliably identify for the rest of us exactly what her parent has done. Only a Christian could find it flippant to suggest that a child might typically be expected to see or hear her parent. Most importantly, we might expect the parent to be at least consistently better than chance in some cases.

    My simpler claim is that prayer is no more effective than mumbling to oneself. If my claim is true, we should expect the results of prayer and the results of mumbling to be roughly similar. And, of course, that is exactly what we do observe.

  • Aaron Gardner

    So we find ourselves at opposite edges overlooking the same chasm. Any evidence I could offer you would discredit or simply judge as invalid. Thanks for playing.

  • Dave The Happy Singer

    Either there is actual evidence that reliably distinguishes the ‘power of prayer’ from chance, or there is the chasm. We do indeed both appreciate the utter lack of evidence. I shrug. You make stuff up to explain it.

    I don’t think it’s me who’s playing.

  • Aaron Gardner

    Not lack of evidence, but a lack of evidence that meets your standards. “Power of prayer” is an unfortunate phrase; the power is God’s, not the prayer’s… Did you read my post? Once again, if we are debating about a volitional being we cannot expect a infinitely consistent response in terms of prayers answered to detailed specifications. God would answer as he sees fit.

    The chasm I referred to is the chasm of belief/unbelief that is between us. You have not demonstrated a willingness to even follow my line of argument because you cannot attend a notion of belief. This kind of debate requires that both parties at least consider the potential validity of the other position. You obviously refuse to do so as evidenced by your recurring arguments and general disregard for mine.

    I gave you a reasonable distinction between chance and the will of God. If you don’t accept that, fine. I don’t know what more we have to say on this topic.

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