Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Alternative Medicine

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

Winston Wu's website

So far, we have seen how paranormalist Winston Wu misunderstands core skeptic principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, parsimony, burden of evidence, the perils and pitfalls of anecdotal evidence, and the fallibility of human memory. We have also investigated the difference between the unexplained and the unexplainable, the nature of beliefs, the methods of scientific skepticism, irrationality and the scope and influence of pseudoscience.

In this fourth installment of this articles series, we move onto examining specific paranormalist claims, such as psychics that claim to be able to talk to the dead, the value of controls and replication in psi research, the nature of the placebo effect and the alleged existence of miracles.

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

Alleged psychics use a wide range of psychological techniques (reviewed here) to persuade people that they have supernatural powers that allows them to supposedly communicate with the dead or gain important insights about the past: cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, time-shifting, inflating probabilistic resources, shotgunning, covering all bases, vanishing negative, escape hatch, changing the subject, spreading the net wider, retrofitting, post hoc rationalizations and so on.

Wu apparently do not recognize the breadth of psychological techniques because he only brings up cold and hot reading:

The problem with the cold reading/hot reading explanation is that for many accounts of psychic readings (including some of my own) the techniques do not account for the specific information attained. For example, some psychic can tell you very specific things about you without asking you any questions, which rules out the “fishing for clues” technique. If neither they nor any of their accomplices talked to you beforehand, then that would also rule out the same technique. […[ Unfortunately for skeptics, there are many cases of psychic readings where all of the above were ruled out. Therefore, cold/hot reading cannot account for every case. In such cases, the skeptic is left without explanations, but often continue to insist that the client must have given away some kind of clue, and demand that this be disproved first before imposing any claim of genuine psychic ability at work.

Because there are dozens and dozens of other techniques besides cold and hot reading, this is a very weak argument for the existence of psychic powers. Although Wu does acknowledge that there are many frauds out there, Wu has denied himself the opportunity to fully investigate alternatives to his hypothesis that alleged psychics have genuine supernatural powers.

The next part of the section contains anecdotes about visits to psychics that he and various people have done. However, as was explored in a previous installment, the plural of anecdote is not data. Also, many of them are second or third-hand accounts, taken from email list discussions or an anonymous story about remembering playing with an Ouija board at age 11. Thus, they contain information that can be considerably different from the actual events and Wu even acknowledge that at least some of the alleged examples are examples of cold reading. Because of that, this installment focus on examining Wu’s own experience.

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Jenny Splitter and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Splitter and NCGS

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system reacts against a modified version of a gluten protein that results in a cross-reaction with the small intestine because of similarities in protein sequence. Individuals with this condition can get chronic inflammation, cancer and malabsorption of important nutrients if they do not eliminate gluten from their diet, so this is a very real condition. However, it has spawned a dietary fad and many people who do not have celiac disease have self-diagnosed themselves with “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) and avoid gluten like the plague in a misguided quest for healthy eating. There is no scientific evidence that NCGS exists, but that has not put a dent in the popularity of gluten-free products.

Grounded Parents is a blog about parenting written by parents who are secular skeptics and it is part of the Skepchick Network. Recently, they published a post written by Jenny Splitter defending decisions to eliminate gluten for those who claim to have NCGS. Now, Splitter did not argue that there is scientific evidence for this condition. Instead, she appealed to placebo medicine, ignored the negative consequences of overfitting noise, deployed a classic anti-skeptical trope based on the perfect solution fallacy and even rationalized negative evidence.

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Swedish Public Radio Promotes Pseudoscientific “Detox” Regimes

Detox on Swedish Public Radio

Pseudoscientific “detox” regimes are based on the flawed idea that unspecified “toxins” accumulate in the body and by consuming nothing but fruit juices, fasting, taking part in dangerous colon cleansing or using fake foot baths will rid the body of these alleged “toxins”. In reality, the liver and kidneys are very efficient at eliminating real toxins and other waste products from the body. If the body accumulates actual toxins at harmful levels, that means that the liver and kidneys are malfunctioning or shutting down. This would be lethal, and not just generate diffuse symptoms such as tiredness. Drinking nothing but juices or fasting will not help deadly poisoning. So in essence, “detox” products are useless.

Recently, the Swedish Public Radio (“Sveriges Radio”) broadcasted an episode of P4 Extra with guest host Mina Benaissa (2015-01-01, 13:00 local time). Around 41:21 into the show, we are treated to the following exchange about pseudoscientific detox treatments between the host and alleged “detox expert” Erica Palmcrantz Aziz Read more of this post

Homeopathy for Ebola: The Quackery That Knows No Limits

Ebola virus

Ebola is a virus that causes a dangerous hemorrhagic fever disease with a high mortality rate. Right now, there have been at least 9000 cases of Ebola viral disease and ~4500 documented deaths. It has spread to seven different countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain and the United States, although according to the October 17th update from the World Health Organization (WHO) the outbreak seems to have ended in Senegal.

In the wake of this human tragedy, pseudoscientific “treatments” against Ebola have cropped up like weeds around the Internet. Various websites suggest antioxidants, selenium, vitamin C, Vitamin D, iodine, magnesium, estradiol, infrared radiation, sodium bicarbonate, cannabis, coffee, fermented soy, silver and salty drinking water. Natural News, the largest website promoting quack treatments in the world, even posted an article recommending homeopathy and describing how to prepare remedies. However, this was pulled after a couple of days as apparently homeopathy for Ebola was a too deranged idea even for Natural News.

Recently, Fran Sheffield (the director of Homeopathy Plus Australia) put up a petition (webcite) at Change.org urging the WHO to “test and distribute homeopathy as quickly as possible” to contain outbreaks of Ebola. This petition, together with 2000 signatures, were sent to Director General Dr Margaret Chan at the WHO in early October. Unfortunately, it contains numerous scientific, medical and logical errors that will be discussed in this article. The irrational peculiarities of the messages left from supporters of homeopathy for Ebola will also be explored.

Homeopathy is not effective for any medical condition

Homeopathy has a proven track record of treating and preventing serious epidemic diseases.

High-quality scientific studies show that homeopathy does not work for any particular medical condition. This position is even held by the National Center of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organization that has been given substantial criticism for being too friendly to quack treatments. Not only that, homeopathy is incompatible with core principles of chemistry and biology: the preparations are diluted to such a degree that there are, statistically speaking, no active molecule of the diluted substance whatsoever. In other words, treating Ebola virus disease with homeopathy is equivalent to treating it with water or sugar pills.

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Ebola Denialism: Conspiracy Theories, Quackery and Terrorism

Ebola denialism

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic disease with a high mortality rate. The natural reservoir for the virus appears to be fruit bats and it spreads via human-to-human transmission by body fluids, but it is not airborne. According to the recent information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total number of suspected and confirmed cases is almost 3100 and it has spread to four countries in West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It did not take long for conspiracy theories, quackery and even terrorism to spread in the wake of this Ebola epidemic. People have accused the government of inventing the epidemic, claimed that Ebola does not even exists, armed terrorists have attacked Ebola clinics and “freed” patients and popular American quack websites have promoted homeopathy for Ebola.

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Schizophrenia is not Demonic Possession

Demons?

The Journal of Religion and Health is an allegedly peer-reviewed journal that claims to “explores the most contemporary modes of religious and spiritual thought with particular emphasis on their relevance to current medical and psychological research.” In addition to clinical and statistical papers, they also make room for papers that are “impressionistic” or “anecdotal”. With an impact factor of around 0.8, it barely gets more citations than the average crank journal.

A recent paper published in this publication cements this views. Without any scientific evidence whatsoever, Irmak (2014) makes the assertion that hallucinations associated to schizophrenia are really the result of demonic agency. Demons, according to Irmak, creates real sensory images which the individual misinterprets as an hallucinations. This paper is so blatantly absurd and anti-scientific that it is hard to take seriously. Does this person really believe the stuff he is writing? Why did the journal publish such an obvious piece of nonsense? How on earth did it get past peer-review? There are many questions that demand answers. This post will go through the claims in the paper and then discuss the responsibility of editors and publishing companies.

Characteristics of alleged “demons”

After an introductory section on schizophrenia, Irmak suggests that demonic causation is one way to approach the etiology of hallucinations:

We thought that many so-called hallucinations in schizophrenia are really illusions related to a real environmental stimulus. Illusions are transformations of perceptions, with a mixing of the reproduced perceptions of the subject’s fantasy with the real perceptions. One approach to this hallucination problem is to consider the possibility of a demonic world.

“We thought”? Really? The idea of demonic possession as an explanation for hallucinations in schizophrenia is taken out of thin air. No argument, no evidence and no justification. Instead, Irmak treats us to a folkloric description of demons. They are “intelligent and unseen creatures that occupy a parallel world to that of mankind”. Parallel world? What exactly does he mean by “parallel world”? We get no explanation. Demons apparently have a considerably longer lifespan than ordinary humans. They can fly, make themselves invisible and “take over” people. Neither evidence nor explanation for how this is done is provided. Read more of this post

Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine crankery at Metro Calgary

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

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Spell Casting Does Not Cure HIV

wtf

I almost never bother to interact with spammers on this blog. Their verbal torrents of incoherent blathering about Michael Kors shoes, Xanax or Viagra are promptly destroyed after being sucked into nothingness by the click of a button. However, some spammers post stuff that are so mind-numbingly stupid that I see it as a civil service to refute it. These spam comments are typically very generic and can be found all over the Internet, especially on blogs or websites that do not use an efficient spam filter. Someone who finds themselves being drawn into this nonsense will hopefully perform a Google search and reach this post.

Spellcasting does not cure HIV

Let us go over this message, point-by-point./p>

“I am here to testify on how […]”

This is perhaps the most obvious sign of an ideologue whose main goal is to spread his nonsense, rather than inform or discuss. Although typically a feature of religious evangelism, it frequently occurs when listening to ingrained proponents of pseudoscience.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part I: Bayesian Self-Defense

Winston Wu's website

Proponents of paranormal claims often feel threatened by scientific skepticism. This is because core skeptical principles erode their scientific pretensions. Instead of trying to back up their original paranormal claims with real scientific evidence, they attempt to deflect by attacking these skeptical principles. Most of the time, they make a hatchet job arguing against principles they misunderstood to begin with. This is because skeptical principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor and burden of evidence can be formally stated and defended using basic Bayesian probability theory.

One such individual is Winston Wu, who has compiled a list of thirty sections attempting to defend paranormal claims and attack scientific skepticism. Wu attempts to offer a series of refutations to what he sees as thirty core scientific skeptical positions. Half of them deal with overarching objections to paranormal assertions and discuss topics such as burden of evidence, extraordinary claims, Occam’s Razor and anecdotal evidence. The other half concern specific paranormal beliefs such as psychics, miracles, alternative medicine, answered prayer, precognitive dreams, consciousness, UFOs and creationism.

In this first installment, we take a closer look at confidence in relation to the strength of evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor, burden of evidence and anecdotes.

Misunderstood principle #1: Confidence should be proportional to evidence

The first argument that Wu objects to is the notion that “it is irrational to believe anything that hasn’t been proven”. This, however, is a straw man. The correct version promoted by serious scientific skeptics is that the confidence in a proposition about the world around us should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. In other words, the confidence in the atomic theory of matter or the existence of the sun should be high because the evidence is so overwhelming. In contrast, we should have very low confidence in propositions for which the evidence is rare, non-existence or directly contradicting it.

This principle can be formulated using Bayesian statistics. The posteriori probability of a hypothesis given evidence, P(H|E), is proportional to the probability of evidence given the hypothesis P(E|H):

P(H|E) = \frac{P(H)P(E|H)}{P(E)}

The higher P(E|H), the higher P(H|E) becomes (assuming that P(E) is constant). Although the formal description of the principle, it is straight-forward: the more evidence for a claim, the stronger confidence is justified in that claim. The less evidence, the less confidence is justified.

Wu goes to great lengths to misunderstanding this simple principle.

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Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

ResearchBlogging.org

Medical conspiracy theories

An interesting study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Oliver and Wood (2014). They report the results of a YouGov survey that looked at the acceptance of medical conspiracy theories in the United States and what, if any, effect the belief in medical conspiracy theories had on health-related behavior, such as taking herbal supplements, getting a flu shot and preference for organic foods. The results were chilling as almost half of the U. S. population believed in at least one medical conspiracy. Those who held three or more were less likely to go to the doctor or dentist and fewer got vaccinated against seasonal influenza. They were also more likely to take herbal supplements.

The selection of medical conspiracy theories

Oliver and Wood selected six different medical conspiracy theories to include in their research. Although the researchers did not justify their selection, it seems representative and wide as it spanned from FDA and alternative medicine to discredited beliefs about the origin of HIV Read more of this post

Sweden Gets a Homeopathic ER

Homeopathic ER

Millions of people have seen the “That Mitchell and Webb Look” video where comedians enact the absurdities of what it would be like at a homeopathic ER. A man with suspected internal injuries is rolled into accidents and emergency department and given extremely diluted substance. However, did you know that Sweden got its first homeopathic ER just a couple of months ago?

It is part of the Salve Health Center situated at the Maria Square in central Stockholm and it opened its doors in early January of this year. Behind the initiative stands three women: Carita Bramstedt, Päivi Barsk and Viveca Wilhelmsson. All of them either run their own homeopathic practices or “education” programs in homeopathy. In this post, we will look at who these people are and their goals, science-based objections to both their individuals claims and the homeopathic ER, their responses to criticisms and recent events.

Who are the people behind the homeopathic ER?

According to her website, Bramstedt considers herself a “classical homeopath” and is the chairperson of the Swedish Academy for Classical Homeopathy (SAKH). She has a three-year degree in civil economics from The Stockholm School of Economics, but became a homeopath after taking a three-year program in classical homeopathy. She has also attended various seminars on homeopathy throughout the years. Beyond that, she has no medical degree or formal training in medicine.

Things looks slightly better for Barsk. She claims to have worked “a couple of years” in the health care system in the 1980s and taken 65 points (65 weeks in the old Swedish system) in basic medicine from Umeå in the late 1990s. Barsk is a classical homeopath and has taken a four-year program. In addition, she has taken courses in various other quack treatments such as Reiki, supplements and reflexology. Like Bramstedt, Barks has no medical degree and no formal training beyond the couple of years she worked in the health care system (presumably as a care assistant?) and ~1.5 years of introductory medicine.

Wilhelmsson has a degree in psychology from the 1970s, yet no medical degree or formal training in medicine either. Looking at her background page, she has spent at least 11 years taking courses and programs in various complementary and alternative practices, including homeopathy. Like Bramstedt, Wilhelmsson can be found higher up in the homeopathic food chain as she is the person behind the program in classical homeopathy at the International Academy.

What do they believe?

Browsing through their various websites sends chills down the spine. These people really do subscribe to ignorant beliefs and they expose sick patients to worthless treatments. They do not have any credible science to back it up. Instead, they used a variety of historical revisions and after-the-fact rationalizations. Here are a couple of the most stunning examples. Read more of this post

Twitter Arguments Round-Up

Twitter profile

Over the last few days, I have been arguing a lot of Twitter with different people and organizations. I bickered with the Mayo Clinic on alternative medicine and the prospect of funding based on biological plausibility. They did not seem to get it and claimed that we needed to sift through quack treatments because some of it was good (they neglected to mention which one they thought were effective and provided no evidence). I scoffed at Nature News and Comments because they, yet again, decided to promote the “climate-change-has-taken-a-hiatus-for-the-past-16-years” myth. They responded by denying it, and ironically, asking me if I read the post. Finally, I also tried to discuss reasons for why women drop out of science with a number of people, but one of them called me a racist troll and a misogynist despite the fact that I am a virulent anti-racist (I am regularly called “anti-white” by racists) and have exposed MRA nonsense on a number of times on this blog.

I am becoming more and more convinced that it is not possible to have a coherent and meaningful conversation on Twitter. At any rate, let’s go over each discussion in detail, because they do demonstrate important things about science organizations, science journalism and people who try to argue on Twitter.

The Mayo Clinic: quack treatments and biological plausibility

This exchange started with the twitter account of The Mayo Clinic inviting people on twitter to give them questions about so-called alternative and complementary medicine on their show Mayo Clinic Radio:

Mayo  Clinic Radio advert tweet

I came up with a question I wanted them to respond to. It was about redirecting research money to treatments that have a chance of working instead of wasting it on alternative medicine:

My first response

Now, I doubt that the Twitter account is handled by an actual scientists. Rather, I suspect it is some PR or social media personnel. So we cannot extrapolate their ignorance and unscientific approaches to the Mayo Clinic as an organization. However, here is what the twitter account replied with:

Mayo Clinic responds

There are some good? We need to sift? What alternative medicine qualifies as “good”? Is Mayo Clinic pulling the pharmacognosy gambit? Here is my response:

My response to Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic twitter account did not continue to exchange. I was disappointed that the Mayo Clinic twitter account claimed that there exists alternative medicine treatments that were good without providing any example of evidence. I am disappointed that they probably used the pharmacognosy gambit. I am disappointed that they did not seem to grasp the issue of biological plausibility as it pertains to research funding. Read more of this post

Anti-Vaccine Misinformation about the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine

Related: Mike Adams and The Deadly Doctor Gambit, Mainstream Climate Science Defeats Global Crank Mike Adams.

Natural News spreads misinformation about seasonal influenza vaccine

Natural News is perhaps the largest website devoted to the promotion of quack treatments for almost any medical condition and anti-scientific falsehoods. They spread a massive amount of misinformation on a wide range of topics such as climate change, genetically modified foods, water fluoridation, vaccines and advocate conspiracy theories about contrails, aspartame, antidepressants and even about the 2012 Aurora shooting. Its founder, Mike Adams, have been discussed on this website before when he attempted to dismiss the harmful consequences of global warming by parroting the same tired old denialist falsehoods about the fertilization effect and coral bleaching. He also attempts to argue that doctors are more dangerous than guns (a pseudoscientific argument called the deadly doctor gambit), apparently without taking into account the enormous benefit that modern medicine brings.

Recently, the Natural News website published a post written by Ethan A. Hoff that is spreading pseudoscientific misinformation about the seasonal influenza vaccine. He falsely claim that the efficacy of the inactivated seasonal influenza vaccine is just 1.5%, when in reality, it is close to 60%. He denies that over 200 000 people become hospitalized from influenza-related complications and blames that on the vaccine instead. He also fearmongers about the side-effects when they are most often fairy mild. Finally, there is no consistent evidence that vitamin D, garlic or any of the other “natural health” products that Hoff promotes can prevent influenza infection. Read more of this post

The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part X: Measles

Note: This is the tenth and final installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will slash through her false claims about the MMR vaccine and measles. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

Bliss on measles

We have now reached the final part in this series on the pseudoscientific nonsense promoted by model and freelance writer Stasia Bliss (who calls herself a “master alchemist” and “a High Priestess of Qi Vesta”). In previous installments, several of her claims have been refuted, such as her claim that individuals with cystic fibrosis caused their own disease by eating acidic food and thinking negative thoughts, that colon cleansing and hydrochloric acid supplements are effective against HIV/AIDS, that staring into the sun for long periods of time allows for astral projection and unaided human flight, that DNA has twelve strands, that a vital life force exists, that eating genetically modified foods makes you less humans, that dark matter does not exist, her promotion of quantum woo and her belief in human shape-shifting and death as the result of a psychological conditioning.

In this tenth and final part, the claims made by Bliss with regards to measles and the MMR vaccine will be critically examined. Despite her beliefs, measles is a dangerous disease and not a “natural cleansing” or “adventure” and the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Her misguided reliance on the National Vaccine Information Center (a pseudoscientific anti-vaccine organization) and VAERS dumpster-diving will be exposed. Contrary to Bliss, the Vaccine Court provides individuals who have experienced genuine adverse events from vaccines with compensations in a way that is easy, cheap and fast for those individuals. Like many other anti-vaccine activists, Bliss has difficulty grasping the concept of herd immunity. Her promotion of quack treatments (that lack evidence of efficacy) is based on a misunderstanding of physiology and evolution. She even goes so far as to claim that childhood diseases are a result of too much “toxins” from modern life (thereby embracing germ theory denialism), apparently not understanding that measles existed many hundreds of years before present and the fact that the body has robust systems for elimination actual toxins from the body. Read more of this post

The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part IX: Ageing and Death

Note: This is the ninth and penultimate installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will examine the flawed statements Bliss makes about ageing and death. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

Bliss on ageing and death

As we move closer to the final installment in this series, the list of scientifically flawed assertions made by Stasia Bliss is getting longer and longer. She thinks that individuals with cystic fibrosis have themselves to blame because of acidic diet and negative thinking. She promotes colon cleansing and hydrochloric acid supplements against HIV/AIDS. She believes that staring into the sun for an extended period of time gives you the power of astral projection and unaided human flight. She asserts that human DNA has twelve strands and accepts the existence of a vital life force. She also misunderstands a number of other scientific topics, such as genetically modified foods, stating that eating GM foods makes you less human. Her notions that dark matter is a figment of our minds and her promotion of quantum woo are equally flawed.

In her post about ageing and death, Bliss claims that death is just a flawed belief resulting from psychological conditioning (despite the fact that organisms without a brain also die), misunderstands the nature and history of science, misconstrues epigenetics by claiming that ageing is the result of cells inheriting “flawed beliefs and feelings”, dismissing criticism by claiming to just ask questions, misunderstand the cognitive principle, quantum mechanics and the placebo effect. She appeals to religious and mysterian traditions as if they were valid and assert that death is an illusion because of “silent giggles” from people who have passed away and now exist in “hidden places” (in reality, post-bereavement hallucinations are very common and normal). She portrays the discovery that neutrinos can change flavor as if this meant that humans could shape-shift and thereby avoid death. Finally, she promotes the notion of human immortality although cautiously adds that it may be “woo-woo talk to some of you”. Indeed, complete woo-woo talk. Read more of this post

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