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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Sun & climate: moving in opposite directions

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate Advanced

The sun's energy has decreased since the 1980s but the Earth keeps warming faster than before.

Climate Myth...

It's the sun

"Over the past few hundred years, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of sunspots, at the time when the Earth has been getting warmer. The data suggests solar activity is influencing the global climate causing the world to get warmer." (BBC)

At a glance

Thankfully for us, our Sun is a very average kind of star. That means it behaves stably over billions of years, steadily consuming its hydrogen fuel in the nuclear reaction that produces sunshine.

Solar stability, along with the Greenhouse Effect, combine to give our planet a habitable range of surface temperatures. In contrast, less stable stars can vary a lot in their radiation output. That lack of stability can prevent life, as we know it, from evolving on any planets that might orbit such stars.

That the Sun is a stable type of star is clearly demonstrated by the amount of Solar energy reaching Earth's average orbital position: it varies very little at all. This quantity, called the Total Solar Irradiance, has been measured for around forty years with high accuracy by sensitive instruments aboard satellites. Its average value is 1,362 watts per square metre. Irradiance fluctuates by about a watt either way, depending on where we are within the 11-year long sunspot cycle. That's a variation of no more than 0.15%.

From the early 1970s until today, the Solar radiation reaching the top of Earth's atmosphere has in fact shown a very slight decline. Through that same period, global temperatures have continued to increase. The two data records, incoming Solar energy and global temperature, have diverged. That means they have gone in opposite directions. If incoming Solar energy has decreased while the Earth continues to warm up, the Sun cannot be the control-knob of that warming.

Attempts to blame the sun for the rise in global temperatures have had to involve taking the data but selecting only the time periods that support such an argument. The remaining parts of the information - showing that divergence - have had to be ditched. Proper science study requires that all the available data be considered, not just a part of it. This particular sin is known as “cherry-picking”.

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section, which was updated on May 27, 2023 to improve its readability. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!


Further details

Our Sun is an average-sized main sequence star that is steadily using its hydrogen fuel, situated some 150 million kilometres away from Earth. That distance was first determined (with a small error) by a time consuming and complex set of measurements in the late 1700s. It led to the first systemic considerations of Earth's climate by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s. Fourier's number-crunching led him to realise a planet of Earth's size situated that far from the Sun ought to be significantly colder than it was. He was thereby laying the foundation stone for the line of enquiry that led after a few decades to the discovery of what we now call the Greenhouse Effect – and the way that effect changes in intensity as a response to rising or falling levels of the various greenhouse gases.

TSI Solar cycles

Figure 1: Plot of the observational record (1979-2022) on the scale of the TSIS-1 instrument currently flying on the space station. In this plot, the different records are all cross calibrated to the TSIS-1 absolute scale (e.g., the TSIS1-absolute scale is 0.858 W/m^2 higher than the SORCE absolute scale) so the variability of TSI in this plot is considered to be its “true variability” (within cross calibration uncertainties). Image: Judith Lean.

The Sun has a strong magnetic field, but one that is constantly on the move, to the extent that around every 11 years or so, Solar polarity flips: north becomes south, until another 11 years has passed when it flips back again. These Solar Cycles affect what happens at the surface of the Sun, such as the sunspots caused by those magnetic fields. Each cycle starts at Solar Minimum with very few or no sunspots, then rises mid-cycle towards Solar Maximum, where sunspots are numerous, before falling back towards the end. The total radiation emitted by the Sun – total solar irradiance (TSI) is the technical term – essentially defined as the solar flux at the Earth's orbital radius, fluctuates through this 11-year cycle by up to 0.15% between maximum and minimum.

Such short term and small fluctuations in TSI do not have a strong long term influence on Earth's climate: they are not large enough and as it's a cycle, they essentially cancel one another out. Over the longer term, more sustained changes in TSI over centuries are more important. This is why such information is included, along with other natural and human-driven influences, when running climate models, to ask them, “what if?"

An examination of the past 1150 years found temperatures to have closely matched solar activity for much of that time (Usoskin et al. 2005). But also for much of that time, greenhouse gas concentrations hardly varied at all. This led the study to conclude, "...so that at least this most recent warming episode must have another source."

TSI vs. T
Figure 2: Annual global temperature change (thin light red) with 11 year moving average of temperature (thick dark red). Temperature from NASA GISS. Annual Total Solar Irradiance (thin light blue) with 11 year moving average of TSI (thick dark blue). TSI from 1880 to 1978 from Krivova et al. 2007. TSI from 1979 to 2015 from the World Radiation Center (see their PMOD index page for data updates). Plots of the most recent solar irradiance can be found at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics LISIRD site.

The slight decline in Solar activity after 1975 was picked up through a number of independent measurements, so is definitely real. Over the last 45 years of global warming, Solar activity and global temperature have therefore been steadily diverging. In fact, an analysis of solar trends concluded that the sun has actually contributed a slight cooling influence into the mix that has driven global temperature through recent decades (Lockwood, 2008), but the massive increase in carbon-based greenhouse gases is the main forcing agent at present.

Other studies tend to agree. Foster & Rahmstorf (2011) used multiple linear regression to quantify and remove the effects of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and solar and volcanic activity from the surface and lower troposphere temperature data.  They found that from 1979 to 2010, solar activity had a very slight cooling effect of between -0.014 and -0.023°C per decade, depending on the data set. A more recent graphic, from the IPCC AR6, shows these trends to have continued.

AR6 WGI SPM Figure 1 Panel p

Figure 3: Figure SPM.1 (IPCC AR6 WGI SPM) - History of global temperature change and causes of recent warming panel (b). Changes in global surface temperature over the past 170 years (black line) relative to 1850–1900 and annually averaged, compared to Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) climate model simulations (see Box SPM.1) of the temperature response to both human and natural drivers (brown) and to only natural drivers (solar and volcanic activity, green). For the full image and caption please click here or on the image.

Like Foster & Rahmstorf, Lean & Rind (2008) performed a multiple linear regression on the temperature data, and found that while solar activity can account for about 11% of the global warming from 1889 to 2006, it can only account for 1.6% of the warming from 1955 to 2005, and had a slight cooling effect (-0.004°C per decade) from 1979 to 2005.

Finally, physics does not support the claim that changes in TSI drive current climate change. If that claim had any credence, we would not expect to see the current situation, in which Earth's lower atmosphere is warming strongly whereas the upper atmosphere is cooling. That is exactly the pattern predicted by physics, in our situation where we have overloaded Earth's atmosphere with greenhouse gases. If warming was solely down to the Sun, we would expect the opposite pattern. In fact, the only way to propagate this myth nowadays involves cherry-picking everything prior to 1975 and completely disregarding all the more recent data. That's simply not science.

Longer-term variations in TSI received by Earth

It's also important to mention variations in TSI driven not by Solar energy output but by variations in Earth's orbit, that are of course independent of Solar activity. Such variations, however, take place over very long periods, described by the Milankovitch orbital cycles operating over tens of thousands of years. Those cycles determine the distance between Earth and the Sun at perihelion and aphelion and in addition the tilt the planet's axis of rotation: both affect how much heat-radiation the planet receives at the top of its atmosphere through time. But such fluctuations are nothing like the rapid changes we see in the weather, such as the difference between a sunny day and a cloudy one. The long time-factor ensures that.

Another even more obscure approach used to claim, "it's the sun" was (and probably still is in some quarters) to talk about, "indirect effects". To wit, when studies can't find a sufficiently large direct effect, bring even lesser factors to the fore, such as cosmic rays. Fail.

In conclusion, the recent, post 1975 steep rise in global temperatures are not reflected in TSI changes that have in fact exerted a slight cooling influence. Milankovitch cycles that operate over vastly bigger time-scales simply don't work quickly enough to change climate drastically over a few decades. Instead, the enormous rise in greenhouse gas concentrations over the same period is the primary forcing-agent. The physics predicted what is now being observed.

Last updated on 27 May 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Further viewing

Related video from Peter Sinclair's "Climate Denial Crock of the Week" series:

Further viewing

This video created by Andy Redwood in May 2020 is an interesting and creative interpretation of this rebuttal:

Myth Deconstruction

Related resource: Myth Deconstruction as animated GIF

MD Sun

Please check the related blog post for background information about this graphics resource.

Denial101x videos

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Additional video from the MOOC

Expert interview with Mike Lockwood

Comments

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Comments 1001 to 1025 out of 1295:

  1. Can you argue simply that if the temperature increase since 1980 were due to increased solar radiation reaching earth then the temperature of the stratosphere would not have been decreasing during that time frame? But the temperature of the stratosphere has been decreasing which shows increased absorption of outgoing IR?
  2. Is the following simple argument valid against increased solar flux causing the temperature increases since 1980? (This argument may be elsewhere here, but I have not seen it.) 1. If it were only increased solar flux causing the temperature increase, then the stratospheric temperature deviation would not show stratospheric cooling since 1980. 2. But systematic stratospheric cooling has occurred since 1980. Therefore the temperaature increase at the earth's surface must be due to decreased IR power radiated into the atmosphere.
  3. curiousd - A more simple argument against increased solar flux is that solar flux has decreased since 1980, as seen here, going in the opposite direction from the temperature trend. But yes, stratospheric cooling is one of the fingerprints of GHG warming - less energy going from the troposphere to the stratosphere due to GHG entrapment, while higher concentrations of GHG's in the stratosphere cause some radiative cooling to space. There are complications in terms of stratospheric water vapor trends, but that's the basic mechanism.
  4. I have a question for the Atmospheric Scientists. Geophycisists and astrophycists both say the current climate models do not take into account significant natural sources of heating in the atmosphere and oceans. The astrophysicists point to increased solar energy from the sun, which contributes to heating of the atmosphere. The geophysicists point to heating of the oceans from volcanic activity. Between them the astronomy and geology community can point to natural sources of energy input to the climate system that account for around 0.4 deg F in the past century. This is over half of the observed change. Just what level of energy input is required to be considered significant? (-Snip-) (-Snip-) (-Snip-) (-Snip-)
    Response: [DB] Multiple sections restating earlier comments without relevance on this thread snipped. Please see the comment Tom Curtis linked to below to pursue this further, if you wish. It is only on-topic there.
  5. smoidel @1004, I recently adressed your misinformation about Kilauea's heat output in detail here. I now see that instead of responding, or attempting to show where I was wrong, you have simply restated your same argument in a slightly different form on a another blog post where readers would not be aware that you had been previously, comprehensively rebutted. So comprehensively, in fact, that you were not able to muster a word in your defense. That sort of behaviour is called "trolling", and is not acceptable on this forum. If you think your argument has any merit, defend it where you first raised it, and where it was on topic. As to the small section of your post that is on topic, contrary to your assertions, climate models included the forcing due to changing energy emission from the Sun TSI. Asserting falsehoods (that they do not include it) in no way helps your case. More importantly, TSI has been declining since 1980, and hence cannot be the cause of the sharp rise in global temperatures since about 1975.
  6. For some years now at this topic I still see the same argument stated as refutation of the claim that the sun might play a significant role. Now, I have serious problems accepting the argument. I will try to explain with a simple experiment. I take an electric stove and a pot of water and thermometers to measure the temperature of the heating plate and the water. Now I place the pot of water on the heating plate and turn the stove to full power. Measurements show the temperature at the heating plate rising fast and water temperature rising slowly. After 5 minutes I turn the stove down to half power and in response I can measure the temperature of the heating plate first stalling and the dropping significantly. But the temperature of the water keeps rising and even more rising faster. If I follow the argument given here then the rising water temperature in my experiment can not be explained by the fact that the thermal energy transmitted from the heating plate, though dropping, still exceeds the capacity of the pot with water of emitting energy. Somehow I have severe doubts about that.
  7. h-j-m. You're appealing to what is often colloquially referred to as the thermal flywheel effect. However, with a little cerebral activity you should be able to grasp why the sort of disparity between solar output and climatic response is not as temporally shifted as you seem to think. There are several quite separate avenues that demonstrate this but sticking with just one for now, you might like to think what happens to the two hemispheres of the planet in its annual orbit around the sun. Is that sufficient nudging?
  8. Bernard J. @1007, I believe h-j-m is actually suggesting that the Outgoing Lonwwave Radiation (OLR) was much less than the incoming shortwave radiation from the Sun (TSI) circa 1950 such that a small reduction in TSI still leaves TSI > OLR and the Earth with a lack of balance between incoming and outgoing energy that would warm the Earth. This notion is refuted by the very small changes in TSI over the course of the century which are insufficient to generate the large initial energy imbalance on which his implicit argument depends. Despite my disagreement on interpretation of his argument, I think he would still do well to examine the different warming rate between the two hemispheres.
  9. Sorry, but both of you seemed to miss the point of my remarks. I was not appealing at some thermal flywheel effect nor to the energy balance of earth. I was simply appealing to the logic of the argument heading this thread. What was the described experiment for? Just compare it with sun-earth interaction. There is an energy source constant or declining in energy intensity ( sun - heating plate) and an energy receiver ( earth - pot of water) constantly heating up. The difference is that in my experiment I can make sure to exclude any other possible influence. So that in the experiment I can be reasonably sure that the heating water has to be caused by the heating plate (energy source). Now simple applied logic demands that you need to allow for that as well if you talk about the sun and the earth. In short I doubt that logic of the given argument is sound.
  10. "So that in the experiment I can be reasonably sure that the heating water has to be caused by the heating plate (energy source). Now simple applied logic demands that you need to allow for that as well if you talk about the sun and the earth."
    What makes you think that this hasn't already been allowed for? Seriously? We see a decline in TSI. There exists an energy imbalance at the TOA, causing the system to warm. We know that the documented rise in CO2 is responsible for that TOA energy imbalance. The energy budget accounting for the various air/water/land components of the system closely sums to what we see at the TOA. Where's the problem?
  11. Isn't this stove/pot thing [WUWT] pure and debunked Spencerism [SkS]?
  12. I think h-j-m is saying that the argument that, 'the Sun has not caused the observed warming because solar energy has been decreasing' is contradicted by his example of the pot continuing to warm after the hot plate is turned down. The most immediate problem with that chain of logic is that it is only true if we didn't run the hot plate at full power long enough for the pot of water to pass the equilibrium temperature for half power... if we did then the pot does not continue warming when we turn the power down... it is already warmer than can be maintained by the new half power setting and thus would begin cooling. Applying that issue to changes in solar output and earth temperature equilibrium we have to consider what the temperature response time to changes in solar output is... and there is this thing called 'night' which I'm going to suggest makes a very strong case for the response time being pretty darn fast. Ergo, no... we aren't still experiencing residual warming from an increase in solar activity fifty years ago.
  13. h-j-m, Forgive my confusion, but what are the analogues for the stove, heating plate, pot and water in your analogy? If the stove is the sun, and the water is the atmosphere (or ocean + atmosphere, or earth climate in general), what the heck are the heating plate and the pot itself? What makes you think that somewhere in the system is this interval component or components that stores up solar energy in particular and then releases it more slowly? Your analogy makes no sense to me. [Mind you, the oceans themselves can take the role of the heating plate + pot, if the water in the pot is the atmosphere, and we are in fact seeing this. A lot of the energy is going into the oceans as the earth warms, so that warming of the atmosphere is not as apparent as one might expect. But the source of the warming is all of the components of the climate system -- sun, GHGs, aerosols, albedo -- not just the sun. So in that aspect, your analogy shows nothing with respect to the issue under discussion. And as Dan Bailey already pointed out, the oceans are continuing to warm as the output of the sun has decreased, so in that aspect your analogy again fails. Both the water and the heating plate continue to rise in temperature after the stove has been turned off. Don't you think that then implies that perhaps there's another, dangerous fire you should look for?]
  14. h-j-m @1009, the approximate increase in solar forcing, globally averaged and adjusted for albedo, from the minimum to maximum TSI on the chart above is 0.15 W/m^2. Assuming the central estimate of climate sensitivity of 3 degrees C per doubling of CO2,ie, per 3.7 W/m^2, that means we would expect a 0.12 degree C increase in temperature from that increased insolation. Therefore, quite clearly, and contrary to your analogy, the Earth's atmosphere has reached and exceeded the equilibrium change in temperature expected from the peak TSI and would be expected to decrease with decreasing TSI where it not for other factors. Indeed, even if the Sun where to remain constant at 1950 levels, or even continue increasing, there would be a substantial disequilibrium which would lead us to expect the Earth to be cooling. You claim to be able to make a significant point despite these facts because you are, you claim, making a purely formal point about the argument supposedly used in the basic rebutal (but not the intermediate or advanced rebutals) above. However the formal argument you claim to be disproving was not made above. What was claimed was that:
    "Over the last 30 years of global warming, the sun has shown a slight cooling trend. Sun and climate are going in opposite directions. This has led a number of scientists independently concluding that the sun cannot be the cause of recent global warming."
    (My emphasis) That claim is true. Further, as scientists they examined a range of evidence, one key fact of which is the oppositely trending series of TSI and temperature. The validity of those scientists reasoning cannot be assessed by simply ignoring all other empirical facts, including those additional facts presented above. Claiming a purely formal refutation of scientific reasoning while ignoring the great body of evidence presented is rather silly, IMO.
  15. How does the atmosphere generate electricity ?
  16. A Granger analysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granger_causality), an analysis method in economics, has been done on different climate predictors. Result starting from the 1960s, the solar radiation cannot be used as a primary predictor of global temperature: http://simpleclimate.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/sun-loses-grip-on-earths-temperature-changes/
  17. Sphaerica, contrary to what is implied in fig 1 above, warming from TSI should lag TSI. There's an overlooked post about that lag here The current downturn in solar activity started in the mid 2000's and I do not expect to see the full effect in GAT until the mid 2010's or later. The earlier TSI peaks 1950's and early 80's had a lagged effect on temperature. Essentially solar is automatically stored in the ocean unlike CO2-warmed air which may or may not be stored depending on circulation patterns that lead to air/ocean temperature contrasts, the most prominent being ENSO. We saw stronger warming in the 80's and 90's from the lagged solar warming added to the CO2 warming and weaker warming since then. In short, I don't think 0.2/decade is an underestimate at all and it will probably be lower in the next decade or two.
  18. Eric: I think here you are mixing up short-term and long-term responses. If there is a change in solar or IR radiation that causes an imbalance, there will be an immediate response, but it will take years to approach an equilibrium temperature. The atmosphere only takes a few months to reach equilibrium if left to is own. The heat capacity of oceans slows things down (decades for the mixed-layer depth, centuries for the deep ocean). Although the full effect takes a while, you should start to see some changes early on. To a first approximation (due to the relatively rapid response of the atmosphere) a bottom-driven solar heating at the surface won't be a lot different from a top-driven IR reduction - they both cause an imbalance, and the ocean and atmosphere both respond. I suggest reading Hansen et al (1981) "Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide" Science 213, p957. Figure 4 provides a useful diagram showing the short-term and long-term response to a (modeled) instantaneous doubling of CO2.
  19. Bob, my understanding is that the skin of the ocean is generally a bit cooler due to evaporation (depending on various factors like wind). The IR from increasing CO2 will only heat that cool layer and result in more evaporation and increased latent heat flux, all short term. In contrast solar radiation will penetrate deeper and have a longer term effect. Hansen's paper seems to assume a single mixed layer with no distinction between the two types of forcing.
  20. The skin of the ocean separates the ocean proper from the atmosphere, and has its own energy balance. It emits IR upward, receives IR from the atmosphere, receives solar from above (some of which penetrates deeper), reflects solar (some of which is scattered back upwards from deeper), loses energy to the atmosphere through evaporation (or gains it through condensation), as well as exchanging thermal energy with both the overlying atmosphere and the underlying ocean. All of these energy transfers are happening all the time, and the resulting ocean surface temperature will be the result of the particular balance at that time. Any increased downward IR will affect all fluxes, just as any change in solar will affect all fluxes. It's not an "either/or" situation. Energy is energy. You need to consider all the fluxes, all the time. You mislead yourself by only thinking in terms of a couple in isolation. The time scale of energy transfer from the water 10s of metres below the surface, to the surface, is likely measured in hours (or at most, days if conditions are calm and water is not mixing much). The figure in Hansen's paper that I referred to show how quickly the atmosphere reacts to the change in CO2 (thus primarily affecting IR-radiation), with the ocean temperatures and surface fluxes following over a much longer time scale. The difference in where IR is absorbed (at the ocean surface) vs. the penetration of solar radiation into the ocean becomes irrelevant over those time scales.
  21. Eric (skeptic) - the manner in which the oceans are heated by the increased Greenhouse Effect is little-known in the blogosphere. You seem to be repeating a common misconception. See this SkS post: How Increasing Carbon Dioxide Heats The Ocean. Greenhouse gases essentially trap more heat in the ocean - that's why they are warming now, despite a decline in solar output over the last 4 decades. Interestingly a recent paper: On the Observed Trends and Changes in Global Sea Surface Temperature and Air-Sea Heat Fluxes (1984-2006)- Yeager & Large (2012) shows that the oceans warmed over that interval due to a reduction in energy flux out of the ocean - exactly what we would expect from the greenhouse gas forcing of the cool-skin layer of the ocean. Somewhat bizarrely they attributed this to natural variability, but is not borne out by their analysis.
  22. Rob, I don't quite understand the post that you wrote, but if I can't figure it out, I will ask about it there. As for Bob's explanation, the equilibrium times of the different layers makes much more sense than talking about a lag. Thanks for the explanations.
  23. I am not here to debate a point. I have read the report, but I am not knowledgeable enough in the topic to try to defend it. I just want to learn the alarmist side of the point. The following graph is part of a report that is found at http://nipccreport.org/articles/2011/nov/23nov2011a5.html I see the graph as supporting evidence for the idea that the sun has been a major player in the recent warming from 1970-2000. I would like to know why I should not view the graph in this way. I thank you in advance. Image and video hosting by TinyPic
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] If you are genuinely interested in the science, then beginning by labelling the mainstream view as "alarmist" is probably not a good way to start the discussion. Please read the comments policy before continuing.
  24. Marsupial, The point that I am looking at is that the amount of sunshine has increased from 1970 to 2000, just like global temps. I agree that this is just for Japan, (as I said, just "supporting evidence") but wouldn't this regional data indicate that global data should be investigated with an open mind?
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] (a) the amount of sunshine is measured in hours, thus it is nothing to do with the sun, but cloud cover over Japan. (b) The temperature data is for China. Thus neither is necessarily representative of global conditions. Secondly cloud cover over Japan is unlikely to have a close causal reationship with temperatures over much of China (apart from perhaps the Eastern coastal region).

    What makes you think that such links are not invstigated with an open mind? The EU for instance has spent about 12 million Euro investigating possible links between cosmic rays (which are modulated by solar activity) and climate. I think you need to reconsider some of your preconceptions about mainstream science.

    This is the last I am going to comment on this as I don't want to actively participate in a discussion that I am moderating (hence self-moderation of my previous moderation comment).
  25. SirNubwub - Japanese daylight hours versus Chinese temperatures? And you think this is serious? You don't recognize the cherry-picking involved here? Or the disassociation between the two regions? The use of two different (and not directly related - as a tiny example, Japan is an island affected by oceans, China a fair chunk of a continent) subsets of data to argue against global information? Cherry picking - "...the fallacy of incomplete evidence is the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position. It is a kind of fallacy of selective attention, the most common example of which is the confirmation bias." The NIPCC "report" has been discussed elsewhere - it is a Heartland Institute funded effort that is quite frankly an effort in disinformation. I would strongly suggest you look into better resources than what are essentially industrial and ideological lobbying groups. Your post appears (IMO) to be a clear example of confirmation bias. Which is not a product, I'll note, of an "open mind".

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