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Astrology... Your future looks............. Gloomy.
February 2, 2011 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Carl Sagan and his Fully Armed Spaceship of the Imagination
posted by aldurtregi (40 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

Astrology has ancient roots. When it got dark at night and there was nothing to do, the best entertainment had flashy lights on a dark screen, not TV but the stars (when you could still see them in full glory). Stars served many purposes, one of them being a common point of reference for remembering things over the long term (pre written-word). For people who believed that life ran in cycles, with certain types of personalities being born at certain times of the year (which has basis in science due to the cyclical nature of hormones like testosterone rising and falling over the seasons), they used the stars as a way to remember when someone was born and gave them names like Virgo and Aquarius matching up with constellations as a memory aid.
posted by stbalbach at 2:36 PM on February 2, 2011

Oh man, I wish science had a battlestation with which to threaten astrologers.

A fully-operational battlestation.

You may fire when ready, commander!
posted by Avenger at 2:41 PM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

which has basis in science due to the cyclical nature of hormones like testosterone rising and falling over the seasons

posted by ixohoxi at 2:43 PM on February 2, 2011

Yes, but assigning personality traits based on the time/season of one's birth and the idea that one's destiny/luck could be predicted by astronomical phenomena in relation to that is where the astronomy/science ends and astrology/Woo-Woo! begins.
posted by KingEdRa at 2:45 PM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I liked it, but I thought they were kinda hitting the audience over the head with the metaphor near the end.

On the other hand, I love the idea that Carl Sagan is a space vigilante.
posted by hellojed at 2:49 PM on February 2, 2011

Astrology has ancient roots. When it got dark at night and there was nothing to do, the best entertainment had flashy lights on a dark screen, not TV but the stars (when you could still see them in full glory). Stars served many purposes, one of them being a common point of reference for remembering things over the long term (pre written-word). For people who believed that life ran in cycles, with certain types of personalities being born at certain times of the year (which has basis in science due to the cyclical nature of hormones like testosterone rising and falling over the seasons), they used the stars as a way to remember when someone was born and gave them names like Virgo and Aquarius matching up with constellations as a memory aid.

There's a reason it exists, but it's still demonstrably incorrect.
posted by cmoj at 3:00 PM on February 2, 2011

You know who else existed and was demonstratably incorrect?
posted by blue_beetle at 3:58 PM on February 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to be clear, the people who invented astrology didn't think certain personality types were born at certain times of the year. They would have been just as contemptuous of pop Sun sign astrology as Carl Sagan was.

They believed that events in the sky were related to events on Earth because the sky and the Earth were created by similar forces. They believed that all celestial events were related to Earthbound events, that all of the planets (defined as "regularly moving objects in the sky," so including the Sun and Moon) reflected influences that were also at work on Earth, and that transient objects such as especially comets were particularly important.

They would not have said astrological influences were due to gravity, or hormone cycles, or any such simplistic physical explanation. They would counter that the relationships are far too complicated to be due to such simple forces, and are instead due to the fact that the universe was designed, and the designer likes to re-use things, as anybody who spends any amount of time observing nature at all will plainly see.

Now, it is certainly possible, and most likely correct, to argue that they are wrong about this interpretation of why the universe looks the way it does, but it is very incorrect to argue, as Sagan often did, that astrology is vague or that it says everybody born in the same month is alike. In fact, part of the difficulty in arguing with a hardcore astrologer is that real horoscopes are very rich, complex, and specific, and because they say so many things very often say things which are true, and when they say things that obviously aren't true this is easily countered with "yet."

The comic is cute and I am for the most part a big admirer of Carl Sagan and a big fan of Cosmos, which remains one of the best popular science programs ever made. But this particular thing always annoyed the hell out of me. Sagan could have done a proper refutation of real astrology if he cared to, but he probably felt it was beneath his dignity to learn enough about the subject to make such a proper refutation. And that, when you get down to things, really isn't a very scientific attitude.
posted by localroger at 4:01 PM on February 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

So, is this guy going to pitch this as a Cartoon Network series or what? I'd watch it every week.
posted by Strange Interlude at 4:08 PM on February 2, 2011

What's to learn about something that can't make concrete, testable, reproduceable predictions?

The moment you can get two astrologers agree on a prediction, have it turn out to be true, and formulate a theory as to why it's true is the moment it stops being woo-wee hand waving and starts getting real.

You don't need to know astrology's long and storied past to thoroughly debunk it.
posted by fnerg at 4:29 PM on February 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

fnerg, this is my entire point: real astrology does in fact make concrete, testable predictions. Failure to make predictions is not the problem with astrology, it's whether the predictions have meaning. Anyone who seriously does astrology will actually tell you that they are the ones being scientific -- they've done charts and observed that the results coincide with reality. If you want to debunk them you have to convince them that they are misinterpreting this coincidence between prediction and reality.

I used to sell semiprecious gemstones, and a big market I couldn't afford to ignore was the New Age community. I knew a number of very serious astrologers and I know how they react to "debunking." With the words "no testable predictions" you revealed yourself to be ignorant and/or a fool.

When you say astrology makes no testable predictions you are not asserting the superiority of science. You are being wrong. What you have to do is figure out how to convince someone who has spent a lifetime possibly exercising selective perception in their comparison of very specific chart results to real life that they have, in fact, been finding patterns in what amount to random data. That is not nearly as easy as it sounds; if it were easy, the casino industry wouldn't exist.
posted by localroger at 4:44 PM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sagan could have done a proper refutation of real astrology if he cared to, but he probably felt it was beneath his dignity to learn enough about the subject to make such a proper refutation. And that, when you get down to things, really isn't a very scientific attitude.

I saw Carl Sagan's son Nick speak at an event a couple of weeks ago, discussing his dad's legacy. I'm paraphrasing, but there was a question about what Carl would have thought about current trends in skepticism. Nick replied that, particularly later in life, his father thought it was better to engage with people devoted to spiritualism, rather than be confrontational about it.
posted by zamboni at 4:57 PM on February 2, 2011

zamboni, that's also consistent with the way he resolved the plot of Contact, which I think shocked a lot of the skeptics who idolized him.
posted by localroger at 5:00 PM on February 2, 2011

Personally I feel that far more important than faffing about astrology is the idea of Sagan and his wonderfully designed Cosmos starship - I loved that thing since I first saw him "piloting" it in the show. I can remember being somewhat bummed that the rest of the series didn't spend more time on that ship of his, possibly meeting up with other space travelers, having a few dogfights - oops, this is where my brain goes all Star Wars/Star Trek/Jules Verne/Cosmos mashup on me...

If there's anything on YouTube with Sagan's ship fighting TIE fighters, do let me know. I haven't found it yet.

And every time I see anything scifi where the characters meet up with a crystalline creature/space ship - I think Cosmos and Sagan.
posted by batgrlHG at 5:17 PM on February 2, 2011

Neat. I just watched the first 2 episodes of Cosmos yesterday. I still don't know how I feel about that spaceship though.
posted by khaibit at 5:19 PM on February 2, 2011

Neat. I just watched the first 2 episodes of Cosmos yesterday. I still don't know how I feel about that spaceship though.

The spaceship is one of the little fluffies from the dandelion he blew apart in the first episode. I agree with batgrlHG, I wish he spent more time inside the ship.
posted by fuq at 5:27 PM on February 2, 2011

The pulsar and fleeing from the supernova were particularly good moments for the ship.
posted by localroger at 5:56 PM on February 2, 2011

posted by Lobster Garden at 7:19 PM on February 2, 2011

Friend of mine used to work for a mobile phone service provider. At the time she was a humble office clerk, but everyone recognized she was exceptionally intelligent, witty and good with people. One day her boss told her she was being transferred to a subsidiary, a content-provider.

Her job?

To write the daily horoscopes people downloaded on their phones every morning.

Her reaction: "What? I have no psychic ability or interest in horoscopes..."

Her boss' response: "You don't need that. What you need is a natural understanding of human psychology."

She told me once that she sometimes slips little in-jokes or suggestions for friends into her columns. If one of her friends has a big date or a job interview on Friday, they might just discover a "lucky in love" or "success in business" message on that day...

She still works there now. She is very good with human psychology.
posted by jet_manifesto at 8:52 PM on February 2, 2011

You may fire when ready, commander!

Sir Yes Sir! But my horoscope says that today is a bad day to make important decisions, Sir!
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:00 PM on February 2, 2011

Neat. I just watched the first 2 episodes of Cosmos yesterday.

I recently decided that Cosmos should be a part of my 7 & 9 year old's supplementary education, so I read them the first chapter from the book and then we watched the corresponding episode (thanks BT). 30 years old and still an awesome series.

I don't get the impression that Sagan thought astrologers (ancient ones, at least) were bad, per se; just that their chosen field of inquiry wasn't as successful as say, evolution, or geometry.
posted by strangeguitars at 5:36 AM on February 3, 2011

Captain Ophiuchus to the rescue!

posted by Decani at 5:52 AM on February 3, 2011

But this particular thing always annoyed the hell out of me. Sagan could have done a proper refutation of real astrology if he cared to, but he probably felt it was beneath his dignity to learn enough about the subject to make such a proper refutation. And that, when you get down to things, really isn't a very scientific attitude.

So your complaint was that he didn't spend enough time really digging into the specific bullshit of every single woo-woo made up spiritualist idea? Maybe that's because he was more concerned with addressing the root cause of why people were attracted to bullshit pseudo-magic to begin with. If he wrote an entire book on EVERY load of hogwash snakeoil that needed disbelieving, he'd have never written anything else... that's what Randi is for!
posted by FatherDagon at 6:56 AM on February 3, 2011

No, FatherDagon, my complaint is that he attacked a straw man. It does not take very much effort to find out what astrology really claims to do. As I said in my other comment, if your refutation is based on the idea that astrology doesn't make testable claims, then your refutation is wrong.

Let's say there is a Thing. You assert that the Thing is bullshit, and that it is not worth your while to even read up on any details about the Thing because anybody who isn't blind can see that the Thing is bullshit. Yet it's plainly apparent that you don't really know what the Thing is, what its claims are, or how it is used. When pressed for details you obviously think the Thing makes claims that it does not, and you're not aware of claims that it does make which make it look much less ridiculous than your caricature.

Now imagine that the Thing is evolution and you are a creationist, and tell me how your attitude here is any different.
posted by localroger at 7:17 AM on February 3, 2011

Sagan could have done a proper refutation of real astrology if he cared to, but he probably felt it was beneath his dignity to learn enough about the subject to make such a proper refutation. And that, when you get down to things, really isn't a very scientific attitude.

First of all, dissing Sagan for what you think he "probably" did isn't too scientific either.

And second of all, if you've just said astrology is bunk, why do you require everyone else to "learn enough about the subject to make...a proper refutation" once we've agreed that it's bunk? Civilization will make no progress if it has to be reinvented from first principles by every single person.
posted by DU at 9:19 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

DU, I didn't dis Sagan for something he "probably did." I dissed him for something I know very well he did, and I said that he probably did it for a certain reason, which is completely different.

I personally believe astrology is persuasive because of selective perception, for the same reason most gamblers think they are winning even though their checkbook says otherwise. My personal natal horoscope says several very startling and accurate things about me, and it says those things to any astrologer using the most usual system. It also says a few things that might best be considered dead wrong (I'm not interested in possessions? Really?) but which an astrologer might "interpret" ("You're not as interested in them as you think you are" or "you'll eventually reach a place where you're not as interested in them as you are now") so as to make it seem like less of a miss.

This is what astrology does. A typical horoscope will make 50 or 60 statements of that sort about its subject, and if the chart is cast correctly (nowadays mostly done by computers) it will make those same statements no matter who is doing the work. Often those statements stand alone and brook little interpretation; both my sexual paraphilia and the traumatic event in my first two years that probably triggered it are both there. That is very likely a coincidence but it is neither vague nor untestable. Any reasonable person would have to admit that is evidence the system works, which must be countered by other evidence that it doesn't (such as the other statement I cited above).

Astrologers will admit that interpretations diverge when the statements made by the chart are contradictory, or do not seem to coincide with reality.

It does not really require a lot of effort to find out how astrology really works. Astrology persists in the lore in part because the people who should be arguing that it is useless are in fact arguing against straw men. The reason I am harping on this is not that I think astrology works, but because you are doing the opposite of debunking it when you take this approach. You are in fact reinforcing the believers that their science (as they think of it) is misunderstood by deniers who are ignorant, lazy, and rude.

As Zamboni pointed out above and I noted from Sagan's novel, there is some evidence that Sagan himself got this memo later in life. But that doesn't erase the unfortunate scene in Cosmos where he reads the daily sun sign horoscope and shrugs and says "pretty vague," proving to anyone with a real interest that he knows nothing about what he is talking about.

If you are going to go to the trouble to tell someone that their beliefs are crap, then I do think at a minimum you do have a duty to take a few minutes to learn what their beliefs actually are before doing so. It is not necessary to spend hundreds of hours learning the entire symbolic system to do this, but it might be necessary to spend an hour or so reading about how the system actually works.
posted by localroger at 9:56 AM on February 3, 2011

I thought this was great! But then again, I am a Sagittarius and we tend to be skeptical.
posted by TedW at 11:42 AM on February 3, 2011

Okay, so what testable predictions does astrology make?
posted by cmoj at 3:18 PM on February 3, 2011

cmoj, I gave a couple of examples in my last comment.
posted by localroger at 3:45 PM on February 3, 2011

So astrology produces assertions that are testable on a personal level (do you have any idea how common sexual trauma and paraphilia is?) as a byproduct of the impossibly vague ones. By your own examples when you test them on the scale of all of astrology they turn out to be bunk. What's being argued here?
posted by cmoj at 4:22 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

cmoj, none of the assertions made by a horoscope are vague. None of them. The fact that you would say such a thing would be regarded as proof by any serious believer that you don't know what you are talking about.

You keep coming back to what amounts to sun sign bullshit. As I wrote earlier a typical horoscope will turn up 40 or more statements about your life, character, talents, and future. That is considerably more information than most novelists devote to fleshing out their characters. It will either describe you, or it won't. While there is some subjectivity involved it's certainly a testable proposition. We send people to jail on less testimony than that from human witnesses every single day.

Now if you have a horoscope done by someone else, you may get some things that sound weaselly or vague because the astrologer is trying to resolve contradictions between conflicting aspects or between the horoscope and obvious reality or he doesn't really want to tell you you're going to have horrible health problems with your gut later in life (also in mine, also turned out to be true). That's why I had my chart done by computer and had several different people look at it. The fierce believers, who cast hundreds of charts for famous people and events trying to figure out what the influences of a newly discovered asteroid are, will tell you to do this. I've known several people like that.

And these are the roots of astrology. For many centuries there was no such thing as "popular" astrology; it was all kept secret and reserved for the leaders of the Church and those powerful people who could get access. Nowadays it is not at all hard to find out that this history exists; it's been fully exposed and you can go into any woo shop and find out things that kings paid dearly to learn just a few centuries ago. While there may be hundreds of millions of people who read the daily horoscope, there are also at least hundreds of thousands of people who are aware of this background. And every single one of them thinks, with some justification, that Carl Sagan is an idiot because of that turn with the daily sun sign horoscope.

Let me reiterate something: I'm not harping on this to defend astrology. Of all the types of woo I have flirted with I think it's one of the weakest, despite the fact that my own natal horoscope is almost freakout level for looking like evidence that it works. I'm harping on it because when you take Sagan's lazy approach and debunk the daily Sun sign horoscope, there is a large community of people who instantly recognize you for an idiot. And they have good reasons for that, because you're acting like one. If you want to debunk their beliefs you should start by knowing what their beliefs are. And if you did even an hour of minimal research on the thing that's thousands of years old that you're trying to prove is worthless, you would not have asked me a question like "what sort of testable propositions." You would have known the answer to that because you would need to know it in order to go about your business of showing why the tests are too subjective and subject to perception bias.
posted by localroger at 5:00 PM on February 3, 2011

I would definitely classify the prediction of paraphilia as impossibly vague because I would guess that the percentage of people who consider their sexual urges to be abnormal would approach 100%. Likewise, the percentage of people who experience gastrointestinal problems later in life and people who experienced what they would describe as sexual trauma early in life are very high. These are the examples you gave.

If you have any (non-anecdotal) information on the statistical significance of astrological predictions I'd be interested. The only statistical information on the subject I've seen does not even remotely support what you're saying.

Oh and the "since you had to ask that whatever else you say is worthless" tactic is a classic for woo-woo artists. So is putting words in someone's mouth who isn't even attacking you.
posted by cmoj at 6:40 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

cmoj, are you even reading my posts? I am not asserting that astrology works. I'm asserting that you are making yourself look like a fool to the believers because you are attacking it wrong. Stop being such a jackass and listen for a change.

The importance of details in a horoscope isn't that they are predictive in a scientific sense, it's that they look that way very powerfully. And when you are countering such a thing just saying "Oh it's woo, you're an idiot" gets you countered with "Oh you don't know what it's doing, YOU'RE the idiot." Do you really care about this or not? Because if you do, you're going about it all wrong and that's what I'm trying to tell you.

The percentage of people with a paraphilia is obviously not trivial. But the percentage of people with that (somewhat specific) paraphilia, with the traumatic triggering incident (indicated by a totally unrelated aspect), with the general "dominated by air" personality, with the opposite in nature wife, with the gastric complaint that would turn out to be T2 diabetes, and with other stuff I really don't want to get into, add up to a picture that looks very, very specific. The fact that other parts of that picture don't add up is easy to overlook because of perception bias. NOBODY who knows anything about this would use the word "vague" to describe any part of it though. Using the word "vague" is equivalent to saying "I am ignorant of what I'm talking about." Because you don't know what you are talking about. You think you do, and you stride in with utter confidence and say things that just prove your ignorance. Stop doing that. Really, it's against your own interests. Either learn something about what you're countering or just stop it.

I don't believe in astrology but I have closely known some people who do, and I know what they believe and I know what they think when certain arguments are presented. Will you stop being so fucking pigheaded and take some advice that is intended to help you? YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. Fucking listen for a change and learn to do it right.
posted by localroger at 7:03 PM on February 3, 2011

A picture can be detailed and vague at the same time. Like if I took a 1080p photograph of the trees outside my window--it's very detailed, but doesn't tell you much. Especially not if you're looking to find out where I took the picture from.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:11 PM on February 3, 2011

LogicalDash, a collection of 30 to 60 specific statements about your life is not vague. It might be wrong, but it will not be vague. Have you ever looked at a horoscope? Of course not. You do not know what you are talking about.
posted by localroger at 7:26 PM on February 3, 2011

cmoj, are you even reading my posts?

Several times over, actually, attempting to extract meaning. I couldn't, which is why I was asking questions to understand your position. I repeatedly asked for information, and did not call you an idiot (or any other name) or attack astrology.

Since our positions on astrology are exactly the same, I'm still not sure what you're arguing since I'm not arguing anything. Also, you're right. I don't care about astrology. Why would I? I'm finished subjecting myself to your self-important tirades.
posted by cmoj at 11:42 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

But, because of the "wobble" of earth's rotation, traditional astrology won't be correct again for another thousand years or so. localroger, are there calculations or procedure to correct for this celestial phenomenon? Using any system that places planets within constellations is vulnerable to parallax changes over long periods of time. I haven't had it explained to me how this is taken into account in a discipline that bases it's predictions on cosmological points and relations.

Also, can you point me toward some astrological resources that produce predictions about my future? I already know enough about myself, so I don't need astrology for that, but I am feeling a lot of anxiety about my future and because the future positions of celestial objects can be accurately predicted a skillful practitioner of astrology should be able to at least forewarn me about upcoming challenges. When I get surprised I get bugged out and don't handle myself well. If I had a heads up, that would be a valuable service.
posted by fuq at 1:49 PM on February 4, 2011

fuq, there are two camps (each of which takes itself very seriously) in the astrological community on the precession of the equinoxes (which, incidentally, won't realign to the original configuration for over 20,000 years; right now it's about one full sign out.) Camp #1 says that doing the calculations the original way has been working, seems to be working, and probably indicates that the influences remain lined up as they were when the system was designed, even though from the Earth's actual surface the planets no longer appear to be in the same constellations. The other camp, which got a lot of press recently, suggests that maybe adjustments should be made.

The dominant camp among serious astrologers is the first. A few have experimented with modern era charts but they are in the minority. This is, incidentally, a perfect example of how astrologers think they are scientists; they know about the phenomenon and have done experiments. The consensus is that charts done the original way seem to work. Of course, this is equally well explained by the idea that most charts "work" simply because of selective perception if you are prone to expect them to, but it's very hard to get that across to some people :-)

If you seriously want to experiment with astrology yourself -- and I kind of suspect you are pulling my chain, but I'll go along -- I would suggest the following steps:

1. Go to a serious woo shop and skim the astrology books. You are looking for something at least an inch thick in paperback or trade paper format, with mostly text and no pictures. The ones we consulted back in the day were Horary Astrology and The Astrologer's Handbook, but I don't know if those are still in print or if new titles have become ascendant. The book should have a long list of planets in signs, planets in houses, and aspects with descriptions of what each mean. Skim and make sure that at least some of those descriptions are bad. The biggest sin committed by commercial astrologers according to serious astrologers is gilding the many lilies that an honest horoscope will reveal. Such a book will also have sections on how to do charts for things like events, places, combinations such as couples, and future timeframes.

2. Get some chart-drawing software. It doesn't matter which; the one I used to use ran under DOS and won't run on any of my current computers, but these guys are constantly coming out with new ones. The math is standardized and assuming you agree on the epoch you should get consistent results. (As I keep saying, they are very serious about this.) You really don't want or need the interpretation such a program will spit out, what you want is the list of planets in houses, planets in signs, and aspects.

If you don't want to invest in a package and can't find a free trial a lot of woo shops will have this service available for a small fee.

To do a natal horoscope you need to know your exact sidereal birth time, which means knowing both your birth time and the time zone you were born in. Serious astrologers will mutter darkly that you can't expect very good results without an accurate time, since that determines all of the houses, which change hourly and convey much of the chart's information. Time zones have changed a lot over the years and the gold standard for this used to be an expensive and meticulously compiled book called Time Changes in the USA by Doris Chase Doane. I think I heard somewhere they are using a software package for this now though.

3. Go through the book with the output of the program and see if the many statements the horoscope makes coalesce into a picture that makes any sense.
posted by localroger at 4:16 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

cmoj, I'm sorry if I offended you but I interpreted several of your posts as being very flippant to the point I'm trying to make. Perhaps that's because you really don't understand what I'm getting at, but I don't know how to express it in a way that gets past your skeptical guard.

My original criticism was of Sagan, and in particular the scene in Cosmos where he purports to debunk astrology as a whole by mocking a newspaper sun sign horoscope. To an astrologer, that would look like debunking all of physics because the caricature in a Superman comic isn't consistent. When you do that you reveal that you know nothing about their art, which is very complex and which has taken a lot of time and effort for them to develop.

When I said this, several people IIRC including you piped up with "Why should we bother learning anything about this crap?" Well, if you are interested enough in calling it out to draw a comic like TFA, spend time in a thread like this arguing, or sitting in front of a camera to record something which will be broadcast nationwide, then you kind of do have a duty to do some homework to make sure you are calling out something that actually exists.

I've known some of these people and it is extremely difficult to make a solid case against them. When a famous person like Sagan reduces their complex craft to the straw man of a newspaper column, it only reinforces their perception that you are all of those bad things I kept saying. I wasn't saying that you were all those bad things, if you look carefully; I was saying that you will look like those bad things to a believer because you are showing very obvious contempt for the hard work of a lot of people. If you don't display a very good reason for doing that, it just pisses people off. And I know people who were furious at Sagan and never read another word he recorded or wrote because of that. That's not how you make your case or change peoples' minds.

I lived a double life for many years, not really believing in much of the woo but keeping an "open mind" and being conversant in the lore because in those days it was good business for my side trade. All I have been trying to do is reveal how things like TFA look to the other side. In real life Sagan's fully armed ship will find that the enemy does in fact have very powerful deflector shields.
posted by localroger at 4:34 PM on February 4, 2011

cmoj is my hero. that is all.
posted by tehloki at 10:28 PM on February 4, 2011

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