Once more on the domestic violence in church thing: answering some common objections to the ABC’s coverage

Julia Baird’s piece has been in the wild for a couple of days; and there’s an ongoing cloud of ‘suspicion’ hanging over it in conversations online; particularly around the stats the piece uses from some American research from 2008, which have been ‘exposed’ by Andrew Bolt. Apparently, I’ve been told a handful of times today, if we want to get to the ‘truth’ we need to listen to Andrew Bolt, not Julia Baird, because somehow he is pro-Christian and she is anti-Christian.

Which blows my mind.

This whole thing about the US data blows my mind; it’s a red herring in the post-mortem of the article fuelled by people who don’t want the story to be true, or who reject (perhaps rightly) the implication that a certain stream of theology drives abusers. The truth in Baird’s story is not found in the secondary sources she uses to frame her story, but in the primary sources that drive it — the stories of real women. Real victims. Who have suffered in our churches because their husbands have twisted the Bible and got away with it, or worse, been tacitly supported by church leaders… worst still, some of them have been church leaders!

I think the better understanding of Baird’s point is that a certain stream of theology can create an environment in which abusers flourish… but these stats are not at all the bit of the story that I’d be emphasising. It’s a shame that they have been so closely tied to the introduction of the piece when the same conclusion could perhaps have been produced from the stories of women interviewed without the foreign data (and perhaps this comes down to our modernist hang ups and suspicions about the power of personal story in certain segments of the church).

I don’t think the idea that ‘sporadic church attenders’ were described as the most prevalent abusers in some 2008 data is the point, or the impetus behind, this story. Which Julia Baird unpacked in this interview on The Drum, where she also describes the research behind this story, and summarises the findings:

“I’ve found countless stories; I’ve spoken to dozens and dozens of women who within the church have experienced abuse at the hands of their husbands, who were twisting Scripture in order to enable and justify their abuse, who have then turned to their pastors and told them what’s happened. They’ve not been believed; they’ve been turned away; they’ve been told to submit and endure.”

“I found a great defensiveness in talking about it and a very piecemeal approach to looking at it; you know there might be the odd task force or protocol, or some counselling available, but there’s no real urgency, no real listening to the women. It’s what one woman… describes as ‘an abuser friendly culture’ within churches, and there is a question of grooming, there is a question of an emphasis on what’s interpreted as male control, and male rule, and it’s meant that the victims have been sidelined, and in some cases abused for many years.”

“This is part of the problem when I speak to a question of urgency, is a lack of serious collection of data about this. What we do know is from a Queensland study discovered that one in five perpetrators go to church. There’s American research that suggests that evangelical men who go to church sporadically are more likely than any other group in the community, religious or not religious, to assault their wives; and it should be added to that that those who go to church regularly are less likely to, so there’s a real disconnect between people who are passing through, or on the periphery, or who don’t have a depth of faith which is an interesting part of the discussion.”

These stories this week come from stories from real women in real churches; and by all accounts they continue to flood in to Baird and others. And there’s a bunch of people missing the point and raising these common objections.

1. “Andrew Bolt’s opinion pieces are ‘knock down’ arguments against the ABC piece and we should point people to them”

Andrew Bolt is a strange bedfellow for the church on this issue. He’s not a Christian (by his own claims). He has a particular political agenda when it comes to domestic violence (so wants the focus on Islamic communities and indigenous communities). And he has a commercial/political interest in denigrating the ABC as being ‘left leaning’ (and so, by extension, institution hating and anti-Church etc).

Let me do a Bolt and play the man for a second. Bolt is not a journalist. He’s a commentator/opinion writer. What he writes is just that, opinion and commentary. There is a difference between opinion writing and news/feature writing in terms of ethics, fact checking, burdens of proof, etc. He does purport to be ‘fact checking’ the ABC piece by digging in to the American data both the American article and The Drum interview quote, and then he uses this ‘fact checking’ to suggest Baird’s entire premise is faulty.

I suspect, in the world of news, things went in a different direction (and you get a sense of this from The Drum). It seems to me that it’s the dozens and dozens of women Baird spoke to that constitute her investigation; and its those stories — first hand accounts — where the weight of Baird’s argument sits. The data from another place  (America) in another time (2008) is interesting corroborating evidence; and were one to question the veracity of the conclusion of Baird’s piece, which seems to be similar to the US evidence, one would actually have to ask Julia Baird and co-writer Hayley Gleeson, if their conclusion was also carried by the dozens and dozens of primary sources they interviewed. Given that the data is essentially used to corroborate these sources, I suspect that is the case. But I might be wrong.

2. The stats quoted are wrong/misleading/from the US/from 2008/say the opposite of the article.

And this leads to the next point. Those stats could have not been in this story at all and it would probably have been stronger and more compelling; it would have made a much more compelling case against the church (if that was Baird’s agenda) to not point people to the articles that say regular church going men are the least likely to perpetrate abuse (which Baird offers voluntarily in The Drum video), and which is in the piece (though apparently that bit was subject to an edit for clarity).

The weight of the article in our time and place, and for our churches, does not sit with statistics from 10 years ago in America; but with the very real testimony of real women from our communities. Plus, stats on domestic violence are almost impossible to collect. How do you do it? How do you ask a woman currently in an abusive relationship to reveal that she is? In what context is that possible? How do you ask people who’ve escaped to come forward if they carry a sense of shame (and possibly even ‘guilt’ associated with victim blaming culture)? Who funds this sort of research?

It’s incredible that we have this story built from interviews with dozens and dozens of victims in the first place. And those should be enough; especially if there’s a particular pattern caught up in church culture of ‘enabling and concealing domestic violence’. If we think the ‘sporadic churchgoer’ thing is where the emphasis is, we’ve probably missed the most useful point (though this is still useful anecdotal evidence, and we’ll get to that below).

Why are we majoring on a minor? Making this the point of ‘truth’ on which the story is made or broken; the vast amount of the work, and the content of the piece, is in the bringing together of these stories. The bits about whether our theology has a causal relationship to those stories, or it’s just our practice that contributes to the harm, is where the rubber hits the road. Surely? These are real women; and this is how statistics and sampling works: there will be more of them.

3. What about male victims of DV?

This is literally the biggest red herring in this discussion. I’m sure that men are abused in relationships. Women are sinful too. But this story, fundamentally, is about whether church culture perpetuates abuse through the weaponising of key verses about women, from the Bible. Here’s a bit from the original piece:

“Abusive men commonly refer to several different parts of the Bible.

First are the verses — cited by Sally’s husband Peter, above — telling women to submit to their husbands and male authority, under the doctrine known as male headship.

Second are verses that say God hates divorce.

And third are those in 1 Peter that tell women to submit to husbands in a very particular way, as they follow instructions to slaves to submit to even “harsh masters””

Abused men are not being abused by the twisting of those verses; they’re not coming forward to Julia Baird to tell their stories of the church perpetuating their abuse. It’s just not this story. And this story is not other stories. This story is not the exclusive final word on domestic violence in Australia

4. Why not focus on all the Christian men who aren’t abusing their wives (and the stat from the quoted report that says men who attend church regularly are the least likely to offend).

This one was a doozy. Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby tweeted this at Julia Baird after her 7:30 segment aired last night. In fact, he had a series of digs at the program.

Now. I think this is a fundamental and egregious exercise in missing the point. The point of this story isn’t about the men who don’t abuse women in the church; but about the men who do. It’s not about those who have a real and active faith in the crucified Jesus, but about those who want to twist words about him to keep controlling and abusing their wives. It isn’t about sheep; but about wolves. And inasmuch as it is about the church it is about how we shepherd the flock and keep wolves from the doors.

Lyle followed up that tweet, and Julia Baird’s reply, with this one; in a further exercise in missing the point.

 

Men who abuse women in churches are not the the church’s fault, necessarily, but dealing with them, if a wife comes forward for help, is the church’s responsibility.

Pastors are called to be shepherds; that is literally what the word means. Biblically shepherds have a couple of responsibilities — feeding the sheep and protecting them from wolves. That means part of the job of a pastor might be to weed out wolves who are masquerading as sheep in the flock — the ‘sporadic church attender’ who is twisting the Bible to abuse a vulnerable member of the flock would be a pretty clear example of a wolf. Here’s a thing Jesus says:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” — Matthew 7:15-20.

Here’s what Jesus then says about himself, and what a good shepherd does for the sheep when confronted by wolves…

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” — John 10:11-13

Now. In the context, in both these cases, I think he’s first talking about the Pharisees — those he’ll also accuse of ‘devouring widows houses’. In the John passage he’s also drawing on some imagery from Ezekiel… where shepherds don’t just give their sheep to the wolves, they become wolf-like — and some of the stories about people in ministry being abusers is pretty shockingly evocative of this sort of imagery.

The point is, there’s a very real passing of the shepherd’s baton (or crook, or cross) from Jesus to the church at the end of the Gospels as Jesus commissions Peter to ‘feed my sheep’ (and this continues into the epistles). And these stories must surely help us in the task of being better shepherds — especially if we’re talking about wolves, not members of the flock, but people who pretend to be; those who come amongst us to twist the word of God in order to lure vulnerable people to their destruction… these sporadic church attending abusers are not Christians; they’re not following the example of teaching of Jesus. They are predators.

Domestic violence is not necessarily the fault of the church, but being good shepherds of the flock is our responsibility; and that means weeding out the wolves, and changing the culture that allows them to prey on our sheep; it certainly is our responsibility not to feed a sheep to a wolf. Which is very much what some of these stories Baird’s piece shares sound like…

5. The ABC is anti-Christian. This proves it.

This one bothers me. The ABC publishes more pro-Christian content through its religion and ethics platform than any other media outlet. John Stackhouse, a Christian academic, was on Q&A this week. Baird herself is a Christian. It’s particularly ironic when Bolt makes this claim in order to further his political agenda that has the church as some sort of moral guardian in his own civic religion. Baird might be anti-complementarian, but her piece is not anti-Christian.

“Unlike the Koran, there are no verses in the Bible that may be read as overtly condoning domestic abuse.

To the contrary, it is made clear that God hates violence and relationships must be driven by selflessness, grace and love.

There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.”

That’s her foundational assumption; it’s not a huge leap to go from there to see that part of the thrust of her piece is that those who are abusing their wives and using the Bible to do so aren’t following the basis of Christianity, and it’s a mystery as to why the church has been not so good at being on the front foot on this, or understanding the urgency. If I’d heard dozens and dozens of stories from abused women in churches, I’d see this issue as urgent too… urgent enough to use my media platform to blow the lid off…

6. Why not keep this in house? Shouldn’t we be dealing with this issue behind closed doors? It’s denigrating the name of Jesus.

You know what denigrates the name of Jesus more than anything else.

Cover ups.

People who appear to be more worried about our institutional reputation than the lives and well being of those we’re supposed to be caring for. You know what Paul says in Ephesians 5:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” — Ephesians 5:8-13

The question is how committed to the light we are; and how bright we want it to be, and how much we trust that these instructions aren’t just wise but Godly. How prepared are we to expose darkness even if it costs us in order to transparently have nothing to do with darkness. Our reputation to outsiders matters; and what’s scary for me is the implication that many abusers may actually be leaders in our churches. Have a squiz at 1 Timothy 3 and its qualifications for being an ‘overseer’; I’ll bold the bits that are particularly interesting in this context.

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” — 1 Timothy 3:2-7

How do we have a good reputation with outsiders if we deal with stuff like this in house, in a climate where people are suspicious that all we want to do is protect the institution at the expense of the people?

7. Julia Baird is biased against conservative evangelical churches and has an agenda, she fails to show how women in leadership would solve this problem.

Well. This one might be true; Julia Baird’s pro-women’s ordination track record is pretty clear, and it’s not immediately clear other than in some arguments about a diminishing patriarchy (and the inclusion of women’s voices) being part of what stops the church ‘enabling and concealing’ domestic violence… listening to women does seem like an essential thing but not at all outside the parameters of complementarian theology… and I’d suggest elders like the men Timothy describes her would be a big help in fighting against wolves who are infiltrating our churches. But this objection is the one I tried to address at some length yesterday; it’s such a misguided response to her service in bringing these stories to our collective attention.

Because let’s be clear; that’s what might be behind sporadic church attendance; church being used as a mechanism to control vulnerable women by crafty wolf-like men. Let’s not pretend there’s any way you can understand and be following the example of Jesus and beating, abusing, or controlling your wife in the way the stories Julia Baird has uncovered; and let’s make sure that’s clear by, as the church, being utterly committed to weeding out wolves and handing them over to be dealt with by the appropriate authorities while we tend to those God has placed in the care of our communities.

Quibbling over the data, or whether Julia Baird has a particular axe to grind (or possibly it’s a well honed axe that she’s swinging again) is missing both the trees and the forest here. This isn’t an area where complementarians and egalitarians should be at each other’s throats trying to play the blame game; but one we must urgently address; and there’s the means to do this in the theology (and practice) of both camps. Ironically; this is the take home message in both the academic paper the Baird piece links to, and the one by the same author that is quoted in that paper. It’s a shame all the people looking for a smoking gun didn’t focus on that bit. The author, Steven Tracy, concludes with three challenges to complementarians, and three to egalitarians, and then this closing statement. This seems to be the point of his peer reviewed and published paper… let’s focus on this for a while:

“Domestic violence continues to be a hideous global social problem. Secular feminists and many egalitarians assert that patriarchy is the ultimate cause of all abuse against women. While there is considerable evidence that patriarchy contributes to much domestic violence, the etiology of domestic violence is far too complex to support any single cause hypothesis. Furthermore, patriarchy must be carefully defined when assessing its impact on abuse, for a wide spectrum of “patriarchy” exists today, from authority based traditional patriarchy to shared authority “soft patriarchy.” While all forms of patriarchy can and do contribute to domestic violence, it appears that the models of patriarchy which give husbands the greatest levels of power and authority are most likely to stimulate domestic violence.

Furthermore, recent social science research which reveals an inverse relationship between church attendance and domestic violence among conservative Protestant men challenges both patriarchalists and egalitarians to modify their understanding of gender roles and abuse and to work together to combat domestic violence.

 

 

 

18 Comments Once more on the domestic violence in church thing: answering some common objections to the ABC’s coverage

  1. Justine Jenner

    Thanks Nathan, a relief to read this after many other disappointing responses. Probable most disappointing is to miss the opportunity to hear real womens stories because we are prone to squabble and be defensive.

    Reply
  2. Annabel May

    Thanks Nathan,
    I find this article of yours encouraging and balanced. I was feeling a bit down by some other responses I read that, to be honest, seem a bit too concerned about protecting male privilege within the ‘headship’ context than in going to bat for the welfare of women. I am heartened by your response. I think ‘headship’ doctrine needs renovating, when one considers that another meaning of ‘head’ (in Greek Kephale) can mean ‘source’ as I understand it similar to ‘origin’ rather than ‘authority’. It is hard for 21st Century women who are egalitarian in all aspects of life to be saddled with 1st Century patriarchy. I am sure if the roles were reversed men would not have a bar of it. Blessings, Annabel

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  3. Pamela Nutt

    Thank you! These stories should not be swept under any carpet. Those who believe in loving and kind relationships should be enabling the voices of abuse victims, not attempting to sideline them.

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    1. Erin

      It is not the “positive story” being ignored that is causing a problem. Obviously, we need more of the positives responses that are emerging in some circles. But the problem in the church is that these positive steps are far too few and between, hence the silencing of victims, and the perpetuation of abuse in the pews. When this problem is exposed, the appropriate response is outrage, not shooting the messenger for ignoring the rare occurrences of corrective action. Put another way, instead of shouting, “Hey! Not fair! You didn’t cover how we’re doing it right!” we should be shouting, “What! There is evidence of DV victims suffering from the ignorance of the church community? What can we do about it?”

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  4. Pamela Nutt

    Not it’s I got to someone’s story appropriately is pushing their abuse away from the centre of the narrative, especially if they are being counselled to stay in a demeaning or even dangerous situation. This public airing of the issue may be upsetting, but it’s made it very hard for churches not to give thoughtful, protective and caring responses to victims. I’m sure in some cases, that’s been happening, but not in many it seems. Wake-up calls need to be taken seriously, and in humility.

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    1. Pamela Nutt

      Oops. Something lost in translation there. “When someone’s story is not listened to appropriately, it’s pushing their abuse away from the centre of the narrative…” Humble apologies.

      Reply
  5. Tim

    this story needs to be told and retold until it becomes unacceptable to these people who call themselves christians yet perpetrate abuse on their wives in the name of submission. thanks for the article.

    Reply
  6. Andrew Clarke

    ‘It should go without saying that domestic violence is an abhorrent form of abuse to be condemned without reservation. Research on causation should be funded where preliminary research finds specific attributes correlated with higher rates of abuse. The public often funds such research and should be informed also when certain ­attributes are correlated with lower rates of abuse. The ABC ­neglected its public duty when it omitted the positive work of ­Christian churches in preventing domestic violence and the ­research finding that: “Conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are … the least likely group to engage in domestic violence.”’
    – Jennifer Oriel
    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/jennifer-oriel/diversity-of-thought-practically-whitewashed-by-pc-ideology/news-story/9d16179ec45fe24f6b05072f64540ec7

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    1. Erin

      Jennifer Oriel is one of the “bunch of people missing the point” that this article seems to refer to:

      “This whole thing about the US data blows my mind; it’s a red herring in the post-mortem of the article fuelled by people who don’t want the story to be true, or who reject (perhaps rightly) the implication that a certain stream of theology drives abusers. The truth in Baird’s story is not found in the secondary sources she uses to frame her story, but in the primary sources that drive it — the stories of real women. Real victims. Who have suffered in our churches because their husbands have twisted the Bible and got away with it, or worse, been tacitly supported by church leaders… worst still, some of them have been church leaders!”

      Julia’s work exposes the disconnect between the US data and the experiences of Australian women. There is a gap in research that needs filling, and it’s making some quarters uncomfortable. Which should not be surprising, given the stories of victims being typically sidelined, dismissed, and silenced. Leaders may publicly chorus outrage over domestic violence and claim support for victims, but actions continue to show that their primary concern is their public reputation, not the wellbeing of victims.

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  7. Andrew Clarke

    How does questioning the secondary sources in any way detract from someone’s concern about the primary one? It just doesn’t follow. Are you suggesting that my concern for victims of domestic violence is in doubt?

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    1. Nathan Campbell

      Are you asking me? Or Erin?

      I’m not suggesting your concern for victims is in doubt; I’m suggesting that questioning the secondary sources might create that doubt for victims. It seems to indicate a lack of willingness to believe their stories because some old data from another place is used in questionable ways; that’s been the testimony of women commenting on this specific post, but also lots of the feedback from DV victims and advocates on social media this week.

      Reply
  8. Erin

    When the noise over statistics is louder than outrage over the experience of victims, concern does seem misplaced. I have no doubt that 99% of Christians consider domestic violence an abomination, but actions (to change status quo) must speak louder than words.

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  9. Sam

    Thanks for this considered piece, Nathan. However, am I right in thinking that there are two important, but seperate responses to the information presented by Julia Baird?

    One is the crucial pastoral response which does not care for statistics, as I think you are saying. Pastors (and the whole church) need to shepherd and love women who have endured abuse. Any story which indicates that has not happened is a pastoral wake up call.

    The second is the consideration of systematic problems in the church. This is where data, research & statistics become relevant. Identifying correlations, patterns, causation. Which can then lead in many helpful directions with regard to policies, and even the teaching & preaching of theological truth.

    I think that there are many who are seeking to engage the second area, who also believe the first is essential. For example John Dickson made a couple of posts on his Facebook page (21 Jul) which deeply engaged with the second area.

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    1. Erin

      Unfortunately, the first headline-worthy response of the collective church body is to attack the ABC and argue about the data. While apologies have emerged, they have not been as firm, loud, or collective as the protests over the data. This is in spite of the fact that Julia’s report accurately cited peer-reviewed research.

      It’s interesting you state, “The second is the consideration of systematic problems in the church. This is where data, research & statistics become relevant. Identifying correlations, patterns, causation. Which can then lead in many helpful directions with regard to policies, and even the teaching & preaching of theological truth.” It seems to me that that’s what Julia’s report was attempting to do – bring new data to the table that somewhat contradict the sparse existing research. Whilst her report is not the final say in this matter, it should begin to inform policies within Christian organisations.

      Reply
  10. Sam

    Erin, I think you’ve hit on something about “headline-worthy” responses. Unfortunately the fact is negative stories generally get more coverage than postive ones. I think that’s how media works, both social and mass media. Of course there have been many great pastoral responses, and Baird has documented some in a follow-up article, which is great to see!

    Yes, in the second area Baird’s report does two things. It cites existing (sparse) research, and so it is reasonable for people to lookup that research and critique its conclusions for themselves. It also demonstrates that the research is indeed sparse and more peer-reviewed research is very much needed. While the ABC’s anecdotes of lived experience are very helpful pastorally, they do not in themselves constitute research or “data”, ie anecdotes are not sufficient to identify patterns and systematic problems in Australian churches. For that we really need some peer-reviewed Australian stats.

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    1. Erin

      Researchers from Australian National University reached this conclusion when critiquing the US findings: “Inference about any protective effects of regular conservative protestant church attendance on domestic violence perpetration in contemporary Australia is therefore highly problematic. It also runs the high risk of shifting blame and drawing attention away from listening to the experiences of those who have spoken out.” The typical objections, however, have been based on interpreting the findings to mean that regular Protestant church-goers are not likely to abuse their spouses. Among the several limitations pointed out by the ANU researchers, the biggest one for me is that they measured physical violence, not domestic violence. Hence a critical look will reveal that that study has little to say about DV, in US or anywhere.

      Even though there is yet to be research regarding prevalence rates in Australia, it is noteworthy that Julia’s position is in line with the body of peer-reviewed literature about domestic violence among Christians in Australia. In the absence of prevalence data, Julia’s report can play a role in shedding light on the issue. We don’t have to wait for published statistical data to begin to put together “pieces of the puzzle” and make tentative conclusions about the state of affairs in Australian churches. Although the material gathered from Julia’s interviews may be considered anecdotal in nature, qualitative data are often collected that way and considered just as legitimate as quantitative data, answering a different question of “what” vs the question of “how much”. Nevertheless, I agree they should, of course, ideally be followed up by rigorous and peer-reviewed research to fill in the rest of the gaps in knowledge.

      Reply

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