PLos ONE publishes paper giving credit to God for designing the human hand

Most of you have heard of this incident by now, at least if you’re following science blogs, but I wanted to wait for a response to my own email before posting it. Here’s the story: three Chinese authors published a paper in PLoS ONE about the biomechanics of the human hand (reference and free link below). The authors found, to nobody’s surprise, that the internal architecture of the hand is admirably adapted to grasping.

But to everyone’s surprise, the authors included in their paper not one, but THREE paeans to God. Here they are, from different parts of the paper:

Screen shot 2016-03-03 at 6.49.38 AM

Screen shot 2016-03-03 at 6.50.09 AM Screen shot 2016-03-03 at 6.50.40 AM

I don’t know who spotted this mishigass, but it’s insupportable: pure creationism, a throwback to the “natural theology” of pre-Darwin days when the usefulness of adaptations was taken as evidence for a creator.

PLoS ONE has an unusual policy for a journal: it doesn’t gauge the importance of a paper before accepting it. Rather, the reviewers determine whether the paper’s methods support its results, and if they do, it’s published. That leads to some papers that, like this one, seem pretty trivial, but the journal has also published some excellent work. But there are too many editors, and not enough editorial oversight—as was clear in this case. I don’t know how many reviewers the paper had, but the editor who bears ultimate responsibility for this travesty is Renzhi Han of the Ohio State University Medical Center. How is it possible that nobody caught those statements? Did Han even read the paper?

Anyway, when several readers called this to my attention, I wrote an email to the media inquires section of PLoS ONE:

To: onepress@plos.org (PLos media inquiries)

Hello,

I’m a professor emeritus of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, and have just noticed that a new paper in PLoS ONE refers to the “creator” (i.e., God) several times. The paper (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0146193) is by Min-Jin Liu et al, and says this about the biomechanics of human hand grasping:
“The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.”
“Thus, hand coordination affords humans the ability to flexibly and comfortably control the complex structure to perform numerous tasks. Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.”
and
” In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”
Are you aware that your authors are putting not only religion, but creationism, into a scientific paper? This should be a tremendous embarrassment to the Public Library of Science journals.
I have posted this query on my website, which has nearly 40,000 subscribers, and I would appreciate it if you could tell me a. if this policy of allowing God and creationism in science papers is normal for your journal, and b. if not, what will you do to stop it?
Of course you are aware that this paper will be touted by creationists as evidence for God, and as “proof” that Intelligent Design is a scientific concept. We evolutionary biologists can’t help being misquoted, of course, but the three quotes above are by scientists, and are not distorted.
Sincerely,
Jerry Coyne
A few hours later, I got this response, which I gather is a form reply:

Dear Dr. Coyne,

Thank you for your message and for contacting us about this published article. I want to assure you that PLOS has been made aware of this issue and we are looking into it in depth. Our internal editors are reviewing the manuscript and will decide what course of action to take. PLOS’ publishing team is also assessing its processes. A comment has been posted to that effect at [this link].

Let us know if there is anything further we can do.

Kind Regards,
Chloe Medosch

PLOS | OPEN FOR DISCOVERY
Chloe Medosch | Publications Manager, PLOS ONE

Here’s the comment that PLoS posted subsequently:
A number of readers have concerns about sentences in the article that make references to a ‘Creator’. The PLOS ONE editors apologize that this language was not addressed internally or by the Academic Editor during the evaluation of the manuscript. We are looking into the concerns raised about the article with priority and will take steps to correct the published record.
Yes, the “creator” business was missed by the corrsponding editor, Dr. Han, and by at least two reviewers. Again, how did that happen? Inquiring minds want to know.
Retraction Watch (RW) reviews some of the strong reactions of scientists to the god interpolations, and also quotes editor Han as saying, “I am sorry for this has happened. I am contacting PLoS one to see whether we can fix the issue.” And in the comments to the RW article, someone points out that never mind the god bit (some people actually defended it)— the science itself was lame. Here’s one:
lartibartfast March 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm

Never mind the ‘Creator’ bit – that may have been an error of translation [JAC: it’s apparently not], and let the neo-Whorfians have a field day with this.

What I can’t understand is how this paper got accepted for publication in the first place, given its banality – here’s a representative quote:

“The neurological functions are controlled by the central nervous system (CNS) [8]. The CNS receives sensory information, such as smells, tastes, sounds, sights and tactile information, and responds to the information with an action …” (Not that it gets any better after that.)

This is K12-level stuff, if that.

We can expect that, if the goddy stuff is removed from the paper, as it undoubtedly will be, the Discovery Institute will scream bloody murder at the “censorship” of intelligent-design “evidence.” They may even give PLoS next year’s “Censor of the Year” award (I’m still plumping to get another one.) But let them scream, for we already have a more parsimonious and non-supernatural explanation for the remarkable adaptiveness of the human hand.

UPDATE: The readers’ comment on the PLoS paper, including some editors’ threats to resign if the “god” bit isn’t removed, are here. The authors claim that their word “creator” was misunderstood” and plead for the paper to stay. Even if they aren’t fibbing, it’s still unclear how the paper got published after review. The author’s statement:

We are sorry for drawing the debates about creationism. Our study has no relationship with creationism. English is not our native language. Our understanding of the word Creator was not actually as a native English speaker expected. Now we realized that we had misunderstood the word Creator. What we would like to express is that the biomechanical characteristic of tendious connective architecture between muscles and articulations is a proper design by the NATURE (result of evolution) to perform a multitude of daily grasping tasks. We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.

We have spent seven months doing the experiments, analysis, and write up. I hope this paper will not be discriminated only because of this misunderstanding of the word. Please could you read the paper before making a decision.

_______________
M.-J. Liu et al. 2016. Biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination in grasping activities of daily living. PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0146193

48 Comments

  1. Scott Draper
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of NATURE’S invention”? I dunno, doesn’t seem plausible to me.

    • Cole
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. If this were a case of creationism trying to sneak through the back door, they would have argued for the word’s inclusion as a metaphor. Instead, they were quick to recognize the fact of evolution (something creationists will not do – their deception is more subtle than that) and agree that the word should be removed.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Someone palmed something, that is for sure.

    • Scientifik
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Yep, substituting Creator with nature doesn’t make any sense here.

  2. Mandible
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Lets see what really happened. One thing that makes it plausible that this is an unintentional cock-up by the authors is that all three authors and the handling editor are Chinese, not exactly a nation with a high prior probability of belief in either the “Creator” or in creationism. Perhaps they just used a dodgy English language editing service.

    • Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Yes, time will tell, but I don’t know if we can believe the authors. The editor surely knows what a “creator” is, though, and what about the reviewers? And isn’t there a copy editor?

      • Mandible
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        From the name, the editor also appears to be Chinese (even though he is at Ohio State). In such a constellation, the referees are more likely to be Chinese, too.

        And no, PLOS ONE production team does not copyedit its articles. From its web pages:

        “Copyediting manuscripts

        Prior to submission, authors who believe their manuscripts would benefit from professional editing are encouraged to use language-editing and copyediting services. Obtaining this service is the responsibility of the author, and should be done before initial submission. These services can be found on the web using search terms like “scientific editing service” or “manuscript editing service.”

        Submissions are not copyedited before publication.

        Submissions that do not meet the PLOS ONE publication criterion for language standards may be rejected.”

        It is possible that the only people who knew what “Creator” stands for were the people in the independent “language-editing and copyediting services”…

      • Posted March 3, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        My impression is that sometimes reviewers write their reviews without reading the entire manuscript.

    • Scott Draper
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Christianity IS rapidly growing in China…some Christian groups claim 100 million followers, although that number is really, really hard to accept. Wikipedia says that official figures are 26 million, which is likely on the low side.

      It would be interesting to know if the authors were part of that number.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      What is meant by ‘Chinese’? It could mean Taiwan, and I know that Christianity has long made some pretty substantial inroads into that region. I know of two Taiwanese families here in the U.S. who are from ‘China’ (they say), and they are completely dedicated to Catholicism.

      • Mandible
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        Three out of four authors are affiliated with Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, Hubei 430074, China (from the paper). Two of them wrote the paper. Wuhan is in mainland China, so not Taiwan.

        The editor, Renzhi Han, holds a BSc from Peking University (source: his lab webpage) so he is unlikely to be from Taiwan, either.

  3. Hempenstein
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Recalling that paper a few yrs back by some Asian au’s that had to do with mitochondria and had some inserted passages after the review. Wasn’t one of the au’s named Han?

    • bric
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      There are around 8 million citizens in China with the surname ‘Han’

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I would give the authors the benefit of doubt. Let them rewrite the paper and go thru proper review. The previous reviewers should be permanently removed from the process.

  5. Scientifik
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    There’s a new book out by Dr. Abby Hafer on the very topic of human anatomy titled “The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not”

    Perhaps the reviewers of this PLOS ONE paper should check it out…

    • Scott Draper
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      That looks pretty good. How did you come across it?

      • Scientifik
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        The author of the book was recently interviewed on Freethought Radio. You can find the link to the podcast here: http://ffrf.org/news/radio/shows/
        (Episode from February 6, 2016)

        • Scott Draper
          Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          Thank you.

  6. Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I’ve reviewed for PLoS 1, and the process seemed quite professional. So I don’t think there is a global problem with this journal.

    The Achilles’ heel of any reviewing process is the tendency for journals to choose reviewers recommended by a paper’s authors, especially if editors do not have broad knowledge of a field.

  7. Daniel bertini
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Do I hear Templeton prize for the “good” authors?!! The Templeton foundation will be screaming to have the creator left in the “article.”

  8. Historian
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I would give the authors the benefit of the doubt, barring new information to the contrary. There may very well have been a translation problem as they have claimed. The larger issue is the quality of editing, perhaps in the publishing industry as a whole. My area of expertise is the American Civil War era. I have come across several books on this topic that contained egregious factual errors that the authors should never have made and certainly should have been caught by the editors. At least in the area of history, I have often wondered what qualifications are necessary for a person to be hired to edit such works or to review them. It seems that actual knowledge of the subject area may not be one of them. I do not wish to impugn the knowledge or diligence of those in the editing profession, but there may be a significant problem that is not being addressed due to unawareness by management or simply not caring.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I’ve come across the same thing in history. I suspect that editors in history just have to know language and don’t have to know content. It’s really annoying and I always thought this was just one of the prejudices suffered by the humanities.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Please could you read the paper before making a decision.

    Sigh. I suppose I’d better. [holds nose]
    No, actually, I’ve got better things to do just now. Involving kielbasa and packing.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Oy.

    Thanks for the heads up, I hadn’t seen this!

  11. John Harshman
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    The claim of poor editing seems at least partly defensible. Certainly the parts of the paper exclusive of the “Creator” bits abound in examples of broken English and even downright misspellings. Nobody can possibly have used even a spellchecker on that thing.

    • John Scanlon FCD
      Posted March 5, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      That was my impression too.

  12. loren russell
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    My bet is that the authors are not themselves creationists, but contracted translation to someone who was, and poorly grounded in biology to boot.

    That of course leaves the editor[s] on the hot seat — careless at best!

  13. Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “Too many editors not enough editorial oversight,” and therein lies the problem.

    Carl Kruse

  14. Mike Cracraft
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    If they didn’t intend to refer to a deity,
    why did they capitalize “Creator” ?

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Indeed. And when/if they rewrite the paper, will they capitalize Nature?

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        That is a good point. But yes, they might.

      • Scientifik
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Apparently not. Here’s what they said:

        “We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.”

  15. Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    who is their research assistant, Ray Bananaman Comfort?

  16. neil
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    But it must be true, i mean, look at how the human hand is perfectly designed to hold bananas comfortably…

  17. Posted March 3, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I’m willing to give a benefit of the doubt to the authors, particularly when ESL is involved. However, that said, the journal editors should be better than that …

  18. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that a monkey or ape hand starts out proportioned pretty much like a human hand at first, with the embryonic hand having a thumb that is similar in length to the other fingers like ours are. Only they then change the proportions by growing longer fingers while we don’t .

  19. Sastra
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.

    How interesting that the paper apparently says and means the same thing regardless of whether the word “Creator” or “nature” is used. The argument then is that the terms are to all intents and purposes completely interchangeable. When you hear a reference to “the Creator” just go ahead and mentally substitute the completely secular concept of nature, a nature with no supernatural component — a nature which “creates” mindlessly, through physical processes and methods. Makes no difference. Same thing. Either/or.

    Hey, sounds okay to me. After all, that’s what I already do whenever I read the phrase “… endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Works just fine using “Nature” instead. In fact, works much better.

    Bit of poetry, is all.

    • SRM
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Well, no, in a world awash with people who believe in invisible gods, Creator and nature do not mean the same thing. And this is a scientific manuscript, not a poem.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Oh, I agree. I only meant to point out that the fact that as far as these authors are concerned one can innocently swap out one term for the other with no change in meaning is not exactly the sort of thing which will comfort the godly — assuming they think this paper will somehow help their cause. Bit of snark, is all.

        • SRM
          Posted March 3, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

          ok I get you.

  20. Roger
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Maybe they thought Americans talk that way. Who can blame them since 50% of American do talk like that, lol.

    • SRM
      Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      You know, that is very slightly possible. They may have figured the best way to ingratiate themselves with American editors and reviewers would be to start talking about god. Could be the most news they are getting these days is of Trump et al falling all over themselves to be the most god-fearing, and mistook this for normalacy, American-style.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 3, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        I have read that the Chinese have, on one or two occasions, seriously reported news stories culled from The Onion. Iirc one of them had to do with Congress refusing to do any business until they got hot tubs installed on the legislature floor — or something like that. Whether this indicates confusion about what the United States is really like, a more general trouble dealing with the concept of satire, or something else, I can’t say.

      • Posted March 3, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Yet they must have read some articles in American scientific journals, and must have seen that there is nothing of this sort there.
        Unless they are the sort of authors about whom there is a joke that they are “writers, not readers”.

  21. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I could be wrong (I sometimes am), but right now I think that the C/ID crowd will not be interested in defending this one. If they really intended to refer to God, then like Jerry said this paper is more like an olde Natural Theology paper, and as such it is very anachronistic. It completely lacks the ersatz sophistication needed for a modern C/ID paper. You know, the ones try to impress with math and evolution models but are really just a few pages of pure bullshit. ‘Scuse my French.

  22. eric
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    The copy editing is pretty terrible to begin with; I scanned the paper and saw several mistakes, probably at least one per paragraph.

    My guess is that this was (a) yes a reference to God, but (b) culturally it doesn’t have the same baggage in China as in the US, and that (c) no the authors didn’t intend to deny that the hand evolved or support ID creationism.

  23. Diane G.
    Posted March 3, 2016 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    sub

  24. Posted March 4, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    In other (fictitious) news, a paper by a certain german scientist got retracted because he wrote in the abstract the following:

    “As I have said so many times, God doesn’t play dice with the world.”


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