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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.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
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.
PLOS | OPEN FOR DISCOVERY
Chloe Medosch | Publications Manager, PLOS ONE
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.