02 March 2016

A handy new Intelligent Design paper

Back on January 5, PLOS ONE published an Intelligent Design paper containing numerous references to “the Creator.” Judging from the consistent use of capitals, this would mean the Judaeo-Christian God.

I have no idea how this went unnoticed by science social media. The paper didn’t bury this, but announced it right in the abstract:

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.

The Introduction marks it as an Intelligent Design paper:

Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.

And again in the discussion:

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.

Judging from the rest of the text,the paper probably has other credible information, which is probably why PLOS ONE published it. PLOS ONE reviews for technical competence, not importance.

From my point of view, these three sentences should have been removed as a condition of publication. Random references to a “Creator” do not advance the argument of the paper. It is not at all clear what predictions flow from the “Creator” hypothesis. The authors do not support the “Creator” hypothesis with relevant literature from the biomechanical field. In short, references to a “Creator” mark the paper as not competent science, and thus unfit for publication under PLOS ONE’s standards.

This might be one of the few times that a peer-reviewed journal has published an Intelligent Design paper. The best known was a paper by Stephen Meyer in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, over ten years ago. It was much more explicit about its Intelligent Design aspirations than this one, and it got in by... suspect methods of dodging peer review.

PLOS ONE made a mistake. It’s not a big one, as far as mistake go. Reasonable people can disagree over how big a mistake it is. It’s probably not as bad as running an entire journal devoted to homeopathy (say). It’s not surprising that the biggest journal in the world, handling thousands of papers annually, makes mistakes. They’re far from the only journal to have published texts with religious overtones.

It’s an embarrassing mistake because it would have been so easy to fix. Change three sentences, and this paper would be uncontested. Good editing is valuable, not disposable.

Hat tip to James McInerney and Jeffrey Beall.

Update: Oh yeah, this story is now burning up my Twitter feed. PLOS ONE tweeted that they are looking into this paper.

Update: Grant pointed out that even one of the paper’s own authors doesn’t seem to buy into their references to “the Creator”:

Update: Terry McGlynn notes that the lab page of one of the authors doesn’t appear to have any overt religious overtones. Several people are suggesting that this is a mistranslation. I’m not convinced (nor are others). Even if it is “just” a mistranslation, the journal doesn’t come out looking much better, because it highlights weak editing.

The hashtag for this has been deemed #HandOfGod.

Update, 1:12 pm: PLOS ONE writes:

The PLOS ONE editors apologize that this language was not addressed internally or by the Academic Editor during the evaluation of the manuscript.


Liu M-J, Xiong C-H, Xiong L, Huang X-L. 2016. Biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination in grasping activities of daily living. PLOS ONE 11(1): e0146193. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146193

External links

The shroud of retraction: Virology Journal withdraws paper about whether Christ cured a woman with flu
Hands are the “proper design by the Creator,” PLOS ONE paper suggests

1 comment:

David Donne said...

These comments should have been removed or revised by the editor because they are out of place. However, it is a gross mischaracterization to call this an "intelligent design" paper. If the word "Creator" was replaced by "Nature" or "evolution," no one would have raised an eyebrow, although the statement would be equally meaningless.