PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science) is an open-access journal with an unusual mission:
Too often a journal’s decision to publish a paper is dominated by what the Editor/s think is interesting and will gain greater readership — both of which are subjective judgments and lead to decisions which are frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLoS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.
In practice, what this means is that if the reviewers or editors can’t find anything technically wrong with the paper, they’ll publish it, even if the results are completely trivial or irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of science. And, it seems, even the “rigorous peer review” sometimes fails, as in the case of the putative “missing link” Darwinius, which was rushed to print, apparently without much rigor on the part of reviewers. It proved to be controversial and almost certainly not a link between the two major branches of primates.
I go back and forth on whether this journal is needed, or useful. Sometimes data that are good but not earthshaking need a home. On the other hand, there are plenty of second- to fifth-rate journals that will publish nearly anything, including the kind of paper that PLoS ONE handles, so why do we need another one? Many scientists, I think, regard PLoS ONE as a place to give extra cachet to those almost-unpublishable papers. Rather than putting them in Nutting’s Bird Journal, we can put them in PLoS ONE and hope that some of the glitter of the other PLoS journals, which publish much better stuff, rubs off.
PLoS ONE’s reputation was, however, tarnished by its publication of the Darwinius paper, implying that even its vaunted “rigor” was negotiable if the discovery was sufficiently buzz-worthy. And now that reputation has slipped a huge notch. For, as many of you know (see the post at Pharyngula), the journal has just published a paper modeling how the Red Sea might have parted to allow the Jews to leave Egypt.
The paper, “Dynamics of wind setdown at Suez and the eastern Nile Delta” is by Carl Drews and Weiquing Han from the University of Colorado at Boulder. It’s long, technical, and boring, but the upshot is that high winds, blowing for a sufficiently long period, could have driven shallow waters in the Nile delta back, exposing a reef that was about 2 meters underwater. The exposure could have lasted long enough to permit a “mixed group of people” (aka Israelites) to cross a temporary land bridge. Then, when the winds abated, the waters would rejoin, presumably drowning anyone in pursuit. The paper uses mathematical modeling, hydrology and satellite mapping to show that the exposure of mud flats could have occurred in two locations with 100 km/hr winds.
This is a not-so-transparent attempt to give plausibility to the story from Exodus 14 of Moses parting the waters. But why on earth would two scientists want to show that one part of a fictitious story is plausible? Well, check out author Carl Drews’s website, Christianity and Evolution. Although Drews is a theistic evolutionist who doesn’t like intelligent design, he’s also a devout Christian who spends a lot of time trying to reconcile science with the Bible. He even has a credo, “What I believe“, which includes this:
I believe that the Holy Bible is the true word of God. I believe everything that the Bible says about itself. The Bible is divinely inspired and divinely passed through history over thousands of years. The witness of the Bible is essential for understanding our faith, and for living out our lives in service to Jesus Christ. The Word of God is our Rock, the foundation upon which our Christian faith is based.
I believe that the Bible never requires me to bear false witness about God’s creation. [Drews’s emphasis]
I reject the idea that evolution and Christianity are always and must be in opposition to each other. I reject the notion that if the scientific theory of evolution is true, then Christianity must be false. I reject the idea that people who accept evolution must be atheists. I reject the idea that the scientific theory of evolution fundamentally denies the idea of God the Creator. I reject the idea that evolution and Christian faith are inevitably in conflict with each other and cannot be reconciled.
Next to these great beliefs, a biological theory seems pretty unimportant. That impression is correct. Do I “Believe in Evolution” like I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Absolutely not! I accept the Theory of Evolution like I use the Quadratic Formula; they are both useful for a certain class of problems that I sometimes have to solve. I certainly do not place my eternal life and soul in the care of a scientific theory or a mathematical formula. I am no atheist. I place my entire being in the hands of God Almighty through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Do you sense here a motivation for the paper? Anyway, it’s a ludicrous endeavor, and shame on PLoS ONE for publishing it. If that journal is in the business of publishing scientific tests of fictitious Bible stories, let’s see some papers like these:
- An investigation of whether any natural force could make the wheels simultaneously fall off the chariots of an entire army. After all, Exodus 14 says, “And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily. . “
- A refutation of the idea that the wind posited by Drews and Han could have produced the scenario given in the Bible, which calls for waters rising above the reef on both sides: “. . and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” After all, the diagram of Drews and Han shows no “wall” of water on either side, but waters lower than the “crossing” reef on both sides, but which gradually rise up with distance on one side and not the other—the scenario a strong wind would produce.
- A scientific study of whether there is historical evidence for a mass exodus of Jews from Egypt to the Sinai around 1200 BC. Oh, wait—that’s already been done. There isn‘t any evidence.
Given the lack of historical evidence for an Exodus, why is PLoS ONE in the business of publishing papers supporting its likelihood, especially when the scenario of Drews and Han doesn’t correspond at all to the scenario described in the Old Testament? After all, if you’re going to support a story, how can you justify picking those parts of the story that could have happened, and ignoring those that couldn’t? What about those walls of water on either side of the Israelites?
This is a huge embarrassment for the journal. But I predict that, rather than apologizing for their bad judgment, the editors will—as they did for Darwinius—defend their actions. And that will open the floodgates for a whole host of Jebus-scientists to publish “technically sound” defenses of the Bible.
Don’t miss Exodus 14 in The LOLcat Bible.