PLoS ONE retracts goddy paper on the human hand

March 3, 2016 • 3:17 pm

Well, that didn’t take long. As I noted this morning, the journal PLoS ONE published a paper by three Chinese scientists about the biomechanics of the human hand. Bizarrely, the paper mentioned three times that this was evidence for a creator’s plan.

Now, according to Retraction Watch, which gives links, the entire paper has been retracted, as evidenced from this comment in the discussion:

The PLOS ONE editors have followed up on the concerns raised about this publication. We have completed an evaluation of the history of the submission and received advice from two experts in our editorial board. Our internal review and the advice we have received have confirmed the concerns about the article and revealed that the peer review process did not adequately evaluate several aspects of the work.

In light of the concerns identified, the PLOS ONE editors have decided to retract the article, the retraction is being processed and will be posted as soon as possible. We apologize for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.

Now they could have fixed the paper simply by taking out the three sentences referring to “the creator”, but it looks as if there were other problems as well. Kudos to the journal for acting so quickly, but only mini-kudos. The paper was, after all, reviewed by several scientists and approved by an editor. And of course they had to do something because the journal was really looking bad.

I’m not a big fan of PLoS ONE, whose philosophy seems to be that if the methods and conclusions are sound, the paper should be published—regardless of whether the results are interesting. In principle, that means that any finding could be published, although that’s not the way it works.

What this does show is what all biologists know: we’re very hostile to those who invoke the supernatural in their science. After centuries of experience showing that invoking gods adds nothing to our understanding of the cosmos. As Laplace supposedly said, “We don’t need that hypothesis.”

36 thoughts on “PLoS ONE retracts goddy paper on the human hand

  1. > In principle, that means that any finding could be published

    But is that, necessarily, a bad thing? In many areas there’s huge underreporting of negative findings, for instance.

    1. I also disagree with this. Everything that is sound and well done should be published. Someone spent time doing the work, learned from it and someone will benefit from the data. Interesting is not a relevant qualifier.

    2. I also agree that anything that is sound should be publishable. And I’d like to add that this ‘saga’ is an excellent example of post-publication peer-review at its finest. Furthermore, thinking back to stories such as ‘arsenic life’ and similar, shows tgat even ‘fancy’ journals can publish some really poor science. Indeed, what’s best for science, I think, in the long run, is to move towards an open repository-like model where papers are published, without journals, or aspirations of ‘impact’, as a celebration of science for science’s sake. 🙂

    3. I think it’s a very good thing. In paleontology for instance, we can really use good descriptions of multiple specimens of each species, even if only the first announced specimen is flashy enough for e.g. the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. As for the mini-kudos, errors and mistakes make it through peer review all the time regardless of the journal, so it’s unsurprising this occurred. And as explained by the authors, this wasn’t even a purposeful reference to a god, but rather poor translation of nature being the ‘creator’ (via evolution) of our features.

    4. Does what I ate for dinner deserve to be published in a scientific journal, even if my report is super-duper-accurate and precise? Does my neighbor’s kid’s science fair project that has been done a hundred times by others deserve to be published in a scientific journal? If all such drivel were published in these kinds of journals, it would take a lot of work to find things that are really useful.

      1. Perhaps some sort of rating system could accommodate both arguments. I could imagine some scenarios in which what you ate for dinner could be relevant.

          1. and how many school reports or dinner menus were published in plosone among the many tens of thousands articles they’ve published? I don’t see your point. Clearly there is the need for an outlet that doesn’t judge on novelty and plosone fills just that.

            1. I agree that novelty is a bad criterion if applied universally.

              My point is that there has to be some kind of filte (not necessarily novelty) or you will just get noise.

              So why isn’t that journal full of noise? I think it is because PLoS One has a financial filter– they charge the authors, and few people will pay to publish their dinner menu.

              1. “and few people will pay to publish their dinner menu.”

                Well, if it counts as a “publication” I’d think plenty of people might pay for such a service. Look no further than self-published books for how effective charging people to publish is at filtering for quality material.

              2. Yes, this is common, and there is a whole crop of predatory journals that do nothing but publish such crap, for a fee. Still, there are very few dinner menus in those journals.

  2. Specifically, LaPlace revised the mathematics of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity to the point where it was unnecessary to invoke divine intervention to account for the stability of the solar system.

    As Wikipedia reports “Newton himself had doubted the possibility of a mathematical solution to the whole, even concluding that periodic divine intervention was necessary to guarantee the stability of the Solar System. Dispensing with the hypothesis of divine intervention would be a major activity of Laplace’s scientific life.”

    LaPlace seems to have been a deist for most of his life. He wrote an unpublished deist critique of Christianity similar to Tom Paine’s “The Age of Reason”, and told Leibnitz that God wouldn’t engineer the solar system so badly as to make it require intervention.

    Wikipedia further reports “Stephen Hawking said in 1999, “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God does not exist. It’s just that he doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of Science.””

    1. I think you mean Leibniz told Newton that god was too perfect to build a watch that required constant winding. (Even that was through intermediaries at that point.)

  3. I can understand how it would get to publication – I don’t believe the problem is unique to PlosOne.

    My experience in the past 15 years has been that many people are happy to act as a reviewer even when they have no relevant expertise on a topic. I always write to the editor/sub-editor to inform them that I don’t believe I have the requisite expertise to evaluate a paper and I provide other references if I know suitable reviewers, but on so many occasions I’ve seen colleagues reviewing papers which they really shouldn’t be.

  4. I am a hardcore atheist, but I find this trend of fast & furious retractions worrisome.
    Did the paper go against COPE guidelines? No. Was there fraud? No. Plagiarism? No. Unethical experiments? No.
    Only some extrapolations in the discussion that were not supported by data. How many papers do this? So why the retraction? Why not simply a correction of the Goddy sentences?
    How do journals decide whether a statement in the discussion is politically incorrect enough to warrant the retraction of the full paper?

    1. We don’t know the results of the internal review. These might not have been followed. There might have been irregularities in the choice of reviewers, or evidence that the reviewers or handling editor did not read the paper.

    2. I think that retracting the paper entirely was the right thing (actually, the next right thing after rejecting it in the first place). If the “Creator” references were simply deleted, this would give the authors an opportunity to explain in other statements what they really “proved” by this work, like Michael Behe.
      I also suspect that if the authors were Europeans, everybody here would unanimously want their heads.
      If you think I am exaggerating, go and read the article while it is still there!

  5. While the paper is deservedly retracted, I still find it implausible that three Chinese scientists from a reasonably reputable university in mainland China (it is among top ten in China according to most rankings) would publish a paper in which they deliberately support the views of fundamentalist Christians (or any other group that supports creationism). I still think it is the case of outsourcing English language writing gone very wrong. In any case, even with my very limited knowledge of Chinese academia, it is likely that the authors are about to get into deep trouble with their institution. It looks implausible to me that they would do it on purpose, given who they are and where they are.

  6. While there is an explanation that this incident is more bad reviewing rather than creationism I noticed that the incident is now being used to attack atheist scientists! Apparently we are racist for expecting scientific journals to require Chinese scientists to publish articles in correct English!

    1. The racism accusation is obviously silly. However, I am disappointed that some scientists didn’t even consider the possibility that there are other possible explanations for this paper than the author’s belief in “Creator” and creationism. They should have looked at who the authors are, where they came from, and how this could have happened without the authors being creationist. It is all about using the information at hand – and in science it is a bad thing to pass judgements without considering all the (easily) available information. If the authors were Americans from a fourth-tier university in the Bible belt, the assumption of their creationism would have a much higher prior probability than for the hapless authors of this paper.

      1. It is indeed difficult to imagine how any serious scientist could make such a gaffe that would discredit his name. A possible explanation is that the authors paid some creationist to write the article, possibly without knowing that he was a creationist. I do not mean just translating to English, I mean writing the entire text and possibly doing the entire experimental work, whose idea and sense I admit I failed to grasp. The ghost author, feeling safe, smuggled his favorite idea, and the authors putting their names over the text didn’t care even to read it.

        Alternatively, some fundamentalist religious body paid the authors so much that they agreed to drop their reputations down the sink.
        Anyway, I do not think there is any chance that the gaffe was innocent. Let me repeat: nobody would consider such a possibility if the authors were Germans or Hungarians. We should not think that Chinese universities are staffed with people significantly less intelligent than us.

        1. I never suggested they were less intelligent. But their command of English is often limited, and they must have papers accepted in reasonable western journals – in English. Which is why they often use English language services.

          ” I do not think there is any chance that the gaffe was innocent.”

          This is a strong statement which is not supported by enough evidence. It is still quite possible that the gaffe was introduced by the translator.

          “Alternatively, some fundamentalist religious body paid the authors so much that they agreed to drop their reputations down the sink.”

          This is both a serious accusation and extremely unlikely.

          “nobody would consider such a possibility if the authors were Germans or Hungarians”

          That is correct – because we expect Germans and Hungarians to know English much better than the Chinese. Based on my experience, with a good reason.

          1. “” I do not think there is any chance that the gaffe was innocent.”

            This is a strong statement which is not supported by enough evidence. It is still quite possible that the gaffe was introduced by the translator.”

            If the “translator” doesn’t so much as know the difference between “the Creator” (capitalized in the paper) and evolution, then how can we trust any of the paper?

            I don’t think the “translation error” claim is plausible, nor, even if it were, would it be an argument in favor of keeping the paper posted.

            1. Please note that my first comment here clearly shows that I think the paper is deservedly retracted.

              “If the “translator” doesn’t so much as know the difference between “the Creator” (capitalized in the paper) and evolution, then how can we trust any of the paper?”

              You can’t. That is not the issue here. The issue is what were the intentions of the authors.

              “I don’t think the “translation error” claim is plausible,”

              Language service is not translation. Language service task is typically to rewrite the paper from bad English to good, correct English, sometimes editing it with intention to make it more convincing. I do not think if it happened, I just know that many Chinese academics, under pressure to publish in international journals, use such services.

              As for the plausibility, let me spell out what the alternative claim is. The alternative claim is that four Chinese researchers (with a low prior probability to be Christians or religious at all) from a reasonably reputable, three of whom are employed by a secular technical university in China, decide to form a fundamentalist creationist conspiracy to publish a paper claiming evidence for creationism in a well known peer-reviewed journal, which is bound to get them into trouble with their university – for which there is zero evidence of history of support of such claims, and which is likely to react severely to bad publicity and, through government, to religious fundamentalism of any kind (think Falun Gong). In other words, the authors are so fundamentalist as to be ready to willingly commit academic suicide in a country where they will not find an alternative employer to support their views.

              That, or something similar, is your implicit hypothesis about this case, and hypothesis of all those who think the “Creator” was the author’s genuine intent. Now think how plausible it is.

              1. “As for the plausibility, let me spell out what the alternative claim is. The alternative claim is that four Chinese researchers (with a low prior probability to be Christians or religious at all) from a reasonably reputable, three of whom are employed by a secular technical university in China, decide to form a fundamentalist creationist conspiracy to publish a paper claiming evidence for creationism in a well known peer-reviewed journal,”

                That sounds like a straw man to me. It could well be they meant to mention god, but didn’t do it out of any special conspiracy or particular support for creationism.

              2. “It could well be they meant to mention god, but didn’t do it out of any special conspiracy or particular support for creationism.”

                I thought we agreed we should not assume that Chinese universities are staffed with people less intelligent than us – i.e. people unable to anticipate the consequences of wanting to mention god in their particular situation.

  7. Why, it’s obvious that Almighty Gawd designed the human hand: haven’t you noticed that it’s perfectly engineered to hold bananas? That’s NOT a coincidence!

  8. Are we going to see a ‘finale’ to this grand
    joust anytime in the next several millennia; I hope not. The enigma will likely continue as it has been right through the 15 billion years or so since the universe came into being , whether thro’ the agency of an unseen Hand with or without biomechanic capabilities or by Darwinian evolution …

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