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Creationist article Article with creationist language published in Plos-One

Dan Gianola pointed me to this one. It’s an article by Ming-Jin Liu, Cai-Hua Xiong, Le Xiong, and Xiao-Lin Huang with the innocuous title, “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living,” and a boring abstract:

Hand coordination can allow humans to have dexterous control with many degrees of freedom to perform various tasks in daily living. An important contributing factor to this important ability is the complex biomechanical architecture of the human hand. However, drawing a clear functional link between biomechanical architecture and hand coordination is challenging. It is not understood which biomechanical characteristics are responsible for hand coordination and what specific effect each biomechanical characteristic has. To explore this link, we first inspected the characteristics of hand coordination during daily tasks through a statistical analysis of the kinematic data . . .

Which all of a sudden takes a surprising twist:

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.

Whoa! I didn’t see that one coming.

It’s a bit sad, actually. God used to run the world, he’d throw down thunderbolts and smite people, then he was in charge of your immortal soul, and now, he’s reduced to . . . providing comfort! The God of the Ergonomic Gaps, as it were. A real step down for the guy.

Plos-One papers are allowed Reader Comments, and this one has 44 already: “Improper” . . . “Shameful” . . . “this paper should be retracted immediately” . . . “Alas, it’s not a hoax” . . . “Horrifying” . . . “Unacceptable in a scientific journal” . . . “This paper should be retracted immediately” . . . you get the picture.

Also a hilariously inept bit of backpedaling by one of the paper’s authors:

Our study has no relationship with creationism. . . . We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. . . .

One reason I’m suspicious of this claim is because of this list of subject areas of the paper:

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 6.54.05 PM

“Built structures,” huh?

From my perspective, the paper is more amusing than bothersome, I guess because Plos-One isn’t one of the journals that I publish in. If something comparable were published in the American Political Science Review or the Journal of the American Statistical Association, I’d be pretty annoyed.

One advantage of Plos-One is that it identifies the editor for each paper. This one is listed as Renzhi Han, Ohio State University Medical Center. So I googled and found this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 5.56.11 PM

Wow, a whole lab named after himself! That’s pretty impressive already. . . . Another search brings us to this post on Retraction Watch, where Han says he’s sorry this happened. And, in an update, Gianola reports that the paper has been retracted.

I guess the editor of the paper didn’t read all the way down to the end of the abstract! I guess he was busy managing the “Han Lab”—that must take a lot of time!

Larger questions

So this particular case is pretty boring: someone slipped in some Creator stuff in an otherwise utterly boring paper submitted to a journal that will publishes anything (which is not a bad thing; it’s good to have journals such as Plos-One that can serve an archival purpose without requiring that each paper be some sort of “breakthrough”), the editor accepts the paper without reading it (indeed, without even reading the abstract, it seems), there’s an uproar, the paper gets retracted.

More interesting, perhaps, is the idea that creationism is out of bounds in scientific discourse. Actually, I do think a creationist paper could be published in a mainstream science journal such as Plos-One. It’s just that they’d actually have to make an argument for their point. Scientific arguments for creationism have been made before, and they’ve been found wanting, but if someone wants to try again, I think they’d be able to get published. After all, medical journals have published articles on the purported effects of intercessory prayer (tl;dr: p=.04, garden of forking paths, failed replications, etc; basically power pose without the Ted talk, the book contract, and the Harvard publicity), so it’s not like there’s some ban on publishing science-based speculations on the supernatural. The problem with the recent Liu et al. paper is that they just slipped in some mentions to the Creator without ever making a case for it.

The closest thing to a creationist event in statistics publication was the notorious publication in 1994 in the journal Statistical Science of a paper on the so-called Bible Code, yet another effort in multiple comparisons that hit the bestseller list, using the generosity of the scientific publishing process to give it undeserved credibility. Unfortunately for the Bible Code dudes, Ted talks didn’t exist back in 1994 so they weren’t able to fully duplicate the success of power pose. They did get mentioned in NPR, though.

How did Statistical Science end up publishing a paper with such low statistical quality (even setting aside the scientific implausibility of their being such a “code”)? Three things, I think:

1. Back in 1994 we were much less aware of how easy it was to obtain statistical significance via researcher degrees of freedom in data processing and analysis. Back then, we knew about the file-drawer effect and we knew about multiple comparisons, but there was much less awareness of how many multiple potential comparisons are in any analysis. The editors of Statistical Science were insufficiently attuned to the garden of forking paths (and I too didn’t recognize the importance of this phenomenon in trying to interpret empirical claims).

2. Technical details. The Bible Code paper was full of stuff about ancient Hebrew. Who knows anything about that? So it’s simplest to take the authors’ word for everything and assume they’re accurately describing their data and what they did.

3. Bending over backward to be fair. Should a scientific journal reject a paper just because it’s about the supernatural? We want to avoid suppressing unorthodox ideas. It’s a tough call. My take on this: Yes, we want to avoid suppressing unorthodox ideas. But we should not give such papers “the benefit of the doubt.”

The problem with the Bible Code paper was not just in its lack of scientific content. It was also crappy from a statistical perspective. And these two things go together: if you want to scientifically prove something that isn’t true, you have to cheat (or leave yourself enough wiggle room to be able to make a bunch of mistakes in your favor) somewhere. It’s no coincidence that a paper purporting to prove a crappy theory will have crappy statistics. Good statistics wouldn’t do the job here! Only crappy statistics will bring you over the finish line. And, in retrospect, the reviewers of the Bible Code paper should’ve been able to notice the crappy statistics.

But, again, back in 1994 we were much less aware of the havoc being wreaked by null hypothesis significance testing coupled with uncontrolled researcher degrees of freedom. Back in 1994, Uri Simonsohn was still in high school [college, actually — ed.]!

One more time

And it happened again! I’m referring, of course, to the 2011 publication of that ESP paper by Daryl Bem in top psychology journal JPSP.

Same story, same script: a supernatural theory, researcher degrees of freedom all over the place, technical mumbo-jumbo, and a desperate desire on the part of the editors not to censor the unorthodox.

And, I like what I wrote just above so I’ll repeat it here:

The problem with Bem’s ESP paper was not just in its lack of scientific content. It was also crappy from a statistical perspective. And these two things go together: if you want to scientifically prove something that isn’t true, you have to cheat (or leave yourself enough wiggle room to be able to make a bunch of mistakes in your favor) somewhere. It’s no coincidence that a paper purporting to prove a crappy theory will have crappy statistics. Good statistics wouldn’t do the job here! Only crappy statistics will bring you over the finish line. And, in retrospect, the reviewers of that paper should’ve been able to notice the crappy statistics.

But, again, back in 2011 we were much less aware of the havoc being wreaked by null hypothesis significance testing coupled with uncontrolled researcher degrees of freedom. Back in 2011, Uri Simonsohn was still an assistant professor!

More examples

Did I mention power pose yet? Himmicanes? Fat arms and political attitudes? Monthly cycle and voting? Same story, just without the overtly supernatural elements.

P.S. We seem to have been getting a lot of spam from patriotic people using fake names. You guys should take it up with the editor of the paper who described it as a mistake, and the editors of Plos-One who retracted it, stating, “This evaluation confirmed concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review. Consequently, the PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication.” Their call, not mine.

P.P.S. Title changed to respect the possibility that phrases such as “the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way” do not represent creationist views but rather are just poor translations into English.

70 Comments

  1. Flo says:

    FYI, giving a lab the name of the PI is common practice in Biology, so the “Han Lab” is not that shocking!

    • Ryan says:

      Yes. “PI-Name Lab” is totally normal and ubiquitous.

      • “The X Lab” where X is the Principal Investigator’s name is basically the ONLY way that biology/medical labs are identified.

        • This is standard in fields other than biology, as well. My own lab and many of my physicist colleagues’ labs (e.g. [1], [2]) are identified as the [Name] Lab — not because we’re raging egomaniacs, but because that’s what’s conventional to do. How else, I wonder, would I identify the collection of people + space + instrumentation + projects that I organize? The “random stuff in rooms {x,y,z} lab”? The “this experiment, that experiment, and some other experiment” lab? I really don’t understand this criticism.

          • Andrew says:

            Raghuveer:

            1. There was no criticism of the lab name; I just thought it was funny. This site is on andrewgelman.com so clearly I have no problem with names as identifiers. My criticism of Han is not for how he named his lab but rather is for his decision to accept a paper without reading all of the abstract. We all make mistakes, I’m not saying it’s a big one, but a mistake it was.

            2. A lab doesn’t have to be named after someone. It could have a descriptive name such as The Conceptual Development Lab.

            • 1. Fair enough — I didn’t catch the humor.

              2. This is harder than you’d think. My lab, for example, does a variety of biophysical experiments, some involving lipid membranes, some involving microbial communities, and some involving other things. It would be hugely arrogant to call ourselves the “Biophysics Lab,” since we neither span all of biophysics nor are the only biophysics lab at my university. It would be oddly long and specific to call ourselves the [list of things above] lab, and moreover we’d have to change our name whenever we switch topics!

            • Rahul says:

              The problem with #2 is that given a few years you will usually end up with a “Conceptial Development Lab” that does half its work on stuff other than conceptual development.

              PI-names are immutable. Usually.

            • Rahul says:

              @Andrew:

              Have you noticed that your blog-posts seem to have this endemic issue of your not-meaning-to-criticize-but-people-thinking-you-were?

            • Yixin Liu says:

              Please do your research before you give an offensive comment on something that you don’t really know or understand: it is not only a common practice in Biology but also in Chem/Phys to have PI name to name a Lab. It is exactly the same you should do before you condemn the authors of the article. As pointed out by many native Chinese, the word “Creator” has a different meaning in Chinese context. Therefore its a language problem rather than a scientific issue.

              Also your comment saying that a retraction is not a punishment is also nonsense and arrogant. If publication has no consequence either for community development or for personal career, why bother to publish?

              • Andrew says:

                Yixin:

                You write, “If publication has no consequence either for community development or for personal career, why bother to publish?”

                It seems to be the judgement of the Plos-One editors that this paper does not develop the community, that is, that it is not a scientific contribution (see P.S. above). That’s their call. I’m sorry but it’s not a punishment to refuse to publish a paper that the editors judge to be not good enough for publication.

                Again, it seems to me that all this discussion is conducted in quite general terms. I haven’t seen any positive arguments that the paper in question has any value. The editor who accepted the paper referred to it as a mistake, and the editors of the journal retracted the whole thing. What it looks like to me is that a substandard paper got through the review process by accident.

                Of course, without the creationism thing, nobody would’ve noticed the paper, it would’ve just been one of hundreds of thousands of published papers that nobody bothers to read.

                Anyway, if you feel that this is a high-quality paper that just got garbled a bit in translation to English, you can take it up with the editors of Plos-One, or you could help the authors translate it better and submit it to some other journal. Just recognize that if a journal does not decide to publish it, they’re not trying to punish anyone, they’re just exercising their (perhaps wrong) scientific judgment.

  2. Ibn says:

    Yes, it’s a tribal thing, certain kinds of unjustified assumptions elicit more activist wrath than others. Actually, this kind of stuff is arguably less of a trouble from the epistemological point of view than the others you mention. At least it’s straightforward.

    And plos one is of course not the very top of the ivory tower either. This thing doesn’t even come close in terms of creepiness to the paper in Science a couple of months ago that described an overt attempt to purge unwanted thoughts from humans by mechanistic methods. I did not see any social media uproar then.

  3. Nameless grad student says:

    In the natural sciences it’s typical — and not considered arrogant — for professor [name]’s group of graduate students and postdocs to be called “the [name] lab”.

  4. I consider this a FEATURE not a bug in PLoS One. Paper gets published, has some stuff that’s questionable regarding science vs religion, gets called out in comments… It absolutely should not be “retracted”. I totally disagree with retraction of anything ever. Like a massive “Git” repository, we should see the whole history of what people did and said.

    The concept of retraction is a totally backwards idea related to:

    1) Citation metrics: getting a lot of flack increases your citations!
    2) Journals as gatekeepers of the truth: “a ‘real’ journal shouldn’t publish stuff about X…”
    3) Peer review + editorial input = Pedestal on which your research stands upheld for all to behold…
    4) Lack of a forum for criticism: journals won’t publish stuff like “paper X is refuted as follows”

    etc etc.

    Academia as an industry is toxic to science..

    • crh says:

      Retraction doesn’t (typically or in this specific case) involve actually making the original unavailable, so it’s not incompatible with your desire to “see the whole history”.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      PLoS One has the value of not being behind the publisher “paywall”. This is beneficial to people who do not have access to academic libraries. One important group of such people is paleontologists who work in natural history museums. I know one instance where academic evolutionary biologists deliberately published in PLoS One in the hope of reaching paleontologists working in museums (the topic of the paper was discussing a poor method that was often considered standard, and pointing out a better method). The outcome was as hoped — indeed, their paper was one of the most viewed from PLoS One.

      • I think PLoS One is a step in the right direction, though I think to really get where we need to be, we’ll need a hovercraft rather than a few steps. For example, publishing in PLoS One costs on the order of $2000 which is outrageous. I have ready plenty of good work in PLoS One though, most of it far more solid than much of the other stuff in “fancy” journals.

  5. Nony says:

    The Smith Lab is completely normal in the experimental sciences for a professor’s research group. Get out and about a bit.

  6. Christopher says:

    From what I understand, the paper made it through editorial and ‘peer’ review before publication. It is rather alarming for one of the leaders in the open access movement to have a review system that non-robust.

  7. amoeba says:

    I am not at all a creationist but I find all the comments under the paper disturbing and the decision to retract the paper simply silly (and sad). The paper mentions the Creator in a couple of inconsequential places; if these sentences were removed from the paper, the rest would not change at all. So it has no relation and no bearing on the actual scientific content of the paper, which is the main thing to be judged in a scientific article.

    Most papers nowadays (at least in biology) have a “Discussion” section where authors go bla-bla-bla about the meaning and impact of their findings. It is considered okay to be somewhat (or sometimes even grossly) speculative there. If the authors happen to be creationist then they might decide to put their findings in that perspective, and this is not worse then trying to put them into some other perspective, more accepted by the community.

    The public/academic reaction that we see in this case looks like one of the lowest-level knee-jerk reaction to certain keywords; a shame really.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      Agreed, people can just ignore the offending lines in the same way I ignore the irrelevancies about “p less than .05 so my theory is true” that appear multiple times in the majority of papers these days. Honestly, the latter is probably much more damaging to scientific inquiry than mentioning a “Creator”. For example, see the Newton quote I posted below that shows belief in a creator is not incompatible with productive science. I am also not religious/spiritual in any way, but do agree those comments are disturbing.

  8. Roger says:

    I agree. Retractions should be for errors, fraud, scientific misconduct, etc, and not just because someone got offended by some harmless terminology.

  9. Chuanpeng Hu says:

    In Chinese, the “Creator” is just another name for “nature” or “evolution”, so actually I didn’t see anything offend if we put it in our cultural background. The author have admitted it was a error. Actually it was a cultural difference, yet, those so called “scientists” were still outrageous. It’s unfair to people who tried very hard to learn English as second language and use it to write scientific papers. It was arrogant to think in a western-centered way.

    • Andrew says:

      Chuanpeng:

      It would probably be a good idea for more work to be published in Chinese-language journals. It does seem a bit unfair that non-English-speakers have to work so hard to read the scientific literature.

      With regard to the first sentence of your comment, I don’t buy it. The paper really does seem to be arguing for a creationist viewpoint. Consider the sentence, “the proper design by the Creator.” If you replace “Creator” by “nature” or “evolution,” you get the creationist view that the human hand was designed. Similarly with the phrase later in the paper, “the mystery of the Creator’s invention” and, as noted in the above post, the classification of hands as “built structures.”

      It’s fine to hold these views—there are a lot of creationists out there—but it’s not the mainstream scientific view, and if you want to make the case for it, you have to make the case, not just slip it in.

      • Chuanpeng Hu says:

        Hi, Prof. Gelman,

        Thanks very much for your reply.

        It is indeed very hard to explain the Chinese meaning of “creator” using English, but I will try to explain this very cultural differences.In China, most people don’t believe religion, so even sometimes we used some Chinese words, the translated version of which do have very strong religious meanings in English, but those Chinese words don’t. So,if a author didn’t know much about the cultural of Western world, he or she may careless translated those Chinese words directly to English, which would induce misunderstanding. In my opinion, this is the case for this plos one paper,even the authors mentioned “the mystery of the Creator’s invention”, it is hard for a Chinese reader to regard these words as a support creationism.

        The authors should blame for their careless in using English, but they should not be blamed for support creationism, because most Chinese people seldom link creator (造物主)to God (上帝).

        Sorry if my words are offend, but I am only trying to communicate my understanding.

        Thank you again.

        • Andrew says:

          Chuanpeng:

          I’m sure you’re right on the Chinese. But I do know English, and the phrase “the proper design by the Creator” sounds like creationism to me. I think we have to interpret papers as written in the language that they’re written.

          • Huafang says:

            I guess the problem is that Chinese writers usually use “the Creator造物主” as a tralatitious way of expressing “the Nature.” For example, back in the Tang dynasty, the famous Poet Fu Du wrote “造化钟神秀,阴阳割昏晓”, that did not make Du a God believer. As a country without “the God”, I do not think these authors use “the Creator” in the sense that has normally been perceived in the Western culture. It is a mistake; however, it is an unintended and “lost in translation” mistake. Thus, editors should be “punished” rather than the authors.

            • Andrew says:

              Huafang:

              I don’t think anyone’s being punished. The editors of the journal just made the decision to retract the paper.

              In the retraction notice, the editors wrote, “This evaluation confirmed concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review. Consequently, the PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication.”

              • Olav says:

                Retracting the paper does seem like a pretty severe punishment to me. It seems pretty obvious that the authors made a completely unintentional (and inconsequential) mistake.

              • Andrew says:

                Olav:

                1. I don’t think a retraction is a punishment.

                2. Based on the editors’ note, it seems that the article was not carefully reviewed (as noted above, I doubt the editor even read the entire abstract of the paper). And the phrase, “the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way,” doesn’t sound like science in any language. Forget “the Creator,” replace it by “Nature,” whatever. It sounds like a middle-school science report: “a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way”? Plos-One is under no obligation to publish a paper like that, just because it happened to get by peer review because the editor didn’t actually read the paper.

              • Rahul says:

                I’m not sure why we insist it isn’t punishment at all. Career wise I’m sure a retraction of this nature hurts. At least to a
                younger academic.

                Perhaps it’s better to concede that it is punishment and then argue that it is proportionate punishment.

            • Shravan says:

              An information question: What is the difference then between 造物主 and 自然 in Chinese?

          • Minority Grad Student says:

            Andrew,

            I don’t think this is even about the English but rather the U.S-centric view of PLoS One and the majority of its readers. The sensitivity to Creationism seems like a rather America-centric issue. More importantly, as explained by the numerous Chinese speakers here, the authors were not aligning with Creationism. When someone fluent in a language and its associated culture tells you something about that language and culture, I suggest that you listen to them instead of just outright reject it based on your biases as an American and dismiss them as patriotic spammers.

            If it was not the U.S and the American ideolology that dominate the international research community but, say, China, would the same article be retracted, even if it was written in English? Did this paper get retracted primarily because of its lack of scientific merit, or because of the authors’ lack of understanding and adherence to the American ideology, arguably irrelevant to their qualification as scientists.

            I think the more disturbing issue here is the American dominance in the research community and the lack of sensitivity and understanding of other cultures in academic conduct. Your lack of understanding for international researchers is quite apparent from your comments. In an ideal world, it would be completely okay for Chinese researchers to publish in Chinese journal. However, we live in a world where Western researchers have the most power internationally, and the top journals are in English. Continually publishing in Chinese journal would not get Chinese scientists the international recognition and acknowledgement their work needs. Also, I have no idea how you can conceive of the retraction as non-punishment. Publish or perish is a real thing, and this retraction must have set back the research team’s career by some degree, no matter how insignificant.

            • Andrew says:

              Minority:

              What you say could be. It could also be that this is a paper that would’ve been rejected by the usual review process, but that happened to be accepted only because none of the editors read the paper or even read the abstract all the way through. Take a look at the rejection note posted by the editors: it looks to me that they felt they accepted this paper by accident. And, no, I don’t think it’s a punishment to have a paper rejected by a journal. Journals reject papers all the time. Even Plos-One rejects papers from time to time.

              You ask, “Did this paper get retracted primarily because of its lack of scientific merit, or because of the authors’ lack of understanding and adherence to the American ideology, arguably irrelevant to their qualification as scientists.” See the P.S. in the above post which gives the reasons for retraction.

              I get the impression that the defenses of this paper are operating on general principles. It may well be that researchers from countries outside of the U.S. have a tough time. That doesn’t mean that it makes sense for Plos-One to publish the paper.

          • Chuanpeng Hu says:

            Dear Prof. Gelman,

            Thanks again.

            I totally agree with you that the phrase sounds like a creationism, not only to you, but maybe to all people who grew up in western culture. Therefore, I agree with you that article had a problem based on what they written.

            However, my point is that this error was committed unintentionally, the authors never expected that they used the words that actually support creationism, which could be a taboo in main stream scientific community (because the creationism never come to their mind). So, they were ignorance but also innocent.

            I personally was annoyed by the intolerant and irrational threats to the editors of PLOS one (not here in your blog but there were plenty of them), even the authors had explained the reasons and were willing to correct this unintended error. I was astonished by the motivated reasoning among scientists, they were so emotional that they totally ignored the innocent intention resulted from cultural differences.

            Also, I thought the journal plos one should had given suggestions to the author, to remind these non-native English speakers that they had used an inappropriate phrases. I got such such suggestions from my reviewers.

            Personally, I hope this event (and the controversy it raised) would help westerners and easterners to understand each other better and respect each other. It is a lesson for Chinese, we do need to learn the exact meanings of English words and think twice before trying to translate Chinese words literally to English, to avoid unintended offend to our western friends; it’s also a lesson for westerners, to think twice before inferring the intention of people from a different culture, because the differences do exist.

            Thank you again.
            And hope you won’t suggest me to only publish my future works in Chinese-language journals.

            • Andrew says:

              Chuanpeng:

              I have no idea why the authors used the term Creator. I don’t know them and I can’t be so sure as you are that they did not have a religious meaning. But I think we’re in agreement that the editor of the journal made a mistake by accepting the paper without reading it.

        • Daniel Gianola says:

          Chuanpeng Hu:

          I take note of your comment on cultural. However, PLOS ONE has Editors, right? Are you implying that the Editor was also Chinese and did not mean what the abstract (of the now retracted paper) stated?

          A personal conjecture. I think that if God had been a reviewer, the paper would have been rejected. As a minimum, to avoid all this negative publicity to designed evolution.

          Dan

          • Chuanpeng Hu says:

            Hi, Dan,

            Thank you for your reply.

            I totally agree with that the editor or the reviewers made a mistake. They should at least suggested the authors to correct their poor translation. If the authors don’t want to correct their phrase, then Plos One could just rejected it.

            But this even is not the case, Plos One first accepted it, and then retracted it. I knew they have given a very “plausible” reasons. But actually the reasons were ad-hoc justification. They retracted primarily because so many western people thought that the authors support creationism and threatened the journal!! For a researcher, being rejected is not a shame, but being retracted is a shame. And this shame was resulted from the broken review process of plos one and accused “creationism”. If there was no such cultural differences and poor translation, I guess this article (and plos ones’ problematic review process) would never get so much attention. That’s why I think the plos one should make a apology to the authors.

            PS: there are lots of description of cultural differences from the comments of my compatriots, please don’t ignore this real differences.

            Last, I apologize if my words offend you or I was over-reacted, because I felt that Chinese researchers are discriminated in this event.

      • Xiaoheng says:

        Hi Andrew,

        I agree that even “proper design by nature” smells like intellectual design; that’s also my first impression. However, it occurred to me that demonstrating and understanding the intricacy of a biological system is what most of biologists have been doing, so I tried replacing that sentence with “the amazing power of evolution”, and it still makes sense. That’s when I realized the researchers may not have meant it.

        I’m very sorry to see the improper language of this paper has lead people to misinterpret their meanings. As I commented in another blog (http://complexroots.scientopia.org/2016/03/03/the-creator-paper-post-pub-peer-review-and-racism-among-scientists/#comment-550 ), China is overall very secular, and people tend to be less sensitive toward religious issues. Considering this paper does mention evolutionary process several times, and has credited previous works on human hand evolution, I believe the misuse is more of a cultural and language issue, rather than a religious one. Although it may be lame to have such awkward and sloppy translation/presentation of their research, it’s a pity that a whole team’s work got discredited just because of it.

        Hope my clarification helps.

        Best regards,
        Xiaoheng

      • Rahul says:

        I disagree that it would be a good idea for more work to be published in Chinese-language Journals. This isn’t an issue of fairness but more abut utility, access & ease of dissemination.

        Anything that fragments the publication pool is a bad idea. I think we’ve adopted English as our Lingua Franca & that’s good for everyone. 50 years ago a lot of Chemistry & Engineering breakthroughs were published in German language Journals. Thankfully not so often any more.

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          I don’t know. I see what you’re saying, but on the flip side, a lot of duplicate work is being published anyway, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for this duplicate work to be published in other languages. Maybe the best stuff would still be published in mainline, English-language journals, but there still needs there to be a place to publish the research output of millions of scientists. It has to go somewhere.

          • Rahul says:

            Duplicate work in the same language, perhaps you can at least identify.

            In Chinese not even a chance. Wouldn’t this affect attribution adversely too? Knowing how much the lack of attribution bothers you, linguistic fragmentation makes attribution just about impossible.

      • Ramiro says:

        Actually, authors don’t choose the subject areas of each article (e.g, “built structures”). This is done by an automatic algorithm ( https://github.com/PLOS/plos-thesaurus )

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    I read social science papers all the time that make offhand references to essentially theological theories of causation, such as blaming “white privilege” or “the legacy of slavery” or “patriarchy” or whatever. It’s just part of the culture.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      I don’t think the legacy of slavery or patriarchy are theological. I mean, sure, there are religious connections to both slavery and patriarchy, but when these are used in social science they don’t refer to religious or supernatural models of the world.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Actually, the analogy between Old Creationism and New Creationism is quite close.

        Rev. Paley’s Old Creationism was premised on the idea that we had to accept Creationism because we didn’t have any other explanation for how the world works. Then Darwin offered natural selection. Today’s New Creationism is likewise premised that we don’t have any other explanations for how the world works than the New Creationism of “white privilege” etc. because nobody is allowed to mention Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection, and if they do they can get fired.

        • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

          Fortunately it’s not so easy to drag natural selection through the mud as some sort of counterpoint to the use or abuse of the idea of white privilege. I talk about natural selection at work on a regular basis and yet somehow I don’t get fired. Maybe people get in trouble with their colleagues when they try to take natural selection, pad it out with an unhealthy dose of evo-psych storytelling, cite a few noise-mining studies, and push it as a basis for human resources decisions and managerial policy or politics. That _can_ get you fired, in part because it is illegal, in part because it is unethical, and in part because it’s dismal as a human resources strategy.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Thanks for illustrating my point so vociferously.

            To expand on this general question, the Rev. Paley’s Old Creationism was pretty reasonable for 1802 because nobody yet had the theory of natural selection as an alternative. The New Creationism of 2016 lacks that excuse, which probably helps explain some of the anger.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “I don’t think the legacy of slavery or patriarchy are theological.”

        Indeed, while Paley’s 1802 book “Natural Theology” was relatively Occamite in envisioning a single Creator Who designs all of Creation, the conventional wisdom of today tends less toward theology than toward conspiracy theorizing.

  11. Jiali says:

    Hi guys, I’d like to explain why this error occurs.

    In fact, there is special phrase in Chinese, which is “zao wu zhe”. If we translate it literaly and directly into English, it is “the one who creates” or ‘creator’. Acient Chinese people use it a lot in poems, way long before Christian is introduced in China. The meaning is same as “nature” because they belive that nature ‘creates’ everything, not a special man, or a God. There is a sentence in a poem written in Song Dynasty (more than 1000 years ago) by Su Shi, which saying that ‘we can enjoy the the breeze of the river, the moon between the moutain; this is the inexhaustible treasure that the creator have, and all of us can appreciate them together’. So here ‘creator’ means nature. (poem link: http://www.rthk.org.hk/chiculture/chilit/dy05_1205.htm)

    However, in English, Creator is epithet of God because people firstly say it belive God creates everything. That’s the difference. The author used capitalized ‘Creator’ because he thought that the underling meaning of this idoim in Chinese and English is same.

    You can also use google translator to check this page (a Chinese dictionary): https://www.moedict.tw/%E9%80%A0%E7%89%A9%E8%80%85
    The first word is “zao wu zhe”. The second line is the meaning of that idiom. Google translates the meaning as: who created all things. It refers to nature. Then, in the example, it translates ‘zao wu zhe’ as ‘Creator’ (the rest of the translation of that sentance is meaningless because it is too hard for google translator to understand acient Chinese language.) So that’s exactly the same translation error with which the paper’s author did.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Similarly, in the famous ending of “The Origin of Species,” Darwin makes a literary allusion to Genesis 2.7:

      “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

      Darwin’s readers would have taken Darwin’s verb “breathed” as a reference to the story of Adam:

      “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

      That’s literature.

  12. Anoneuoid says:

    Besides the interesting point this looks like a problem with translating Chinese to English, should the Principia Mathematica be retracted too?

    “The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and
    with motions directed towards the same parts and almost in the same plane. Ten Moons are revolv’d
    about the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of
    motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those Planets. But it is not to be conceived that mere
    mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts
    of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbs
    of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are
    detain’d the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least
    disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and
    Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And
    if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form’d by the like wise counsel,
    must be all subject to the dominion [389] of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the
    same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems.
    And lest the systems of the fixed Stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath
    placed those Systems at immense distances from one another.

    This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on
    account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God B”<J@6DVJTD, or Universal Ruler. For
    God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his
    own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants."
    https://isaacnewton.ca/newtons-general-scholium/

    • crh says:

      I for one am comfortable with the idea that the norms of scientific discourse have changed over the past three hundred years. I’m not bothered in the slightest by Newton’s metaphysical ramblings, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept them (or their equivalent) in a modern-day publication purporting to be science.

  13. Chris G says:

    > We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript….

    “Nature”? How wishy-washy. If I were editor I would have insisted he change “Creator” to “Flying Spaghetti Monster”.

  14. Anoneuoid says:

    >”The closest thing to a creationist event in statistics publication was the notorious publication in 1994 in the journal Statistical Science of a paper on the so-called Bible Code”

    Did you forget the first known publication to use a p-value?[1] The null hypothesis of equal male/female birthrates is rejected, leading to the conclusion: “To repair that Loss, provident Nature, by the Disposal of its wise Creator, brings forth more Males than Females; and that in almost a constant proportion…From hence it follows, that Polygamy is contrary to the Law of Nature
    and Justice, and to the Propagation of the Human Race”

    [1] An Argument for Divine Providence, taken from the Constant Regularity observed in the Births of both Sexes. By Dr. John Arbuthnot, Physician in Ordinary to her Majesty, and Fellow of the College of Physicians and the Royal Society. From: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 27 (1710), 186–190, reprinted in M G Kendall and R L Plackett (eds), Studies in the History of Statistics and Probability Volume II, High Wycombe: Griffin 1977, pp. 30–34
    http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/arbuthnot.pdf

  15. Chris G says:

    > 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.

    Interesting. I wonder what we’d call it if the architecture came about from competing designs or competing design changes and one series of design changes won out over others over time? “Free Market Intelligent Design”? Descriptive, sure, but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Oh well, keep thinking! I’m sure someone will come up with something snappy.

  16. Rahul says:

    Frankly, the authors don’t seem creationists at all. This is just a case of a bad choice of words. They just seem to want to say that the empirically observed characteristics are close to optimal. And chose a bad way to put it.

    Storm in a tea cup. There’s so many attempts to sneak in creationism these days that readers have become over-sensitized.

    Never attribute malice when pure incompetence may suffice.

  17. Raizaldi says:

    I’m interested about this, How did Statistical Science end up publishing a paper with such low statistical quality (even setting aside the scientific implausibility of their being such a “code”)?

  18. Steve Sailer says:

    The Old Creationism: the hand couldn’t have evolved via natural selection acting upon diversity.

    The New Creationism: the brain couldn’t have evolve via natural selection acting upon diversity because everybody is the same.

  19. I’m kind of wondering if the OP read all the way to the end of the abstract either (not that he has similar responsibilities to the editor).

    The authors are twice criticized for referring to built structures in their keywords. But the last sentence of the Abstract is:

    “The clear link between the structure and the function of the human hand also suggests that the design of a multifunctional robotic hand should be able to better imitate such basic architecture.

    As an aside, I originally called my lab the “Theoretical Biology lab” because I thought it was less arrogant than calling it the “Dushoff lab”. Since then I’ve heard opinions on both sides (and have called it both things in different contexts). Maybe I should have gone with LSB-216 (our room number).

  20. Are you serious? says:

    One questioned and unrelated-core-discussion word in a paper with thousands of words was used to deny the value of the paper. Do you think it is a character of a person that work on science? If you think it is, statistics will never be considered as science because there are always outlying points in statistics.
    If you still it is, no one could learn any new languages or go to countries that do not use his/her native languages. It is because people will definitely make mistakes when use new languages. And, some one could use the mistakes to judge.
    What a horrible world that will be!

    • Andrew says:

      Are:

      Take it up with the editor of the paper, who described it as a mistake, and the editors of the journal, who retracted the paper.

      Short version: I don’t think that this one word was all that was wrong with the paper. I think the paper was judged to be not worthy of publication, period. A paper can be thousands of words long but still not worth publishing.

      Statistics is a branch of science (or maybe of engineering) but this does not imply that any journal, even Plos-One, is required to accept all submissions.

  21. Leon says:

    For the sake of completeness, there are three places the term “Creator” appears in the article:

    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.

    In the introduction:

    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 the conclusion:

    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.

    The second is more creationist-sounding than the first (e.g. the acknowledgement/imputation of “mystery”) while the last explicitly acknowledges millions of years of evolution.

  22. Steve Sailer says:

    Us Westerners also ought to bear in mind that (in translations) the Chinese tend to use the word “Heaven” in a different sense than we do.

    • Tom M says:

      Scientific papers in English tend to make heavy use of the passive voice (“animals were assigned to four groups…”). My wife, a technical writer for a chip company, tells me that in Chinese, the passive voice is associated with writing about mysterious or supernatural phenomena, and sounds really inappropriate in scientific writing. At least according to Chinese translators in her company. Translation is hard!

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