The Creator in a scientific paper

A strange situation has arisen regarding a paper in the well-respected, free online journal, PLOS One. The paper, called “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living”, was published by four Chinese scientists in January. The paper appears to be in all respects a good piece of research into the complex biomechanical interactions among fingers and joints in the human hand. But there is something very odd about this paper. Towards the end of the Discussion, the text reads:

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. 

Not only that, but the abstract of the paper also includes reference to a Creator:

 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. 

To be clear, there are no other indications in any other part of the paper that the authors have any interest in defending Intelligent Design, creationism, or any aspect of religious thought. It almost appears as if these two sentences were inserted as a mistake or a joke. It is very strange indeed.

As might be expected, there has been an outcry from biomedical scientists.  James McInerney, Chair of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Manchester and Editor of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, tweeted:

james mcinerny tweet

Other scientists have expressed their concern and dismay over the use of the word Creator on Twitter, in comments to the journal and elsewhere. Some commenters have defended the journal and suggested that McInerny’s tweet was unfair. The journal itself put out a statement promising to look into the matter to see how such language got past peer review and editors. In my view, PLOS One is a good journal, and in these times of print journals’ outrageous pricing behavior, its existence as a free access source is very much needed.

That aside, however, the question still remains: why did a reference to a Creator appear in a purely scientific paper (coming from China, not known to be a hotbed of creationism), and how did it get through to publication?

As a Christian who believes in a Creator of the universe, I share my scientific colleagues’ consternation at this insertion of a faith statement in a scientific paper, where it absolutely does not belong. I also hope that this incident does not spark a hunt to ferret out anything in the scientific literature that might be interpreted by some as having religious connotations or relevance. We have enough of that going on in academic science already. I also agree with those who think that McInerny’s reaction against the journal, was not called for.

 

 

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14 Responses to The Creator in a scientific paper

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Sy

    It occurs to me that there’s an element of cultural imperialism in this matter. There was a time when it was perfectly legitimate to include mention of the Creator in scientific work – Newton and Kepler are full of it, for example – and even Darwin. Latterly it’s become a shibboleth in Western science in the aggressively secular direction it’s taken, especially in biology, with very little real discussion of the foundation of what is, essentially, a philosophical rather than a scientific choice.

    This paper, though, is from the Chinese fold, which is surely entitled to its own traditions – or even to change them without reference to American sensibilities. We didn’t, after all, consult anyone else before excluding mention of God in science. David Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place shows clearly how diverse scientific traditions are across region and time, how much new insight “alien” approaches a have to offer, and also how vulnerable those approaches are to political or cultural hegemony. Science is not, actually, a monoculture, except when power structures make it so.

    Granted, the piece was published in a Western journal, PLOS One, but if, indeed, different approaches to naturalism, and so on, are taken elsewhere in the world, we will never learn from them if they’re not printed in English-speaking journals. I doubt many western scientists bother to read the Chinese journals – especially if they make a habit of ignoring naturalistic presuppositions.

  2. Jon

    I cant disagree with your basic idea, but the fact is that (as you know) there are fairly strict rules about the style and content of scientific papers that have “evolved” over many decades. I very much enjoy reading the original papers of 19th century scientists, which ran to tens of pages, many of them filled with philosophical musings, and speculations. I agree that an argument can be made that such a style is better suited to gaining a deeper understanding of the natural world. Darwin’s papers, (as well as Tyndall’s and those of other primarily English scientists) are great examples of thorough explorations of the meaning and significance (and as you say in earlier cases, the theological import) of the work presented.

    But that has now passed into history, I think largely because of the huge press of publication vying for the reader’s attention. Watson and Crick’s paper was about a page long, with only a sentence that only hinted at the significance of their finding. Brevity has become the soul of scientific conversation as well as wit, and editors are far more likely to suggest deletion rather than insertional changes to manuscripts. Other conventions that have become the rule include exclusive use of the passive tense, and avoidance of all reference to anything related to philosophy, theology, or even historical significance, with very rare exceptions.

    Is this a good thing? Probably not. Is it a good think that the American domination of science forces other cultures to conform to a particular standard? Im not sure about that. As you know, the American standard is borrowed and adapted from the 19th century British and German standards, which had already begun to move in the current direction.

    Because of my job in the grants review section of NIH, I was prohibited from publishing papers for about 6 years. After my retirement, I have begun writing papers for the ASA journal PSCF, a Christian scientific journal. That is a great deal of fun and relief. BUT….if it were suddenly OK to refer to religious and other non strictly scientific matters in a standard peer reviewed journal, the pages of Science and Nature, and all the other journals would become filled with anti theistic papers, showing all the evidence for lack of design, lack of a Creator, and how whatever might be the subject of the paper has no evidence for, need for or any possible connection with the concept of God. The analogy I can think of is when a democratic country is suddenly faced with the enormous popularity of a tyrannical, dictatorial demogogue, whose democratic election could (and has in the past) spell the end of democracy. (I wonder why I would think of such an analogy at this moment!).

    Newton, and Boyle etc. had the luxury of writing in a culture that was overwhelming theistic. We do not have that, certainly not in the academic scientific culture. Opening scientific literature to discussion of theism would be a disastrous course for the cause of Christ. In fact the reason I even thought that this story was of significance was the over reaction of anti theistic scientists like McInerny (an Irishman, not an American btw), and the possibility of a movement to discredit not only direct references to a Creator, but to banish and suppress anything that might even be used in efforts to expand the vision of science into new, potentially theistic horizons. Lets hope that doesnt happen more than it already is.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Sy

      I sympathise with where you’re coming from on this. It would be interesting to see what happened if the gloves did come off and anti-religious prejudice were allowed to show itself in the literature – maybe it would paradoxically show those whose thinking overall was less dispassionate! But I agree it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

      I can’t remember where I was reading recently about the deceptive effect of insisting on the passive tense (though it was also instilled in to me even at VI form level at school). It was after reading Kuhn, I think, but was someone of that ilk – maybe Conor Cunningham. All it does it produce a pretence that no real people were involved in the research, and therefore no possibility of human influence, which is of course tosh.

      rather, they ought to encourage ways of making any bias more obvious, so it can be taken into account.

      • It appears that the use of the passive tense is indeed a potential obstacle to good communication as was discovered by the author of a book published in 2007, who had to undergo continuous objections from a copy editor, who continually wrote “passive tense” in red marker throughout the text, not understanding that the author, being a working scientist hardly knew how to write in any other way. (Yes, that would be me 🙂

  3. Ryan Vilbig says:

    The word “Creator” is in Origin of Species. https://goo.gl/e1QPJ7 I’d say PLoS is simply following a paradigm established in biology a long time ago. Not to mention that the question of the origin of the universe is outside of the domain of biology, so using the word “Creator” as a catch-all phrase for “initial conditions from which or by which the entire universe began to exist” should be kosher.

    • Welcome, Ryan, its good to see you here. Again I agree with you on principle, but as I said above to Jon, Im afraid we have a long way to go before that idea is accepted by the mainstream of biologists.

  4. It would seem that someone has tampered with the paper since Chinese Christians are not treated well. It would be a miracle if the Chinese scientists did write that and mean it. If it is to be taken seriously, I would have to become a John Wesley Postmillennialist. I just wish it were true. Perhaps it will be one day.

  5. Charles

    I believe that the authors said it was a bad translation, and they meant to say nature or even natural selection. That doesnt really answer your point, of course. It remains true that there was no reason to retract the paper, (rather than correct the “error”) other than the journal trying to bend over backwards to try to soothe the offended atheist sensibilities of their readership. As for your last point, amen.

  6. Dear Friend,
    You are correct. I must say that it is good to communicate with a fine person. Perhaps we will correspond again soon.

  7. Sy, I notice you use the word “troll.” Do you known a person named Thomas Find My Way? Perhaps an alter ego?

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