Op-Ed: Science paper, citing 'the Creator', withdrawn

Posted Mar 8, 2016 by Tim Sandle
A science paper paper stating “hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention,” has been retracted by a leading journal. Was the phrase intentional or a linguistic mix-up?
The hand of one of the audience  marked up with an  Armed Resistance  stamp.
The hand of one of the audience, marked up with an 'Armed Resistance' stamp.
Science and religion sometimes reach uncomfortable juxtapositions. A row has kicked off following the retraction of a science paper that mentions "the Creator." Should the paper have been pulled? Read on, then give your opinion at the end of this article.
The paper itself was a relatively minor one dealing with a much-studied subject — the anatomy of the human hand. The paper was published and, although in the early days of being an active piece of research, received little fanfare. However, once someone noticed references it made to a “creator,” the paper was pulled.
The paper was published in one of the world's biggest journal PLOS One (Public Library of Science.) The paper went live, on-ine, on January 5, 2016. The topic addressed was the biomechanical architecture of the human hand, together with a consideration of the hand's structure to coordinate movements. The paper was a Chinese-U.S. collaboration, written by researchers from both the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
To explain how the hand functions in a seemingly remarkable way, in terms of its design, the researchers did not draw upon the usual evolutionary connections and instead suggested that the design of the human hand was pre-ordained. Here they wrote: “the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.”
They also concluded their study with “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 remodelling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”
When a few scientists read the paper they took exception to the phrase “hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention", and took to social media in disdain. They also contacted the publisher to the journal to note such a phrase was ill-suited.
Social media tweets included the phrases "inaccurate", from a Prof Alice Roberts, and "hoax", from Dr Raja Chatila.
The pulling of the paper is a little odd, because the paper went through peer review (which normally means at least two academics would have looked at it), and was accepted by the editor of the journal. The process of reviewing and publishing a paper takes several months, so the content was acceptable at one stage, which suggests the pulling of the paper is more to do with the interest it sparked than the actual content. Either the peer reviewers and editor was happy, and have reacted to backlash; or the peer review process was not followed.
Attempting to back-track, lead author Ming-Jin Liu, said the phrase had been lost in translation. He told The Guardian: “Our study has no relationship with creationism.” However, this does not stack-up since the paper was a Chinese and U.S. collaboration. This is more like the authors trying to get their paper reinstated.
The publisher later issued a statement indicating: "concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review."
How much of this matters if the rest of the study was sound? Digital Journal is keen to here your thoughts, using the comments section below. You can still view the retracted paper here.