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#5 of Our Top Stories of 2016: Real-Time Censorship as PLOS ONE Retracts “Proper Design by Creator” Paper


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The following was originally published on March 3, 2016:

That was fast. The sound of one hand clapping? Now, it’s no hands. Besieged by a furious mob of censors, the editors at the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE have retracted a paper on the “architecture” of the human hand that repeatedly invoked notions of “design” and a “Creator.”

An announcement under Reader Comments, time-stamped an hour after we last posted on this, now says:

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.

This is followed by still more angry comments demanding a full explanation of how the paper appeared at all, dismissal of the editor, and other steps. The upset over this echoed around the Internet, reported on by Nature, Retraction Watch, Gizmodo, Vox, and of course Evolution News. London’s Independent roared about “intelligent design”:

[M]embers of the scientific community have demanded the paper be retracted, for its several perceived references to the pseudoscientific theory of intelligent design and a possibly divine ‘Creator’.

I must note here that the theory intelligent design does not infer a “Creator,” a religious idea that goes beyond what the scientific evidence says. ID infers a source of intelligence, and leaves it to others to argue about the identity of the source.

That aside, this should be an eye-opener. True, the language about a “Creator” was not what you expect in a scientific paper. It’s not justified by the science. An unadorned inference to design is a different matter. But that’s moot now.

You can see, far from the first time in our coverage of matters relating to academic freedom, how the mechanism of intimidation works. Science papers are pulled routinely upon the revelation of all kinds of chicanery far more serious than this. You can follow it all at Retraction Watch. In this case, an editor’s naivety has become an occasion for admonishing others not even to consider researching their own heretical ideas.

In an oppressive atmosphere where doubters are shamed and punished, honest investigation hardly stands a chance. The censors want an echo chamber, and that’s what they’ve created.

There are “closeted” design thinkers scattered around the academic science world — indeed, we know many of them, while you can be sure a great many more are out there too, unknown except to themselves. Whatever the merits of this paper, the episode was another warning to them.

The article by Chinese researchers is still up, though, as of now and you can download a copy if you act promptly. It’s a collector’s item.

Image credit: © kantver/ Dollar Photo Club.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.