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The PLOS One “hand” “creator” article: Racism at work?

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So thinks Dr. 24hours:

The “Creator” paper, Post-pub Peer Review, and Racism Among Scientists.

So by now you probably know that PLOSONE retracted a paper about the mechanics of the hand for including phrases about “the mystery of the creator’s design”. Which sounds like an intelligent design argument sneaking into a scientific publication.

Except it wasn’t. It was a poor translation of a Chinese idiom, which the author states would have been better translated as “nature”. The paper explicitly and accurately referenced evolution and the real timescale on which evolution occurs.

But that didn’t matter. First the outspoken atheist PZ Myers, without apparently doing any investigation, blogged about it credulously asserting it was creationism in a scientific journal. Then twitter exploded about it and PLOSONE retracted the paper.

Background from Vincent Torley, who teaches in Japan, on the language issue here. Meanwhile, from Dr. 24hours again:

This is an example of being so closed-minded and culturally isolated that it’s got to be intentional. A reflexive disavowal of a reasonable explanation made by the author, and ascribing to malice that which is completely explained by a simple cultural difference.

This kind of idiom is common in every language. Japanese driving manuals – badly translated – refer to “skid demons”. I doubt that they believe there’s a demon in the road that makes the car slide. It’s the same as when we say “damn it”. Imagine if every time you said that, someone took it as a literal prayer to god to send something to eternal hellfire.

Participating in that kind of cultural isolation is racist. It reinforces the barriers to participation that prevent members of other cultures, languages, and societies from making contributions. Because they’re not like us. Their language translates funny, or they may believe things that we don’t. More.

Do I think it’s racism? No, of course not, and Dr. 24hours probably doesn’t strictly think so either. That said, one of the little-remarked corollaries of Godwin’s Law (that if any internet-based dispute goes on long enough, one party will start calling the other “Hitler”) is this: Any serious intercultural dispute that unleashes many unsavoury subtexts and outcomes, as this one did, is sure to provoke the suspicion of racism.

Dr. 24hours’ term “cultural isolation” is far closer to the mark, it seems to me. Here are some facts worth considering:

78% of 149 “eminent evolutionists” in a recent study were found to be pure naturalist atheists:

In “Evolution, Religion and Free Will” (American Scientist, Volume 95, 294ff) , Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine found that, of 149 eminent evolutionists polled, 78% were pure naturalists (no God) and only two were clearly theists (traditional idea of God). Some were in between these poles. The authors describe most of them as deists (some sort of divinity might have got things rolling but it is not God in any sense that Christians understand).

–Most of the world (including most scientists, probably) could not be described as pure naturalist atheists. Thus most would not know of the latter group’s’ extreme sensitivities in these matters and would hardly expect to be dealt a crushing professional blow on account of them, especially when triggered by a misunderstanding.

To get a sense of it from their perspective, suppose that a discipline in science were dominated by members of a minority deist group noted for science achievement. Nothing wrong with that in principle, if the positions are individually justly awarded. But some of us might be shocked to be at the receiving end of abuse for a perfectly good paper that set them off for reasons we couldn’t have guessed.

– To the best of my knowledge, no one found serious fault with the paper as such. Which raises the question, who rules: Evidence or Twitter? Rule by Twitter can’t be good for science.

– The naturalists may well reply that they feel threatened by Christian fundamentalists in the American school system (or the rise of religion, or whatever). That’s as may be. None of it justifies their public tantrum or their vengeful spirit directed at colleagues who excite their indignation. Indeed, it may well end by causing many to wonder just how much of what these individuals themselves are doing is good science.

– It’s time to restore the article, with an editor’s note at the top or bottom clarifying that the authors had no intention of advancing a theological argument in their paper. The editors should then direct reviewers to help authors avoid intercultural minefields in future.

Then everyone can get back to work, having learned something useful about what global science actually means. It means, among other things, that if we are all doing good work, it’s not just other folks who must accommodate us; we must accommodate them too.

That is why it is called globalization, not Westernization. – O’Leary for News

Original article saved, as accepted, at the Wayback Machine

See also: Too hot to handle: Update on the PLoS ONE paper

and Scientific Americian may be owned by Nature but it is now run by Twitter — for an instance of Twitter running popular science (into the ground)?

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