Hand of the Creator | Vol. 3 / No. 18.4

A handy bit of news | Photo: Danny Chapman, CC BY 2.0
A handy bit of news | Photo: Danny Chapman, CC BY 2.0

In a story that is likely to get weirder before it gets saner, a paper published in the journal PLOS One has made some, shall we say rather unusual claims. Read on.

[Updated 5:30pm 3 March 2016]

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According to Retraction Watch (seriously, how much do I love these folks) an article recently published in PLOS One is raising a few eyebrows for some interesting turns of phrase. The paper, “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living,” seems in large part to focus on how much the biomechanical architecture of the human hand drives the ways in which we perform manual tasks — which seems to me to be basically asking “when we pick things up, are we working with our hands or against them?” They seem to conclude that, yes, the way we use our hands is largely driven by the way they’re structured, which (and again, this is all if I’m understand this right) is a perfectly mediocre conclusion and unlikely to turn heads.

What’s got people in a bit of a tizwaz online is, well, this passage (emphasis mine):

“Then, the functional link between biomechanical architecture and hand coordination was drawn by establishing the clear corresponding causality between the tendinous connective characteristics of the human hand and the coordinated characteristics during daily grasping activities. 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.”

“The Creator” is mentioned a few more times in the paper, in equally bizarre ways.

Now, part of me wants to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Maybe something got lost in the translation from Chinese to English. It can happen. Given that they go on to conclude that “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,” maybe they mean it’s the proper design a creator (that is, someone creating an artificial hand) should pursue? Replace “by the Creator” with “for a creator,” maybe? But then…

“Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.”

…so maybe not. This is such a weird one that even the editor involved seems perplexed. According to Retraction Watch, when contacted, the paper’s editor responded “I am sorry for this has happened. I am contacting PLoS one to see whether we can fix the issue,” which, again, seems to me to have lost something in translation.

As I said above, this is likely to get stranger in the explanation, so I’ll keep my eye out for further developments and let you know.

[Update 5:30pm EST 3 March 2016: Two updates to report. /u/yellownumberfive in reddit’s r/skeptic community has let me know that it does indeed seem to be a translation issue (if also an editing issue):

Mingjin replied to anxo1 on 03 Mar 2016 at 13:09 GMT

We are sorry for drawing the debates about creationism. Our study has no relationship with creationism. English is not our native language. Our understanding of the word Creator was not actually as a native English speaker expected. Now we realized that we had misunderstood the word Creator. What we would like to express is that the biomechanical characteristic of tendious connective architecture between muscles and articulations is a proper design by the NATURE (result of evolution) to perform a multitude of daily grasping tasks. We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.

We have spent seven months doing the experiments, analysis, and write up. I hope this paper will not be discriminated only because of this misunderstanding of the word. Please could you read the paper before making a decision.

Unfortunately for the authors, the journal appears to be pulling it anyway, possibly for other reasons, according to Retraction Watch:

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.

I might bring you more if more develops.]

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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