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This scientific paper says our hands were designed by God. How did that happen?

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

In January, a team of scientists from China and Worcester, Massachusetts, published a paper in the journal PLOS One about hand coordination.

It was a fair topic for inquiry. "It is not understood which biomechanical characteristics are responsible for hand coordination and what specific effect each biomechanical characteristic has," the study summarized in the abstract. To find out, the scientists outfitted 30 subjects with special gloves to track the fine movements of their hands while they performed coordination tasks.

That's all great.

But just a few lines down, the authors included a phrase that has many commenters on the PLOS website calling for retraction.

Hand coordination is the result of "proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way," the authors wrote.

Yup. Creator. Big "C."

These academics apparently snuck a reference to God in a scientific journal, seemingly without triggering an edit from the peer review process or PLOS.

The body text of the article references "the Creator" two more times. The boldest is in the conclusion, where the authors (perhaps unwittingly; more on this below) write that their evidence is confirmation of God's ingenious handiwork:

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.

On the PLOS website, many angry readers called for the retraction of the article or an amendment of the line. Many of PLOS's own editors were fuming. One wrote in a comment, "The article should be retracted and the handling editor should be dismissed. As an Editor for this journal, I am appalled."

This might boil down to a huge misunderstanding.

Ming-Jin Liu, the lead author of the paper and a researcher at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, wrote in a comment Thursday that the inclusion of "the Creator" is the result of a mistranslation. The research team didn't mean to imply God, she insists, but rather that hand coordination was the result of natural selection. Which is exactly the opposite of how it was interpreted.

Oops. She explained:

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.

In the comment thread that followed, Ming-Jin further defended her paper from any readers. "It does not affect our results if changing the word Creator to NATURE," she wrote, which is a fair point. (Unsurprisingly, that didn't satisfy some readers. You can read the whole thread here.)

This still doesn't explain why the line made it through PLOS's editors.

On its website, PLOS has issued this apology:

The PLOS ONE editors apologize that this language was not addressed internally or by the Academic Editor during the evaluation of the manuscript. We are looking into the concerns raised about the article with priority and will take steps to correct the published record.

Soon after, PLOS ONE decided to retract the article, writing an internal review found "the peer review process did not adequately evaluate several aspects of the work."

Referencing "the Creator" in a scientific article isn’t just funny to us and humiliating to the journal — it’s also a highly touchy subject for the larger scientific community. In recent years, creationism backers have adopted scientific-like language in their attempts to dispel evolution. (There are whole museums devoted to "creation science" and ironing out discrepancies between the Bible and established fact.) Most scientists — including those who may be religious — try to be exceedingly careful not to mix up their beliefs with verifiable facts.

It's interesting that while the study was published in January, this has only now become an issue of outrage in March. (The first commenter to mention the phrase posted on March 2. Then, it appears, the article landed on Reddit, where outrage bloomed. The website Retraction Watch picked up on the story as well.) All this goes to show that few people may be doing close reads of the flood of science that's published every week.