Designed for disaster

Have you ever looked at your hands…like REALLY looked at your hands?

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Dude…that’s deep

Our mitts are massively complicated assemblages of ligaments and bone. Human hands help us pick up pencils, swim freestyle stroke, and even occasionally type blog posts.

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Very occasionally in the case of this slacker-blogger

30 million years of descent with modification, random variation, selection and adaptation separate our paws from orangutan appendages.

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(Almecija et al. Nature Communications, 2015)

That’s not to say that humans are innately superior to monkeys, or that our hands represent the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection.

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That distinction belongs to Dr. Spock.

Our five fingers have seem downright clunky compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Geckos can stick to walls. Koalas have two thumbs. Tigers have razor sharp claws. Bats can fly with their hand-wings! Humans can barely play an E-chord on the ukulele.

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You must be joking

Evolution is not goal-oriented. Traits come to predominate within a population if they confer some fitness advantage within a given environment. Anthropomorphic language about an organism’s features being “designed” has no place in academic literature. Which is why a recent publication in PLoS ONE raised an academic tempest in a twitter-teapot, and landed this bearded blogger in the middle of a hostile hurricane.

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Tiny bananphone…big opinions!

Our saga begins the evening of March 2nd. I saw several tweets mentioning a suspicious paper in PLoS ONE (that was originally published in early January). The manuscript argued that the complexity of human hands could only be explained if they were intelligently designed by The Creator to ensure comfort and utility in day-to-day life.img_0398

I took to twitter to express my disbelief that such a statement made it past initial editorial consideration, peer review, and final publication oversight. Did anyone actually READ this paper?Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 11.52.12 AM

By the time I spouted my mouth off, editors at PLoS had already indicated that they were looking into the matter. Several other people with WAY more influence than me also picked up on the story and added their voices into the arena. I did get 15 nanoseconds of dubious Internet fame when BuzzFeed covered the developments.

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Baseball bats, flags up the butt, and evolution. Buzzfeed remains committed to QUALITY content…

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One advantage of instantaneous Internet communication is that the modern world moves FAST. Within 24 hours of the brewing brouhaha the paper was retracted and PLoS announced that they would thoroughly investigate every step of the review process that let this article go live.Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 2.58.54 PM

One of the disadvantages to instantaneous Internet communication is that the modern world can connect you to some not-so-nice people.
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Strangers took it upon themselves to call me sad, question my credentials, and argue against reality.

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I literally have no idea what this guy is talking about. All those words are scientific, but together in that order they make NO SENSE

Anti-evolution advocates return to the same tired tropes time and time again. Spurious semantic debates over what academics mean by the term “theory” make a lot of noise and derail the conversation.Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 11.49.33 AM

Just as we observe apples falling towards the ground as described by the Theory of Gravity, whether evolution occurs is not up for debate. Scientists DO still have questions about the mechanisms—such as genetic drift and selection—that underlie the process, which is why they keep testing new hypotheses!

Encouragingly, academic twitter is a force to be reckoned with. I was thrilled to observe an eager battalion of brainy people springing into action to refute crackpot claims with evidence.

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Amen. 

The swift response from PLoS ONE’s staff makes me optimistic. However, I remain concerned about a STUNNING lack of editorial oversight at the journal. This is not the first time that PLoS ONE has found itself embroiled in controversy. During spring 2015, a reviewer rejected a female researcher’s manuscript on the basis of her gender.

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Ugh. 

Both these incidents seem to indicate a broken quality control valve somewhere in the system. Editors shouldn’t even consider scientific publications that espouse creationist language. Additionally, editors should critically evaluate the validity of reviewer comments. I continue to support the Public Library of Science’s open-access publication model. The PLoS family of journals largely puts out high quality research, and the editorial staff does wonderful work. I don’t think that these instances indicate that open science is broken (look at the rapid progress being made on Zika Virus, enabled by a culture of data-sharing and collaboration). However, academic publishing in general could stand to do some soul-searching at this moment.

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We can do better

Many smarter people than I have weighed in on what this scandal means. My favorite perspective came from Bytesizedbio. The argument that a more transparent peer review process could prevent future disasters is compelling—making reviews public (though still anonymous) could help prevent publishing decisions from hinging on misogynistic malice or lackadaisical evaluation.

Moving forward, I hope that PLoS ONE learns from this latest incident and that the open science initiative continues to make research freely available to the public. I might be an incurable optimist, but I believe that something good can come out of this disaster. Open access journals are a new species in the information environment; academic publishing continues to evolve.0123b-darwin-900

2 thoughts on “Designed for disaster

  1. The manuscript was extremely problematic for reasons beyond the creationist rhetoric. Even without the (completely spurious) argument that complex traits cannot possible develop without divine intervention, their methodologies and interpretation were pretty weak. All the group did was scrape together some computer models of human hands and grip strength data from OTHER studies, then filtered them through their own whacked out interpretation. Most of the paper was practically gobbledygook…all of the words were technically scientific terms, but the way the authors made their arguments didn’t make much scientific sense.

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