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Racism? Here's an Interesting Take on the PLOS ONE Censorship Story

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The authors and editor of the now retracted PLOS ONE paper, making reference to "design" and a "Creator" in analyzing the human hand, are Chinese. One author appealed for mercy, citing problems with the translation of their work into English. In Chinese, he explained, they attributed the architecture of the hand to "Nature," not God. Nevertheless, rather than simply amend the article, the peer-reviewed journal bowed to a lynch mob of censors and pulled it altogether.

A blogger who goes by the handle dr24hours made me think about something I hadn't considered: the possibility that racial bigotry played a role. Retracting a paper is serious business:

Retractions matter, and can destroy careers. These scientists don't deserve one. Their paper is valid. They have a poor translation of an idiom, which made a bunch of anti-religious bigots in the scientific community flip out and start howling, and mob PLOSONE, who retracted the paper reflexively with no investigation of their own. Disgrace all around.

What's racist about it, though?

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.

That's what science twitter is doing. It's asinine, and it's bigotry. We are so isolated by our western scientific environment that we assume what we've decided is the worst possible thing (Gasp! Religiosity!) about anyone who doesn't assiduously scrub any potential supernatural language from their translations.

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.

I'm not endorsing this theory. Calling people "racist" is also serious business. Plus, the editor of the paper, who received his BS from Peking University, studied for his PhD in Australia and currently teaches in Ohio. So presumably he speaks English.

But certainly some form of bigotry played a role in the retraction. Mere mistranslation or an editor's goof that did not seem to favor a religious interpretation would obviously not have occasioned the riot this did. Since the journal is online, it could easily have been fixed, with an editor's note added indicating as much, not retracted.

My late father-in-law was a professional translator, from Russian to English, specializing in technical and scientific literature. That an error like this could creep into his fine work and survive scrutiny by reviewers seems surprising to me. But who knows.

H/t Retraction Watch.

Image credit: © Romolo Tavani / Dollar Photo Club.