Field of Science

A stealth attempt to sneak creationism into a peer-reviewed journal

Here’s a strategy I’ve not seen before from the creationism movement. Today I encountered an article in the well-respected journal Proteomics titled “Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul: Proteomic prospective evidence.” by M. Warda and J. Han. Despite the strange title (what do mitochondria have to do with the soul?), the article appears primarily to be a detailed review of the function of mitochondrial genes and how the proteins interact between the mitochondrion, other organelles, and the nucleus. The article hasn’t yet appeared in print – like many articles, it has been e-published ahead of print and will appear later in the hardcopy edition of the journal. (Thanks to Andrew McArthur for alerting me to this.)

The only hint of something controversial is the statement in the abstract that they will present evidence to “disprove the endosymbiotic hypothesis of mitochondrial evolution that is replaced in this work by a more realistic alternative.” This is a little unusual because review articles usually discuss the literature and sometimes produce summaries, but don’t usually disprove hypotheses or present new work.

So what is this “more realistic alternative”? First, a very brief explanation of what the endosymbiotic hypothesis is: the mitochondrion is a small organelle present in almost all eukaryotic cells (the cells of all organisms that have a nucleus). This category of living things ranges from single-celled creatures like yeast and fungi all the way up to plants and animals. Mitochondria are often called the “energy factories” of cells, and they have their own genome. It’s a small genome, but it contains many essential genes that cells need. Virtually all evolutionary biologists agree that the mitochondrian was originally a free-living bacterium, and that the predecessor to all eukaryotic cells engulfed it about 2 billion years ago. The ancestral mitochondrion then became an endosymbiont: a cell living inside our cells in a mutually beneficial relationship. This theory was first proposed over a century ago, and recent decades have seen a huge amount of evidence accumulate to support it.

Warda and Han don’t disprove the endosymbiotic hypothesis at all. Instead, they make an argument that the coordination between the mitochondrial proteins and those of the nucleus is so complex, and so well orchestrated, that it just can’t be explained by the endosymbiotic model. Then they come out with this stunning assertion:
“Alternatively, instead of sinking into a swamp of endless debates about the evolution of mitochondria, it is better to come up with a unified assumption…. More logically, the points that show proteomics overlapping between different forms of life are more likely to be interpreted as a reflection of a single common fingerprint initiated by a mighty creator than relying on a single cell that is, in a doubtful way, surprisingly originating all other kinds of life.”
A “mighty creator”? In other words, “god did it.” It was quite a shock to see this in a scientific article. This statement, buried as it is in the middle of a long, technical review, very likely slipped past the peer reviewers. (I can’t imagine any decent scientist accepting the article otherwise.) This is basically the same argument that creationists and “intelligent design” proponents have been making for years: that certain processes are just too complicated to have evolved naturally.

Does the article contain any more creationist assertions? Well no, it just jumps back into review mode and continues like that until the end, until the very last paragraph. There, Warda and Han have one more surprise for us. They say that “many controversial questions still need to be answered, e.g., how signaling molecules … precisely translocate from or to mitochondria in a matter of milliseconds while crossing a huge ocean of soluble and insoluble barriers.” Okay, but then they go to say “we still need to know the secret behind this disciplined organized wisdom. We realize so far that mitochondria could be the link between the body and this preserved wisdom of the soul devoted to guaranteeing life.” What the heck does that mean? The mitochondrion as the “wisdom of the soul”?! That’s just nonsense.

Warda and Han have inserted blatant creationist conclusions – not justified in any way in their article – into a peer-reviewed article in a highly respected journal. This is a (clever) stealth attempt to get creationism into the literature. The title of this article should have warned the reviewers, but apparently not enough. If the article appears unchallenged, creationists can point to it and say that creationism is now supported in the scientific literature!

I have already contacted the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Proteomics, and he is looking into this already. Warda and Han’s home institutions (Inje University in Korea and Cairo University in Egypt) and departments should be very concerned about how this paper makes them look, but chances are they don’t even know about it. Since the paper hasn’t appeared yet in hardcopy, maybe there is still time to remove the unscientific nonsense. I hope so.

12 comments:

  1. "but don’t usually disprove hypothese or present new work...."
    left an "s" off "hypothese"????

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Steven,

    I just posted this at our (very) pro-science campaign site (someone notified us of your article) in the UK ... my apologies in advance if I have misunderstood some part of your article or got it wrong about peer-review ... I blame the alcohol :)

    "Excuse as I am typing this after several glasses of wine ... as I understand it (and I freely admit I'm no expert) peer-review does not include the conclusion, peer-review only reviews the method and data so it IS possible to slip a weird conclusion past the reviewers.

    Maybe that explains it?"

    Kyu

    ReplyDelete
  3. Kyuuketsuki,
    No, I'm afraid that doesn't explain it. Peer review includes everything in an article - especially the conclusions! I've reviewed 100's of articles, so believe me, we don't let this kind of statement go unchallenged.

    One guess is that the reviewers were careless. But that is not an excuse. I'm hoping the editor-in-chief can fix it before the hardcopy version appears.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Steven-

    I'll bet this ends up worse than that. I'll bet Michael Dunn, the EIC, was shown at least the title of the paper and the abstract. The title alone merited scrutiny, and the abstract compelled it. This isn't (just) about a reviewer, I believe, but about a journal as well.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Steven
    Well done, this article seems to have been retracted already and it is no longer on the web site even. It has been removed from history. I assume that the Blogosphere has had an impact on the journal.

    If you have a PDF could you send it. I would still like to read the paper having read all the comments.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well done, Michael Dunn! Mike Dunn, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Proteomics, has apparently been successful at working behind the scenes - I'm just guessing this is what happened - and the paper by Warda and Han has been retracted. Even the abstract was removed - the journal site lists it only 'retracted' in their 'Early View' section.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Why "well done"?
    The guy pulled it from behind the scenes, there is no indication that an apology will be forthcoming, and now the authors are free to do it again somewhere else. Just because you correct a problem, doesn't make it OK. Full repair of the damage done (to the journal and the field of proteomics as a whole) will only occur with Dunn's stepping down.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The paper was apparently retracted based upon plagiarism ... "he retraction has been agreed due a substantial overlap of the content of this article with previously published articles in other journals."
    Openly lampooning these idiots for bringing sectarian reasoning into a secular debate would have been more fitting.
    As for “Warda and Han’s home institutions (Inje University in Korea and Cairo University in Egypt) and departments should be very concerned about how this paper makes them look;” Come on, one of these guys is from Egypt, which is a constitutional theocracy. I'm sure that his nut-job colleagues are impressed. The other author is Korean, and although Korea is not a theocracy, anyone that has been to grad school with Koreans knows that they are almost homogeneously overtly zealous evangelical christians. This is not likely to adversely affect the academic standing of either of these wackos in their own countries.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Proteomics site on Wiley Interscience has contact information for the authors.

    Dr. Mohammad Warda can be contacted at maawarda@mailer.eun.eg , and Dr. Jin Han at phyhanj@inje.ac.kr

    Maybe international condemnation would take them down a notch.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Curtis, I think you're being a bit harsh on Korea. They (the government, scientists, and others) were certainly embarrassed at the recent scandal involving Hwang Woo-suk, who falsified his findings about embryonic stem cells. His reputation is in tatters, deservedly so. Han deserves a similar fate.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It should be okay if ID articles sometimes pass through editorial censor - in principle anyway. Otherwise, it would look like the said journal in is dogmatically 'biased'. But, and such a big but, ID so far has been so substandard and so sub-everything that almost none of these papers have made it through the editorial process.

    D Andrew White MSc arborist

    ReplyDelete
  12. The Creationists, or I.D.er's, speak of "irreducible complexity" or (in this 'stealth attempt') "so complex" as to demand a "mighty creator", aka "God".

    My question is:"When does 'complexity' become 'irreducible'?" Does a "reducible simplicity" exist?
    Is a quark irreducible? a boson? electron? atom? molecule? compound? germ? etc. At what level does complexity demand a creator? Is there any object that does not demand a creator?

    Remember Jonathon Swift's
    "So nat'ralists observe, a flea
    Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
    And these have smaller fleas that bite 'em,
    And so proceed ad infinitum."

    ReplyDelete

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