Kathryn Applegate
 on March 10, 2016

Reviewing #Creatorgate: Why a scientist shouldn't use the word "Creator" in their articles

The practice of limiting science to natural explanations is actually helpful for Christians to embrace.


An article in the online scientific journal PLOS One has been making headlines for its use of the word “Creator” in regards to the design of the human hand. Several prominent scientists took to Twitter to express their outrage at PLOS One for allowing an article with “supernatural” language to be published. Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the pro-Intelligent Design blog Evolution News and Views both responded with strong rebukes of what they see as anti-Christian (or just anti-”design”) bias in the scientific world. On March 4, the editors of that journal formally retracted the article, even as it became clear that the original “Creator” language stemmed from a misunderstanding of the word by the authors, who are Chinese and blame poor translation. In fact, the article fully affirms evolutionary descent of humankind and is in no way replacing natural explanations with supernatural ones.

We at BioLogos think that #creatorgate (as it has come to be called) demonstrates in vivid detail the problems with the way our culture thinks about faith and science, letting the most strident voices control the conversation. We will be publishing several responses to the controversy from BioLogos voices. Our hope is that these responses will encourage Christians to think carefully about how to respond to incidents such as this, and contribute constructively to the public conversation about faith and science.

Should a scientist ever include the word “Creator” in a scientific publication?  I’m not going to say never, but in general I think the answer is no, and at the very least, one should consider carefully whether such a mention is warranted and how it might be construed.

My answer will at first be vexing to many non-scientists, especially to Christians who believe that scientists today are for the most part opposed to God. Indeed, the “scientists oppose Christianity” view was emotionally voiced by Ken Ham this week, who writes that the outrage on social media to the PLOS One publication, “shows how utterly intolerant secularists are to anything even remotely Christian. They don’t want people to even hear any possibility of something that might support creation.”

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to Ham. Our culture seems more polarized than ever, and some of the online responses to the PLOS One paper were woefully ignorant and intolerant of Christianity. There is clearly a lot of frustration with and suspicion of anything remotely “creationist,” which I both understand as a scientist and grieve as a creationist (admittedly of a different variety than Ham!). On the other hand, having looked at the paper in question, I agree with the many scientists who have questioned how the paper made it through the peer review process. The references to “the Creator” don’t contribute anything scientifically to the paper, and as we have seen, they mightily distract from the scientific content as described.

The #creatorgate controversy is not primarily about the methods the scientists used or the data they reported.  The concern is with the author’s conclusion that their study confirms that the architecture of the human hand “is the proper design by the Creator,” arrived at through a long and gradual evolutionary process.  That the human hand—like everything else in the natural world—was designed by the Creator God through an evolutionary process is a perspective we promote here at BioLogos, of course. God’s creation is a product of his will, and many of God’s artistic “brushes” (thanks for that metaphor, Jeff Schloss!) are regular, natural processes that lead to beautiful, ingenious designs.  But we don’t think that evolutionary creation is a scientifically derivable position. It’s a lens we look through, as Christians, as we seek to make sense of God’s Creation as revealed through science.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Christians working in science should embrace “methodological naturalism,” the practice of limiting science to natural explanations.  Such a practice prevents us from lapsing into scientism, the idea that can science can explain everything.  Avoiding mentions of God in scientific publications isn’t censorship—or at the very least, it isn’t necessarily censorship.  It’s an appropriate practice that helps scientists of various worldviews collaborate effectively.

This story is complicated by a couple of factors.  First, it seems that the scientists who wrote the study aren’t in fact creationists (at least, not of the anti-evolutionary sort). English is their second language and they say they didn’t intend to use the word “Creator;” they meant “Nature.”  Furthermore, open-access journals such as PLOS One are sometimes critiqued for having lower quality control standards than others, while charging a premium to authors for the privilege of publishing.  So this is not simply one more example of “scientists vs. Christians”—a completely false dichotomy, by the way—but a legitimate conflict about peer review and editorial oversight in a world where scientific collaborations and publications span geographical, cultural, and language barriers.

In summary, I don’t think the authors should have used the word “Creator.” They apparently didn’t mean to, and the editors should have picked up on their comments and suggested alternate language.  Even so, it’s a pity the entire paper was retracted (a major, major blow for a scientist), and the fact that it was retracted only goes to show how charged both the creation/evolution culture wars and intramural disputes about publication standards continue to be.

About the author

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate is a former Program Director at BioLogos. While working on her PhD in computational cell biology at  Scripps Research (La Jolla, CA), she became passionate about building bridges between the church and the scientific community. In 2010, she joined the BioLogos staff where she has the privilege of writing, speaking, and working with a wide variety of scholars and educators to develop new science and faith resources. Kathryn co-edited with Jim Stump How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity Press, 2016). Among many other projects during her time at BioLogos, Kathryn most recently led the development of Integrate, a new science and faith curriculum for home educators and teachers at Christian schools. Kathryn and her family enjoy exploring the beaches and state parks of Michigan and are helping to plant a new PCA church in Grand Rapids.