Response to “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing”


Following the Genomes Unzipped post entitled “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing”, we received a request to reply from Jim Wilson. Jim Wilson is the chief scientist of BritainsDNA. He is not the one who gave the BBC interview that prompted the Genomes Unzipped post but he is a key contributor to the science behind BritainsDNA. We are keen to tell both sides of this story and this post is an opportunity for BritainsDNA to state their arguments and motivation. -VP

I saw Vincent Plagnol’s post here on Genomes Unzipped about the promotion of genetic ancestry testing and felt compelled to respond. While I did not give the interview that was the subject of the post, I am the chief scientist at BritainsDNA and I feel that the post was biased in presenting only one side of the story and thus misrepresenting the situation. Perhaps I can offer another perspective for readers.

The motivation for Vincent’s blog post was described as the fact that questions raised by Vincent’s colleagues had not been satisfactorily answered. However I should point out that these questions were not in our view presented to us by his colleagues in a constructive manner; rather they only came to light as part of what we considered to be highly defamatory emails. The blog post, however, fails to detail the defamatory comments but rather follows very closely a letter we received in August, word-for-word in some instances. What is also not mentioned anywhere is my response of August 29th which answers in detail the questions in the letter and thus in Vincent’s post, but which was met with a dismissive three liner email in response. I shall quote from my letter below and hope that this makes clear that there are differences in interpretation, as well as clarifying and accepting that there were some errors in the interview.

More importantly, while the post does allude to the lawyer’s letter the company felt forced to send Vincent’s colleagues, the reasons for this are completely misstated; this was nothing to do with academic debate. The original emails I and others received were in our view grossly defamatory to both Alistair Moffat and the company. After repeated attempts at engagement (including the letter I quote from below) failed to elicit any retraction, we felt forced to seek legal advice, which accorded with our view, and therefore our lawyers sent Vincent’s colleagues a letter to ask that they undertake not to repeat what we considered to be defamatory statements, that for example accused us of fraud. This was done to protect the business, and the jobs of its staff, a response any company would take. We did not, and do not, wish to prevent scientific debate on the topic. Our lawyers’ letter made it very clear that we encourage debate and had no difficulty with differences of view, which has always been our position on this matter.

Vincent comments on the Y chromosome and mtDNA and notes that BritainsDNA is very explicit about the data they provide. I responded to the same question in August as follows:

While it is true that the Y chromosome and mtDNA only represent a small proportion of our ancestral lineages, they are the ones about which we can learn the most information. A focus on the Y chromosome is popular with the public, probably for the same reasons that traditional genealogy often focuses on the surname – the custom in western countries that the surname is inherited from the father, just as the Y chromosome is; people identify themselves with this particular lineage. The Y chromosome is also special because of its length, which of course is inherited whole from father to son. Two individuals sharing a Y chromosome share a similar amount of DNA to a pair of third or fourth cousins. It is in most cases the single largest block of DNA a man inherits from any ancestor eight or more generations ago.

The remark in the interview about a subsidy is noted by Vincent and comparison is made to pricing by other companies. The sentiment was that many people were working for free to get the effort off the ground and had made investments from our own funds. There is no further subsidy. BritainsDNA’s prices are actually lower than those provided by some other UK-based companies. One British company, for instance, markets testing of the Y chromosome and mtDNA for £369, almost double the price at BritainsDNA.

Vincent discusses mention of Adam and Eve in the interview, and my response in August was as follows:

“The claim that Adam and Eve really existed, as you suggest, refers to the most recent common ancestors of the mtDNA and non-recombining part of the Y chromosome. I don’t agree that there is nothing special about these individuals: there must have been a reason why mitochondrial Eve was on the front cover of Time magazine in the late 80s! You will be aware that it would take the best part of a one hour documentary to explain the variation in time to most recent common ancestor at different genetic loci, differences in effective population size between the Y, X and autosomes, and all the other subtleties you list. As stated above, in the material returned to BritainsDNA customers it is made clear that these are only two lineages among many others.”

He also considers Berber and Tuareg ancestry, to which I also replied earlier:

“With regard to the Berber ancestry, I find it amusing that you consider that an ancient Scottish migrant enjoying reproductive success in the Sahara could explain the distribution of the M81 Y chromosome lineage in North Africa. In some Berber villages, over 80% of the sampled men carry this marker. Neither do I find it likely that the sharing of this haplotype between some modern day Scots and Berbers is due to descent from a common ancestor in some other part of the world, given published work inferring the origin of M81 about 5600 years ago in the Maghreb (Cruciani et al Am J Hum Genet 74: 1014-22, 2004; Semino et al Am J Hum Genet 74: 1023-34, 2004; Arredi et al Am J Hum Genet 75: 338-45, 2004).”

Alistair’s references to Ian Kinnaird, Sheban DNA and the Cohen Modal Haplotype are picked up. I wrote in August:

“Alistair acknowledges that he used the wrong word, mutations, rather than branches, when referring to the L1b1a1 mtDNA. The figure for the frequency of the Cohen Modal Haplotype among Cohanim was misstated, as was any specific claim about the Queen of Sheba’s DNA, however I disagree that we cannot know if there were HV lineages present in the relevant region 3000 years ago.”

I note that Ian Kinnaird belongs to a sub-Saharan African subclade of L1b, not one of those described by Cerezo et al as being of European origin.

As I also pointed out in August, of course it would be better if these errors had not slipped in, but it must always be borne in mind that in five minute radio interviews time is very short and when live the words are “as spoken”; a person might not use identical words if given the time to write out a text of the same length.

Vincent goes on to address the approach known as phylogeography, which was also raised in the August correspondence. This is a well-accepted approach in population genetics of humans and other species. As many will know, phylogeographic inference formed one of the first main planks of evidence for the recent African origin of modern humans. There are regularly papers in the American Journal of Human Genetics using this approach. Contrary to Vincent’s description, phylogeography does not simply assume an origin of a group in the region where it is most common today. The essence of phylogeography is to make inferences on the basis of the geographic distributions of the clades, taking into account their positions in the gene genealogy and thus predicting where ancestral haplotypes arose. We first learnt that modern humans originated in Africa because in the mtDNA gene tree, the first six branches, the deepest branches, are African. Only after the seventh branch (L3) do we observe non-Africans. Because there are Africans on both sides of each of the first six splits in the tree we can infer that the ancestors at these split points were also African. This is not dependent on frequency.

Most or perhaps all genetic ancestry testing companies make use of the principles of phylogeography, including 23andMe, FTDNA, Genographic, BritainsDNA, etc. Use is also made of other information, such as that deriving from ancient DNA studies, from particularly deep pedigrees, from surname associations, etc. The key issue here is that the customer is well educated about what is certain and what is less certain, as is pointed out in all results returned by BritainsDNA, ScotlandsDNA and IrelandsDNA.

The resolution BritainsDNA, ScotlandsDNA and IrelandsDNA provide customers matches 23andMe for mtDNA and is considerably more detailed for the Y chromosome, as many markers are included which were discovered (e.g. by the 1000 Genomes project) after the last 23andMe chip design. We are aiming to launch a genome-wide product in 2013, however unlike for autosomal analyses, what is of course important for the Y chromosome is not the sheer number of markers, but how informative they are. Many thousands of markers discovered in China or from the deeper parts of the Y chromosome tree will not enhance the information available to most Europeans interested in their paternal line ancestry over and above 500 carefully chosen markers.

We have an extensive programme of research designed to make contributions to the understanding of population history and actively engage with the public.

Debate about DTC testing is important and healthy, but should be carried out in a balanced and constructive manner avoiding aggressive and defamatory commentary.

Jim Wilson DPhil (Oxon) FRCPE
Chief Scientist, BritainsDNA

Corrected 03/01/2013: the correspondence mentioned was sent on the 29th of August, not the 29th of July as originally stated.

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24 Responses to “Response to “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing””

  • Aylwyn Scally

    I listened to the interview. Moffat starts it with: “What we’ve discovered is the Bible, the Old Testament, beginning to come alive. It’s been posited by scientists for about 20 years that Adam and Eve really existed”. This is an egregiously misleading way to introduce the subject, and he repeats his Bible reference later on, making me wonder if he really believes it. Much of the rest of what he says, about the Toba eruption, the Queen of Sheba, someone being Eve’s grandson etc is also either tendentious or odd. When time is short, all the more important not to fill it with nonsense.

    Jim, as a scientist you should recognise that interviews like this, from an organisation you are connected with, are very unhelpful for the public understanding of human evolution and genetics.

  • Jim:

    First, I think your statement about Y chromosome and mtDNA being “the ones about which we can learn the most information” might have been true five years ago, but it is no longer correct to say that we cannot learn a lot from autosomal DNA.

    It is simply cheaper and easier to test Y chromosome and mtDNA, but it is not true that this provides more information than autosomal DNA.

    Regarding your statement that

    “A focus on the Y chromosome is popular with the public, probably for the same reasons that traditional genealogy often focuses on the surname – the custom in western countries that the surname is inherited from the father, just as the Y chromosome is; people identify themselves with this particular lineage.”

    In fact, most good geneological records record the names of both parents and all siblings. Inlaws are often recorded. In much of New England, the surname of the mother was passed as the middle name of the first or second son and by this custom, it is possible to trace back many generations, so long as geneological records exist, on virtually all lines of ancestry. So I think your statement that traditional geneology focuses on the surname of the father is off the mark. It may be easier to do so, but it does not fully reflect traditional conventions in geneology.

    Regarding the Adam and Eve reference, hopefully Mr. Moffat can tell the difference between a scientific metaphor and a literal statement. Saying flat out, that “Adam and Eve really existed”, is crossing the line, five minute sound bite or not.

    The statement about the Queen of Sheba is really over the top.

    Someday, perhaps soon, we will have a better understanding of the pre-history of people from the British Isles, but it won’t be like this. Of that, I am sure.

    Please note that I do not know Vincent Plagnol or his associates.

    Rather, I’m just concerned consumer and student of the erroneous use of genetic ancestry information.

  • I appreciate that explaining population genetic concepts of ancestry to the public is difficult. However, both the bbc interview and the telegraph article are full of quite unhelpful and some quite misleading explanations (a few of which Aylwyn highlights). Obviously interviews and quotes are tricky but these two examples of media engagement are particularly poor. DNA ancestry companies obviously have somewhat different set of priorities from educators and academics, but in general I think that some companies (such as 23&me and others) are doing a reasonably good job on the education front. I hope this spreads, and that the field as a whole moves forward.

  • Vincent Plagnol


    first thank you very much for putting your reply in Genomes Unzipped. I think having this discussion in an open manner is helpful, whatever the differences of opinions are. This being said there are points you wrote I can agree with and some I clearly do not.

    A point of disagreement is the timeline of events. I was not involved in the earlier discussion and David Balding (and perhaps Mark Thomas) will certainly post a more reliable comment when they can. But I am quite sure that the first email we (as UCL) received from Britain’s DNA, prior to any discussion with you and following the first email from David Balding, was a letter from A Moffat to our provost, with contained a threat of legal action. You can argue that this was a private email, which was only later on followed by another one from lawyers, but nevertheless this was a legal threat and it was issued through our provost prior to any attempt to engage the UCL group. I appreciate you did not write that initial letter and may have disagreed with some of its content but this letter was key to raise the tensions. So on that point your reply is I believe incorrect but if you prove me wrong I would be glad to admit that.

    Secondly, on the controversial issue of subsidies: what you interpret from A Moffat’s statements is the investment to get the company (Britain’s DNA) started. But any private company need startup funding to generate future revenues. Beside Britain’s DNA, none will call it subsidies, or even less “massive subsidies”. I maintain that this statement is incorrect and gives potential customers the wrong idea about the business.

    Then about the science: I don’t have very much to argue with you, as it seems to me largely a matter of spin. Certainly you found an individual in the UK with a rare mtDNA type, but that does not make that person “Eve’s grandson”. Among other things in the interview, the reference to the Queen of Sheba is misstated, frequencies for the Cohanim haplogroup are inaccurate and obviously you don’t attempt to support claims on the role of Mount Toba in human evolution. That makes a lot of errors or striking but inaccurate stories in such a short interview. I do not see what educational value there is to it, rather the opposite.

    Overall, I can see that your role is to defend the business and you can hardly be blamed for that. But you are the scientist, and A Moffat is not. He is obviously effective at using media to broadcast his views, but as long as he keeps telling that sort of genetic tales, he is giving Britain’s DNA a bad reputation. My personal opinion is that Britain’s DNA would benefit from hearing more from you, and less from him.

  • I can only support Marnie’s comment. Especially for citizen scientists active in Phylo-Genetics and Population Admixture research, it is very important, that misleading and erroneous statements in mass media are avoided. Defamatory, agressive, biased communication and lawyer’s letters are never pleasant, but scientifically in the case BritainsDNA vs “Vincent’s colleagues” I fully agree to the latter.

  • I think it would be helpful if Britains DNA/Scotlands DNA/Irelands DNA could publish on their website details of the markers that they are using on their chip. It would also be helpful if the company allowed their customers access to their raw genetic data.

    When ISOGG enquired of Scotlands DNA when the test was first launched we were told that the company was using 400 SNPs. In this blog post the number has gone up to 500 markers. On the Britains DNA Facebook page the company claims that they use “a custom made Illumina chip analysing 1000s of autosomal SNPs”:

    Providing contradictory information does not help the consumer. Which number is correct? I understood that Britains DNA did not test any autosomal SNPs. The reports I’ve seen do not provide any information about autosomal DNA.

    The Geno 2.0 chip currently tests 12,316 Y-SNPs ( The chip includes all known Y-SNPs from the literature (except those that weren’t suitable for chip technology) and many unpublished SNPs which people are still trying to place on the Y-tree. Geno 2.0 is also considerably cheaper than the Britains DNA test. The SNPs discovered by Chinese researchers could well turn out to be informative for people of European ancestry. However, if the Britains DNA chip has SNPs that aren’t on the Geno 2.0 chip then there are probably many people who would be interested in taking the test. If Britains DNA customers had access to the raw genetic data then people would be able to compare results and see which SNPs are duplicated.

  • I don’t agree that there is nothing special about these individuals: there must have been a reason why mitochondrial Eve was on the front cover of Time magazine in the late 80s!


    well written, but jim wilson was dealt a bad hand here. the response strikes me as lawerly.

  • Only just got round to looking at this but have to say that I agree with Vincent and colleagues 150%. (Is that even a number?)

    What on earth does your company think it’s selling?

    I can’t be bothered to tear the whole thing to shreds but I can’t let this pass without comment:

    “I don’t agree that there is nothing special about these individuals: there must have been a reason why mitochondrial Eve was on the front cover of Time magazine in the late 80s!”

    Help me out here. Is this really how you engage in scientific debate? What is your line of reasoning here? That Time magazine put something on the front cover so it must be special? Are you actually having a laugh?

    And I love this bit: “The figure for the frequency of the Cohen Modal Haplotype among Cohanim was misstated, as was any specific claim about the Queen of Sheba’s DNA.” Um, so what your saying is that two of the most outrageous falsehoods in the interview were, um, false? But that it doesn’t matter because the interview was a bit rushed?

    Adam and Eve seem to mean different things to different people and I don’t think the Vincent’s view of their self-evidence is universally accepted. He takes them to be the common ancestors for the male and female lineages and argues that as they must logically exist then any discussion or claims regarding their existence are uninteresting.

    Actually, I think there are some different possible meanings. For example there is the assumption that the terms Adam and Eve apply to human beings. I would argue with Vincent that it is not logically necessarily the case that all y chromosomes descend from a single individual who was human. (Although it might be that this happens to be true in reality.) Logically, the earliest common ancestor for the y chromosome could be a more primitive organism.

    More importantly, for many people, especially those who interpret the bible literally, Adam and Eve are taken to be the _only_ ancestors of all human beings. So for somebody to state that “Adam and Eve existed” could well be understood, and probably was understood by many, to claim that all human beings descended from two individuals. I’m not aware that there’s any evidence for that.

    I could go on and on but I don’t think it would get anybody anywhere. I truly do not understand the motivation of scientists who involve themselves in this kind of project. You seem to think you it’s some kind of virtuous thing to protect the jobs of people working in this company but for that to be true the company would have to be contributing something of value to the world. Would you not be spending your time better being a volunteer in an Oxfam shop, or something?

  • for many people, especially those who interpret the bible literally, Adam and Eve are taken to be the _only_ ancestors of all human beings.

    bingo! and not just for people who take the bible literally. “mtDNA eve” and “Y adam” give people the impression that these are particularly important males and females in the hominin populations in which they lived. many people think that we are not descended from any other contemporaneous males/females.

  • Jim Wilson states “Two individuals sharing a Y chromosome share a similar amount of DNA to a pair of third or fourth cousins.”…..

    Please forgive my ignorance but is he saying that two people matching over 67 markers as per e.g. FTdna merely reflects a 3rd to 4th cousin relationship?
    If that is the case then I think an awful lot of people are investing in DNA tests with no earthly hope of gaining any benefit.

  • “I don’t agree that there is nothing special about these individuals: there must have been a reason why mitochondrial Eve was on the front cover of Time magazine in the late 80s!”|1&Ntt=&Nf=p_date_range%7cBTWN+19870101+19870231

    Platoon, not mtDNA, was on the cover of the Jan 26 1987 issue.,16641,19890508,00.html

    On the other hand, Cold Fusion has been on the cover of Time, in the late 1980’s, so…

    in fact, the only covers mentioning DNA seem to be:

    [As Razib pointed out, Jim is probably referring to the Newsweek cover -ed]

  • William Astle

    “Debate about DTC testing is important and healthy, but should be carried out in a balanced and constructive manner avoiding aggressive and defamatory commentary.”

    This sounds reasonable, but it seems English defamation law is quite oppressive and it can be difficult to make legitimate technical criticisms of a product or service, without risking the possibility that you might be defaming. See here for some examples:

  • David Balding

    Many thanks for all the excellent posts in response to Vincent’s original blog and on Jim’s response to it. It is great that Genomes Unzipped has managed to elicit a correction of at least some of the errors on Alistair Moffat’s Today interview. And we have been heartened to see so many pitching in to question many of Jim’s arguments – thanks to all, and in particular Razib Khan’s great blog on mitochondrial Eve. However there are some facts that are crucial to understanding the truth of this matter, that third parties cannot know, and we now seek to clarify some of these.

    Jim, you are wrong to criticise us for not mentioning your August e-mail since it was marked “STRICTLY PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL – ADDRESSEES ONLY”. Make up your mind! If you wanted that to be a contribution to debate why did you start with those words? Your e-mail went on to use legalistic language that misrepresented our original e-mails. Despite that provocation, we respond positively, it was not a “dismissive three-liner response” as you say. We quote in full:

    We’ll get back to you later regarding your other points, but can you please respond to our most serious point?
    The claim that the genetic testing done by Britain’s DNA is massively subsidised. Is it true? What does it mean? Where does the subsidy come from?
    David & Mark”

    We received no response. Finally after nearly 6 months, Vincent and Genomes Unzipped have managed to extract from you the admission that there is no subsidy. If you had nothing to hide, why refuse to respond for 6 months despite repeated requests for clarification or withdrawal of this important claim? We’ve made clear many times its importance: the “massive subsidy” claim contributed to the interview’s misleading of the public, since it suggested a charitable or similar purpose. A dictionary definition of subsidy is “a sum of money granted by the state or a public body to help an industry or business keep the price of a commodity or service low”. The tenor of the interview was that a research project was being promoted, which might have received a subsidy, as many research projects do receive grant funding. The public was misled because it was not made clear that they were being directed to the website of a business.

    We’d like to know what were the “repeated attempts at engagement”? We can’t think of any – the letter you referred to was certainly not one, with its misrepresentation of our words and threatening, legalistic language. Vincent has already picked up that it is incorrect of you to claim that you attempted to “engage” us before we received the legal threat – the legal threat was the first response we heard from you.
    Regarding “failed to elicit any retraction”: Jim, you’ve not asked us to retract anything, nor did your lawyer’s letter. What is it you would like us to retract? This discussion can be had off-line of course, but you need to identify something that you think should be retracted, which of course must be something that we said.
    You now say “We did not, and do not, wish to prevent scientific debate on the topic”. In contrast, in your lawyer’s letter: “ … you will not report or state as a matter of undisputed fact that our clients’ science is ‘wrong’ or untrue.” When so much was wrong or untrue in the Today interview, it would be a dereliction of our duties as academics not to point this out. This is very clearly not an undertaking we could ever agree to – pointing out when others make claims of a scientific nature that are false is an essential part of scientific debate.
    “This was done to protect the business, and the jobs of its staff, a response any company would take”: Protect the business from what? The e-mails that prompted threats of legal action from you were copied to two academic colleagues, who have since done nothing with the information. One of those colleagues on the day of the interview e-mailed us:
    “[I] have been amazed by the amount of nonsense they managed to cram into such a short period of time. This is quite shocking and I agree it feels like our civic duty to try to do something about it.”
    So it seems unlikely that our e-mails were going to adversely affect his views.

    We made it clear that we knew nothing about your company until finding it from the website advertised in the interview. So we made no statement about its financial management. Our e-mails also included the phrases “what is going on?” and that we “would welcome your views“, indicating that we were seeking explanations rather than making allegations about the company. We assumed that you would appreciate our e-mails in the spirit they were intended, which (responding to the civic duty highlighted by our colleague) was to convey the shock and dismay of your academic colleagues at the interview given by your business partner. You no longer need take only our word for this; look at the comments made on this and other blog sites discussing the issue:

    “egregiously misleading”,

    ““…a journey of the imagination…..” which is the realm in which his true expertise probably lies.“

    “That interview was laughably ludicrous”

    “Mr. Moffat seems content to engulf himself in the “Mist and Low Cloud” obscuring of history“

    “.. unhelpful and some quite misleading explanations”

    The threat to your company comes from that interview, heard by many thousands, and not our e-mail copied to two colleagues. The damage to the business and your reputations comes from your failure until now to make any public retraction of the false and misleading claims – as have been well highlighted by so many commentators on these blogs. The damage will continue because of the limited nature of your retraction – as again so many have noted. In the interests of your business and the careers of you and Gianpiero, you should come clean with an explicit retraction – on the company’s website – and a commitment not to mislead the public in future. That is what we asked for in our e-mail of July 9 and what we continue to ask for today.

    David Balding & Mark Thomas

  • Just saw Meet the Izzards on BBC1, which addressed some of the issues talked about above and in the previous article. The science guy, who got a surprising amount of screen time, was Jim Wilson. Funnily enough, this is one of the top hits for his name and genetics. I guess he won’t want to hear that though!

    I listened to the Today show clip and I agree that the BBC probably shouldn’t have broadcast it, especially given the relationship between this Moffat chap and Jim Naughtie, I really don’t see what the problem is. I’ve heard far worse science from actual scientists much less historians! Take Vincent Plagnol’s article, for example: even I know there weren’t trillions of people walking around 200 years ago and he’s a geneticist…

    What compelled my to post, though, is something considerably more sinister: the potential collusion between public funded academics and anti-BBC agenda of the Murdoch press (The Sunday Times). To me, that is far more disturbing that a fluff piece on Radio 4. If we think the BBC is bad now, wait until its gone and all we’ve got is Sky News…

  • @Dave Pirie

    I would be very surprised if anyone who blogs for GNZ is anti-BBC. E.g. like every red-blooded Englishman I am eternally ready to go to the wall for the Beeb – no-one here is “colluding” with anyone.

    The BBC is a public body tasked with providing broadcasting in the public interest (and without profit motif), and that is exactly why we hold it to a higher standard than we would, say, Sky News. There is no point in having the BBC if it is just going to sacrifice accuracy and integrity in the name of a flashy-sounding story or on the back of a personal friendship (the private sector is perfectly good at doing both of those things for a fraction of the cost). There is no point allowing the BBC to slip into the press gutter in the name of “protecting” it.

  • Hey Luke

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the BBC was probably wrong to broadcast it and absolutely we should hold it to account when its standards slip (as in this case). It just wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme (read Bad Pharma for something to get hot under the collar about).

    But does it not strike you as odd that *only* The Sunday Times picked up the story? So either TST reads this blog (does that sounds likely?) or someone with an axe to grind directed their attention to it.

    Now, the question is whether any of the academics named cooperated with TST story. This story has only one point: to attack the BBC. Murdoch is not remotely interested in improving the BBC, he wants it dissolved so we can all watch Fox News UK. To improve the BBC, you go to the Guardian or the like.

    To collaborate with that agenda over some academic handbags is what I find so disturbing.

  • As a more general follow-up, another thing that struck me was, for lack of a better phrase, was the exaggerations and errors in the “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing”. For Moffat, a historian, to make errors in explaining reasonably complex genetics is “Meh”, for academic geneticists to make basic errors I wouldn’t expect of a decent high school math student is “Eh, what’s going on ‘ere guv?” I can understand colleagues backing up each other, but from the tone and tenor of Profs Balding and Thomas’s post above, I can well imagine their email went (well?) beyond just academic comment. As such their cries for academic freedom to criticise BritainsDNA’s approach seem a bit silly (obviously they can and have). From my reading, Wilson is right: they were told to play the ball not the man, and nothing more.

    There’s obviously something special about the mitochondrial and Y DNA for a lay person like me: they are massive, contiguous stretches of DNA that were directly passed down to me by my ancestors, whereas the rest is all jumbled up such that I probably don’t have much that recognisably my great great great great great great grandfathers first chromosome.

    Anyhow, I’ve now read Moffat and Wilson’s book, which was a good read for the non-expert. They make a decent team: Wilson is clearly a gifted communicator of science (the Izzards show demonstrated that), and I entirely agree that BritiansDNA should make more use of him instead. Moffat writes with passion about history.

    In the end the book got me to get my own DNA checked, looking forward to the results, although I went with Family Tree DNA as that seemed the better deal overall.

  • It wouldn’t surprise me if GNZ is on the RSS feeds of a few people at the times science office. We collaborated with their (now ex) editor Mark Henderson on covering the Cheltenham Science Festival a few years ago:

    and Mark is now Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, which funds quite a few GNZ contributors.

  • Hey Luke

    Didn’t know that, but I’m not entirely convinced: the story is written by James Gillespie who doesn’t seem to be a science journalist.

    Anyway, as I see I’ve become the resident malcontent, I’ll leave after this post. If I hadn’t checked the notify replies by email box I doubt I’d ever have come back to this site…

    One of the things that piqued by curiosity, I guess, was I noticed that many people jumped to conclusions after Vincent Plagnol’s initial post. I thought that was odd on a science blog, to slightly modify Holmes, it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has reliable data about why BritainsDNA threatened to sue. Surely Wilson and Moffat deserved the assumption of good faith until demonstrated otherwise?

    Obviously I have the advantage of both not being involved in the field and seeing both sides before I came to any firm conclusions. A number of things seems pretty clear to me and I’ll post them here.

    The fight over the word subsidise is odd. Balding and Thomas give a dictionary definition (always a sign of charlatanism in my view) to back up their “most serious point”. So just to confirm my own charlatanism, here’s the relevant definition from the OED: “To support by grants of money; spec. (a) (of a state, public body, company, etc.) to contribute towards the running costs of (an organization, activity, commodity, etc.), esp. in order to keep prices low for the consumer; (b) to provide funding to help maintain (a person or his or her lifestyle, etc.).” From what I understand, these genetic tests cost a lot of money to set up. If they put up the capital to put that infrastructure in place and that then allowed for cheaper testing, that would back Moffat’s usage. Is it an odd way of putting it? Yes. It is potentially misleading? Maybe. Is it categorically wrong? No. Is it sufficient to imply fraud? Certainly not.

    In addition, raising this as this their main problem with the interview clearly determines that they were making implications of bad faith and not engaging in an academic discussion.

    Even this from Balding and Thomas’s post is odd: “ … you will not report or state as a matter of undisputed fact that our clients’ science is ‘wrong’ or untrue.” Scientists shouldn’t be doing this anyway, especially almost everyone here has not actually seen their science!

    Scientists are not the guardians of truth, nor should they ever put themselves in that position (for their own sake as much as anyone elses). Science has absolutely nothing to say about truth (although one could argue that it is the *pursuit* of truth). I see another blogger who posted on this gets this: DC’s Improbable Science is perfectly named. For a scientist, claims are neither true or false, they are supported or not, likely or not, backed by evidence or not. If you want to pontificate about truth, go be the Pope. I hear there’s a vacancy.

    It is “possible” that the Queen of Sheba was from Mars and Mr Cohen was from Venus and they replaced all the mitachrodial and Y DNA with their magic space wands. It’s just not probable. All science can say about this claim is that it’s unsupported by the current evidence and we have very good reasons for believing that didn’t happen. But you can’t say with certainty that it’s untrue.

    A number of other things about the content of Balding and Thomas’s post strike me as troubling, particularly this: “In the interests of your business and the careers of you and Gianpiero, you should come clean with an explicit retraction”. The thing about their business is fine, but according to their UCL profiles both of them are senior, established professors. This could well be interpreted as a threat to undermine their careers (Wilson certainly is young and much their junior): the academic system is predicated on assumption of good faith, so two senior professors could easily subvert the system without leaving any trace by just being technically correct but unenthusiastic in, say, reviews.

    I have also just heard, about ninth hand if that’s worth anything, that Balding and Thomas effectively heckled Wilson at a recent lecture, attempting to derail his presentation. The lecture apparently had nothing to do with BritainsDNA. If that’s true, I find it disgraceful behaviour and certainly a more clear an attempt to silence academic debate than anything else here.

    Two sides to everything, yadadada.

  • @ Dave Pirie

    There are indeed two sides to every debate. Some are more informed than others. I love the way you start your defence of Wilson and Moffat by noting “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has reliable data about why BritainsDNA threatened to sue”, and then end it by denouncing as “disgraceful behaviour” a piece of ninth degree hearsay that “Balding and Thomas effectively heckled Wilson at a recent lecture, attempting to derail his presentation”. Pot calling the kettle black?

    I am in the fortunate position of not having to theorize and not having to rely on hearsay. I was one of the two colleagues cc’d on the original emails from Thomas and Balding to Wilson and Cavalleri that led to these threats of legal action, so I know exactly what these emails contained. I was also at the Wilson lecture you referred to.

    Regarding the lecture, neither Thomas nor Balding heckled Jim during his presentation, so there was no attempt to derail it or to “silence academic debate”. What they did do was ask Jim about the BritainsDNA affair during the Q&A at the end, asking him to respond to the twin issues of honesty (was BritainsDNA subsidized or not?) and scientific respectability (how can one be taken seriously as a scientist if one does not distance oneself from the palpable nonsense spouted by Moffat during his Today interview?). However, the Chair over-ruled these questions, arguing that the meeting was not the appropriate scientific forum for them to be asked. So if anyone was being silenced, it was in fact Thomas and Balding. And incidentally, I’m pretty sure that it was as a direct consequence of this that all these blog posts have now come into being – in an attempt to create the appropriate scientific forum.

    Regarding the emails and the consequent threat to sue, the issue was over the following sentence from David Balding: “I, naturally enough, suspected that this [Moffat’s interview on the Today program] was a shameless duping of the BBC into promoting a fraudulent commercial enterprise that peddles genetic nonsense for profit, and was even more shocked to see your names [Jim Wilson and Gianpierro Cavalleri] prominently promoting this business”. The other issue was the fact that I and another colleague were cc’d on the email, thus making it “public”.

    I’m not a lawyer. I would note however that David says “I … suspected that this was … promoting a fraudulent commercial enterprise”, and he also says this was a natural reaction to listening to Moffat’s interview. I think that would be my natural reaction to listening to Moffat’s interview as well. That doesn’t mean to say I think BritainsDNA is fraudulent. This would simply be my natural first reaction to hearing Moffat’s guff on Radio 4.

    I agree with David Pirie that one should never say never. There may even be people out there who would argue that Alistair Moffat presented a thoughtful, well-reasoned, well-researched, balanced and fair interview on that fateful Today show back in 2012. The interview is still there ( so people can decide for themselves. I would note however that not a single blog or comment has espoused that view, so I think it would be fair to place it in the “Queen of Sheba was from Mars” category.

    It is also possible (never say never) that this threat of legal action might eventually be translated into actual legal action. Perhaps people are now in a better position to decide for themselves whether their legal case is strong enough. Personally, I’m prepared to eat my hat if it does.

    My final observation on all this is the following. The reason that Jim gives for pursuing legal action was to curtail the negative impact that Thomas and Balding’s comments might have on his company, I guess on the assumption that I and my other colleague would go around bad-mouthing BritainsDNA based on the contents of their email. Well, the fact is that this is the first time I’ve publically spoken out on all of this, and my colleague has been equally reticent. Nor have I even done much private speaking on the subject. The irony of this situation, and one familiar to many a politician, is that it wasn’t the original story that has fuelled the flames of public opprobrium. It was the attempted cover-up – Moffat et al’s decision to threaten legal action – that has done so. They’ve made their bed, now they must lie in it.

  • Hi Mike and others

    I assume you don’t really love the way my post started. You Brits and your sarcasm. Sadly, you have rather demonstrated the points I was trying to make though, which was broadly a) what the hell is going on here?! and b) I don’t think you’ve given Wilson (and Moffat) a fair shake. Firstly, I told you I was unsure of the report (it was from someone who wasn’t there and who very likely heard it from someone else who wasn’t there). Secondly, and crucially, I qualified my “denouncing” with “If true…”. Odd how you manage to spot Balding and Thomas’s rather grudging qualifications… why do you miss my upfront ones?

    Anyway, the fact that the story exists in this from, and managed to jump from genetics all the way over to people I used to work with, does suggest that not everyone found it a gratifying sight to see a junior colleague asked utterly irrelevant questions in the formal Q&A after his talk. Do you think that might have an impact on him making such talks in the future? Would that constitute stifling debate? Could they not just ask the questions afterwards if they really wanted to know the answers? Or was this about something else?

    As for my “defense” of Wilson and Moffat, I was trying put some objectivity about the two accounts of what happened, the other side has been more than amply represented. Even then, I’ve criticized Moffat and the BBC, although I suppose I’ve not attacked Wilson (I think he has a silly haircut – there, will that do?) And of course there are people who are more informed about this than me: I knew nothing of any of this, from the core subject matter to this particular incident, until last week (was quite clear about that, I thought). But I imagine plenty of the other posters are similarly uninformed, although I see they are not attacked.

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by your response but somehow I am. Europeans do have more of a tendency to be suspicious of companies or profit-making, especially academics. Although, it didn’t stop them putting their noses in the trough though: I worked for a UK biotech before retiring back to the States. I suppose you’d say my age and Americanism is what makes me more susceptible to the snake oil that is “phylogeography”. You may well be right.

    Wilson at least is a colleague of yours, does he not deserve to be heard out in good faith? Do you know for a fact that the decision to threaten action was his? If not, does this mean I should mock people who work at Apple for their many, many, many unethical practices? For instance, ridiculing him about the Newsweek/Time edition doesn’t seem to me like giving him a fair hearing, especially when it’s clear he’s not making a scientific point but demonstrating the public’s interest in the topic.

    He comes across, in his writing, this post and on TV as a decent chap. I’ve seen nothing here to alter that view. But twice people have posted snippets of these infamous emails, both times they state there’s nothing wrong with them, yet both twice they don’t just post them in full.

    Anyhow, I’m off home this weekend, was only back in the UK to see some old friends. Love to say it’s been fun…

  • Hi Dave,

    You ask two very important questions/points which go to the heart of the whole affair:

    a) “What the hell is going on here?” That’s pretty much the tenor of the email that David Balding sent to Jim Wilson and Gianpierro Cavalleri (without the “hell” bit at any rate). What was going on? Their business partner Alistair Moffat had been publically spouting nonsense dressed up as science, and using it to flog what appeared to be a commercial venture dressed up as a “massively subsidized” “DNA project”. How could they be associated with such a thing? It really was shocking. And it was important, because there were issues of scientific integrity here. The majority of geneticists who have entered into this debate have agreed with this assessment and these concerns.

    b) “I don’t think you’ve given Wilson (and Moffat) a fair shake”. That’s the other shocking aspect of all this. Wilson and Cavalleri (to whom the email was addressed) were given an eminently fair shake – the opportunity and indeed the expectation that they would respond to Balding’s email and explain themselves. Instead, they responded with threats of legal action.

    I continue to hope that Wilson and Cavalleri (and indeed Moffat) will use this blog, or indeed any other appropriate avenue, to explain themselves. Like David Balding and most other respondents on this page, I consider Jim Wilson’s comments to be a partial explanation at best. Will they work with Alistair Moffat to improve his understanding of the material he regularly presents as the implied “expert” on radio and elsewhere? Will they ensure that they do not wittingly or unwittingly over-sell what personal genetic ancestry testing can deliver? Will they accept that promoting their business as a “massively subsidized” “DNA project” that people can “sign up to” is at best misleading, and undertake to promote their business more appropriately in the future? These are not minor issues.

  • This has hit the mainstream media:

    Some DNA ancestry services akin to ‘genetic astrology’

    referencing a Sense About Science document by, amongst others, Prof David Balding and Prof Mark Thomas of University College London …

    The BBC have a priceless quote from Steve Jones:

    “On a long trudge through history – two parents, four [great-]grandparents, and so on – very soon everyone runs out of ancestors and has to share them.

    “As a result, almost every Briton is a descendant of Viking hordes, Roman legions, African migrants, Indian Brahmins, or anyone else they fancy.”

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