A tale of legal threats in genetic astrology

4 minute read

David Balding and Mark Thomas, two professors at University College London, have been the objects of a series of legal threats from the company BritainsDNA. They have maintained a journal of their activities in this case, which is online at the UCL website: “A tale of misleading claims and legal threats”.

The threatened legal action came in response to written questions that Balding and Thomas posed to representatives of BritainsDNA. The precipitating event was a July 2012 BBC interview with Alistair Moffat, a principal in BritainsDNA, in which Moffat claimed various things about DNA in human ancestry. Balding and Thomas wrote emails to Moffat and other scientists associated with BritainsDNA criticizing several statements that were wrong according to currently accepted science. The resulting email exchanges resulted in a series of legal demands by lawyers representing BritainsDNA. The entire saga should be read and examined closely by those working in anthropological and human genetics.

The linked page contains the current status of the story:

There has been a limited retraction of some of the false statements in the radio interview. In particular, the claim that the BritainsDNA service is "massively subsidised" was eventually admitted to be false, after many months and repeated requests for clarification, but only on the Genomes Unzipped website and not on the BritainsDNA website, which is where listeners who heard the false claims were directed. While making some welcome corrections on Genomes Unzipped, Jim Wilson introduced new falsehoods that have not been retracted. The legal threat and its untrue claims made by BritainsDNA against DJB and MGT have not been retracted. The misleading claims in BritainsDNA press releases have not been rectified. While complaints have been upheld against Mr Moffat by St Andrew's University and, eventually, the BBC, he seems to have done little to redress the problems that caused the complaints. On the positive side, the flow of exaggerated claims and media manipulation from BritainsDNA seems to have moderated: there seem to be fewer outlandish claims about being related to famous historical figures or descended from slaves, chiefs, queens, warriors, etc. (But it has not ceased, there was more nonsense in the Daily Mail in February 2014.) Whether the moderation is in response to criticism or because the BritainsDNA PR goals have been achieved remains unclear. According to Debbie Kennett the new tests offered by BritainsDNA are better, and the interpretations of the results may have also improved.

This is an important case for those of us who write about genetic testing and the claims of genetic genealogy services. The threat of being drawn into costly legal proceedings is real, and inhibits many honest commentators from investigating the services being advertised by such companies.

Anyone interested in the field of genetic genealogy should read through Balding and Thomas’ experiences.

While BritainsDNA must bear responsibility for their actions, the role of their lawyers in exacerbating the problem should not be overlooked. DJB and MGT have been informally advised by those familiar with libel threats that the letter they received (see 3/9/12 on the timeline page) was among the worst, and represented low professional standards. It was foreseeable that making legal threats against academic colleagues to try to silence their criticisms would create considerable damage to the reputation of BritainsDNA. No reasonable person could have expected the threatening letter to achieve its stated objectives, and the risks to the company from its provocative language and unreasonable demands must have been obvious.

Through my website, I have heard from more than a hundred customers of genetic genealogy services during the last year, most of whom had received misleading information, or information at variance with the current scientific publications on their specific questions. (None of these have asked questions about BritainsDNA, which is trying to serve a particular niche that I don’t cover).

In my experience none of the companies reporting genetic genealogy information currently do a good enough job of it. Many reports are misleading, especially given the level of previous education among customers.

The geneticists who have gone into consultancy with private companies have a wide range of different experiences and perspectives. Their experience and ability to accurately describe results varies widely.

This paragraph from Balding and Thomas’ letter to Moffat is worth quoting in full, I endorse it completely:

The public has a great appetite for stories about its ancestry from DNA data, and this provides a very strong commercial incentive to cut corners, exaggerate beyond the evidence, and ignore uncertainty. Such misleading practices are aided by the fact that, since there is very little that can be proven about an individual's ancestry from, say, mtDNA or Y polymorphism data, it is equally difficult to prove that any specific claim is false. However, we have had direct experience of disappointed customers who, once it is explained to them that the genetic ancestry results for which they have paid a substantial sum cannot be confirmed scientifically, become disillusioned with science more generally; they previously believed that scientists could be trusted.