Friday 7 March 2014

More pseudoscience from Alistair Moffat on the BBC

It is ironic that on the very day it was announced that the BBC had upheld a complaint about a misleading interview given by Alistair Moffat on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the BBC decided to give him yet another opportunity to promote BritainsDNA, his genetic ancestry testing business. His latest interview was on yesterday’s edition of the Mark Forrest show on BBC Local Radio. You can listen to the interview for the next six days on the BBC iPlayer. Here is the direct link:

The interview starts at around 2 hours four minutes and thirty seconds.

Once again the for-profit nature of Britains DNA is disguised. Alistair Moffat is introduced as “a historian and the managing director of BritainsDNA, a project set up to map DNA across the British Isles”. Although Moffat does make it clear that people have to pay for the DNA tests he gives the false impression that all the profits are ploughed back into the company for research purposes: “What we do when people pay for a test is we plough what we get from customers back into research.” We have yet to see any "research" from BritainsDNA published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The interview is full of inaccurate statements and misleading claims. Here are some examples:
“What we have discovered, Mark, is that Viking blood still runs very deep in Britain. We’ve done research recently where we’ve looked at the [Y-chromosome] DNA of 3500 men and we think that almost a million men in Britain – one in every 33 British men –  can claim to be the direct male-line descendants of the Vikings. And it’s extraordinary that that is so clearly present in the modern population.” 
“We can tell when it [the Y-chromosome marker] arose… where it arose, and we can sometimes track its movement.” 
“I have Scandinavian DNA, and it comes from Northern Denmark and from Norway so I’m a Viking and I know that because I did a test which looked at my Y-chromosome and it was able to track it back to Scandinavia and because it was attached to a historical event I’m pretty sure that I came over with the Vikings.” 
“If you have Viking DNA we can tell you.” 
“I haven’t got much hair and I’m not blond but I’m still a Viking.” 
“My mitochondrial DNA from my mum is from Pakistan 30,000 years ago – quite remarkable – and her ancestors made this extraordinary trek across the face of the earth to get to Scotland from Pakistan.”
All of the above is of course complete nonsense. It is not possible to tell where any specific “marker” arose thousands of year ago simply by testing the DNA of living people. We can get a good idea of the present-day distribution of Y-chromosome and mtDNA lineages but the present-day location of a lineage does not necessarily correlate with its distant origins.

For further information on the reasons why we cannot make these extrapolations from Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests see the Understanding genetic ancestry testing page on the UCL website.

The BBC have either wittingly or unwittingly given Alistair Moffat and his BritainsDNA testing company a huge amount of free publicity in the last few years, and have failed to give any independent geneticists the opportunity to counter his ludicrous stories. See the PR attack on the BBC page on the UCL website to understand the full scale of the problem.

Update May 2015
The BBC have finally redeemed themselves and have produced an excellent documentary on Radio 4 introduced by Dr Adam Rutherford entitled "The Business of Genetic Ancestry". Some of the misleading claims from BritainsDNA are examined in the programme.

Related blog posts
- Alistair Moffat, BritainsDNA and the BBC - a "uniquely British farce"
BritainsDNA, the BBC and Eddie Izzard
The British: a genetic muddle by Alistair Moffat
BritainsDNA, The Times and Prince William: the perils of publication by press release


Anonymous said...

Daily Mail ran a piece on this too:

Debbie Kennett said...

Many thanks. We'd already spotted that story and it's now on the "Problematic press coverage" page on the UCL website:

There was also a short paragraph in today's Times, but they failed to mention the company name, thus defeating the object of the PR exercise!