A research paper assembled by a group of geneticists and a genealogist claims a Scottish Borders company involved in DNA ancestry testing made misleading claims, manipulated the media and issued threats of legal action when challenged.
BritainsDNA, the brand name of The Moffat Partnership, based in Melrose, attracted widespread press, TV and radio coverage after claiming it had traced the ancestral lineage of some of its clients back to Biblical times. A number were said to be related to the Queen of Sheba.
Interviews conducted with author Alistair Moffat, a director of the partnership, and stories generated by the company also touched on alleged links between members of the Royal Family and their ancestors in India. There were claims too about the DNA of celebrities including actor Tom Conti (said to be a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte) and rugby great Gareth Edwards. Clients of Britains DNA were charged between £160 and £200 depending on the type of DNA test they ordered.
A number of leading authorities in the field of genetics and genealogy quickly challenged the material being produced by the so-called BritainsDNA project on the basis of a lack of scientific evidence.
But when the findings which formed the basis of many press articles were called into question the directors of the company warned there would be legal proceedings unless allegations and statements were withdrawn.The challengers from University College London refused to back down.
Now, in a 26-page academic thesis published on the Swiss-based Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) website genealogist Debbie Kennett, and geneticists Adrian Timpson, David Balding and Mark Thomas trace "the rise and fall of BritainsDNA". They call it "A Tale of Misleading Claims, Media Manipulation and Threats to Academic Freedom".
The paper tells how Mr Moffat was interviewed by James Naughtie three times on the BBC’s flagship Today programme "In all these interviews, he was given the opportunity to promote his business and his questionable claims passed without challenge", claim the authors of the document.
In a section of the paper entitled Countering the Bad Science it states: "David Balding and Mark Thomas independently submitted complaints to the BBC about Alistair Moffat’s interview on the Today programme. The BBC responded that it was normal to interview “commercial firms about their products” but failed to acknowledge the point that the commercial aspect was not declared and was disguised as an academic “project”.
"They justified the interview on the grounds that the story had been covered in The Telegraph and that it was “interesting”. Mr Balding sent multiple follow up e-mails and the complaint was eventually investigated by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit. He was advised in February 2014 that his complaint had been upheld on grounds of both accuracy and product prominence and a statement was published on the BBC website.
The paper concludes: "This case study has shown how a direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing company benefitted from a disproportionate amount of media coverage in the UK. It highlights the ease with which someone with high-profile media contacts was able to manipulate the media to promote his commercial interests disguised as a science “project”. There was a failure to question dubious press releases and programme ideas, or get feedback from experts working in the field before publishing an article or going ahead with a programme."
Mr Moffat was Rector of St Andrews University while at the same time playing a key role in the operations at BritainsDNA.
According to the four scientists: "Academics and broadcasters need to ensure that they separate their academic roles from their commercial interests and make any conflicts of interest (even if only perceived) clear. Universities have a duty to ensure that their staff do not misuse their academic positions to advance their personal and financial interests. Threats of legal action can have a pernicious impact on academic freedom.
"The poor behaviour of BritainsDNA risked damage to the public perception of the fields of genetic history and genetic genealogy. The public were given a false idea of what they can learn from a genetic test and the media failed to provide balance by writing about the legitimate uses of DNA testing for genealogy."
The report's authors say they believe their detailed case study is a rare example in the literature of how science can be distorted for commercial gain by influential, well connected figures in society. The case demonstrates the necessity but also the risks of critically engaging with developments of this kind.
They add: "We hope that it will be of interest to historians and sociologists of science, that educators, practitioners and researchers in science communication will learn from our experience and that this case study can be used to inform training and education programmes. Most importantly, we hope that other scientists will be encouraged by our experience and will not be afraid to engage with the media to challenge misreporting."
FOOTNOTE: - The Moffat Partnership was acquired by Nottingham-based Source Bioscience Ltd. and changed its name to Source Bioscience Scotland Ltd. But after a relatively short time the new management stopped offering DNA tests linked to genetic ancestry.