Genetic Astrology

(Via John Hawks) Genetic Astrology chronicles the saga of Alistair Moffat’s shameful attempt to use libel law to silence scientific criticism of his genetic ancestry testing company BritainsDNA:

On 9th July 2012 Jim Naughtie invited his friend Alistair Moffat, the managing director of BritainsDNA, onto BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Like Naughtie’s previous interviews of Moffat, the interview had little content of any scientific merit, included many errors and gave a misleading impression that Moffat’s genetic ancestry business was a disinterested research study. Naughtie failed to make even the most token challenge to his friend, despite Moffat’s outrageous claims - about Eve’s grandson, the Queen of Sheba, “bringing the Bible to life”, and the founding lineages of Britain.

UCL Professors David Balding (DJB) and Mark Thomas (MGT) sent e-mails of complaint to the BBC and to BritainsDNA scientists. What followed was a sorry tale of legal threats from BritainsDNA, apparently intended to silence the criticisms, as well as threats to the St Andrews University student newspaper that covered the story, as did (in different ways) Nature, Private Eye and the Sunday Times, among others. St Andrews University upheld a complaint against Moffat, who is its Rector. The BBC’s response to multiple complaints was initially very poor, and they compounded their failings with more misleading coverage of genetic ancestry including two hours of BBC TV programming that tacitly promoted commercial ancestry testing. Eventually, after more than a year of stalling, the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit did finally (19/2/14) uphold a complaint on grounds of both accuracy and commercial prominence.

There’s a surreal quality to a lot of it: Balding and Thomas ambushing Moffat at an unrelated seminar at Queen’s; Moffat’s lawyers’ pompous, lengthy warning not to publish their (now published) emails because they “may” contain confidential information which “may” be illegal to disclose. Mostly it’s just a sad tale of a genetic ancestry outfit retreating to the favoured tactic of every other pseudoscientist: using Britain’s broken libel laws to intimidate their critics and undermine academic freedom. Balding and Thomas should be applauded for putting it out all out in the open.