The Moffat/BritainsDNA saga

NB The Moffat partnership trades under the names BritainsDNA, ScotlandsDNA, IrelandsDNA, YorkshiresDNA and CymruDNAWales.  For consistency we will refer to all of these entities as BritainsDNA.

9th July 2012

On the day of the interview both Mark Thomas (MGT) and David Balding (DJB) emailed Drs Jim Wilson (JW, Edinburgh University) and Gianpiero Cavalleri (GC, Royal College of Physicians in Ireland), who were then two of the principal scientists at BritainsDNA, and company directors.

MGT email to JW and GC

DJB email to JW and GC

Comment: all were known to each other professionally: both Jim and Gianpiero were previously based at UCL, MGT and Jim have co-authored papers, some recently, and DJB and Gianpiero are both members of an International League Against Epilepsy genetics consortium.  This explains the informal tone of the e-mails, and that Jim and Gianpiero were contacted, rather than Alistair Moffat himself, as he was not known to MGT or DJB. The e-mails are strongly worded, commensurate with the shocking nature of Mofffat's claims and his misleading of the public about the commercial nature of BritainsDNA (if you haven't already done so, please listen to the interview; a critique of its content is in the letter under 7/8/12 below).

Both emails were copied to academic colleagues Francois Balloux (UCL) and Mike Weale (KCL, formerly UCL), who were interested in the issues, and knew some of the participants.  This became important because the later threat of legal action for defamation (see below, 3/9/12) rested on the argument that copying the email to two colleagues amounted to "publication".

The other key plank of the legal threat was the wording "I ... suspected that this was ... a fraudulent commercial enterprise that peddles genetic nonsense for profit, ..." which was said by the lawyers for BritainsDNA to be a claim "... that the business is engaged in criminal activity, is fundamentally dishonest and is financially questionable" (see 3/9/12 below for link to full text) and was later said by JW to be "... grossly defamatory ... accused us of fraud" (see 3/1/13 below for link to full text).

22nd July 2012

MGT and DJB received an email from UCL Provost, Professor Malcolm Grant, saying that Alistair Moffat had contacted him threatening to sue, and asking Malcolm Grant to intervene. Moffat had demanded an apology and an undertaking to retract the remarks of DJB and MGT and never to repeat them.

Prof Grant responded to Mr Moffat saying that he had no intention of intervening, reminding him of the principles of academic freedom and pointing out that Moffat holds office (Rector) at St Andrews University where those principles are as fully respected as they are at UCL.  He suggested that Moffat engage in rational debate rather than try to suppress his critics.

7th August 2012

MGT and DJB wrote to Alistair Moffat, explaining the many errors in his interview.

MGT and DJB letter to Moffat (also emailed)

28th August 2012

Having received no response to their email of 7/8/12, MGT and DJB followed it up with a second email.

MGT and DJB email to BritainsDNA

30th August 2012

Jim Wilson responded to the scientific issues raised by MGT and DJB, but not the "we subsidise it massively" claim.

JW reply to MGT and DJB

Comment: This e-mail was later characterised by JW as an "attempt at engagement", but it was not received as such by DJB and MGT: it started with threatening, legalistic language and it provocatively misrepresented DJB's e-mail in a way apparently intended to bolster a legal case. This seems to be an example of lawyers making things worse by promoting conflict, presumably in order to earn more fees.

JW accepted that "small errors had ... slipped in" to the radio interview under the pressure of a live conversation, but he essentially rejected all other issues raised as "differences in opinion or inference".  For a response to his point about the Channel 4 TV program, see under 25/2/13 below.

MGT and DJB replied to JW the same day, offering to respond to his points but first requesting an explanation of Moffat's massive subsidy claim.

MGT and DJB response

Comment: JW (see below, 3/1/13) would later characterise this as "a dismissive three liner email".  DJB and MGT offered to respond, and intended to reject many of Jim's arguments, but first the "subsidise it massively" claim had to be addressed.  This claim appeared to be untrue and likely to mislead the public about the nature of the business, to the personal profit of JW and his colleagues.  As an academic at a reputable university he has an obligation to display integrity by correcting or justifying the claim.  Months later (see below, 3/1/13), JW finally admitted that there was no subsidy.

3rd September 2012

MGT and DJB received an email from GC.  At his request it is not shown here.  He later left BritainsDNA (effective from Feb 2013).

MGT and DJB replied, again requesting clarification of the "subsidise it massively" claim.

Second follow up to BritainsDNA

David McKie, partner in Levy & McRae solicitors representing both BritainsDNA and Alistair Moffat emailed MGT and DJB (paper copy followed in the post) requiring three undertakings from them on threat of legal action.

Letter from solicitor

Comment: Of the three undertakings, the most outrageous was 2, "[MGT and DJB]  will not report or state as a matter of undisputed fact that our clients’ science is ‘wrong’ or untrue".  MGT and DJB could not possibly undertake not to point out factual errors within the area of their academic expertise. There was so much that was wrong/untrue in the Today interview that it would be a dereliction of their duty as academics not to point out such errors.

The third undertaking was little better: it apparently sought to prevent MGT and DJB from raising questions in relation to Moffat's "massively subsidised" claim,  a claim that was later admitted to be false, made on a national news programme and formed part of the misrepresentation of BritainsDNA as a public-benefit project, rather than a for-profit business.

More generally, the letter misrepresented the actual situation so extremely, and made demands that were so absurdly unacceptable, that MGT and DJB consider it to be a dishonest attempt to bully them into refraining from criticism.  For example, their email of Aug 28 said "We propose to circulate widely amongst our academic colleagues what was stated by Mr Moffat in the Today interview, together with our explanation of why it is wrong" which was characterised in the letter as "... a campaign of unjustified and defamatory assault on our clients’ business and on their reputation".

21st November 2012

JW presented a seminar at an academic meeting at Queen Mary, London, on a topic unrelated to genetic ancestry testing.  DJB asked the first question “Is BritainsDNA massively subsidised?”.  The chair tried to rule out the question as irrelevant but DJB insisted that integrity is essential to any academic discussion, and there must be a question mark over Jim's integrity since he has repeatedly failed to clarify or distance himself from a public claim that appears to be false and financially beneficial.  The chair asked for questions that are relevant to the talk. MGT asked Jim “If anyone criticises your presentation are they also liable to receive threats of legal action?”, referring to Wilson's participation in a threat of legal action against academic colleagues who voiced criticisms.  Jim did not answer either question.

During the break MGT and DJB had an extensive private discussion with JW.  They stated that the allegation that BritainsDNA had been accused of fraud was false and objectionable.  JW had no substantial response but later repeated this claim on the Genomes Unzipped blog (see 3/1/13 below).

12th December 2012

MGT and DJB e-mailed a complaint about Alistair Moffat to Professor Louise Richardson, Principal of St Andrews University.

Complaint to St Andrews

17th December 2012

The blog “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing” was posted on the Genomes Unzipped website by Vincent Plagnol, a UCL colleague of DJB and MGT.

Comment: The blog was written by Vincent, based on his conversations with DJB and MGT.  It contained some minor misunderstandings but was essentially a thorough, critical analysis of the interview. It attracted considerable interest including 26 posted comments picking up on a range of issues.  Also many comments in other fora, including a nice post by Razib Khan in Discover Magazine.

Crucially, the Genomes Unzipped blog attracted the attention of Simon Singh, the prominent campaigner for libel reform and himself a victim of a damaging libel action, dropped only after two years, arising from his criticism of some claims of chiropractors.  Simon had been awarded an honorary degree by St Andrews University, and he was disappointed to read that its Rector was engaging in legal threats against academics who criticised him.  Simon wrote personally to Prof Richardson to encourage her to ensure that the University took the complaint seriously.  At this point it was discovered that the Principal had not received the e-mail of the 12th December. This was rectified and St Andrews then investigated the complaint (see below for outcome, and also articles in The Saint).

20th December 2012

David Colquhoun, also from UCL, blogged about the story on his award-winning (UK Science blog prize) DC's Improbable Science site:

Abuses of genomic screening, advertising on the BBC and a shocking legal threat

Comment: This blog was written by DC based on information provided by DJB and MGT.  It covers different aspects than the Genomes Unzipped blog, which focussed more on critical analysis of the interview, whereas DC covered for example the poor editorial standards shown by the BBC, including the unstated relationship between Naughtie and Moffat, and the problems with selling "deep ancestry" information to the public.

3rd January 2013

At the invitation of Genomes Unzipped, Jim gives a guest post response to “Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing” (see Dec 17 above).

Comment: Some of the falsehoods in Jim's post were picked up by Vincent and others.  DJB and MGT requested unsuccessfully to be given a guest post of similar status to Jim's.  Instead DJB posted a response as a comment on 22/1/13, pointing out multiple factual errors in Jim's post.  He has not retracted any of his untrue claims or made any other concession.  There followed a series of pro-BritainsDNA posts by one Dave Pirie. His attempts to distract attention from the issues were brilliantly countered first by Luke Jostins and then two excellent posts by Mike Weale on  20/2/13 and on 4/3/13.  Mike had been a recipient of the original e-mails on July 9 but until now had not made any public statement.  Also of note was another excellent article by Razib Khan in Discover Magazine

20th and 21st February 2013

The BBC airs two hour-long programmes under the heading "Meet the Izzards" which supposedly traced the individual genetic ancestry of comedian Eddie Izzard, maternal and paternal lineages in separate programmes.

Comment: While not directly connected with the dispute being chronicled here, the many misleading assertions in the programmes, and the suspicion that through these programmes the BBC was once again being used as a PR tool by BritainsDNA, caused concern to MGT, DJB and many others.  See notes by DJB for an overview of what was wrong with the programmes, while Debbie Kennett gave a more detailed critique.  Nigel Farndale also made some good points in The Telegraph.

Although the company was not named, Izzard subsequently promoted the company to his 3 million followers on Twitter:

This tweet, together with a similar message on Izzard's facebook page, indicated the commercial interest.  No genetics expert was shown other than Jim Wilson, Chief Scientific Officer of BritainsDNA, who was therefore able to subtly promote his business interests without fear of challenge from an independent expert.  Wilson was introduced as being from the University of Edinburgh, but his role in the programmes seems to have more to do with his BritainsDNA roles (Director, Chief Scientific Officer and shareholder) rather than his university job.

24th February 2013

Alistair Moffat gave a lecture at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live exhibition at Olympia, London. 

Comment: The lecture and press release ("BritainsDNA finds the Lost Legions") provide further backdrop as to why DJB and MGT have been concerned about the PR activities of BritainsDNA.  The centrepiece of the presentation was that, on the basis of frequencies of one Y chromosome marker in Italy, England, Scotland and Ireland, an estimate was made of over 1 million British male-line descendants of Roman soldiers.  There was no attempt to assess uncertainty or compare with an alternative model: such attempts would have been pointless as it is clear that the claim does not stand up to scrutiny.  There was no explanation that we all have such a vast number of ancestors 2,000 years ago that almost every white person in Europe is a descendant of Roman soldiers.  It seems that this "research" is unpublished, and it is unlikely that a reputable journal would accept such a poorly-justified report.  See more poorly-justified press releases from Britain's DNA.

After the lecture MGT tried to engage Alistair Moffat in debate, but to no avail.  There was a theatrical display of shouting and other bullying tactics, dialogue was impossible.

During the WDYTYA meeting, MGT and DJB met Debbie Kennett, an enthusiast for DNA to inform about personal genealogy, a prominent blogger and author, and volunteer contributor to the International Society of Genetic Genealogy wiki and to projects at Family Tree DNA.  They had many interests in common and a shared concern about the harm being done by misleading publicity from BritainsDNA. Debbie later wrote a commentary on Moffat's "Romans" lecture.  Several months later and following further interactions, MGT and DJB supported a case for Debbie to be given an honorary position at UCL in order to facilitate collaboration on common interests.

25th February 2013

MGT publishes To claim someone has 'Viking ancestors' is no better than astrology in the Notes & Theories section of the online Guardian.  It attracts 26 comments, mostly positive but there was one derogatory comment from Alan Mathieson. 

Comment: Alan Mathieson's comment related to the role of MGT in a Channel 4 TV programme '100% English'. MGT's response to the comment can be seen on the same Guardian blog (27/2/13). MGT also asked if the Alan Mathieson who posted this derogatory comment was the same Alan Mathieson who is a director of the Moffat Partnership, but the commentator did not respond to MGT's request to clarify this apparent conflict of interest.

6th March 2013

The charity Sense about Science launched its guide Sense about Genetic Ancestry Testing.  The substantial contribution of DJB and MGT to drafting the guide was motivated by their concern about the misleading claims made by BritainsDNA and some other companies.  They wanted to help equip members of the public to understand the very limited nature of inferences about remote ancestry that are possible from only Y chromosome or mtDNA data.

The guide generated some press coverage, much of it positive but some felt that the whole genetic ancestry industry was being tarred with the same brush.  Debbie Kennett was invited by Sense about Science to blog on their website clarifying this point and correcting some inaccurate media coverage of the guide.  Briefly, the principal criticisms in the guide apply to claims about an individual's ancestry based only on uniparentally-inherited sections of DNA (Y-chromosome or mtDNA).  These genetic systems can provide some indication of the history of populations, but say little about individual ancestry.  Ancestry inferences from Y-chromosome or mtDNA are often much less convincing or specific than is widely believed, or claimed by ancestry testing companies. However, when used in conjunction with other evidence, say from historical documents, uniparental data can be used to provide support for genealogical relationships among individuals.

7th March 2013

When it seemed impossible that the BBC could stoop any lower in misleading the public about genetic ancestry and in promoting the products offered by BritainsDNA, along came the One Show to prove that they could.  Even the normally-very-good Michael Mosley was somehow induced to participate in a meaningless stunt promoting the names given by BritainsDNA to haplogroups: audience members stood up with placards showing their Y or mtDNA types and a label like "Hunter-gatherer" or "Herdsman farmer", and told the camera "my father-line is Scandinavian" or "ancient Irish".

Pallab Ghosh BBC News Science Correspondent, wrote an article on the BBC News website, inspired by the Sense About Science guide.  This was a good effort, but it was the BBC's only counterbalance to the large number of scientifically dubious interviews, articles and shows inspired by Britain's DNA.

18th March 2013

Professor Louise Richardson, Principal of St Andrews University replied to the complaint of 12th December.

Response from St Andrews

Comment: St Andrews had indeed taken the complaint of DJB and MGT seriously, as Simon Singh had urged (see above).  They set up a Senate investigation panel, who concluded that parts of the solicitor's letter were "... contrary to the principles of academic freedom and honest scientific debate in a matter of public interest."  This conclusion was endorsed by the Senate Business Committee and later by the Academic Council. The story was well-covered by The Saint student paper, despite attempts to bully them, as reported in Nature.

13th April 2013

Martin Richards and Vincent Macaulay post an article on the Notes & Theories section of the Guardian online titled 'It is unfair to compare genetic ancestry testing to astrology', responding to part of the 25/2/13 post by MGT.

Comment: Richards and Macaulay are leading proponents of an approach to human population history called 'interpretative phylogeography', which MGT singled out as often being used by genetic ancestry companies to provide misleading inferences about an individual's ancestry. MGT's rebuttal here.

13th May 2013

Scottish novelist Sarah Sheridan writes in the Huffington Post that she was told by BritainsDNA that her maternal ancestry is Japanese.

Comment: Debbie Kennett puts the record straight: it turns out to be another muddle created by BritainsDNA, presumably due to a desire to find surprising results for public figures - even if wrong - because of the publicity value for the company.

18th May 2013

The Saint newspaper covered the "edit war" in which Moffat supporters tried to prevent the story of the libel threat from being told on Wikipedia's page on Alistair Moffat.  The Wikipedia editors stood up against a determined campaign to stifle the story entirely, but they lost the battle for fair coverage.  The current version says for example that Moffat's claims in the Today interview amounted to "a couple of inaccurate statements" and it also makes the partisan and inaccurate claim that MGT and DJB "attacked ... genetic ancestry companies in general".  There is no mention of the upholding of complaints by St Andrews University and the BBC, and the article lacks links to the extensive coverage of the story in the media, particularly in The Saint and also The Sunday Times.  The article also fails to mention Moffat's previous unsuccessful libel action.

The Wikipedia article says "The content of messages has never been published and is disputed between the various parties." but there has never been much doubt or dispute about the facts, and everything is now available on this website so Moffat supporters can no longer hide behind such obfuscations.

1st June 2013

DJB and MGT send an e-mail to Jim Wilson pointing out the serious issues that have been raised by his behaviour and inviting him to make appropriate amends. There was no response.

14th June 2013

Following a press release, the The Mail covered extensively, and The Times devoted most of its front page, to claims that Prince William has Indian ancestry.

Comment: The ancestor at the centre of this story was recorded as being an Armenian woman living in India, but BritainsDNA claimed to prove that she was Indian rather than Armenian, despite not saying whether or not there were any Armenians in their databases.  This story is debunked by Debbie Kennett, who also points out the shameful blending of news and advertising by The Times, and also by Razib Kahn in Discover Magazine. Apparently, other news organisations are by now beginning to wake up to the flood of phoney press releases from BritainsDNA: DJB and MGT fielded many queries from others who subsequently declined to cover the story.  The BBC at last began to show some judgment, and gave the story limited coverage.

5th November 2013

Alistair Moffat's book The British: A Genetic Journey is published.

Comment: read Debbie Kennett's critique: she relabels the book "A genetic muddle".  Of note is that it contains no mention of the genetics expert at BritainsDNA, Jim Wilson, who had previously been advertised as a co-author.  Moffat alone has no credibility as a geneticist, as was shown by the Radio 4 interview that started this saga.  Moreover an advertised foreword by Eddie Izzard did not materialise, perhaps a consequence of adverse publicity surrounding the Meet the Izzards BBC TV programmes (see 20/2/13 above).

19th February 2014

Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit upholds a complaint against the interview that started it all, on grounds of both accuracy and product prominence.

24th September 2014

The Moffat Partnership launches a new website CymruDNAWales to promote their DNA tests in Wales. The launch was accompanied by the now familiar misleading press coverage disguising the commercial nature of the enterprise as a "project" to determine the ancestral origins of the Welsh. See, for example, the coverage on Wales Online and in the Daily Post. The BBC covered the company’s launch both on its English and Welsh-speaking news websites in Wales. Celebrities were once again recruited to advertise the company, and fanciful stories were told about their ancestry. It was claimed that Dafydd Iwan, the former President of Plaid Cymru, is "descended from ancient Welsh-speaking kings who once ruled England".

Of even more concern is that the public service channel S4C has partnered with WalesCymruDNA. In what appears to be a serious misuse of public funds they are broadcasting a series of programmes which will serve as a promotional tool for the company. A taster for the new series can be found on YouTube. S4C have also very generously set up a website to promote the programme. In a major conflict of interest it later transpires that Ian Jones, the head of S4C, is an old friend of Alistair Moffat’s. He has even had his own DNA tested by the company as part of the "project" and has been regaled with a ludicrous story that he is descended from Svein, the warrior who gave his name to the city of Swansea.

30th October 2014

Alistair Moffat's three-year tenure as Rector of St Andrews University comes to an end. The new Rector is Catherine Stihler MEP. The Saint, the St Andrews student newspaper, reflects on his term in office and concludes that he "finishes his term with many positive changes and a slightly tarnished reputation".

27th November 2014

It is announced that Alistair Moffat, the outgoing Rector of St Andrews University, will not be nominated for an honorary degree. He is only the second rector in the university's history not to receive an honorary degree and the first not to be nominated.

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