The Bogus-ness of DNA Testing for Genealogy Research
Several years ago, when these companies first started surfacing, I looked at some of their claims and thought, That sounds sketchy. From what I knew about DNA testing, it seemed like these tests were a scam. So I wrote an article for Popular Science investigating whether this technology, and therefore the companies offering it, were legit. I put together a panel of experts in genealogy and DNA testing, including one of the scientists who first discovered some of the technology many of these companies base their tests on. I had my DNA tested along with the DNA of six of my family members to see if the tests could uncover something you'd never know from looking at me: My grandfather's great great grandmother was black. The companies offering the tests assured me, if that were true, their tests would find it. So I ran the tests. I had my panel of experts investigate the results, then wrote the story, explaining the science of these tests, what they did and didn't find in my family tree, and what the experts say about the legitimacy of it all.
Their conclusion and mine: These tests can be fun, and they have some definite use in medical research, but they simply can't tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless you're testing your DNA and comparing it to someone else's to find out if you're related. These tests most certainly can't tell you what you're not -- as in, you're not African-American.
But the general public doesn't know this, and no one seems to be telling them. More and more of these companies are popping up, the popularity of these tests has soared, and every month or so, a journalist (like this guy today) writes yet another story about how people are using this technology to unlock family secrets and "debunk family tales," even though it simply doesn't work that way. The upshot of so many of these stories is that people are being confused or traumatized by results from these tests. People with dark skin who came from black families and identified themselves as African-American are suddenly being told that they aren't African-American at all. People have sought psychotherapy over these results and questioned their families. But this is all based on a science that can't actually say you're not African American, (and most certainly can't say you're not Caucasian and therefore should qualify for minority scholarships and affirmative action).
There have been a few good stories about the realities of DNA testing for genealogy research, but unfortunately, the ones people see (and hold on to) are the ones that tell them what they want to hear. It's maddening.
Don't get me wrong, I'm completely in favor of DNA tests showing that deep down, we're all the same -- that black, white or tan, we're all a mish-mash of genes and race is a "social construct," not a genetic one. What I'm not in favor of is this: Companies using that fact -- along with the public's undying curiosity about ancestry -- to make promises they can't keep (like, we'll help you find long-lost relatives), while turning a good-sized profit off delivering results that cause mass confusion. And journalists helping them do it.