Saturday, 7 March 2015

More on the S4C DNA Cymru controversy and my review of "Who are the Welsh?"

I wrote last week of my concerns over the programme Who are the Welsh which was broadcast last Sunday evening on the Welsh language TV station S4C. It is the first chapter in a series of programmes on Welsh DNA (DNA Cymru) with the remaining programmes scheduled to be broadcast in the autumn. I had intended to watch the programme live but unfortunately while BT were in the process of trying to fix our phone line we lost our internet connection. Our internet was finally restored on Thursday and I've only now had a chance to catch up on the programme, and to investigate in more detail the issues involved.

DNA Cymru is billed on the S4C website as being part of a "groundbreaking project" undertaken in partnership with the "successful Scottish research company responsible for ScotlandsDNA". ScotlandsDNA is one of the trading names of the various websites operated by the Moffat Partnership. The other websites include CymruDNAWales, BritainsDNA, IrelandsDNA, YorkshiresDNA and IzzardsDNA. However, the Moffat Partnership is not a "research company" but a for-profit company. There is no evidence of any research activities from the company. There have been similar "projects" before, particularly in Scotland, which have generated a lot of media coverage over the last few years but these "projects" appear to be nothing more than marketing exercises. There has so far not been a single paper published in a scientific journal and no results have ever been presented at a scientific conference. Many of the exaggerated claims emanating from BritainsDNA and ScotlandsDNA would in any case be unlikely to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

S4C is a Welsh-language public service broadcaster funded by taxpayers' money and it has a statutory duty to ensure impartiality and fairness. The S4C programme guidelines state: 
S4C’s ability to ensure due impartiality and fairness in its services is essential in order to retain its credibility as a public service broadcaster. The viewing public must be able to have faith in the integrity and objectivity of S4C’s programmes and services at all times. It is vital to S4C’s credibility and reputation that its viewers can be sure that any outside activities or interests of Faces and Editorial Persons (as defined in section 3 below) will not in any way undermine S4C’s impartiality or integrity and that editorial decisions are not influenced by any conflict of interests. These guidelines aim to ensure that S4C’s impartiality and integrity are not compromised or perceived to be compromised. At the same time, S4C wishes to avoid imposing unnecessary or disproportionate restrictions on its Faces or Editorial Persons and will apply these guidelines in a way which ensures this.
S4C introduced new product placement guidelines in February 2011, and product placement and commercial references are now permitted in some programmes. However, the guidelines make it clear that such arrangements should not influence editorial decisions:
S4C’s principal concern as a public services broadcaster is protecting and maintaining the editorial independence and integrity of its programmes. The viewing public must be able to have faith in the objectivity of S4C’s programmes and services at all times. It is vital to S4C’s credibility and reputation that its viewers can be sure that any product placement is not unduly prominent or promotional so as to undermine S4C’s impartiality or integrity and that editorial decisions are not influenced by any conflict of interests.
It is therefore a matter of some concern that S4C has been used as a vehicle to promote a non-scientific project which is designed purely to generate sales of DNA kits for the Moffat Partnership. The entire programme seemed to be nothing more than an extended advertorial. Viewers were told that the DNA tests are "available to everyone regardless of family background or how recently you've come to Wales". However, to participate in the "project" viewers were encouraged to pay for a very expensive DNA test from CymruDNAWales, one of the websites run by the Moffat Partnership. The screenshot below is taken from the S4C DNA Cymru website which has been set up to promote the programme.

Clicking on the red link takes you straight through to the Moffat Partnership's CymruDNAWales website where you can read their terms and conditions and go on to explore the website and order a DNA test. There are currently only two main tests advertised on the website - the Chromo 2 Complete test for males which costs £250 and the Chromo 2 Complete mtDNA test for females which costs £220.1

The Moffat Partnership are of course not the only company offering genetic ancestry tests. For details of alternative testing companies and comparison charts for the currently available tests see the list of DNA testing companies in the ISOGG Wiki. Nearly all of these companies offer equivalent or more advanced tests and often at much lower prices. However, the programme failed to mention any of these alternative testing options. It would be interesting to know if any of the other companies had been approached to tender for the DNA Cymru "project".

The programme also failed to mention any of the legitimate ongoing scientific research that might be of interest to the people of Wales. For example, the People of the British Isles Project (POBI), based at the University of Oxford, is a real groundbreaking scientific research project which is due to publish a major paper in the next month or so. The POBI researchers have been able to detect genetic differences between the people of North and South Wales and also possible signals of "Little England" in Pembrokeshire. The Impact of the Diasporas is a major five-year research project at the University of Leicester focusing on the "cultural, linguistic, and genetic interactions between peoples known to history as ‘Celts’, ‘Britons’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and ‘Vikings’". There is also a project at Oxford University led by Dr Ceiridwen Edwards which is using ancient DNA to investigate "mass migration and apartheid in Anglo-Saxon Britain".

So what did the programme itself actually cover? The first half of the programme provided a very dumbed down and and at times inaccurate version of the human story. There was a lot of loud music that might have been more appropriate in an advertisement for after shave, and brooding shots of bearded men and long-haired women dressed up in cloaks and furs, and often riding on horses.

There were some rather nice graphics which were used to explain some of the basic DNA concepts such as haplogroups (populations groups which share a common genetic line of descent). However, the programme's researchers seemed to be completely unaware of all the recent advances in ancient DNA testing which is now helping to transform our knowledge of the past. It was mistakenly claimed that "by identifying where haplogroups are common today we can estimate where they came from in the past" yet we know from ancient DNA testing that the distribution of haplogroups even a few thousand years ago is very different from the present-day distribution.2

The whole premise of the "project" is deeply flawed because the researchers are only using Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA which, as was stated on the programme, comprise only 2% of our total DNA. While Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can be very useful for genealogical purposes because of the lack of recombination, they become increasingly less meaningful as you go further back in time and can only ever represent a small fraction of the total ancestry of the human population, and consequently can tell us very little about our ancient origins.

The second half of the programme featured Welsh celebrities receiving their DNA results from CymruDNAWales. They were regaled with the usual fanciful and unscientific haplogroup stories that will be familiar to anyone who has been following the BritainsDNA saga. The stories given to the celebrities looked as though they were identical to the reports that are given to ScotlandsDNA/BritainsDNA customers. 

The weather forecaster Sian Lloyd told viewers that she desperately wanted to be Welsh. She was found to belong to haplogroup T2a1a (the "foragers!") and was told that she was related to Tsar Nicholas II and four British kings. It was not explained to her that the test she took only represented her matrilineal line (the line of her mother, her mother's mother, her mother's mother's mother...), which represents only a tiny proportion of her total ancestry. There is in any case no DNA test which can determine your nationality and there never will be because we are all such a complex mix. The testing that was done on the remains of Tsar Nicholas II was a very low resolution test which was only able to determine that the base haplogroup was T2. The shared mtDNA ancestry is likely to go back many thousands of years and is therefore quite insignificant.

Dafydd Iwan, the former president of Plaid Cymru, was informed that he had a newly discovered marker (SNP) known as S300 which had been been labelled as "Ancient Welsh" and which the programme's "experts" believe denotes a "quintessentially Welsh haplogroup". We were told that S300 is supposedly found in only about 3% of Welsh people and a few people in England. ScotlandsDNA/BritainsDNA use a proprietary naming system for most of their markers and they precede many of their marker names with the letter S. Many of these markers are more commonly known by alternative names. S300 is not a newly discovered marker. S300 is more commonly known as L371 and was added to the ISOGG SNP tree back in March 2011.

Gareth Edwards, the rugby player, was told that his Y-DNA haplogroup is I-M253 Tiwtonaidd (Teutonic) and that his motherline was H2a2a1 and shared a genealogy with the "pioneers". Bryn Terfel, the opera singer, was informed that his Y-DNA haplogroup was I-S2606 which was given the nickname Rhinelander and is supposedly most common in Scandinavia.

The silly nicknames given to the haplogroups in the programme are a particular feature of the reports provided with the Chromo 2 test. However, there is no scientific justification for the use of these nicknames, and the implied association with historical groups is highly misleading. A full list of the haplogroup names used for the Chromo 2 test can be found here.

I was unable to translate the Welsh job titles in the list of credits at the end of the programme but, not surprisingly, I did not spot the names of any geneticists or historians. Dr Jim Wilson, the Chief Scientific Officer of ScotlandsDNA/BritainsDNA, was notable by his absence despite the fact that Llion Iwan, the Commissioner of Factual Content for S4C, had previously stated that Dr Jim Wilson was the chief scientist of the DNA Cymru project. Perhaps Jim Wilson is wisely trying to distance himself from his association with the company. He has already had his name removed from a book that he was previously scheduled to write with his business partner Alistair Moffat. The book The British: A Genetic Journey was published at the end of 2013 with Alistair Moffat listed as the sole author.

I cannot understand how such a programme ever got the go ahead. The embarrassing lack of science and the blatant promotion of a commercial company reflect very badly on the credibility of S4C as a public service broadcaster. The controversy has been highlighted in an article in the current issue of Private Eye Magazine (No. 1387, 6 March - 19 March 2015) which investigates the latest "hokum science" from "self-styled 'genetics expert' Alistair Moffat". Private Eye asks "How does the former journalist and TV executive get away with another commercial undertaking dressed as proper collaborative science?" They go on to speculate "Looks like he has again used his old boys' network, just as he did at the BBC. Ian Jones, chief executive of S4C, happens to be a mate."

The BBC have also clearly not learnt any lessons because they promoted DNA Cymru on two occasions last weekend though for once it was not Alistair Moffat who was being interviewed. Conveniently, Jason Mohammed, one of the presenters of the DNA Cymru series, hosts his own show on BBC Radio Wales, and he promoted DNA Cymru in his show on Friday 27th February. Jason interviewed John Geraint, the series producer, and Gareth Edwards, one of the celebrities who appeared on the programme. John Geraint inaccurately stated that there was "a lot of science" in the programme. He did acknowledge that a commercial company was being used but mistakenly claimed that the company could identify "where that individual's ancestral DNA comes from". The Jason Mohammed show is available on the BBC iPlayer. The relevant segment starts at around 38 minutes.

On Sunday 1st March Anwen Jones, another of the DNA Cymru presenters, was invited onto the Roy Noble show on BBC Radio Wales. Anwen Jones gave Roy Noble his DNA results on air and regaled him with some silly stories about his haplogroups. His Y-DNA haplogroup was G-Z759 which he was told was "Ancient Caucasian" (this is another one of the BritainsDNA haplogroup nicknames). His subhaplogroup is G2a which we were told represents the first people to bring farming to Europe though it is ludicrous to speculate that all the first farmers belonged to a single haplogroup. Roy Noble was then told that his mtDNA is haplogroup H1 which is given the nickname "Western refuges". He was told that H1 is from the Pyrenees and was possibly spread around Europe by Beaker folk. However, it is not possible to determine the origins of haplogroups in such a simplistic way and to associate their spread with specific cultures. The Roy Noble programme is also available on the BBC iPlayerThe relevant segment starts at around 1 hour 4 minutes.

It is very disappointing to see public service broadcasters being used to promote an individual's commercial venture, and even more so when that venture is disguised as a scientific research project. The almost total lack of credible science and the silly romanticised haplogroup stories serve to mislead the public about what genetics can and can't tell us about our ancestry. Such programmes undermine the work of serious scientists working in the field and also the efforts of genetic genealogists who are using DNA testing for legitimate purposes in combination with traditional genealogical sources. S4C should be ashamed of themselves.

Update 9th March 2015
Two more critical articles have been published about the DNA Cymru programme since I wrote this post.

- My colleague at UCL Professor Mark Thomas was interviewed by BBC Radio Wales and described the programme as an "embarrassment to science":

- A blogger by the name of Jack o' the North independently came to the same conclusions as me about the commercial nature of the programme:

Update 10th March 2015
- The controversy over the DNA Cymru programme was discussed on S4C news (in Welsh) on 9th March. The segment starts at 5 minutes 39 seconds:

- There was also a lengthy discussion (in Welsh) on the current affairs show ‘Dan yr Wyneb’ on Radio Cymru on 9th March:

Update 13th March 2015
The Raw Y-DNA test has now been restored to the product menu.

Related blog posts
- The saga continues - CymruDNAWales, S4C, the Tudor surname and "Who are the Welsh?"
My review of DNA Cymru Part 2 - the controversy continues
- My thoughts on DNA Cymru Part 3 and the significance (or lack thereof) of large genetic clusters

1. The Moffat Partnership previously used to offer a standalone Chromo 2 Y-DNA test for £189 and a Raw Y-DNA test for £129 which provided the raw data without the interpretative reports. A genetic genealogist friend advises me that he has been told that the Raw Y-DNA test is still available but you currently have to e-mail the company to place an order. He was told that they have recently updated their website and the Raw Y-DNA product will eventually be put back on the website.

2. For a good summary of the potential of ancient DNA testing and the limitations of Y-DNA and mtDNA testing for deep ancestry, see the paper by Joseph Pickrell and David Reich "Towards a new history and geography of human genes informed by ancient DNA".

© 2015 Debbie Kennett