This kind of stuff infuriates me. Chris Dunham, the much beloved Genealogue, caught my eye with an intriguing posting about A Titanic Error -- referring to the misidentification of a child who had died aboard the Titanic.
I read the original article here.
I'm going to be blunt here. This is lame.
And I know what I'm talking about because I've been in a very similar position to these researchers when I worked for the BBC locating families of sailors who lost their lives on the U.S.S. Monitor in the Civil War. The idea was to try to identify the two fellows whose skeletons had been found in the turret when the Monitor was recovered a few years ago.
Even back in 2002, we all knew the limitations of mtDNA -- and the fact that someone declared victory -- that is, announced a match and made an identification -- based on just HVR1 testing (think of this as very low resolution) is well . . . ridiculous. To give you a sense, based on my own HVR1 results, I have over 4,000 matches just in the database of the company that did my testing -- and probably millions of maternal cousins if it were possible to test everyone in the world.
In the case of The Iron Coffin, the episode of Timewatch I worked on, a maternal relative I found in Scotland for James Fenwick did indeed match one of the skeletons based on their mtDNA results. But the lab that did the testing correctly refused to make an identification for the reason I just mentioned -- the lack of precision. Is it supporting evidence? Yes. Could that skeleton be Fenwick's? Yes. But the mtDNA match is not compelling enough on its own. If higher resolution testing could be done (complete mtDNA sequence testing is now available -- I've had mine done -- but "ancient" or degraded remains like those from the Monitor present stubborn challenges in this regard), if isotope testing is done, if other artifacts are considered, if other candidates are eliminated (there were 16 who lost their lives that night), etc. -- then maybe an identification could be made. But not yet.
And the lab refused, even though I'm sure the folks at BBC were desperately hoping for an identification. I understand the pressure because I've been there. I've participated in discussions on the ethics of disinterring bodies for DNA testing to help solve historical riddles. I've worked on enough TV shows to know the extreme pressure that comes when producers -- who work under the burden of impossible schedules -- are hoping against hope that your research will give them at least a good story, and better yet, a new discovery to share. Even in non-TV-related situations -- with Ellis Island's Annie Moore, with the Sharpton-Thurmond connection, with Barack Obama's Irish roots -- I've felt the pressure to make a declaration of some sort.
But even under those circumstances, you have to be sure. In fact, under these circumstances when there's possible meaning beyond one's personal roots -- maybe a snippet of history at stake -- it's even more important to be sure you're right.
I realize I'm pontificating here, but incidents like this give all of us in the genetic genealogy community a black eye, so it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine. We all get tarnished because a few people or one company fell victim to wishful thinking. I sympathize. I really do because of my similar experiences. But it's just not cool to cave to the pressure. Because that's how stuff like this happens.