I like 60 Minutes. I genuinely do. But I found their segment on genetic genealogy last night predictable.
Blaine Bettinger of the Genetic Genealogist has already blogged about this, and done a great job of rounding up what others have already said -- including links to pieces I've written on the topic in the past.
Among Blaine's links was one to an article of mine that was published by Ancestry.com back in June 2006. The topic? Is Genetic Genealogy Being Oversold?.
In that article, I quote a passage from page 100 of Trace Your Roots with DNA -- a few sentences I put together back in early 2004:
“Regrettably, a few critics have dismissed genetic genealogy as misleading at best (it only represents a small part of an individual’s family tree), and harmful at worst (it could reinforce oversimplified or false notions of race and cause identity problems). By contrast, our experience has been that those who involve themselves in genetealogy are well aware of the limitations and more aware than most of the ambiguity of race. In spite of concerns that we don’t grasp the fact that a particular test may only provide insight into one branch of our pedigree, or that another test may only reflect our heritage back a few generations, we are curious to learn what can be learned.”
Forgive me if this posting seems to be accompanied with a resigned sigh, but I suppose I'm just tired of this familiar pattern -- the media "revealing" that genetic genealogy has limitations (tell me -- how many of you were mentally reciting 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 . . . while Ms. Stahl was seemingly being started by this standard genealogical math?) and then bringing in an expert who's concerned for the poor customers who are allegedly too ignorant to grasp these basics. Since I've been watching this same formula repeat itself since 2001, I've developed a pet peeve about the built-in, patronizing assumption that genealogists are too dense to understand the fundamentals of what DNA can and can't do -- rather than the reality that we're pioneers delighted with the prospect of learning what had previously been unknowable and well aware of the limitations.
In this case, I was glad to see the selected expert, Hank Greely, hesitate and carefully formulate his response before answering the question about whether genetic genealogy was being oversold. He did what was expected of him -- which was to seemingly support the notion that it's the testing companies that are guilty of the overselling. But I like to think I saw in that brief hesitation his intent to not vilify the companies -- and an awareness that whatever overselling has occurred has largely come from other quarters.
Once again, I refer back to the article I wrote in June 2006:
"Just as there are people who think they can simply google their name and have their whole family tree magically appear on the internet, there are those who believe the same of genetic genealogy – that one test can reveal all the mysteries of their heritage. Neither is true, of course. You actually have to master some fundamentals, decide what you want to learn, and pick an appropriate course of action. I’d just like to see a little more effort devoted to helping “newbies” grasp the basics and a little less emphasis on blame-the-seller pieces dismissing the value of genetic genealogy. As I wrote in Trace Your Roots with DNA back in 2004, “Genetealogy is still in its infancy and those of us who are already practicing it have made our peace with the inevitable learning curve and growing pains associated with being a bit of a pioneer. Focusing only on the limitations is a sure prescription for failure, so why not play with the technology to determine what can be understood now and how to stretch the boundaries of its possible future application?”
The very fact that I can recycle bits and pieces that I wrote between 2004 and 2006 to respond to a segment that first aired on October 7, 2007 shows why it's "deja vu all over again" to me. I'll take my consolation as I always do in these cases -- in the knowledge that millions of people were exposed to genetic genealogy. Better still, that viewers of a show like 60 Minutes may well be the curious type who will investigate for themselves and learn just how much can be accomplished through genetic genealogy!