Should you drunkenly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest? Can you brag about your ancestors having first-class seats on the Mayflower? Do you need to feel extra, extra bad about slavery? All these questions and more can be answered by sending a vial of your spit off to a company like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, or Living DNA … in theory. But the reality of those businesses is a lot less science, and a lot more hustle. We talked with Morgan, who works for one of the major ancestry testing companies. He had some interesting things to say …
The Tests Aren’t As Accurate As They’re Claimed To Be
DNA is one of the most aggressively scientific acronyms in the English language.
But when Inside Edition had a set of triplets send their spit in to Ancestry.com and 23andMe, they got wildly different results from both services. Neither gave each triplet the same ancestry results — which, considering they all came from the same womb, is pretty weird.
“Tests can be a crapshoot. For DNA tests, they use genetic markers, which are little variations in the DNA one or several groups may have, but others do not. The more markers there are, the more accurate the test will be.”
Some companies may use 12, 37, or 67, while others claim to use more than 700,000 different markers. Any of those numbers can sound impressive with the right marketing spin behind them, but the simple fact of the matter is that nobody’s method is perfect. “The best we can do is give a certain range based on those markers (or show who they are most similar to), and sometimes we’ll move up a percentage point of an ethnic group if it doesn’t add up to 100 percent.”
“At least once a week, we’ll get a call from somebody who took two or three other tests and then ours, and complains about how different they are. Usually it’s 5-20 percent off, but we got an email from a guy showing how in one test he was 7 percent Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, then on another he was 33 percent, and then on ours 45 percent, and he wanted to know what was wrong with everyone. We wrote to him that each test is different because of the number and types of genetic markers used, which can skew data, but he wrote back and said that we were con men.”
Genetics experts from the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina have gone so far as to say that these companies are preying on people, because they don’t truly have the information they need to pinpoint your origins on a map, and that it’s not possible to trace unique ancestry that way. As they put it, “That’s the beauty of this scam. The companies aren’t scamming you. They’re not giving you fraudulent information. They are giving you data, real data, and allowing you to scam yourself.”
Even though Morgan works for one of these companies, he doesn’t buy into the accuracy of the product. How could he? “We were doing our own internal tests when I started, and I took the same test five times in five weeks, and I got different results each time. One of the lab assistants wasn’t upset about it. He told me, ‘Look at the range there. That’s about where your ancestors are from.’ Somebody asked him, ‘We promise accurate results. How is it accurate if he got different results each time?’ And the lab assistant said, ‘If you average them all, you have a good idea, right?'”
On one hand, these tests are definitely a con. But on the other hand, the customers are as guilty as the companies. People want to know where they come from so they can brag about being 1/64th Cherokee in internet arguments. No one actually wants to spend hours studying genealogy and pay hundreds of dollars for a dozen different, possibly more accurate tests. “If you get a high percentage, it’s a safe bet that you have ancestors from there. I’m talking about a 50-60 percent on your test. Anything lower, and take it with a grain of salt.”
They Might Tweak Results To Avoid Pissing People Off
Morgan admitted to having changed people’s results. “We only did this on rare occasions, when we knew they weren’t using it as means to harm someone.” A lot of this is done under the guise of having the tests line up with what the business already knows of the customer’s expectations. It’s easier to do that than to deal with an endless parade of clients who are intensely pissed off because they aren’t as Dutch as they expected to be.