Over the past few years a narrative has been playing out in the media. We saw the rise of the home DNA test. 23andMe and Ancestry.com seemed to become overnight successes, as everyone was suddenly talking about them. Then the critics arrived and tainted the whole industry with a fair serving of skepticism.
But now DNA tests are regaining their popularity. Should you get a home DNA test kit? Or is the whole thing a scam?
What DNA Tests Promised
If you watched a video on YouTube or Buzzfeed about DNA tests, you will have seen someone excitedly discover parts of their heritage they did not know existed. A person who thought they were totally European would find out that they had a significant percentage of Native American DNA. They’d speak to their family and discover some hidden truth about their own ancestral history.
These videos were especially poignant for African American participants. The term “African American” is both exclusionary and very vague. It implies that the person is not fully American but points to a massive continent as their supposed origin. Black Americans found a lot of meaning in DNA test kits which showed them which parts of Africa their ancestors lived in, giving them a greater sense of belonging in this world.
Beyond the discovery of identity, DNA test kit companies also promoted the potential health benefits. A DNA test could tell you if you were at risk of certain genetic diseases. It could point to lifestyle issues that might affect you. This knowledge could prevent illnesses that could have been catastrophic.
So what happened? Why did some people turn against DNA test kits?
Let’s take a look at all the criticisms of DNA testing kits before assessing their validity.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of home DNA testing has been the potential for violation of privacy. Modern day society has accepted a fair amount of surveillance both by governments and social media companies, but this only exposes our outward interests and activities. DNA is a much more intimate part of a person.
While the big DNA testing companies have claimed that data remains anonymous to individual executives and employees, they have built up huge databases with DNA from millions of people around the world. As of yet, there is no direct threat of having your DNA in a database, but the fear is valid.
Other criticisms have focused on the revelations in these DNA test kits. Their accuracy is brought into question. A handful of reporters sent their DNA to a number of different companies and seemingly got different results. This is part of what’s behind the idea that DNA testing is a scam.
Another criticism has been that these tests reveal sensitive information that you might not be ready for – whether it is a revelation that your parents aren’t your biological parents or that your uncle is actually the postman. The results from your DNA test could inadvertently leak this secret to you in an incredibly impersonal way.
The same criticism has been mentioned in regards to the health discoveries. When you receive the results of a DNA test, there is no doctor on hand with great bedside manner to break difficult news to you.
These are the biggest criticisms of DNA testing kits. Let’s take a look at whether they are valid.
The reality is that all of these criticisms, while somewhat valid, do not negate the validity or worth of DNA testing kits.In terms of the privacy issues, we are at a crossroads with the vulnerability of our data. However, we have no reason to believe our DNA data can be anywhere near as damaging to us as the data we routinely give away online. This does not mean the fear of losing the privacy of your DNA is irrelevant, but if someone were to target you directly, there are easier ways to get your DNA than hacking a database of millions of samples.
The reports on the potential inaccuracy of the DNA testing kits have their own issues. Most of the “I took X amount of DNA tests…” articles lead with their variability. However, if you actually read the articles, the authors admit that the differences are relatively small and in line with the science advertised by the companies.
Finally, the criticism that DNA testing reveals sensitive information is strange to me. Yes, it is not ideal to casually learn that your mother had an affair with your uncle, but the fault in that case lies with the parents. There is no good way to find out that information, and if you’re scared of discovering a family history that differs from the one you know, taking a DNA test is a strange decision in the first place.
When it comes to medical revelations, the information provided should lead you to see a professional in person, but at least you know about this before it is too late.
So, are DNA testing kits a scam? The answer is evidently that they are not. They might not be exactly what you want, but they provide you with fairly accurate information and really can change your life.
Should I do DNA testing?
If the validity of DNA testing was the only thing stopping you from doing a DNA test, you should go ahead. You can read this review about AncestryDNA vs MyHeritage to see which tests are most worthwhile.
If you’re on the fence, consider the benefits of knowing about potential susceptibility to illness, as well as the interesting facts you can learn about your identity. I myself was not really interested in my results, as my heritage is pretty straightforward and I neither expected nor hoped for anything different. It really depends on whether you find ancestry particularly interesting.
The short answer is that DNA testing is not a scam. It is not perfect, and there are valid criticisms, but if you are interested in what the companies promise, you will find what you’re looking for.