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Enough with the hype

You knew it was coming.

You knew it was inevitable.

You knew that sooner or later somebody was going to come up with the idea of adding that little button somewhere in the vicinity of AncestryDNA’s ethnicity estimates.

The little button that reads “Share.”

If The Legal Genealogist were to hit that button, right now, up will come this set of options:

A-FB1

And that lets you, if you choose to, share your ethnicity estimates on Facebook, or by email, or by copying and pasting the link provided anywhere you want.

If you select the email option, you’ll get this pop-up on your screen:

A-FB2

All you need to do is enter whatever email addresses you’d like in the line for Email address and hit the Send Invitations button. It will send out an email to all those whose email you’ve entered giving them a link to click to go to your results page.

A.FB If you select the Facebook option, and you’re logged in to your Facebook account, it’ll populate a Facebook post for you like the one you see here to the left. All you need to do is add your own comment to go along with it and hit the Post to Facebook button.

Now, don’t get me wrong, please:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your ethnicity estimates anywhere you want to.

It’s an interesting tidbit of information and, frankly, the singular reason why some people do DNA testing. They want to see those percentages. Even the idea of getting these percentages is what helps us convince some cousins to go ahead and do the DNA tests we’d really like them to do.

Where the line needs to be drawn is on the hype that goes along with those estimates.

Because there is one word you don’t see anywhere here. Not in the page that gives you your options. Not in the post that goes on Facebook. Not in the message that goes along with the invitation if you choose the send-by-email option. Not in the copy-and-paste code, either.

It’s the word “estimate.”

When you click on the Share button, it tells you that you’re about to “Invite your family and friends to see what your DNA says about your ethnicity.”

If you post via Facebook, it tells your family and friends that what they’re seeing are your “Ethnicity Results” and, it adds, “AncestryDNA helps people discover their unique heritage.”

And if you accept the default version of the email message AncestryDNA sends out when you opt for the send-by-email version, the email will say “I took the AncestryDNA test and would like to share what I found. It shows my ethnic origins and where my ancestors once lived.”

Oh, please.

No.

No, it doesn’t.

Well, okay, it might show those origins and where your ancestors lived, if you happen to be one of the lucky people whose genetic origins are not all jumbled up from generations of mixing English and Irish and German and French. If all of your ancestors on both your mother’s side and your father’s side came from the same place generation after generation, century after century. If there’s no room for doubt based on what reference population your results are compared to or the statistical algorithm chosen for the comparison.

For the rest of us, however, these are not “results” that show origins and residence locations. They are estimates only, and estimates with some serious limitations.

Let me repeat, once more, that we have to keep in mind what these admixture tests do: they take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

So coming up with these percentages in these tests requires this fundamental assumption: that the DNA of the reference populations — those groups whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and more all come from the same area — is likely to reflect what we might see if we could test the DNA of people who lived in that area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In other words, these percentages are:

• estimates,

• estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today, and

• estimates based purely on the statistical odds that those small groups tell us something meaningful about past populations.

The key word here: estimates.

The key word you don’t see, anywhere, in this new sharing feature.

I suppose from an advertising perspective “what your DNA says about your ethnicity” works better than “what our algorithm estimates your DNA says about your ethnicity based on the reference populations we have.” And it’s easier to sell the idea that a DNA test “shows my ethnic origins and where my ancestors once lived” than that it “suggests possible components of my ethnic origins and where a small subset of my genetic ancestors may lived or at least passed through for a time.”

But the reality is that we’re much better off sharing with our families and our friends what DNA testing really can do, and do very well and very accurately: help us find cousins to collaborate with, share research with, document our family histories with.

Enough with the hype.

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