University slams Moffat for stifling debate

Photo: Celeste Sloman

The Academic Senate, St Andrews’ supreme authority, has asked Alistair Moffat to delineate his University and personal business after the University Rector sent a letter via his solicitors to two scientists at University College London accusing them of committing libel.

In a letter seen by The Saint sent to the two evolutionary geneticists at UCL on 18 March, Professor Louise Richardson, University Principal, said that a specially-convened panel had concluded that the wording of part of the letter was “contrary to the principles of academic freedom and honest scientific debate in a matter of public interest.”

The Principal wrote: “As freedom of academic inquiry is the core principle of any university the Senate strongly disapproves of such action.” The Saint has not seen the letter sent by Moffat’s solicitors on 3 September 2012.

The condemnation comes after The Saint reported in March that an academic dispute had erupted between Moffat and geneticists after the Rector claimed that his company, BritainsD­NA, had discovered the grandson of Eve and nine descendants of the Queen of Sheba.

However, what started as an aca­demic dispute sparked threats of legal action from Moffat. When Professor David Balding and Professor Mark Thomas, the two recipients of the Principal’s letter, heard Mr Moffat’s comments about research conducted by BritainsDNA on the Today pro­gramme in July 2012, they wrote a let­ter expressing their concerns over the accuracy of his claims.

They told The Saint that, rather than attempting to engage in scientific debate, Mr Moffat had resorted to le­gal threats to silence the scientists. Dr Vincent Plagnol, also a geneticist at UCL, said: “Any type of legal threat is an ominous sign for an academic de­bate.” Professor Balding and Dr Plag­nol told The Saint that they had felt in­timidated by Mr Moffat’s threats and consulted the Provost at UCL.

However, Mr Moffat said (as The Saint reported on 7 March) his solici­tors’ letter was a reaction to grossly defamatory comments. “It is a com­plete untruth to state that we used legal action to suppress or inhibit sci­entific debate in any way,” he said.

“Professor Balding defamed our company and we asked our solicitors to ask him not to repeat that defamation. That is all. We welcome debate, and while we disagree with Professor Thomas’ views profoundly, he is of course entitled to hold them. What he is not entitled to do is to state un­truths, and that is what he has done.”

However, after the University received a number of letters and complaints from academic staff and leaders at UCL, a panel convened by the most senior member of the Academic Senate concluded that Mr Moffat was stifling academic debate, a finding that has been accepted by the Senate’s Business Committee.

Professor Richardson expressed her “regret” that the University was drawn into the matter, adding: “We wish to make clear, however, that the dispute is between you [Professor Thomas and Balding] and Mr Moffat in his capacity as a private business­man and the university has no locus in this dispute.”

She added: “The University of St Andrews expects all members of our community, whether they are staff, students or office holders, to respect fully the principle of academic free­dom to promote unhindered academ­ic inquiry at all times.”

Recent weeks have seen Mr Mof­fat and BritainsDNA thrown into the spotlight. Professor Mark Thomas openly lambasted Mr Moffat in a Guardian article and Nature wrote an editorial on libel reform and scientific debate, referring directly to the legal threats received by Professors Balding and Thomas.

17 thoughts on “University slams Moffat for stifling debate

  • April 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    and this is why we don’t elect pseudoscience-peddling snake oil salesmen to the position of rector. I hope you’re proud of yourselves, fellow students, for electing Moffat. I voted for Pat Nevin, Chelsea legend.

  • April 11, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Do you remember the Rector’s installation? Ah what a speech:

    ‘That immensely powerful sense of community and simple and immediate democracy has never left me. Raised in this atmosphere, my Mum had an unshakable equality of regard for everyone, no matter where they came from, even Galashiels. Everybody deserved respect, she insisted, but it could be theirs to lose when they opened their mouths. And the major cardinal sin for her was not stupidity – she put up with me for long enough – it was conceit. If she came across a big-headed person, I remember two comments; “if yon was made of chocolate, he’d eat himself” or for somebody with an ego the size of Ben Nevis, she would look at them and note they “had a face you would never tire of slapping.” […]I urge you to take part, to talk to as many different sorts of people as you can find, treat them with equal regard and respect and if you do that, you will find yourselves and you will find a quiet self-confidence inside yourselves.’

    • April 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      That’s funny. We have a conceited school and a stupid rector

  • April 11, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    But a student journalist at the University of St Andrews, where Moffat’s position of rector is non-executive, received legal threats when he attempted to report the duo’s concerns. Jonathan Bucks, news editor for The Saint, says that Moffat repeatedly warned that if necessary, he would take legal action over anything the student newspaper published.

    A man representing students who threatens students…

  • April 11, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    Those in the Family History / Genetic Genealogy community have serious issues with Prof. Mark Thomas, a Professional Scientist, attacking Lay Citizen Scientists (Genetic Genealogists) for using DTC DNA Tests for purposes of Paternal Line Analysis (Y-DNA), Maternal Line Analysis (mt-DNA), Grandparent and Cousin Analysis (Autosomal DNA). He uses the pejorative term “GENETIC ASTROLOGY” for these DNA Tests and refers to ALL Genetic Genealogists as “Genetic Astrologists”.

    We hope that the leaders at UCL will investigate him and force him to apologize to the Genetic Genealogy community.

    The exaggerated interpretations of BritainsDNA and Mofatt are the rare exception in Genetic Genealogy.

    Many believe that St. Andrews should formally terminate their relationship with him. There are many better DTC DNA Testing companies available such as Family Tree DNA, 23andme, National Geographic Geno 2.0. Serious Genetic Genealogists wince we here the names Mofatt and BritainsDNA.

    There is blame and shame to go all around academia on this issue and those in a UCL leadership position should censure and sanction Prof. Mark Thomas … for openly attacking ALL in the Genetic Genealogy community.

    In a February 2013 article, Prof. Mark Thomas at UCL said this: “And for upwards of £150 you too can have your DNA “tested” by any of a number of direct-to-consumer ancestry companies. But how reliable are these claims? The truth is that there is usually little scientific substance to most of them and they are better thought of as GENETIC ASTROLOGY.”

    In other words, Prof. Mark Thomas has no use for Citizen Scientists involved in Genetic Genealogy (family lines since about 1500 or 20 Generations back) nor with Citizen Scientists involved in Ancient Ancestry DNA analysis (from about 210,000 years before present and the beginning of human mankind in Africa to about 1500).

    Thomas, an Evolutionary Geneticist with a PhD, thinks he has unbridled academic freedom to lambast ALL Citizen Scientists endeavoring in Genetic Genealogy as a group and unfairly criticize their contributions to Human Evolutionary Science … which I assure you does use substantive scientific principles and analysis methodology.

    We have many fine examples to point to including a recent one involving Bonnie from the USA. Bonnie Schrack, a Citizen Scientist / Genetic Genealogist was “THE” primary genetic researcher to discover a new male Y-DNA Haplogroup, A00, which dates back about 210,000 years to Africa. Her accomplishments as a lay person far outshine previous accomplishments of a Professional Scientist such as Mark Thomas. See the paper here:

    • April 12, 2013 at 11:20 am

      Are you really claiming that companies who ask for money for genealogical testing are ‘citizen scientists’? In which case, you do the term ‘citizen scientist’ a far greater disservice than you claim Mark Thomas has done.

      If you really believe that ‘an Evolutionary Geneticist with a PhD’ should not be able to freely comment on the work in this field (whoever it is carried out by), you don’t really understand the scientific process. The arguments made by Thomas and colleagues are far more nuanced than you give them credit for.

      There are plenty of people, both with tenured academic positions and those outside universities, who do plenty of valuable scientific work, but your characterization of this debate as ‘professional scientists’ versus ‘the honest man on the street’ is a grossly misrepresents the true situation here.

      • April 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm

        Contrary to what Lewis Dean says … I am representing the true situation and motivations here.

        Scientific Malice is defined as “a specific intent by a Professional Scientist to purposely cause harm or ill will to a person or a group of persons.” The “group of persons” being discussed is lay Genetic Genealogists. “Lay” is used to distinguish between avocational Citizen Scientists and vocational Professional Scientists.

        Genetic Genealogy is the application of genetics to traditional genealogy. Genetic Genealogists use genealogical DNA testing and analysis and interpretation to determine the genetic relationship between individuals and between families.

        Traditional Genetic Genealogists usually research back no more than about 20 Generations or until about 1500. Evolutionary Genetic Genealogists go farther back than 1500 and one recently went back as far as about 210,000 Years Before Present on the Y-DNA Haplogroup A00 found originally in Western Africa … but also recently discovered in African Americans who are ancestors of slaves brought to America from Africa.

        Prof. Mark Thomas is a Professional Scientist at UCL involved in Evolutionary Genetics and purposely embraces Scientific Malice principles to create ill will and to tarnish (via the pejorative term Genetic Astrology) the reputation and credibility of Genetic Genealogists and the DTC DNA Tests they utilize.

        He has with Scientific Malice and falsity said: “The truth is that there is usually little scientific substance to most of them and they are better thought of as GENETIC ASTROLOGY.” “… this speculation almost invariably comes from the murky world of interpretative Phylogeography – an approach to “reading” our genetic history that is easily steered by subjective biases, has never been scientifically shown to work …” In other words, he says that a DTC Genealogical Test analysis and interpretation (“reading”) is no better than reading a ASTROLOGY HOROSCOPE.

        Prof. Mark Thomas is just as guilty of Scientific Malice as is Prof. James Watson, a Nobel prize winner and one of the discovers of DNA in 1953.

        In March of 2013 Watson made remarks in an overtly racist way against Irish people: “…The historic curse of the Irish, which is not alcohol, it’s not stupidity. But it’s ignorance.” In 2007, Watson lost his job because of racist remarks against the African people questioning their intellect.

        Maybe it time for the leaders at UCL to examine this Scientific Malice issue and the employment of Prof. Mark Thomas when he questions the intellect and accomplishments of lay Genetic Genealogists and tries to Tar and Feather ALL Genetic Genealogists using Scientific Malice principles.

        • April 12, 2013 at 4:49 pm

          George Jones speaks only for himself and not for other family historians and genetic genealogists. He has completely misunderstood the article written by Mark Thomas, David Balding and other eminent geneticists for Sense About Science: This article was criticising the misleading interpretation of DNA results made by some genetic ancestry companies whose “research” is only ever published in press releases and not in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The article does not criticise citizen scientists or genetic genealogists. Indeed Mark Thomas was one of the co-authors, along with the citizen scientist Bonnie Schrack, of the haplogroup A00 article that George Jones praises!

          • April 12, 2013 at 8:47 pm

            Debbie Kennett falsely fancies herself as the Queen of ISOGG … the International Society of Genetic Genealogists (a weak organization) and thinks that others in Genetic Genealogy cannot form opinions or provide relevant input.

            She has books to sell and likes to see her name out there. Debbie, over the past year, I have corresponded with and spoken with Prof. Mark Thomas and know quite alot more of the facts than you ever will.

            You have got your facts all wrong about how Prof. Mark Thomas got his name on the above mentioned article. According to correspondence I received from Bonnie it was Hammer who insisted that Thomas have is name added to the article and that Thomas contributed little or nothing to the article.

            The other large point (from Thomas’s own writings and conversations) is that he is out there to label ALL in Genetic Genealogy and ALL Genetic Genealogists as Charlatans using dubious and unscientific methods (such as Phylogeography) and wants to label us as GENETIC ASTROLOGERS. In a phone call with me he even put Spencer Wells in that category.

            I did not misunderstand the article at all “as you directly said” and I disagree with key parts including: “Genetics researchers are telling us that you are better off digging around in your loft than doing a DNA ancestry test if you want to find out about your family tree.” If you AGREE with the above quote … tell us so or shut up

            So Debbie, before you go blathering all over … get your facts straight and standup against people like Prof. Mark Thomas who use Scientific Malice & Smear Tactics.

            In regards to Sense About Science, they were forced into letting someone (you) post a rebuttal blog piece because they did not accept public comment and therefore their piece lacked balance. See Tracey Brown or contact me via email if you want the details.

  • April 12, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Our Rector threatens a student and tramples the founding principle of academic inquiry, and from President Ffforde and his cronies we have . . . . . silence? Really? What do you have to say about this? What do any of our student leaders have to say about a Rector whose threats are reported centrally by one of the most important academic journals in the world? Stand up and be counted, that’s why we elected you. Moffat has become an embarassment and a liability, it would be refreshing to here what you intend to do about it.

  • April 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

    ffair point. Perhaps the Saint might ask them why they have lost their tongues.

  • April 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Is there anyway of us removing him for bringing the University into disrepute?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.