23andMe Co-Founder Anne Wojcicki. Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images
Show Hide image

23andMe: Why bother with predictions about yourself when you are almost certainly average?

Want to understand your genes? Call your parents.

Why bother with predictions about yourself when you are almost certainly average? Alongside the columns packed with advice for creating a healthy new you, you will have seen at least one account of “everything that will matter in 2015”. You shouldn’t take either too seriously. Remember that the news predictions you read at the start of 2014 failed to foresee, say, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ebola epidemic, or the rise of Ukip.

It’s a truism to say that prediction is difficult. What is interesting is just how compelling human beings find any kind of window on the future. It’s a trait that the genetic analysis service 23andMe depends on.

The company offers an analysis of the DNA in your saliva. For £125, you can find out information about yourself such as whether you are a carrier of certain inherited conditions and your risk of developing particular kinds of disease. The company says that its reports are “for informational purposes only and do not diagnose disease or illness”, but that they will help you “make better lifestyle choices and appropriately monitor your health”.

Experts are divided on the value of 23andMe’s services. In November 2013 the US Food and Drug Administration ordered the firm to “immediately discontinue” marketing, though ancestry and raw genetic data tests are still available. Ahead of the UK launch, the Science Media Centre gathered the opinions of various UK geneticists. Shirley Hodgson, professor of cancer genetics at St George’s Hospital in London, said 23andMe’s tests were “very open to misunderstanding” and could lead to wasted NHS time.

According to the Cambridge geneticist Eric Miska, 23andMe can give us “a glimpse of the fun, excitement and risks associated with human genome data” but we ought to discuss how our personal genome should be accessed and shared. As Google is one of 23andMe’s financial backers, that’s a conversation we need to have sooner rather than later.

Privacy issues aside, 23andMe has very limited powers when it comes to drawing conclusions from your genetic information. Accurate predictions rely on accurate information. Where genes are concerned, certainty is rare and surprises are common.

Take a study published at the end of last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study looked at data collected over a 30-year period and found a strong correlation between possession of a particular gene variant (the rs993609 variant of the FTO gene, to be precise) and a higher-than-desirable body-mass index.

That was expected: it is what we have seen in recent studies. What wasn’t expected was the absence of this correlation in subjects born before 1942. Only when we began to do less manual work, rely more on technology and have better access to food resources did the genes have something to work with.

So, even with a genetic predisposition, obesity was far from inevitable in the pre-war years. For most health conditions, environment and lifestyle matter far more than the details of your genome.

What’s more, most of 23andMe’s customers will surely find themselves devoid of any meaningful predisposition: the odds are that you are decidedly average. So, whatever your genetic destiny, wherever and whenever you happen to be living, a life of moderate consumption and moderate exercise is probably the best prescription. If that’s too banal and you really want to harness technology to predict the impact of your genes on your future health, pick up your miracle smartphone. Use it to call your parents and ask them how they are. No one knows more than they do about the troubles coming your way. 

Editor’s note, 20 January 2015: The FDA has ordered 23andMe to cease trading its health tests. Ancestry and raw genetic data tests are still available in the US. A change to the text was made to reflect this.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
Show Hide image

The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.