The New York Times is fronting a story that combines two of my favorite subjects – DNA and baseball. Unfortunately, the story is ridiculously alarmist, and either willfully or ignorantly conflates DNA paternity/maternity tests with tests designed to extract other information from a person’s genome.
The plug for the piece is that Major League Baseball has apparently used DNA tests to establish the parentage of a few prospects in the Dominican Republic – a step they have taken to counter efforts by some players to assume a younger person’s identity to make them more appealing to major league organizations. This part of the story is straightforward – before plopping down several hundred thousand, or million, dollars on a 16 year old phenom, MLB clubs want to make sure they’re getting what they’re paying for.
But not content to simply report on an effort to address a problem that has plagued baseball for the last decade (and, it is important to note, has made clubs less willing to take risks on young Dominican players, thus hurting the kids who don’t cheat) the NYT plays the spooky DNA bogeyman card:
“DNA contains a host of information about risks for future diseases that prospective employers might be interested in discovering and considering,” said Kathy Hudson, the director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Yes, DNA does contain that information. But as Hudson knows full well, the DNA tests used to establish paternity/maternity test a small number of markers simply to establish whether a person is another person’s offspring – they do not look at markers used to predict disease risk, athletic abilities, or any other phenotype.
Now, of course, MLB teams could choose to carry out such tests. And a scout raises some interesting questions:
…I know they’re looking into trying to figure out susceptibility to injuries, things like that. If they come up with a test that shows someone’s connective tissue is at a high risk of not holding up, can that be used? I don’t know. I do think that’s where this is headed.
Exploring these issues would make a good story. And I think it’s inevitable that this is going to happen unless it is specifically outlawed (and I’m not sure GINA really does that). But it’s absurd to imply that using DNA to establish that people are accurately reporting the parentage is equivalent to demanding that players undergo extensive genetic screening for inherited conditions that might affect their baseball future.
It’s just another example of bioethicists and the media squawking thoughtlessly about the sinister things that DNA can do without even trying to put it in any kind of context.