October 21, 2014

Spoilsport scientists ruin recent Jack The Ripper book revelation with their stupid bummer science


Prof. Sir Alec Jeffreys, the Debbie Downer of unfounded serial killer identity speculation. Image via Wikipedia.

Prof. Sir Alec Jeffreys, the Debbie Downer of unfounded serial killer identity speculation. Image via Wikipedia.

We all have that one biologist friend, right? The one who’s spent enough time in the lab and the field to be considered an authority on what in mass culture makes scientific sense? The one who bemoans the watering-down of science for the purpose of popular consumption and ruined an episode of Dexter you were both watching by being all “yeah, that’s not enough blood to get a DNA sample, that makes no sense”? And she’s smart and RIGHT, sure, but sometimes you want to live in the world where science is fun and simple, and not mind-bendingly boring and inaccessible. Which, let’s face it, it mostly is (even for scientists).

Russell Edwards, the author of Naming Jack The Ripper, has found a bunch of new biologist friends, and they’re all gladly telling him he’s wrong. You might recall how Edwards’ book caused a stir when it was published last month, because it claimed to prove the identity of Jack The Ripper. It staked its claim on a shawl allegedly stained with Ripper blood that was allegedly taken from one of the Ripper’s victims, Catharine Eddowes. Edwards dropped an undisclosed sum on the shawl at auction, had the blood tested by a scientist for DNA which allegedly matched that of a familial descendent of known Ripper suspect Aaron Kosminsky.

This was more a clickfest than a revelation. There are plenty of “solutions” to the Ripper mystery, and there’s less evidence and more doubt as the years roll on. So clearly this was a book release designed to build hype, which it did, but now the boring scientists are weighing in, at least the ones who could be bothered to step away from their alembics and Tesla coils or whatever. Unsurprisingly, they’re saying Edwards got it dead (too soon?) wrong.

The Independent reports thusly:

The scientist, Jari Louhelainen, is said to have made an “error of nomenclature” when using a DNA database to calculate the chances of a genetic match. If true, it would mean his calculations were wrong and that virtually anyone could have left the DNA that he insisted came from the Ripper’s victim.

The rest of the article is deliciously, Britishly, excruciating. It brings in the criticism of multiple notable scientists in the DNA field, including none other than the inventor of genetic fingerprinting and multiple honorific holder Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys himself, who calmly explains that Louhelainen isn’t just a bad scientist, he’s also a bad mathematician. Jeffreys points out that that the supposed rare mutation, which Louhelainen used to link the DNA on the shawl with Kosminsky’s descedent, isn’t actually rare in the slightest. And even if it had been?

Dr Louhelainen appears to have made a basic error in calculating the frequency estimate. There are currently about 34,617 entries in the GMI database, and the figure would have been nearer to 29,000 when Dr Louhelainen carried out his research some time ago. So failing to find a match for a non-existent mutation should have given a frequency of about 1/29,000 – an error suggesting that he had placed a decimal point in the wrong place. “The random match probability of a sequence only seen once [as claimed for the shawl] is therefore roughly 1/34,617. With a database of this size, it is impossible to arrive at an estimate as low as 1/290,000,” Professor Jeffreys said.

(BUNSEN) BURRRRRRRN. But let’s face it, it was just a matter of time before science revealed what we already knew; that is, a writer who buys a century-plus-old piece of “evidence” with zero history of sterile storage, then gives it to a scientist who, three years later, comes up with the EXACT CONCLUSION that writer was hoping for (but neglects to publish it in any peer-reviewed journal), is not to be trusted. We aren’t looking at a gamechanger. We’re looking at a tabloid. And unsolved crime literature is best enjoyed when written about as such. 

The prize for best headline regarding this development definitely goes to The Times of Israel. Adam Sandler, if you’re looking to update “The Chanukah Song”, now’s the time.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.