CSI: Ambiguous Sentences

The New York Times yesterday had a story with the dramatic headline DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show, explaining that, well, there are nefarious tricks you can pull to falsify DNA evidence, provided you have access to a high-quality biochemical laboratory. The story is a great boon to conspiracy theorists everywhere, especially with this sentence:

Dr. Frumkin is a founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones that it hopes to sell to forensics laboratories.

“See! They’re selling fake DNA samples to forensic laboratories so they can use them to frame me! It’s right there in the New York Times!”

(A real whack job would, of course, draw on the fact that the group is based in Israel, allowing them to double down with some bonus anti-semitism. I thought about putting that into the quotes above, but the Internet being the Internet, somebody would take it seriously…)


  1. #1 Sigmund
    August 18, 2009

    From the article:
    “Nucleix’s test to tell if a sample has been fabricated relies on the fact that amplified DNA — which would be used in either deception — is not methylated, meaning it lacks certain molecules that are attached to the DNA at specific points, usually to inactivate genes.”
    But of course any competent molecular biologist will point out that it is simple to use a simple CpG methyltransferase treatment to methylate the amplified DNA.

    One of the original and best explanations of unscrupulous policemen contaminating evidence is from the OJ Simpson trial. Barry Schreck, Simpsons lawyer, pointed out that the DNA sample the police identified contained EDTA. This is a preservative used to prevent blood samples from clotting (the clear implication being that the DNA sample actually originated in the blood sample Simpson provided to the police, prior to their discovery of suspicious blood spots at the scene of the crime). This was enough to throw the DNA evidence – the strongest evidence against Simpson – into serious, or at least reasonable doubt.

  2. #2 John Bredehoft
    August 18, 2009

    From what I’ve read so far, you appear to be one of the few people that has gone beyond the headline. And while I’ll grant that Nucleix has some motivations, and that (if Nucleix is right) the fake DNA can be detected, there is a whole perception issue that will need to be dealt with. DNA was the only forensic science that escaped the critical eye of the National Academy of Sciences report earlier this year, and now, at least in the public’s eye, DNA can be questioned also. Within 30 days, at least one defense lawyer will cite the FSI Genetics paper in an attempt to throw some evidence out

  3. #3 Excited State
    August 18, 2009

    Intentionally misunderstanding sentences for hilarious effect is one of my favorite hobbies. And misplaced modifiers, like the one above, make for some of the best ones.

    “Hanging in the closet, Joe found his coat.”

  4. #4 Wilson
    August 18, 2009

    @Excited State #3:

    If you don’t already, you would probably enjoy the weekly email newsletter of World Wide Words, by Michael Quinion. Almost every issue has a section called “Sic!” in which he highlights just such sentences, mostly sent in by readers.

  5. #5 laura james
    August 25, 2009

    Thank you for noticing what the so-called journalists seem to repeatedly miss about Nucleix, and that’s the troubling question of commercial gain here. I’d go even further, and did (see link) because I think this company is a crock and doesn’t deserve any more free publicity than it’s already gotten. Is there any reason the actual instructions for faking DNA samples shouldn’t be removed from the internet?

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