What that Michael Jackson paternity test can really tell us

In 1983, Michael Jackson released Billie Jean, a song in which he denied the paternity of a child born to a woman named, well, Billie Jean. Just one year beforehand, a musical acquaintance of Jackson’s — named Miki “Billy” Howard — had given birth to a son named Brandon.


At the time, DNA testing was not yet available, so one way to judge paternity was just by looking. The problem, of course, was that young Brandon looked much like any other baby, and had not yet grown into the Michael Jackson clone you can see above.

Of course, now that DNA testing does exist, we get stories like the one that appeared today on E! Online, Michael Jackson Love Child? Singer Brandon Howard’s DNA Is an Alleged 99.9 Percent Match to the King of Pop:

Brandon Howard, a 31-year-old singer, may just be Michael Jackson’s secret son. The crooner, who has a striking resemblance to the late legend, took a DNA test from a dental imprint revealing a 99.9 percent match to the King of Pop.

Dr. Joseph Goodman, a Beverly Hills dental surgeon, revealed the alleged results, and claimed he obtained a sample of Jackson’s DNA from a dental device that had belonged to the “Thriller” singer and was purchased by Goodman at auction.

Now, I’m not here to tell you whether Brandon Howard is, in fact, the son of Michael Jackson (though I certainly can understand his reluctance to admit it, which is detailed in an unexcerpted portion of the E! article).

What I am here to do is, in the interests of biology education, briefly explain why the 99.9% figure cited repeatedly as evidence for Michael Jackson’s paternity is not at all meaningful. I’m pretty lazy and it’s almost 2AM, so I won’t even bother to explain in my own words. Here’s Dr. Aaron Shafer, of Stanford University:

When scientists say we are 85% the same as a mouse, they are referring to the string of letters in a gene. This simply means that on average, if you compare a typical gene from mice to the equivalent gene in a human, 85% of their bases will be the same. Or if the gene was 1000 bases long, 150 bases would be different and 850 would be the same as the other. In other words we are 85% biochemically identical to a mouse.

How biochemically identical are we to our fellow humans? The DNA sequence in your genes is on average 99.9% identical to ANY other human being.

So if a 99.9% match means Brandon Howard was fathered by Michael Jackson, it’s possible that we were ALL fathered by Michael Jackson. In case all those allegations against him weren’t disturbing enough otherwise.


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