Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Reality Apologetics

The ostensible purpose of this blog (if you believe the title) is to present a cogent and entertaining defense of reality. In practice, that means that when I see evidence of egregious supernaturalism or magical thinking in the mainstream (Fox News doesn't count), I like to point it out as the poppycock it is. This is particularly important when the hucksters peddling the poppycock in question are using it to prey on the hopes and dreams of the innocent, which brings us to today's post.

Most of the time, supernaturalism of the sort that irritates me (so really any sort) comes in the guise of religion or spirituality. See this post for an example of this. I suppose it can only be expected, though, that given the more scientific and technical nature of modern society, supernaturalism has arisen in another guise--science as magic. This is not terribly new, I guess, as it dates back at least to the proverbial "snake oil" that's been around for centuries, but the level of sophistication has certainly risen; instead of potions and elixirs, now we get quantum entanglement and DNA.

Our lesson for tonight comes in the form of an "invention" built by one Mr. Danie Krugel, an ex-cop from South Africa. This "invention" (and I use the term loosely) is (wait for it) a "quantum DNA-GPS box" that can supposedly locate anyone anywhere in the world if it is fed a strand of hair or a bit of dead skin. Seeing the word "quantum" in an invention's title should immediately set off alarm bells, because it's a beloved moniker of the modern-day shyster; there's so much we don't understand about quantum mechanics (and the average lay-person understands only a fraction of that) that an unscrupulous salesman can explain just about any seemingly magical effect by an appeal to quantum mechanics. Little-understood science, here, has taken the place of little-understood magic.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of how an ex-cop has the know-how to create ANYTHING harnessing quantum mechanics or DNA, let's have a look at how Mr. Krugel's device (supposedly) works. According to him, you insert a sample of the subject's DNA into a little box, it does "something" and then (somehow) uses quantum mechanics to spit out the subject's location in GPS coordinates. Useful? Hell yes. Plausible? Less so. Mr. Krugel has been less than forthcoming about how his device works, which should be another immediate warning sign--if he could really do what he claims, he's be first in line for a Nobel Prize (among many other awards), and so we're forced to ask why he isn't publishing in scientific journals, distributing the device for other scientists to look at, and generally doing all the things that a legitimate inventor with a legitimate (and totally amazing!) invention would be doing.

Thus far, it seems that we've got nothing more than a run-of-the-mill crank on our hands--guy claims to invent something spectacular and revolutionary, demurs when asked to explain how it works, announces a big test of the device, fails to deliver on this promise, and then makes up excuses about why he failed to deliver. This is nothing new (Steorn's free energy machine, anyone?), but what Mr. Krugel is doing with his "technology" is disgustingly novel: he's claiming to be able to find abducted children, then leading their parents on months long treks through Africa, only to have his quarry (who, he assured the parents, was "alive and on the move") discovered very dead in the forest, victim of a snake bite, then reporting the finding as a successful demonstration of his invention. This is, I think it goes without saying, absolutely despicable. Even if Mr. Krugel does not have malicious intent, does he really think that the best place to refine his prototype is in such a high-stakes arena? What about the countless man-hours that might be wasted looking in the wrong place if he is incorrect (as it seems he often is)? Does this man have no conscience?

Questions of morality aside, this device seems to "operate" on some very sketchy science. How does it pinpoint the location of the sample's "sister" DNA? How is it not fooled by the myriad of skin cells and hairs each of us sheds every day? How does a little tiny box extract DNA from a strand of hair, something that generally takes a forensic laboratory and copious amounts of time? Why would DNA exhibit any kind of special quantum interaction? It's just a molecule like any other, and it seems akin to saying "put some salt in this box, and I'll locate all other salt in the universe." Why does it seem to only work once in a while?

Here are a few easy things Mr. Krugel could do to demonstrate that his product is real:

1. Publish. Get a paper in a peer-reviewed journal about how the device works, and let other scientists critique it.

2. Give a public, open, clear demonstration of the device's function. Let's get a random sample of people, have them donate some DNA, and see how close Mr. Krugel's device comes to pinpointing their location. I'd be impressed by a 30% success rate (especially if he could get a location narrowed down to a half-mile radius or less), which is far less than his claimed 90% success rate.

3. Explain to the public how it works. No mystical appeals to mysterious physics, no jargon--just a simple, clear explanation about a new technology. People do it all the time, even with very complex equipment.

Do these three things, Mr. Krugel, and you'll at least have me listening. Until then, I'm pretty sure you're a liar, and quite possibly a horrible human being as well.

Edit: One additionally disappointing thing about this story is the degree to which the media has jumped on the Daine Krugel bandwagon, reporting the story about his working "helping" to find a missing girl with the same dry earnestness you'd expect them to employ when discussing, you know, actual forensic techniques. This, more than anything else, is why shysters like Mr. Krugel pitch their "inventions" to the media rather than the scientific community; normal media is much easier to fool, and much easier to wow with terms like "quantum entanglement."

1 comment:

That 0ne Guy said...

It looks to me like we have a Class A: Bullshitter.

In other words, the guy is fool of shit, and makes things sound amazing, when in fact they are not. In this case, it's not that it isn't amazing, it's that it doesn't work at all.

What a moron...