The Observer re-drafts the universe with untruth and distortion

On 7 October 2007 readers of The Observer were greeted with the headline that “Forensic DNA tests ‘reveal traces of Madeleine’s body on resort beach’” (the article was written by Mark Townsend and Ned Temko and is available here). At first glance this latest installment in the long-running saga of the disappeared child promised a follow-up to the previous stories that some of her DNA had been found in her parents’ car.

Unfortunately, the article inadvertently reveals something much more disturbing – the cynical exploitation of the case by a shyster given credibility by The Observer (and other UK newspapers). The ‘forensic tests’ were carried out by a crank using a secret ‘quantum’ device with a secret energy source. It’s the sort of thing you would expect to find in a science fiction novel,  and has no relationship to science. But the Observer reported this gobbldigook as news, and in doing so relied upon  multiple untruths and distortions, which are outlined below.

Let’s start off with the headline. Certainly ‘reveal traces of Madeline’s body on resort beach’ was in speech marks. But “Forensic DNA tests” was not. This is the first distortion. In this context ‘forensic DNA tests’ would normally be understood to mean scientific tests undertaken by people involved in a criminal investigation or legal case. As will be shown below, these ‘tests’ were not in any way scientific, and were carried out by a shyster with no official connection to the investigation. The term ‘forensic tests’ provides a wholly distorting credibility to the story.

The body of the article starts off by stating that:

Traces of Madeleine McCann’s body were found on a Portuguese beach weeks after she was reported missing, during tests by a former detective renowned for locating abducted children.

There are two untruths in this sentence. No traces of Madeleine McCann were found at all. There aren’t any qualifying speech marks here – the Observer makes a statement of fact which is palpably false. Next, the former detective isn’t renowned for locating abducted children. As is shown below, what he is renowned for is making unsubstantiated claims to locate people. There is a big difference.

The next paragraph states that:

Forensic analysis by retired South African police superintendent Danie Krugel claimed to reveal Madeleine’s body had either been temporarily buried or was still beneath the beach at Praia da Luz, the resort from where she disappeared on 3 May.

The news reported above has now become a ‘claim’. Mark Townsend and Ned Temko don’t seem to be able to make up their minds, and they just uncritically report such extraordinary claims. 

The third paragraph elaborates:

Based on a combination of Madeleine’s DNA sample and GPS satellite technology, Krugel’s findings were taken so seriously by Portuguese detectives that officers twice searched the beach.

Not only is Krugel exploiting Madeleine McCann’s death, he also appears to be wasting police time (don’t worry, there is more about the tests below). This revelation is even more striking as the article later states that:

Reports in the Portuguese press claim that the original team of more than 200 police who were involved in the frantic early days of the investigation has now been whittled down to a small core who have been working without holidays and are ‘completely exhausted’.

I expect that one reason why the Portuguese police are so exhausted is having to deal with a stream of cranks like Krugel. Their work isn’t going to be made any easier if the cranks are given credibility through fawning commentary in national newspapers.

The fourth paragraph states that:

Krugel, of the University of Bloemfontein, claims that his technique is able to locate a missing person anywhere in the world using only a single strand of hair. He became famous in South Africa after helping a television crew locate the whereabouts of five South African girls who went missing during the Eighties. Last July the retired detective spent four days in Praia da Luz following a request for assistance from Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.

So, lets look into Danie Krugel. First, the article is disingenuous about his origins. Normally if someone who had invented a revolutionary new device is described as being ‘of the University’ one would assume that they are an academic. In fact Krugel works for the University’s ‘Protection Services’, see the staff list here, and various sources describe him as being  ‘Director of Security Services’ or a ‘security officer’.

Krugel claims to have invented the Matter Orientation System (MOS). While he has presented the MOS on South African TV the exact details remain a closely guarded secret. His extraordinary claims were made on TV before protecting his ‘discovery’ with a patent or publishing the details in a scientific journal. This is a tactic generally employed by frauds or deluded believers who want investment income but don’t want to risk any scrutiny of their ‘discovery’.

From the sketchy details of the MOS that are available, it appears that Krugel requires a sample containing DNA of the missing person (such as a strand of hair). Krugel then uses his machine and a GPS device to find the location of the person (living or dead). However, the location isn’t exact, it just provides a general area.

Now, location is information, and he claims that this information can be transferred to him from human tissue. There is no known means by which that information could be transferred. We know that information can be transferred via a variety of media – such as via radio, light, sound or wires. But no possible mechanism exists with the people Krugel claims to find – unless they had previously been given radio transmitters. 

So how does this miraculous machine work? He was featured on an uncritical South African TV documentary, the transcript of which (available here) states that:

The invention is thought to be based on quantum physics and a global positioning system, or GPS, is used to define the search area. […] Danie Krugel (Inventor): “I put it clearly, this is science. This is science. That is what is fantastic about it, it is tied to science we have but people just didn’t link it.”

When we first met him Danie was reluctant to publicly put his invention to the test or to divulge exactly how it works, apart from saying that his most precious secret is the energy source he uses.

The secret energy source is strange enough. If he had invented such a new energy source why hasn’t he patented it, shared it with the world, and made a fortune? Are we really to believe that he would do the oil producers of the world such a favour and keep his secret energy source to himself and only use it in his MOS.

But the biggest red flag is the mention of ‘quantum physics’. Very exciting work is being done in that field, but by people with years of training in very well equipped labs. And they have, via ‘entanglement’, been able to transfer information between two quantum particles. But this transfer only occurs in lab conditions, when both particles have been prepared by scientists, and just concerns binary information – a 0 or a 1. Claiming that information such as the location of human tissue on a beach could be discerned by just obtaining a DNA sample is science fiction.

Now sometimes scifi does come true, but we are being asked to believe that this staggering revolution has been carried out by a university security officer. It is much more likely that, as in many other occasions, the term ‘quantum physics’ is used because most people, including journalists, don’t really understand what it is. ‘Quantum’ means never having to explain yourself.

That paragraph contains a further untruth when it states that he helped “a television crew locate the whereabouts of five South African girls who went missing during the Eighties.” He did lead a television crew to a spot where he claimed that his MOS had located the bodies of the girls. However, the transcript of the TV show (available here) states that Krugel lead the crew to a site where they excavated some bones which turned out to come from six individuals, two of which were male. Moreover, according to the transcript:

the DNA from the bones was simply too degraded and incomplete to make a conclusive match with the DNA of the mothers.

In direct contrast to the text of the Observer article, Danie Krugel did not help a TV crew to find the five girls.

The Daily Mirror, in an article (available here) entitled ‘Don’t Trust the Bodyfinder’, reported on 8 October 2007 that a South African couple looking for their son had been led on a wild goose chase across South Africa for months as Krugel kept providing them with new ‘locations’. Eight months after his disappearance his badly decomposed body was found – it was assumed that he had died after a snake bite. The Mirror article also suggested a financial motive for Krugel’s activities, that he is “said to have sold the rights to the machine for almost £1million”, and that while Krugel insists that he never asks for payment from people looking for lost relatives:

he has a contract with a TV company and was filmed while working on the Madeleine case. He says the footage can only be released once Madeleine is found.

The one million pounds may well be a bluff. But as he has appeared on fawning documentaries already is it very plausible that he is being paid to make his claims (and in doing so interfere with a police investigation). By looking into Krugel’s track record the Daily Mirror displays far superior journalistic standards than does The Observer.

A Google search for the term “Danie Krugel” produces over 400 hits, and the top twenty contain many links to pages that are critical of him. All the information presented here, apart from the Mirror article, would have been available to Mark Townsend and Ned Temko as they wrote their article for The Observer. But they just reported Krugel’s frankly bizarre claims as fact. Are they just staggeringly incompetent, or guilty of cynically printing nonsense because they assumed that anything to do with Madeleine McCann sells papers? My guess is the latter. 

P.S. excellent commentary on the whole Krugel affair can be found on Moonflake’s blog, here; and the South African Sceptics board has an interesting discussion here; Krugel is mentioned in the JREF newsletter here; and the Observer article is also featured on the BadScience page here, SciencePunk’s blog here, and by the Poor Pothecary here.

Edit: An interesting newspaper article can be found here (thanks to MJ Simpson).

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12 Responses to The Observer re-drafts the universe with untruth and distortion

  1. SciencePunk says:

    A far superior debunking to my blog piece! I should remember to stick to the “facts” and gun them down, one by one, like you’ve done here.

    Excellent work.

  2. gimpy says:

    Excellent stuff. It’s worth pointing out that such elementary mistakes would be understandable if not excusable in trainee journalists but Mr Nemko and Mr Townsend are anything but.

    Ted Nemko is a award winning journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee.
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/contacts/page/0,,1496863,00.html
    Mark Townsend has won awards, he is also a humanities graduate.
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/contacts/page/0,,1597974,00.html

  3. ambrielle says:

    Seriously good. Has anyone written to the Reader’s Editor?

  4. seenoevil says:

    Nice work, Woodchopper.
    Beautifully eloquent as usual.

  5. jdc says:

    “‘Quantum’ means never having to explain yourself”. Nice!

  6. Conejo says:

    Cool, calm, devastating. Brilliant.

  7. Danny says:

    It seems that there is the suggestion that it uses GPS versus the suggestion that he takes reading from various places in order to triangulate. I reckon that the mention of GPS either came from someone who doesn’t understand how GPS works and was making it up because Danie Krugel hasn’t said how his box is supposed work, or it is deliberate misinformation from Krugel himself.

  8. pvandck says:

    May I add my compliments. A very well researched and insightful piece. Thanks.

  9. Dean Morrison says:

    Excellent stuff Woodchopper.

    IMHO the Observer has made itself a party to Danie Krugels Ghoulish scam by providing him with free publicity in return for a cheap headline.

    Charlatans like him would not be able to make a living without the support of credulous journalists and cops.

  10. Ben says:

    “Has anyone written to the Reader’s Editor?”

    I have, will post any response I get.

  11. Thanks for all your comments.

    Gimpy – indeed, if thay are that experienced then its difficult to put the article down to incompetence.

    Danny – GPS has been mentioned several times over the years. I assume that Krugel mentions it and that its part of the smoke and mirrors act (and it doesn’t have any meaningful role).

    Ambri – as many people as possible should write.

  12. kelvinthroop says:

    Excellent piece!

    I wonder what “clarifications” the Observer will produce next week?

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