Perhaps this is a reason that more people should listen to college students: two years ago, a class of UCLA ecosystem geography students predicted the location where Osama bin Laden was hiding with surprising accuracy. According to a probilistic model created by Professors Thomas Gillespie, John Agnew and their class of undergraduates, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding in a city, like Abbottabad, which was less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora.
To be fair, of 26 “city islands” where bin Laden could have been hiding out, the class identified the nearby city of Parachinar as the most likely spot. So U.S. intelligence officials might not have been able to use their findings. But the really interesting part of this story is that locating bin Laden was an exercise in a class which was not at all political. Instead, Gillespie and Agnew were trying to teach their students a geographical theory called “island biogeography.”
“The theory was basically that if you’re going to try and survive, you’re going to a region with a low extinction rate: a large town,” Gillespie says. “We hypothesized he wouldn’t be in a small town where people could report on him. It’s not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff,” he added. “But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this.”
The students’ work was published in MIT International Review, a small journal, but Gillespie says that he was surprised when the results garnered media attention back in 2009. Now, the reporters who found the study relevant may feel vindicated (especially Sean Hannity, who Gillespie declined for an interview).
If there was ever an advertisement for interdisciplinary work, this is it. But neither Gillespie nor the intelligence community seem especially eager to forge a working relationship. “Right now, I’m working on the dry forests of Hawaii where 45% of the trees are on the endangered species list,” Gillespie explained. “I’m far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list.”
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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