reductionism works (pretty good) — again

some biogeographers came awful close (278 miles close, to be precise) to pinpointing osama bin laden’s location a couple of years ago by using biogeographical theories:

“They fingered the spots based on two theories on the distribution of biological species. One of them, the so-called distance-decay theory, states that the similarity and correlation between species at two locations decreases as the distance between them increases. As such, the geographers figure bin Laden can’t have gone far—he is believed to have fled Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region at the end of 2001—if he wished to remain on similar terrain in a familiar cultural environment.

Island biogeography, the other tool in the team’s theoretical analysis, posits that large, closely spaced pockets of life (islands) support more species and are less ravaged by extinction than small, isolated islands. With cities standing in for islands, the researchers speculate that bin Laden would most likely hide out in a large town with minimal isolation, because even though there’s more risk of being spotted he would also have access to resources needed to stay alive as well as under cover.

“These theories, they say, point to Parachinar in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

“a” for abbottabad, “b” for parachinar:

reductionism works (on a certain level) ’cause we are just busy little biological creatures running around like all the other busy little biological creatures.

previously: reductionism works and more reductionism working

(note: comments do not require an email.)


  1. I’d be careful here. From my memory of news reports over the past few years, most intelligence pointed to bin Laden being in Pakistan, so pointing to a location in that country isn’t a particularly impressive feat. The fact that it was 278 miles off is actually pretty embarrassing. Their assumption that “he couldn’t have gone far” was actually dead wrong since instead of staying near the Afghan border, he actually found himself in what is essentially a distant suburb of Islamabad.


  2. @r.a. – “The fact that it was 278 miles off is actually pretty embarrassing. Their assumption that “he couldn’t have gone far” was actually dead wrong….”

    actually, i still think their results were pretty good — not great, but pretty good (which is why i used the phrase). assuming that they were not swayed by the intelligence reports pointing to him being in pakistan, the range for contemporary humans is huge compared to 278 miles. people regularly jet all over the world today as a matter of course — thousands of miles. during my last jaunt, for instance, over my short vacation last week, i chalked up over 3000 miles and that was for just a 4 day family visit.

    278 miles is nothing for humans. we’re kinda in the same category as birds that migrate across the globe or those large mammals on the savannas of africa. we’re not newts, you know. (~_^)


  3. Ok, I decided to open up Google Earth and look at the distances involved. I took the geographical coordinates for the Battle of Tora Bora (34°7’N 70°13’E) off of Wikipedia and found that it was 16.15 miles (25.98km) away from Parachinar as the bird flies, compared with a 180.89 mile (291.11km) great circle distance to bin Laden’s actual compound, so that’s an over tenfold mistake in the assumption of how far bin Laden could have traveled, and given that the point of the research was to pinpoint buildings where he could have been found, I’d call it a pretty disastrous failure.

    It is true that the researchers pinpointed the right country, but they did so assuming that he went to the first town he could find after he crossed the border. There was only two towns in Pakistan (Luqman Khel and Dandar) and none in Afghanistan that were closer to the Tora Bora cave complex where the U.S. lost track of bin Laden, and both of them were smaller than Parachinar (Dandar had on the order of a dozen buildings total). So, if you assume that after Tora Bora, bin Laden hid out in a town just across the border in Pakistan, you have a few options, none of which were within 100 miles of where he actually ended up.

    So, given the thought process presented and the distances involved, I’d say that the prediction was pretty terrible.


  4. i still think their results are pretty good. not great, not even good, but pretty good.

    osama could’ve easily f*cked off to saudi arabia or indonesia or another one of the -stans given today’s ease of travel and the range of many contemporary humans. he, himself, originated in saudi arabia, lived for a time in sudan, and wound up in afghanistan|pakistan, so that right there shows you what his own, personal range was.

    distance-decay theory, tho, said he shoulda stayed somewhere culturally similar to his last position — well, i betcha parachinar is not all that different from nangarhar province, afghanistan (where tora bora is located). and the island theory thingie says he shoulda gone to a city. parachinar fits that bill, too.

    no, they didn’t get it right, but i still don’t think it was pretty terrible. not great either. not even good. pretty good. i give ’em a C, C- (A for effort, tho!).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s