Wednesday, August 10, 2005
The Uncertain Face of the Earth
A few years ago, when I worked in London, I used to walk to work every morning across Green Park, then pass the gate of Buckingham Palace. It was an interesting walk, firstly because Green Park is a haven of calm in the city, and secondly because I often saw a variety of different "goings-on" at Buckingham Palace. One morning (Tuesday 11th March 1997 to be exact), I reached the main gate of Buckingham Palace and encountered a group of five or six teenage girls. They were quite excited, all leaning on a metal barrier that had been erected near the entrance. It seemed that they were there to greet someone who would be arriving that day, but I had no idea who.
I got to work and thought no more of this until, seated on the train as I made my way home again, I noticed on the front page of the paper that the man opposite was reading, the faces of these five or six girls that I had seen that morning. They were all crammed together and screaming, waving scarves and banners proclaiming the name 'Paul McCartney'. In big letters, above the photo, was a title something along the lines of: "Beatlemania hits London once more as Paul McCartney receives Knighthood".
Now I can't be exactly sure that no other girls joined the original five or six that I had seen, but there was no evidence in the photograph to suggest otherwise. If these five or six girls represented 'Beatlemania' then the paper was clearly trying to mislead its readers. 'Beatlemania' was when thousands of girls were screaming the Beatles names, not six of them.
I think ever since that day I have had a somewhat jaundiced view of the press. The press want to make 'a story'. This story seems to depend on certain preconceived guidelines. In the case of McCartney, the guideline was that 'he will always be loved and fans will always turn out in hordes to wave at him'.
But what about Science? What is the guideline for a successful science story? Probably it runs along the lines of the 'amazing but true' stories that I read as a child in Ripley's 'Believe it or Not' books. So a scientist who says he can identify the scraggy bit of rock behind Bin Laden in a video filmed somewhere in the wilds of Afghanistan fits this bill exactly.
This alone suggests that I should be more cautious about this story than my straightforward acceptance of the story in yesterday's blog. My aim, yesterday, was to point out the remarkably varied character of rocks. I drew an analogy with the human face to try and explain this. The human face is always basically the same: two eyes, a nose, a mouth etc. But the amazing thing is, everyone still looks different. We see someone, and if we have met them before, we know it immediately.
Rocks are actually very similar to this. There is a saying which goes: "the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks". Just as, if you saw a lot of faces, eventually you would be able to say: "That's the face of a man from Romania", eventually, if you saw enough rocks, you would be able to say: "That's a vesicular basalt" or "That's a glaucophane schist".
But actually, when you read Jack Schroder's story, it is pretty amazing. Maybe a bit too amazing. So I think I'm going to have to investigate the facts in a bit more detail.
What are the key elements of Jack Schroder's story?
Firstly, his certainty. He reports to the BBC that, after watching the video: "I turned to my wife and told her 'I know where he is'". But with how much accuracy did he know where Bin Laden was? Enough for a pin-point attack? Or would the US have to do a few carpet bombing runs?
The second aspect of the story is how this certain knowledge translated into action.
The video of Bin Laden was released on 7th October.
A journalist Sam Lister of The Times rang the Media Monitor at the Geological Society of London on October 8 with the news that Prof. Jack Shroder at the University of Nebraska had recognised the rocks looming behind Bin Laden in his infamous video.
That means either Jack Schroder, or someone close to him, had told the press almost immediately.
Then a whole week passed until a journalist from the San Francisco Herald got hold of Schroder and “in an inadvertent moment" Schroder says in a Geotimes article, "I let that San Francisco Chronicle guy know that I knew where it (the rock outcrop) was." The article that the San Francisco Chronicle guy wrote appeared on the 15th October.
Had Schroder been speaking with the government at this time? It seems highly likely that he had, if his research work in Afghanistan had been funded by them for the past thirty years. To the San Francisco Chronicle he strongly implied -- but refused to categorically state -- that he had already spoken with the government.
Later, in an article in Geotimes Shroder said “he was smart enough to know that I ought to mislead the media (the San Francisco Chronicle) a little bit before I gave away something that I shouldn’t have.” So, to protect the sensitivity surrounding bin Laden’s whereabouts, Shroder told the reporter a location he knew was probably not exactly right. He didn’t want the press to have that precise information before the U.S. government did.
So, in effect, Schroder was misleading the press. If he was really doing that, then he was also midleading Bin Laden, who was no doubt watching the internet news, into possibly thinking the US thought he was somewhere where he wasn't.
Schroder then says that: "an hour later (after his interview with the San Francisco Chronicle), a federal agent called him. Since then, he has advised the FBI and other top U.S. officials on the geology of the region." But hadn't he already dropped hints to the San Francisco Chronicle that he had already spoken to the government?
So, thirdly, how accurately could he really place Bin Laden?
To the San Francisco Chronicle on 15 October he said that Bin Laden was probably in a ravine deep inside Paktia, which is a southwestern province in Afghanistan, and Pushtun tribal territory." I measured this region on a map and it measures about 100 km by 60 km
The BBC on the 19th October reported that Schroder had said: the cave was typical of the Paktia or Paktika provinces of the Katawaz basin, about 210 kilometres (130 miles) south of the Afghan capital. This is actually a considerable enlargement of the search region to an area measuring 300 km by 100 km.
There is therefore a lot of doubt concerning whether he could really identify the place from the rocks or not. There are statements in the report which try to back up this peculiar skill of his, such as: "He said he had a knack for identifying rock formations on film, often querying backgrounds used by Hollywood." What on earth does that mean? He queryed backgrounds used by Hollywood? Does that mean he was in the habit of checking up that Hollywood had indeed filmed the film where they said they had, because he had evidence that they hadn't? And then other unidentified geologists turn up who confirm the kind of sedimentary rock shown can only be found in Paktia or Paktika.
Finally, to Geotimes in February 2002, after Bin Laden had actually managed to flee on foot into Pakistan, Schroder said he knew the rocks and landforms and could place them in the western Spinghar (White Mountain) region of Tora Bora and nearby. As you can see from the map above, Tora Bora is outside the provinces mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle and BBC articles.
So, it seems this was all a deception. The US wanted Bin Laden to think that they had pin-pointed his base further to the south than he really was, so they got a geologist with thirty years experience in the region to say that he knew exactly where the outcrops were, making it seem as if he had let the news slip out by accident to a reporter.
One of the biggest challenges through this time, Shroder said, in his Geotimes interview, was balancing the needs of his country with his role as an academic geologist. “I’m paid by taxpayers to talk and to explain and educate and give people information. I am not trained to be in a manhunt and to be secret and keep my mouth shut, and that’s an odd place.”
"I’m going to help American capitalist companies help the Afghans. So, the resources come out of the ground and the country gets rebuilt in a good, American, sort of capitalistic but not exploitatively capitalistic operation.” And not, as he put it to the San Francisco chronicle that: "Local peasant people dig all over the place looking for various minerals that they hope will somehow make them some money." Because that isn't at all efficient, is it?
Something that makes me uncomfortable about this is the way that a scientist's knowledge has been used in a conspiratorial way. From his statement, I get the impression Schroder felt this conflict himself. The Media Monitor article actually uses the idea that a geologist could identify the location of Bin Laden as a sort of jibe against the fleeing miscreant, saying: "Mr Bin Laden and his adherents are not known for their belief or interest in science. However, the utility of the technique in locating him (which should, perhaps convince the zealot that there’s more to it than he is ready to admit) did not go unnoticed. On November 4 he appeared again on Al-Jazeera, his rocky backdrop discreetly concealed in sacking."
Bin Laden did appear in front of sacking, as I mentioned yesterday. The geological story had apparently got through to him, and it must have made Schroder's government contacts laugh. But was this story really a moment to be trumping geological triumphs over old-fashioned zealotry, here defined as not believing in the advances of science? If the announcement was a conspiracy, why shouldn't the geological pin-pointing have been a conspiracy too? And shouldn't that rather deflate our pride in the advances of science. A science that can be turned like a multi-function tool to address any problem we care to ask?