While looking for something entirely different (research on the Italian mafia), I just came across this absolutely fascinating new paper (pdf) by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog on engineers and Islamic terrorism. There’s been a lot of speculation about the visible elective affinity between education in certain technical disciplines and propensity to join Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, none of which has stopped some loons from claiming that the jihadists were led astray by trendy leftist post-modernist academics in the humanities and social sciences. Gambetta and Hertog use a combination of illustrative statistics, qualitative data and logistic regression to show not only that there is a strong relationship between an engineering background and involvement in a variety of Islamic terrorist groups, but to arrive at a plausible hypothesis as to why this relationship pertains.
Their preferred explanation lies in the combination of a particular mindset given to simplification, monistic understandings of the world and desire that existing social arrangements be preserved, with key environmental factors (most importantly, frustrated professional aspirations due to a lack of opportunities). Interestingly, Gambetta and Hertog suggest that the same mindset which drives engineers in the Islamic world to become terrorists, may lead to the marked tendency of US engineers to adhere to strongly conservative political views. This is the kind of topic that lends itself to the worst kind of uninformed pop-journalism academics, but as best as I can tell (I’m a consumer rather than a producer of the statistical literature) Gambetta and Hertog are extremely careful about their analysis, and up front about the limitations of their data. I’ve copied the piece’s abstract beneath the fold.
Abstract: We find that graduates from subjects such as science, engineering, and medicine are strongly overrepresented among Islamist movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in Western countries more recently. We also find that engineers alone are strongly over-represented among graduates in violent groups in both realms. This is all the more puzzling for engineers are virtually absent from left-wing violent extremists and only present rather than over-represented among right-wing extremists. We consider four hypotheses that could explain this pattern. Is the engineers’ prominence among violent Islamists an accident of history amplified through network links, or do their technical skills make them attractive recruits? Do engineers have a ‘mindset’ that makes them a particularly good match for Islamism, or is their vigorous radicalization explained by the social conditions they endured in Islamic countries? We argue that the interaction between the last two causes is the most plausible explanation of our findings, casting a new light on the sources of Islamic extremism and grounding macro theories of radicalization in a micro-level perspective.