Engineering Terror

by Henry on September 11, 2010

Makes it into the New York Times Magazine

in the ranks of captured and confessed terrorists, engineers and engineering students are significantly overrepresented. Maybe that’s a numerological accident. The sociologist Diego Gambetta and the political scientist Steffen Hertog don’t think so.
Each month, Gambetta and Hertog’s database grows. Last December, Abdulmutallab’s attempt over Detroit. In February, Joseph Andrew Stack, a software engineer, crashed his plane into I.R.S. offices in Austin, Tex. In March, John Patrick Bedell, an engineering grad student, opened fire at an entrance to the Pentagon. In early May, Faisal Shahzad (bachelor of science in computer science and engineering) was arrested at Kennedy Airport for a failed attempt to set off a bomb in Times Square. Also in May, Faiz Mohammad, a civil engineer, was caught at Karachi’s airport with batteries and an electrical circuit hidden in his shoes. And going back, of the 9/11 conspirators who had been educated beyond high school, eight studied engineering. As this list suggests, the phenomenon isn’t confined to Muslims or Middle Easterners.

{ 153 comments }

1

Shane Taylor 09.11.10 at 1:00 pm

Georges Sorel, the author of Reflections on Violence who inspired Benito Mussolini and admired Lenin, trained and worked as an engineer.

2

Brett Bellmore 09.11.10 at 1:19 pm

However, considering how unimaginative their approaches to killing people have been, I’d venture to say that they’re not very *good* engineers. Perhaps that’s got something to do with it, too.

3

Jack Strocchi 09.11.10 at 1:22 pm

I think the key to this puzzle is that these guys are failed engineers.

4

Mrs Tilton 09.11.10 at 1:38 pm

And then, of course, there’s the Salem hypothesis.

As an aside, why so defensive, Brett and Jack? You guys engineers by any chance?

5

Jack Strocchi 09.11.10 at 1:50 pm

Mrs Tilton said @ #4 said:

As an aside, why so defensive, Brett and Jack? You guys engineers by any chance?

[shuffles uneasily] Well, um, er, sort of, in a modest way: RAE (Res). Our demolition charges work. In most cases we make things rather than break them, boring stuff like roads & bridges. Some of my best friends are proper engineers, though.

6

Chris E 09.11.10 at 2:12 pm

The excerpt you didn’t include – and should have was:

“Gambetta and Hertog found engineers only in right-wing groups — the ones that claim to fight for the pious past of Islamic fundamentalists or the white-supremacy America of the Aryan Nations (founder: Richard Butler, engineer) or the minimal pre-modern U.S. government that Stack and Bedell extolled”

7

Steve LaBonne 09.11.10 at 2:15 pm

Four years ago I couldn’t even spell terrorist, and now I are one!

8

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 2:24 pm

On the other hand, the 20th century’s worst dictators of both the left and right (I’m thinking particularly of Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, Stalin) seem to mainly have undertaken or aspired to courses of classical studies, especially political science, history, sociology, military studies, education, art, architecture and religion, with none focusing on science or engineering as far as I can tell. Hitler’s case is somewhat different from the others — he wanted to go to a classical high school, but was sent to technical school, which he detested and disrupted until he was kicked out. His subsequent failure to become an art or architecture student is, I think, better known.

Then again, wikipedia tells me that Pol Pot studied radio electronics, and Kim Jong-Il was (is?) avid for automotive repair.

9

Antonio Conselheiro 09.11.10 at 2:29 pm

Terrorists and engineers are rational, can-do guys who avoid hand-waving liberal arts bullshit. They roll up their sleeves and get the job done.

10

Antonio Conselheiro 09.11.10 at 2:33 pm

The Twin Towers attack was hardly unimaginative The whole 9/11 scheme supposedly cost only a few hundred thousand. “Do more with less.”

11

belle le triste 09.11.10 at 2:38 pm

afaik stalin left school at 16, without taking his exams, so i’d think the actual effects of professional higher-ed on his future dictatory mindset are moot: he never had any higher ed

12

Adam Hyland 09.11.10 at 2:41 pm

http://www.wellingtongrey.net/miscellanea/archive/2008-02-18-engineers-vs-sociologists.html

That’s a somewhat tongue in cheek answer to the question. A better answer would be that terrorism tends mostly to be the province of young, single men and engineers are predominantly young, single men. That and it probably helps to know how to build bombs.

13

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 2:51 pm

belle: OK, perhaps Stalin is better considered “uneducated” at the advanced level. I suppose a better point would be that none of these dictators benefited from science or engineering education at any sophisticated level, or showed any scientific or engineering orientation (unless you count his success in the Soviet Union’s machinery of “scientific socialism”, which I do not — the peer review system of show trials, purges and work camps seems too deeply flawed to me) ; this is also true of Stalin; apparently what little education he had was religious.

But the others in the list did attain or at least aspire to a classical or arts education.

14

Stuart 09.11.10 at 2:59 pm

I can see two effects that might partially explain this (other than coincidence and/or confirmation bias) – for the individual cells that had a lot of engineers in it, I guess it is fairly common for groups that know each other to have similar jobs/training. The other effect being that engineers are a disproportionately large group compared to most other job titles, because there are loads of fairly disparate disciplines that call themselves engineers, I wouldn’t be surprised if 1/3rd of the people at the university I went to were doing an engineering course, or ended up in careers where they could be called engineers, e.g. comp science types often end up as software engineers, although personally I am not, but as I chose my own job title I could easily have selected that (although maybe I chose differently wanting to hide my terrorist inclinations).

15

tom bach 09.11.10 at 3:01 pm

Sophie Scholl et alia relied on ideals derived from their classic liberal arts education when they resisted Hitler.

16

Doctor Science 09.11.10 at 3:03 pm

Henry:

Do you think the reporter left out the Salem Hypothesis on purpose? Did you (or any of the others) talk about the incidence of engineers among Christian terrorists?

I actually assume it’s all related to difficulties seeing inside other people’s minds, something at the very edge of the autism spectrum. For people with such minds, engineering is *easier* than other studies, so that’s where they end up.

17

Akshay 09.11.10 at 3:07 pm

Chris E@6: Yes, it’s interesting that left-wing terrorist groups have very few engineers but more law and humanities students. So what they are finding seems to be a correlation between engineering and the political ‘right’ (whatever that may mean across different countries). Does this correlation hold up worldwide? I would like to know. I know that here in Holland engineering students do tilt to the political right.

\begin{ramble}
I find it impossible to make good sense of the relations between academic background and political stance. Spanish Law students apparently tilt towards the left, as people with a concern for rights fought the fascists. But Dutch Law students are on the right, though judges are socially progressive but economically centrist. The post-Stalin Soviet nuclear program became a hotbed for dissidence as the scientists were left some intellectual freedom to do their research. Yet a study about an American nuclear base found that many physicists there belonged to apocalyptic Christian sects. But I heard the physics faculty in Tehran used to be active in resisting the clerical regime. And clearly poets, authors and philosophers have been all over the place politically.

Apart from the possible correlation between engineering and the Right, I suspect the correlations between economics and the Right and sociology and the Left are pretty widespread. I can think of no good a priori reason for this. I would also hypothesize that the usually politically neutral natural sciences might be drifting leftwards, as their ecological concerns are ignored by the current right-wing establishment. (People who claim to have a natural science background and downplay, say, global warming, are usually engineers)
\end{ramble}

18

Eli 09.11.10 at 3:10 pm

So now we know what they’re *really* teaching in those engineering classes.

19

hix 09.11.10 at 3:15 pm

14 years (8 years school) was the normal school leaving age in Germany and Austria even decades after the worldwar. Hitlers 10 year school was an upper 20% thing back then…

20

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 3:18 pm

tom bach: And doubtless many of the solutions to terrorism rely on good engineering.
To expose my hand, I am skeptical of the analysis described in the Times article (but haven’t read the research), as I see so many potential confounders in the analysis, (the state of industrial development and the status of engineers of the societies in which the terrorists were educated, for one), that I doubt the utility of such an analysis entirely. But I would not be entirely surprised if murderous miscreants of different ideologies and different professional disciplines and training vent their criminal impulses and contempt for human life in different ways. Perhaps the political scientists dream bigger than the engineers.

But the Stalin case shows maybe the joke is on all the aspiring tryants who stay in school — here’s a high school dropout who went on to nearly unparalleled achievement in the field of killing people and dominating an entire large country.

21

Glen Tomkins 09.11.10 at 3:19 pm

As a physician, I confess some nostalgia for the glory days of the past, when MDs were prominent leaders in the violent overthrow of governments.

Everyone has heard of Jean-Paul Marat, of course. But few still remember Giovanni da Procida, the founder of the resistance movement against Angevin rule of Sicily that still lives on in the Mafia. Lasting accomplishments shine the brightest. More recently, we have George Habash.

Now, it seems, the engineers are passing us up. At the risk of going out in a blaze of amateur sociology, I would attribute my profession’s falling behind in this race to the complacency born of material success. Nothing ruins the character quite so thoroughly as entering the upper middle class. It would seem that engineers are having a rougher time of it.

22

tom bach 09.11.10 at 3:59 pm

James Watterau,
Not quite the same thing, is it? Sophie Scholl and her brother were, for time, committed members of the Hitler Youth but who eventually recognized that they had been sold a bill of goods because of the ideals I mentioned. Any examples of engineers who stopped being terrorist because of the ideals of engineering?

For what it’s worth, Stalin was a theology student, if I remember correctly, and his studies had little if anything to do a classic liberal arts education.

23

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 4:18 pm

tom bach: I don’t know of such an example, but on the other hand we’re much less likely to find out about such cases, because the life stories of terrorists are not, I think, as well known as those who participated in murderous political movements. And perhaps there are fewer of them?

Agreed about Stalin, who (according to wikipedia) rebelled in some measure against his religious training while he was undergoing it; but seminary training is, I think, closer to typical liberal studies than it is to science or engineering. Wouldn’t such seminary school include some language training, and some reading of church fathers whose writings are also influential in philosophy and history? But this is somewhat beside the point, as in answer to “belle le triste” I have already agreed to simply lump Stalin under the heading of uneducated at any advanced level, and evidently without a scientific or engineering bent.

I think the best counterexample is still Pol Pot, who does seem to have been some kind of engineer or at least trained technician.

24

tom bach 09.11.10 at 4:27 pm

James Watterau,
In regards to Stalin’s education, no. As I recall, it was a fairly miserable education in some backwater seminary that sounded more Dickensian than not.

As far as your first point, I am not sure I follow.

25

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 4:40 pm

tom bach: Re: Stalin, Wikipedia says of his earlier primary school theological education: “His peers were mostly the sons of affluent priests, officials, and merchants. He and most of his classmates at Gori were Georgians and spoke mostly Georgian. However, at school they were forced to speak Russian, a policy set by Tsar Alexander III. Stalin was one of the best students in the class, earning top marks across the board. He became a very good choir singer and was often hired to sing at weddings. He also began to write poetry, something he would develop in later years.”

Additionally, the seminary he later attended continued to teach Russian.

So it would seem his education included at least:
– Russian language
– the Georgian orthodox religion
– music
– possibly poetry

What we don’t find in there is sufficient training in biology or even the scientific method to understand why championing Lysenkoism was stupid.

Re: my first point — 10s or 100s of millions of people participated in various of the 20th century’s political movement horror shows. I can’t imagine more than a tiny fraction of that number joined terrorist cells or movements. Therefore, there is far more biographical information concerning interesting cases in the former category. Finally — who is more likely to recount her or his life story: a person of letters, or an engineer?

26

buermann 09.11.10 at 4:55 pm

The Profession of Peace! They say they just want to build bridges and apply scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, but we all know they secretly harbor to the lowliest draftsman the insatiable desire to blow stuff up.

27

tom bach 09.11.10 at 5:06 pm

Its not Wikipedia, I’ll grant you, but this description of the actual education that took place and the methods of control used sound more Wackford Squeers than not. The link further argues that Stalin studied revolutionary political literature and not theology.

It is also worth pointing out, that Hitler was notoriously lazy and profoundly ignorant; in large measure because he never studied anything and read less. He enjoyed rambling monologues filled with made up facts.

28

Stuart 09.11.10 at 5:56 pm

It sounds as if Hitler had been born a few decades later he might now have a show on Fox News.

29

Metatone 09.11.10 at 6:04 pm

First up, the sample sizes for these studies are really problematic. Second up, I used to be an engineer, so this stuff does kind of make me feel a bit defensive.

I also think mixing in Bedell (for example) and some others maybe messes up the clarity of the discussion. When someone is bipolar and goes on a shooting spree it seems erroneous to treat it as another “cold, calculated act of terror.”

With all that said, and without going over stuff already mentioned in the article, I think “engineering education” is sometimes a matter of imparting sub-standard, rule-based problem-solving. So you get some engineers who aren’t taught to think, per se, so much as apply an odd mix of algorithms, heuristics and number-crunching to problems. Some portion of them, in turn, are just not very knowledgable/interested in how human society works (until, perhaps, it bites them on the nose.)

The key syndrome that may relate to “propensity to certain kinds of psychopathic acts for (ostensibly) political ends” is that they are educated to/spend a lot of time following logic from a given starting point/set of premises. If you’re able to find someone like this at a vulnerable point and feed them some premises about “what’s really going on” – then they may end up another figure in these statistics.

Or to be more glib – there’s a link between all the “numerate” disciplines and psychological traits that seem to amplify skill with numbers and math but reduce empathy. The economists settle for destroying society, the scientists are either too impractical to cause problems or simply create world-ending devices. It’s the engineers who end up with alarm clocks and plastic explosive…

30

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.11.10 at 6:08 pm

Terrorists and politicians are completely different species.

31

Map Maker 09.11.10 at 6:09 pm

In general I think liberal arts majors make poor terrorists (Weather Underground?) and soldiers (Spain 1936), but just so theories are quite popular, so have at it.

32

Anderson 09.11.10 at 6:23 pm

Noted sociologist Stephen King, in The Stand (1st ed.), had a character speculate (accurately) that, in the novel’s contest of good v. evil, the forces of evil would attract more techies, people who wanted the trains to run on time, who didn’t have patience with the inefficiency and boneheadedness of liberal democracy.

FWIW.

33

engels 09.11.10 at 6:23 pm

The amount of harm done by engineers who become terrorists is rather small in proportion to the amount of harm done by engineers who work for, say, Lockheed Martin or BAE.

34

Brett Bellmore 09.11.10 at 6:36 pm

Why, yes, I am an engineer; These days I primarily design stamping tools, though I spent a while there designing thermoplastic elastomer extrusion dies. Even competed in Battlebots for a while. (It was a blast!) But I don’t think I’m defensive, as such.

Rather, I’m simply impressed by how little success these engineers turned terrorists seem to have. Killing people is not, after all, a particularly challenging goal, we’re very fragile organisms. Terrorism must attract just the incompetent engineers, thank goodness.

35

engels 09.11.10 at 6:59 pm

For once I agree with Brett: if you want to use your engineering skills to help topple a democratic government or just kill a large number of people, becoming a terrorist is a pretty ineffective way to do it.

36

Michael 09.11.10 at 7:06 pm

I read/heard this story about engineers and terrorism some years ago, at about the same time I learned that the only creationists in this small university in England were, yes, in technical departments, in this case chiefly chemistry but others as well. In England you start doing technical stuff in what amounts to high school, maybe exclusively, and at university you certainly do only technical stuff. So, being a romantic for American liberal education, I concluded that these (creationists, terrorists, etc.) were just those people who had not learned to take a larger view, and to argue, over ideologies. People essentially uneducated (according to my romantic openmindedness).

37

Brett Bellmore 09.11.10 at 7:21 pm

No, I don’t think you got my point. Yes, if you want to topple a democratic government, terrorism is probably not the best approach. You probably want to go into politics. But what does it say about engineers who build bombs which don’t go boom? Heck, I learned to make things go boom in Jr. High, most of my peers in college could whip up infernal devices from stuff lying around the dorm and expect them to work. I know they could, because it was our idea of fun. We came from a generation when chemistry sets had chemicals in them, after all, and building rocket engines from scratch got you merit badges, not a perp march.

If the guys I knew back in college wanted to kill mass numbers of people, blast it, mass numbers of people would die. The only explanation I can see for the low body count “engineers” involved in terrorism rack up, is that they’re not competent engineers.

38

mtraven 09.11.10 at 7:32 pm

Some speculations here, mostly drawn from a long time spent thinking about what draws engineers to libertarianism.

39

bianca steele 09.11.10 at 7:36 pm

Brett:
But you are possibly a different kind of engineer than the ones who blow things up.

The article notes that people with an engineering training are less likely to confuse the radio with the brakes: less likely to think they are qualified to work with explosives because they really liked Keanu Reeves in Speed. At the same time, the researchers note that they are more likely to be trustful of authority[1]. Possibly these are people who went into engineering because they wanted a career, not because they had loved science since before they were teenagers, and consequently learned to think about scientific carefulness as “following the rules” rather than as pursuing an ideal or as doing what Nature demands. (Though this is also consistent with their being bad engineers as you suggest.)

[1] Than whom? Than physics Ph.D.’s, accountants, or executive vice presidents? James Wetterau makes a good point that there are a lot of unanswered questions. For example, what role does the Bowling Alone thesis play in all this?

40

BillCinSD 09.11.10 at 7:54 pm

As an engineering professor, I would say there are a considerable number of authoritarian followers in engineering who are then often taught in a manner that reinforces this tendency. Throw in that engineers are taught design and planning and you get excellent terrorists.

41

Kevin Donoghue 09.11.10 at 7:58 pm

The only explanation I can see for the low body count “engineers” involved in terrorism rack up, is that they’re not competent engineers.

Some of them are incompetent but in many cases the body count is incidental. They may even prefer a low body count. Terrorism is about showing what can be done. The 1996 Canary Wharf bombing is an obvious example. Two deaths and a few dozen injuries were quite enough to make the IRA’s point, given the scale of the damage to property.

42

Ebenezer Scrooge 09.11.10 at 8:12 pm

Brett and I seem to have everything in common but our politics. I remember when I was a teenaged techie. Like Brett, I loved to blow things up.
One point not yet noted on this thread is the political propinquities of US techies vary by discipline. Engineers and chemists tend to the right. Physicists, mathematicians and biologists tend to the left. (I was a biophysical chemist, which must somehow explain why I sometimes consider myself a Red Tory.) Computer types, I think, are a mix of left and libertarian, although I left techie fields before they were sufficiently established to stereotype. You might be able to explain some of this by proximity to industry, or by relative attractiveness of the field to Jews, or biorhythms, or I know not what.

43

engels 09.11.10 at 8:14 pm

Terrorism is also usually about maintaining the support of a much larger section of the population who wouldn’t resort to terrorism themselves but sympathise with your aims and may feed you, fund you and help you avoid detection. You don’t do that by killing people for the sake of it.

44

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.11.10 at 8:35 pm

Yes, killing people is not the goal. Ted Kaczynski is a terrorist and certainly a very smart fellow (i.e. high IQ). Surely he could’ve killed thousands of people if he wanted to, but he only killed a few.

45

Salient 09.11.10 at 9:14 pm

in the ranks of captured and confessed terrorists, engineers and engineering students are significantly overrepresented

I read this as “Attacks requiring specific mechanical and technical proficiencies are conducted disproportionately by individuals who have trained in those sorts of proficiencies,” which… does not surprise me. Maybe I’m being inappropriately flip.

What would be more interesting/nontrivial: to establish a link between providing financial support for terrorism and engineering, if one exists, to show that engineers are disproportionately supportive of terrorism. Or perhaps, show that engineers belong disproportionately to right-wing hate groups, some such thing.

Yes, killing people is not the goal.

Indeed, to be provocative about how we define it, terrorism is the ‘art’ of blowing up a few empty buildings (of a certain category) so people are afraid to enter the rest of them. Disruption of a particular institution is generally the goal, not the death of its constituents… by which measure, though, American right-wing terrorists are still largely failures. What institutions have those incidents of terrorism significantly disrupted? Perhaps because they’ve confused spectacle and statement-making with disruption, or perhaps because they’re prevented from sustaining the kind of prolonged assault which would be necessary to engender enough fear for disruption.

46

Matt McIrvin 09.11.10 at 9:46 pm

What institutions have those incidents of terrorism significantly disrupted?

Legal abortion.

47

Substance McGravitas 09.11.10 at 9:47 pm

I read this as “Attacks requiring specific mechanical and technical proficiencies are conducted disproportionately by individuals who have trained in those sorts of proficiencies,” which… does not surprise me.

Perhaps some come from countries in which greater value is placed on technical education because they see the need to get stuff built. Engineers from a lot of different countries may be just following the career path the government wants to herd them into. So you should be EVEN MORE SUSPICIOUS of people who CHOOSE engineering.

48

Brett Bellmore 09.11.10 at 9:56 pm

“Yes, killing people is not the goal.”

Well, sometimes. McVeigh could certainly have detonated that bomb at midnight, after phoning in a warning, and the body count would have been minimal, perhaps zero. But he did want to kill a lot of people. Similarly, you don’t send a Downs syndrome victim into a daycare wearing a radio controlled bomb without intending deaths. Sometimes killing a lot of people is central to the message. But, agreed, terrorism is about sending SOME kind of message, not merely about killing people. Otherwise terrorist attacks would be carried out in a different fashion.

OTOH, the bomb that doesn’t blow up is not particularly good at sending a message, either, unless it’s, “we’re a bunch of weenies.”

I read the essay, and think it could have profited from more exchanges with real engineers. “Among Communists, anarchists and other groups whose shining ideal lies in the future, the researchers found almost no engineers. “

Hey, that’s no mystery. Engineering is, first and foremost, an empirical discipline. While risking failure is necessary to the advance of engineering practice, you don’t learn anything interesting by doing things you already know are going to fail. Hence you don’t find engineers attracted to Communism.

And engineers who want to build a bright, shining future have no shortage of career options outside terrorism.

49

Mrs Tilton 09.11.10 at 10:02 pm

Jack @5, Brett @32,

my remark was more good-natured ribbing than anything else (though I am gratified to see that you both are, in fact, engineers).

Jack, my grandfather did much the same sort of thing during the second world war. From what I’ve heard, he enjoyed the occasional opportunity to blow stuff up real good, but mostly got stuff built instead. He died when I was far too young to ask him what he thought about creationism, though I have no reason to think he would have had anything but contempt for it. On the remote chance that, all evidence to the contrary, he was in fact a terrorist, a small perverse part of me insists he’d have been a highly effective one (filial piety and all that). As a certain football club, along with its entire fan base and stadium and its surrounding district did not, in fact, disappear in smoke and flame during his lifetime, therefore, I’ll conclude he was innocent of all charges.

50

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.11.10 at 10:02 pm

I read this as “Attacks requiring specific mechanical and technical proficiencies are conducted disproportionately by individuals who have trained in those sorts of proficiencies,” which… does not surprise me.

No, they’re just making fun of the nerds. Revenge of the nerds will be devastating.

51

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 10:09 pm

Tom Bach: Interesting excerpt. It says that at least part of what I initially suggested, which you pooh-poohed, is in fact correct: that the seminary would have taught him languages. In fact, Rappaport tells us that they required a “taxing curriculum” of language training, to wit “Latin, Greek, and Old Church Slavonic”. All the sources we have adduced agree that Stalin was also subjected to mandatory Russian training there and earlier.

So the meat of his education seems to have been language, language and more language, along with “interminable” religious services and readings from texts that were doubtless almost all or all religious in nature. Earlier in his primary school days, he seems to have shown a particular facility for singing in the choir. His surreptitious self-education consisted of reading revolutionary literature, notably Marx.

I admit that this is nothing like a modern liberal arts education, but it has a lot more to do with the humanities than with either science or engineering, which was my only point concerning Stalin’s education. Wikipedia and Rappaport both seem to support this perspective equally well.

52

tom bach 09.11.10 at 10:43 pm

James Wetterau,
As I read the Rappaport, the rest of what I know about Stalin and theological education, Stalin didn’t engage with the curriculum and the educational outcome desired was rather the opposite of a liberal arts education; or, maybe, the problem here is we have different definitions of a liberal arts education.

From my perspective, the purpose of a liberal arts education is to aid students in becoming intellectually curious and giving them the tools necessary, critical reading, writing coherently and ability to argue honestly, so that they can scratch whatever intellectual itches they might gain over the years. Or at least that’s how I deal with my students. This is why the Scholls and the White Rose more generally is a counter example which tends to undermine you notion that a LAE when properly done, leads to maddoggism, to coin a phrase.

Stalin’s self education was narrow and, as his later career shows, he wasn’t much on intellectual curiosity resolved through critical engagement with a range of appropriate sources. The same can be said for Hitler, in spades. Mussolini wasn’t much of dab hand for the book learnin’ either. About Mao, I couldn’t say.

I read the original Gambetta and Hertog and they certainly show that engineers are over represented but I wonder if the first half of their thesis, concerning an attitude of mind or “mindset,”
wasn’t the case before their engineering education. Or maybe the benefits that accrue to engineers in terms of avoiding terrorism failed to take the engineered terrorist is because they were really bad students.

53

Matt McIrvin 09.11.10 at 10:49 pm

No, they’re just making fun of the nerds.

Only some nerds. Note, though, the most notable left-wing (-ish) terrorist of the past couple of decades was a mathematician.

54

Anderson 09.11.10 at 10:55 pm

Stalin was a bright student in grammar school, but the seminary had recently been given a strong Russian-nationalist spin, which annoyed the hell out of Stalin and many of the other students, and helped them turn to revolutionary literature. Thus Robert C. Tucker in Stalin as Revolutionary, anyway. There was not much emphasis on critical thinking in the curriculum, I daresay.

55

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 11:17 pm

Given the range of educational opportunities available to students in Stalin’s day, his followed a course that favored apparently oppressive religious and Russian nationalist indoctrination along with several subjects commonly thought of as falling within the humanities. Despite the oppressive nature of his schools, he appears to have had some talent for his studies; he got good grades. Additionally, he showed an interest in poetry, revolutionary political thought, and even talent at the proto-professional level as a singer.

I never said Stalin had a liberal arts education. You have brought the issue up a couple of times, and I took pains to make plain that I do not make any such claim. Search the discussion for the term “liberal arts” and you will see that I am right. So you need not speculate on any difference of definition there, because I never brought it up. Several messages back I described Stalin as simply uneducated at any advanced level.

But given what education he had, the intellectual talents and interests he exhibited in adolescence went to the study of the humanities more than anything else (or would you deny that rigorous training at the high school level in Latin, Greek and other languages, or learning and cultivation of choral singing talent, or reading in political philosophy, counts as the humanities?). Certainly there is no evidence of any engineering or science there.

56

James Wetterau 09.11.10 at 11:21 pm

Oh, and, incidentally, whether or not the outcome of an education is what was desired at the outset surely can’t be the standard by which we judge whether or not one has been educated in that field. The desired outcome of an engineering education is not facility at terrorism. That does not retroactively transform terrorist engineers into non-engineers.

57

tom bach 09.11.10 at 11:43 pm

James Watterau:
A couple of points:
1) you wrote: On the other hand, the 20th century’s worst dictators of both the left and right (I’m thinking particularly of Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, Stalin) seem to mainly have undertaken or aspired to courses of classical studies.
I confess, I half assumed you were kidding, it such a silly argument. You did, it’s true more or less retract the claim at one point only to reassert it later in a weaker form.
2) G&H show that engineers are 2 to 4 times more likely to be terrorists than the rest of us; you show that out of the eleventybillion liberal arts or classical studies students in the world, exactly none of the great dictators rank among them.
3)Oh and incidentally, G&H argue, whether are right or not I cannot possible say, that it is exactly the content of an engineering education and the socialization that goes with that helps explain the over representation of engineers among terrorist.

58

BillCinSD 09.11.10 at 11:52 pm

and yet, Brett, capitalism has failed far more often than communism and yet US engineers have no problem following that doctrine. of curse I guess the question is what group of people is being failed

59

ScentOfViolets 09.12.10 at 12:00 am

Unless I’m missing something obvious, isn’t the simplest explanation the most likely- many people might wish to blow something up in retaliation to an injustice. But only a chemist has the knowledge to do so. That is, I can imagine that there are any of a number of people who wish every bit as much to visit harm upon upon their foes (and might have excellent reasons for doing so.) But they simply don’t have the means to do it, or don’t think that they do. Engineering types do, or at least, think that they do.

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Alan 09.12.10 at 12:02 am

When I was at university, a long time ago, students in any discipline would occasionally re-inforce their esprit de corps by saying that students of some other discipline were [insert stereotype here].

I suspect this has been going on for centuries. Gambetta and Hertog are merely the latest to say so.

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moz 09.12.10 at 12:06 am

“Among Communists, anarchists and other groups whose shining ideal lies in the future, the researchers found almost no engineers. ”

In Australia that’s not the case – there are quite a few engineers in various anarchist groups. For instance, the Indymedia codebase was started by a group of engineers here and has …. oh, wait, almost by definition a codebase is built and maintained by engineers. I could also point the mouse at a number of other famous internet institutions who blur the lines between anarchism and libertarianism, in some cases being run by anti-statist libertarians (to coin an oxymoron). For instance, the line between the specific anti-statism of libertarianism and the generic anti-statism of anarchism is quite blurry for people like WikiLeaks and the EFF. Do they really just want a different state, or do are they generically anti-authoritarian?

One other point is that traditional political change comes through hours and hours of meetings. Also lots and lots of talking. By and large those are not things engineers have a lot of time for. It’s noticeable that our local political parties, for instance, have few to no people with technical backgrounds, and I suspect that has a lot to do with the ratio of talking to doing.

Which is a problem – we get wacky junk out of our political parties as a result. Heavily subsidised opera and olympic sports teams while agricultural research gets cut back, for example. The party I support has a few anti-science policies but I can’t bring myself to get involved enough to try to change them. The numbers are not good – at least 2000 hours over 3-5 years to change one policy. Arrrrgghh… much easier to blow something up.

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Salient 09.12.10 at 12:10 am

G&H show that engineers are 2 to 4 times more likely to be terrorists than the rest of us

This joke was really spot-on funny when it was still a joke.

Less so now.

Required reading. Or would you like to see my awesome proof that Muslims are 2 to 4 times more likely to be terrorists than the rest of us? And strangely, Muslims also tend to only show up in the right-wing groups. Maybe we could send them all to a camp together.

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ice9 09.12.10 at 12:17 am

The 9/11 terrorists, or whoever gets credit for their idea, didn’t have to be especially creative. Tom Clancy had the villain of his novel “Debt of Honor” fly a 747 into the Capitol in 1994. Awkward–Dick Cheney used to say he loved Tom Clancy, but after 9/11 it was the government line that nobody could have predicted the plot. Also, engineers love Tom Clancy because his novels are tech savvy and orderly. Plus they have more time to read now that the trains are mostly run by computers and the caboose is gone.

ice9

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PHB 09.12.10 at 1:02 am

I am surprised nobody seems to have considered the fact that terrorists without technological competence are not so dangerous as those who know how to build bombs, plant them correctly and so on.

Al Zawahiri had been trying to blow stuff up for years before he met up with bin laden. He had a hand in the murder of Sadat. But his schemes didn’t amount to much as he didn’t have much competence except in in doing an Islamic version of Glenn Beck.

Andreas Baader managed to set off a couple of firebombs and get caught. He didn’t manage to do anything significant till Ulrique Meinhof sprung him from jail and the went off to Lebanon to train as terrorists. Non engineers can be terrorists but need training first most often.

As for engineers being single young men. Well it is male dominated, but the profession has been around two thousand years and we age like everyone else. Seems a silly claim to me.

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Jon H 09.12.10 at 1:32 am

“And engineers who want to build a bright, shining future have no shortage of career options outside terrorism.”

Maybe. If I’m not mistaken, Saudi Arabia has lots of un- and under- employed college graduates, including engineers. They have the money to educate them, but no need for them.

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James Wetterau 09.12.10 at 1:43 am

tom bach:

You for your part also made at least one dead wrong assertions, such as the claim that Stalin was not educated at seminary in languages, whereas he apparently had been rigorously educated in four: two classical languages, one liturgical language, and one modern foreign tongue.

1) What I should have said was that the great dictators were not engineers nor scientists, and insofar as they were educated, most of their intellectual interests and talents seem to have lain in the humanities. “Classical studies” was a thinko. However, if you read the list of topics I listed as examples, it’s evident I had simply use the wrong name for that grouping, “political science, history, sociology, military studies, education, art, architecture and religion”. The correct name is the humanities.

I don’t know whether this has any significance for judging the comparative fields of study — there have been very few such dictators. I was mainly hoping to provoke some discussion as to why such generalizations may be wrong. I also explained my thoughts on that topic at #20.

2) There are not (and have not been over the last century) billions of students of anything, of course. What I have shown about this group was that none of them were engineers, and that their educational aspirations, inclinations and talents were in the humanities. As to your claim that *none* of them were educated in the liberal arts, I thought education counted, but perhaps that was a mistake. Interestingly, both Mussolini and Mao were educated as teachers, (if I interpret “normal school” correctly). Mao’s education was, as far as I can tell, to the highest level that was readily available to him, and intended as a broad liberal education, though only at the secondary level.

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Brett Bellmore 09.12.10 at 3:18 am

“and yet, Brett, capitalism has failed far more often than communism and yet US engineers have no problem following that doctrine. of curse I guess the question is what group of people is being failed”

Well, I suppose that’s so, for certain understandings of what it means to fail. However, the direction the machine guns were pointed on the Berlin wall suggests that understanding of “failure” was not widely shared among people with the greatest acquaintance with communism.

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sg 09.12.10 at 3:27 am

In other news, lots of hackers are computer science graduates.

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Omega Centauri 09.12.10 at 3:56 am

I think one should make a distinction between midlevel terrorist operatives, and those who made it to the top of a dictatorial system. I think they are quite separte groups of people and personalities. As for engineers, they are usually people who have choosen a narrow technical path in life. They almost always accept the conventional wisdom of the group they were raised with. Scientists OTOH are much more intellectually playful, and not so likely to assume that their own groups ideas are the only correct way. So a scientist, probably views terrorist (in service of his people) ideology with some suspicion, whereas the engineer is more likely to ask “how can I help”. So if this distinction is correct (not in toto, but statistically so), engineers are likely to be pretty accepting of the main memes of “his people”. Should they feel oppressed, and think terror is the way out, he is more likely to agree.

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bad Jim 09.12.10 at 4:16 am

Stalin: “The writer is the engineer of the human soul.”

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praisegod barebones 09.12.10 at 5:03 am

Dr. Science @16: You appear to be claiming that individuals on the autism spectrum are more likely to be involved in terrorism than others.

Do you have any evidence that that’s true? Or is it just based on your general impression of what individuals with autism are like, combined with a bit of speculation?

Henry: Just for the record – are you equally happy for people to post equivalent speculations about – say – links between race and intelligence; or Jews and the banking system? Or is it just people with ASD that are conisdered fair game on Crooked Timber.

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nick s 09.12.10 at 5:38 am

if you want to use your engineering skills to help topple a democratic government or just kill a large number of people, becoming a terrorist is a pretty ineffective way to do it.

Hence, Google.

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John Quiggin 09.12.10 at 6:12 am

I’ve noticed in Australia that older (50+, but particularly retired) engineers are grossly over-represented among global warming delusionists (though there are also plenty of counterexamples). By contrast, as Moz observed above, younger (<30) engineers seem to be much more inclined to progressive views, environmental concerns and so on.

I think it’s a mixture of cohort effects and changes in the jobs for which new engineers are likely to be hired.

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Salient 09.12.10 at 8:30 am

praisegod bb, CT and its authors have a long history of sensitivity toward, sticking up for, etc, individuals with autism spectrum disorder, and specifically of moderating with due prejudice against those who would casually accuse someone of being autistic or mentally ill. but these threads can’t be hawk-eyed monitored 24/7… immediately jumping to “people with ASD are conisdered fair game on Crooked Timber” seems a bit unfairly harsh to me when the comment’s been up less than 24 hours. (Of course, you’re right to call out the comment as inappropriate.)

So, eh, I’ll second the complaint. Doctor Science, your comments are usually righteous; for the love of God, what gives? You know better than to associate sociopath-attributes with autism disorder, and you don’t need me to point out the flaw in the syllogism “many individuals with autism are drawn to fields like engineering; terrorists are disproportionately engineers; therefore individuals with autism are drawn to terrorism.” That’s irresponsibly bad.

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zamfir 09.12.10 at 8:38 am

The first piece I read onCT was this exact same tudy, many winters ago. Has anything changed? there must have been two dozen al qaeda number 2s captured sin sc then

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bad Jim 09.12.10 at 9:07 am

Salient, praisegod barebones jumped on me a few threads down for suggesting, in passing, that people with autism have difficulty with empathy, which I thought was something commonly understood, and I don’t think Doctor Science was doing anything much different.

If anything has recently changed in the understanding of autism which not only invalidates our understanding but removes such thinking from the realm of polite discourse, a lot of us would like to learn the particulars, because this would be news.

Humans are a big part of the world we’re trying to understand, and every imperfection is potentially a handhold in the long climb to the summit. It would be useful to learn that this route is wrong, but not to find that it is forbidden.

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bad Jim 09.12.10 at 9:41 am

What Doctor Science actually said was this:

I actually assume it’s all related to difficulties seeing inside other people’s minds, something at the very edge of the autism spectrum. For people with such minds, engineering is easier than other studies, so that’s where they end up.

My understanding is not much different from this. If it’s wrong, I’d really like to hear about it.

I have a 3yo nephew and grandnephew, a 2yo grandneice, a 15 mo mixed pair, and two more on the way. It’s impossible not to be anxious about their development, and their responsiveness, their attentiveness to me, is profoundly reassuring. What am I missing?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.12.10 at 10:32 am

Stalin was a totally devoted Christian. His mentor (in the seminary) was extremely disturbed by the atmosphere of decadence all around the Russian Empire at the time. So, he calls his fanatical disciple (Ioseb Jughashvili) and says: ‘I have a great mission for you, son. Go to The World and repeat Judas’ Sacrifice, show them where their Horrible Communist Heresy will lead them. Expose their fallacies, spill oceans of blood, heighten suffering to the degree unimaginable; that’ll make them denounce their wicked ways forever.’

And so it went.

That’s what I heard, anyway.

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sg 09.12.10 at 10:40 am

I reckon that a lot of the terrorist “organizations” that these asocial and hierarchical engineers are joining are actually self-organizing semi-democratic cells, not part of a strong heirarchy, and requiring a modicum of negotiation and social skills to form and run. So I wonder if the caricature of engineers presented here actually works as an explanation for their membership of such organizations.

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bad Jim 09.12.10 at 10:49 am

Back on topic, because I used to be an engineer (10 patents!): there may be a distinction to be made between the hippies in T-shirts and jeans (or shorts) and the rest. Or not.

Most of the engineers I encountered in my first job out of high school, working in a giant aerospace company, didn’t actually have engineering degrees. WWII vets, they’d bubbled to the top on pure merit, knowing how to do things. My family was no different; Dad a degree in psychology, brother biology, me math, but we were all dab hands with soldering irons and oscilloscopes, and we tended to hire people like us (not just because they were cheaper than real engineers)[really?]

And that’s part of the point. Someone who calls himself an engineer isn’t necessarily equivalent to the next job applicant. A guy with a machine shop calls himself an engineer, not without reason. The people who operated steam locomotives were called engineers because they were in charge of those beasts, and it was by no means a trivial occupation. [My 3yo nephew is crazy about Thomas the Tank Engine, has overalls and an engineer’s cap, and has no idea what I mean when I tell him that he’ll grow up to be an engineer like us. CMOS means nothing to him.]

To the extent I have a point, it is that engineers are more closely related to each other than rhinoceroses and rhinoviruses, which isn’t actually terribly enlightening.

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Earnest O'Nest 09.12.10 at 11:05 am

Hey man, I’m an engineer and it is not because we seem socially unadjusted that we actually are unable to take most social interactions for the complete bucketloads of shit they really are – but if you find solace in the charicature that others make of you, knock yourself out!

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bad Jim 09.12.10 at 11:19 am

I left out my sister’s husband, yet another engineer (degrees in physics & chemistry) whose vision is dichromatic.

“Who, after all, is least likely to confuse … the red wire with the green?” Well, not my brother-in-law, who nevertheless seems to manage at work and at home despite being colorblind.

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Brett Bellmore 09.12.10 at 12:16 pm

“I’ve noticed in Australia that older (50+, but particularly retired) engineers are grossly over-represented among global warming delusionists (though there are also plenty of counterexamples). By contrast, as Moz observed above, younger (<30) engineers seem to be much more inclined to progressive views, environmental concerns and so on."

I think it’s a combination of knowing how computer models with excess parameters can be gamed, and remembering the global cooling panic of a few decades ago.

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CaptainMongles 09.12.10 at 12:25 pm

Engineering dehumanizes.

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Antonio Conselheiro 09.12.10 at 12:55 pm

The imaginary global cooling panic that climatologists never took very seriously, though journalists did.

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tomslee 09.12.10 at 2:48 pm

@Antonio – Unfortunately, that’s besides the point. Growing up listening to end-of-oil stories in the mid-70s, the forthcoming ice age, and many more is likely to make one sceptical of the next natural disaster. Yes, there’s probably a wolf out there somewhere, but it gets difficult not to tune out the cries after a while, no matter whether it’s journalists or climatologists doing the shouting.

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Michael C 09.12.10 at 3:09 pm

What fun. Brett tries to perpetuate the global cooling meme.

Since I was a young professional in the mid-to-late 70s and interested in climate change, I of course remember that this never happened. Although Schell’s book on nuclear winter did predict cooling after a nuclear war. Quite another matter.

And, since I grew up reading rightwing literature – including the beginnings of the denialist/anti-science campaign in the pages of National Review and Human Events in the late 60s and early 70s – it has been interesting to watch the creation of the “global cooling scare” myth from whole cloth in the 90’s and now. No one appears more eager to rewrite history than those who screamed loudest about “revisionism” in the 70s.

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Lemuel Pitkin 09.12.10 at 3:44 pm

85-

Growing up listening to flying saucers in the mid-70s, alien transmissions, and many more is likely to make one skeptical of claims that extrasolar planets have been discovered. Yes, there are probably other solar systems out there somewhere, but it gets difficult not to tune out reports of them, whether it’s journalists or astronomers doing the shouting.

Growing up listening to stories of jobless recoveries, bread lines, and many more is likely to make one skeptical of claims that unemployment is unusually high. Yes, it’s possible that more people are out of work now than usual, but it gets difficult not to tune the cries out after a while, no matter whether it’s journalists or economists doing the shouting.

Growing up listening to health-scare stories, fad diets, and many more is likely to make one skeptical of the next carcinogen. Yes, it’s possible that smoking is bad for you, but it gets difficult not to tune out the cries after a while, no matter whether it’s doctors or journalists doing the shouting..

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Lemuel Pitkin 09.12.10 at 4:03 pm

On the substance, the question is “overrepresented” compared to what? What’s the expected number of engineers among terrorists?

Seems to me that this entire phenomenon is explained by the fact that engineering degrees in many middle-income countries are somewhat analogous to law degrees in the US, i.e. a generic professional degree particularly important for anyone trying to enter into the political class.

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Charrua 09.12.10 at 5:02 pm

Man, this thread has certainly grown!!
Well, I’m no engineer (tech job though), but I know some of them and, more importantly, I know some former terrorists too (family, mostly).
They weren’t engineers certainly (although they belonged to a left wing group, so that may explain it) and from what I heard, a lot of the job involved long reunions and political debates (which doesn’t sound very engineer like), along with some bank robberies, explosives, and such. The main job of a terrorist is not to get caught, of course, which often implied being underground and a bag of complex logistical problems (fake Ids, multiple identities, transportation, safe houses, etc). I can’t see how being an engineer would help you with that.
I didn’t saw much in the activity of this group that demanded an inclination for mathematical/technical activities, except for some specialists.
¿Maybe engineers are overrepresented among the highly politicized right wingers? That could explain it, right?

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praisegod barebones 09.12.10 at 5:08 pm

Bad Jim @77

Briefly, because a full reply to what you said here and on the previous thread is going to take time which I haven’t got right now, though I hope to get back to it later:

The section of Dr. Science’s post that you’ve quoted back at me contains the phrase ‘it’s all’. The referent of ‘it’ is not given to us in the quoted section.

What do you take it to refer to? I take it – from the context – to refer to an attraction to violent extremism.

I’m happy to be corrected on this, though I suspect that the only person who could do so authoritatively is Dr. Science herself or himself.

You’ll note that I’m not objecting in the same way to the claim that there’s an association between ASD and an aptitude for engineering (although it would, in fact, be nice to have some evidence for that, too. But that’s rather tangential to the point I’m trying to make. )

While that’s one thing that Dr. Science is saying, it doesn’t seem to be the only thing. (and if it was, her/his contribution would be just as off-topic as you take my response to it to have been.) I may have misunderstood the point; but the quotation you’ve given doesn’t establish that.

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tomslee 09.12.10 at 5:14 pm

@86 – Touche.

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bianca steele 09.12.10 at 5:45 pm

Doctor Science argued that people at one end of the autism spectrum are self-selected into engineering and the sciences, because they find the humanities difficult to comprehend and conversely find science and math easier. She also seemed to argue that the higher representation of ASDs in STEM fields was correlated with the higher representation of extremists and terrorists, in such a way that suggests ASDs might be disproportionately represented among terrorists.

I think the first sentence is very probably true, for many reasons. However, that way of explaining things leaves other things out. For example, people with perceived traits associated with ASDs might be encouraged by their teachers to avoid fields that rely heavily on language (in addition to their being self-selected). And within some groups, traits negatively associated with ASDs may result in kids’ avoidance of math and science even if they’re good at math. This also leaves out the way math is treated culturally and thus by grade school teachers and parents, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the hype a couple of decades ago about how the US has a dysfunctional attitude towards math learning. The way it was originally phrased seems to carry implications of laziness and avoidance for those who don’t pursue humanities courses even if they excel in math, which may be part of the reason why it seemed insulting.

JQ@73: I myself find it difficult to associate global warming denialism with excessive trust in authority, but YMMV.

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ScentOfViolets 09.12.10 at 6:15 pm

@91:

Doctor Science argued that people at one end of the autism spectrum are self-selected into engineering and the sciences, because they find the humanities difficult to comprehend and conversely find science and math easier.

I’d also argue that those at that end of the spectrum are also better than most at the one mental trait that is arguably the requirement for math/science/engineering: the ability to sustain a focus of attention on an extremely narrow topic and in extremely fine detail for very long periods of time. It’s been my experience that it is this characteristic (beyond a not-very-high bar of intelligence) that enables people to succeed in these fields; Isaac Newton, for example, maintained that the one trait he possessed that enabled him to accomplish so much was above all else just this ability for sustained mental concentration; perhaps this explains why success and acclaim in these disciplines is considered a young man’s game.

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Substance McGravitas 09.12.10 at 6:25 pm

I’d also argue that those at that end of the spectrum are also better

The spectrum includes a lot of different things, and ASD generalizations are tough to make. Some folks on the spectrum have an attention span, some don’t, some have an attention span for particular things, some don’t. Regarding the “empathy” assertions from a little while ago, the inability to read someone’s feelings in personal contact is not the same as having no feelings for people, and the assertion of Temple Grandin’s inability to make personal connections belies Temple Grandin’s career, in which she seems interested in helping folks out. Doesn’t necessarily meet a strict definition of “empathy” but those on the autism spectrum are not necessarily restricted to seeing other people as weird automatons, and indeed can understand how some people feel, if not in the moment of contact. Sorry to divert the thread further.

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ScentOfViolets 09.12.10 at 6:37 pm

@93:

The spectrum includes a lot of different things, and ASD generalizations are tough to make. Some folks on the spectrum have an attention span, some don’t, some have an attention span for particular things, some don’t.

That’s certainly true; but I didn’t imply (or mean to imply) that this was an if-and-only-if sort of thing, merely a subset.

And that being said, I’m still going with my first thought, which is that engineers might be overrepresented simply because they have the wherewithal to act upon their beliefs that is simply unavailable to other people without wads of cash. What’s a “terrorist fanatic” whose scholarly specialty is 16th Century Elizabethan verse going to do in regards to acting upon his political agenda? Rhyme us to death? Rhetorically blister the infidels with 14 lines in iambic pentameter?

You might just as profitably ask why so many people who tend to think of interpersonal interactions in terms of economic transactions are . . . economists.

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Charrua 09.12.10 at 7:01 pm

Hey, don’t underrate the destructive abilities of writers!!
When this group was planning the takeover of a small city, the main problem was how to move a lot of cars and people into the city at once without the police noticing.
The guy who came up with the solution was a playwright (well known, actually). A funeral procession.

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bianca steele 09.12.10 at 8:48 pm

Substance: While I agree that the inability to read someone’s feelings in personal contact is not the same as having no feelings for people, absolutely, IIRC “the ability to read someone’s feelings,” or to understand the true emotional content of a situation, is one of Daniel Goleman’s prime examples of “emotional intelligence.” And it does seem prima facie plausible that terrorists lack emotional intelligence.

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central texas 09.12.10 at 8:51 pm

Akshay at 17. Do you have a handy reference for this comment:

“Yet a study about an American nuclear base found that many physicists there belonged to apocalyptic Christian sects.”

I am curious and have not yet found it via Google.

Thanks,

ct

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Antonio Conselheiro 09.12.10 at 9:40 pm

*”Growing up listening to end-of-oil stories in the mid-70s, the forthcoming ice age, and many more is likely to make one sceptical of the next natural disaster”*

What you could do is make a little goddamn effort to sort out the journalistic fluff and ideological ranting from the more reliable stuff.

The global cooling point is mostly bogus. Climatologists never talked about global cooling the way they now talk about global warming. There were a few models tried out and a bunch of inaccurate journalism.

As for “end of oil” people are still talking about it. It’s like not knowing when the bubble will pop, but not knowing exactly when. There aren’t infinite supplies of oil and the possibility of running out has to be kept in minds.

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Brett Bellmore 09.12.10 at 10:20 pm

“Doctor Science argued that people at one end of the autism spectrum are self-selected into engineering and the sciences, because they find the humanities difficult to comprehend and conversely find science and math easier. “

I don’t know; I got a 780 on the Verbal SAT, and only 710 on the Math. (This was back before they started messing with the scoring, too.) I didn’t find the humanities particularly hard to understand, I just doubted they’d pay well. Or lead to a billet on a star ship. (Ok, I was optimistic about progress in space flight. We could have been building star ships by now, if we had wanted to.)

Want an alternative theory for why engineers might be more likely to end up terrorists? It’s not anything about them, but the people around them. Growing up as ‘nerds’, your average engineer may have been subject to some pretty vicious bullying as a child. That sort of thing can leave you awfully bitter.

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tomslee 09.13.10 at 12:32 am

I said: “Growing up listening to end-of-oil stories in the mid-70s, the forthcoming ice age, and many more is likely to make one sceptical of the next natural disaster”

To which Antonio Conselheiro says: What you could do is make a little goddamn effort to sort out the journalistic fluff and ideological ranting from the more reliable stuff.

And I say: “You know, that’s really a presumptuous and insulting sentence.”

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ScentOfViolets 09.13.10 at 1:43 am

@99:

Want an alternative theory for why engineers might be more likely to end up terrorists? It’s not anything about them, but the people around them. Growing up as ‘nerds’, your average engineer may have been subject to some pretty vicious bullying as a child. That sort of thing can leave you awfully bitter.

Why do I get the feeling that all of a sudden I know a whole lot more about Brett than I really wanted to?

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bad Jim 09.13.10 at 8:32 am

The thing about terrorism is that it doesn’t do the job you want it to do. I visited friends in London in 2005, after the September 11 attacks and the Madrid train bombings. They’d been through the IRA troubles in the 80’s, and agreed that random attacks on people didn’t have much impact, but noted that attacks on commercial property, valuable infrastructure, did seem to get the government’s attention. The bombings on the Underground happened not long after, and of course, since it was the day after London beat Paris for the Olympics, the immediate joke was that the French were sore losers.

(Since then my terrorist fantasies have run to simultaneously disrupting the power grid and blowing up pipelines. They ought to include taking out an oil refinery, but I haven’t a clue how to do that, apart from waiting for BP to screw up again.)

Perhaps terrorism is attractive to an engineer because bombs and sabotage are simple, direct applications of expertise, something any of us, with a little help, could carry out. It’s an enterprise of roughly the same scale as a start-up company: We can do that.

Something that would make a real difference, like a political movement, requires a different skill set operating on a scale vastly beyond the experience of nearly any engineer.

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bad Jim 09.13.10 at 9:22 am

Praisegod Barebones, thank you for your thoughtful and courteous reply. I don’t think the comment that excited your ire suggested that people with ASD were inclined to terrorism. The part I didn’t copy referenced the Salem hypothesis, that purported scientists who are creationists are predominantly engineers. (It ought to be noted that physicians are over-represented in that crowd as well.) The implied connection between a lack of insight and ideological rigidity is, okay, a bit of a stretch.

Nevertheless, I read it as another instance of the jokes we tell about other professions, particularly those most adjacent to our own. Database jockeys put down system programmers by flaunting their paychecks, &c. I’ve even been tempted to claim that I didn’t pursue math beyond a B.A. because I wasn’t crazy enough. It would be plausible, but the truth is somewhere between my not being good enough and not being interested enough. I’ve known a few mathematicians, none of whom was conspicuously crazier than I was then, and by now I’m soporifically boring.

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Pete 09.13.10 at 12:26 pm

The “bullying” hypothesis certainly seems valid for a particular class of terrorism: school shootings.

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chris 09.13.10 at 2:41 pm

The “bullying” hypothesis certainly seems valid for a particular class of terrorism: school shootings.

But it’s difficult to tell whether, e.g., Harris and Klebold would have become engineers, because they hadn’t reached the diverging specialization part of the educational system yet.

I would also like to point out that a reduced capacity to intuitively perceive or predict the emotions of others doesn’t commit you to a belief that they don’t have any, let alone a desire to kill them, and also that correlation is not transitive and so two things may be correlated with a third without being correlated with each other. Accordingly, to the extent that any insult to people on the autism spectrum was implied, I dispute it and call for more direct evidence before concluding anything of the sort.

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Alan S 09.13.10 at 4:03 pm

I din’t pay much attention to this post when it first appeared, but today the first sentence cought my eye again:
“in the ranks of captured and confessed terrorists, engineers and engineering students are significantly overrepresented”

So perhaps the explanation is simply that “engineer-terrorists” are more susceptible to being caught?

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JM 09.13.10 at 4:46 pm

Engineers’ emphasis on “working memory” would seem to reinforce authoritarian tendencies, or perhaps they are functionally the same in the brain. The engineering prof’s observation, above, are intriguing.

Engineers, like lawyers, do seem prone to assuming that their narrow technical training privileges anything else that might pop into their heads, as if the social assumptions they picked up in Podunk were as certain as avogadro’s number. I’m reminded of the author of The Turner Diaries.

But this may be more a function of the social prestige that attaches to a degree that does not necessarily require that they reexamine the social assumptions they brought from Podunk. They are enabled without necessarily being able. It never ceases to amaze/amuse me, the number of engineers and lawyers who presume to dismiss things they know nothing about as “liberal bullshit,” as if they had magical decoder glasses or something. Anecdotally, it does seem to be the engineers with three hours of undergraduate statistics who think they can prove that evolution is impossible because there hasn’t been enough time for random mutation, blah blah blah.

But that’s this humanities dude’s rough sketch.

110

JM 09.13.10 at 4:48 pm

Growing up listening to end-of-oil stories in the mid-70s, the forthcoming ice age, and many more is likely to make one sceptical of the next natural disaster

Looks like we can add gullible and shallow to the list.

111

Salient 09.13.10 at 5:18 pm

I’m late on this because pgbb covered it, but — bad Jim, you and I did indeed read the it-referent in “it’s all related” in different ways; to me that said terrorism = difficulty seeing inside other people’s minds = autism, i.e. that people with ASD are disproportionately likely to be terrorists, because it’s an empathy issue which leads to becoming a terrorist, and [2] people with ASD are also disproportionately likely to be come engineers, so [3] that’s why so many engineers are terrorists. Which is problematic, and which seems to be being carried on in a different form by bianca steele, for one (terrorism = lack of emotional intelligence = autism). So it’s worth pushing back against.

112

tomslee 09.13.10 at 5:47 pm

JM: NNTBACAI

113

Salient 09.13.10 at 5:52 pm

attempting to close errant italics tag — apologies for it.

114

Akshay 09.13.10 at 6:36 pm

ct@98: No, sorry. Where did I read that snippet? It certainly stuck in my mind…
-A

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zamfir 09.13.10 at 6:46 pm

I am really bothered by the ease at which people come up with explanations how engineers are born henchmen, what with their inborn lack of empathy and gullibility and autism and god knows what.

“Engineers emphasis on working memory would seem to reinforce their authoritarian tendencies”? Seriously?

116

Substance McGravitas 09.13.10 at 6:58 pm

I am really bothered by the ease at which people come up with explanations how engineers are born henchmen

I thought I understood that the initial framing of that was a joke, and now there are a bunch of people agreeing with it.

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bianca steele 09.13.10 at 7:04 pm

Substance, the NYT piece starts out quoting Henry Farrell’s joke post, notes that he wasn’t serious, and goes on to state that G&H say the same thing entirely seriously. (I’m afraid to say whether the Times piece seems to be misleading, because for one thing I’ve only glanced at one of G&H’s articles, which is in a field I’m not an expert in, and for another thing it might show I prefer “clear answers” where clear answers are not to be found–which is apparently a trait conducive to terrorism.)

118

Substance McGravitas 09.13.10 at 7:07 pm

Substance, the NYT piece starts out quoting Henry Farrell’s joke post, notes that he wasn’t serious, and goes on to state that G&H say the same thing entirely seriously.

Yes. That’s G&H.

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chris 09.13.10 at 7:15 pm

that people with ASD are disproportionately likely to be terrorists, because it’s an empathy issue which leads to becoming a terrorist

This is conflating two very different meanings of “empathy”: whether or not you can easily tell what someone else is feeling, and whether or not you care about the happiness or suffering of others. Plenty of skilled manipulative sons of bitches (for lack of a more precise term) have the first without the second, so I don’t see why the reverse would be so implausible for people on the autism spectrum. (Ironically, if the people making the argument showed a bit more empathy(1) toward people on the autism spectrum, they might be moved by the predicament of someone unaware of where other people’s emotional tripwires are, but still trying to avoid blundering into them, as well as they can. That is, if they had sufficient empathy(2) towards them; maybe they don’t.)

The stereotype that people on the autism spectrum don’t *care about* other people’s feelings (as opposed to, or in addition to, merely not understanding them as well as “normal” people, again for lack of a more precise term) IMO derives from mistakenly attributing bad faith to social mistakes on their part, when those mistakes actually arise out of their inability to sense and/or predict emotions. If there’s one thing worse than being blindfolded in a minefield, it’s having everyone else assume that of course you know where the mines are, just like they do, and you’re just setting them off on purpose to be an ass.

Like most stereotypes, it is factually false in a substantial number of cases and can be seriously unfair when applied where there is no good factual basis for it.

P.S. Obviously if you have the goal of terrorism first, the usefulness of engineering training is clear, so I wonder if we’re looking too hard at this problem. It might depend on the age of recruitment. Speaking of recruitment, it might not happen at random; if terrorist organizations are trying to prioritize the people who would make the most useful recruits (and not just tacit supporters), they have a reason to focus on certain types of engineers and not, say, literary critics. Obviously they don’t have complete free choice, but almost any attempt to steer people with the right skills into the operational arm of the organization could produce some pattern like the observed one.

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JanieM 09.13.10 at 7:28 pm

another try at italic banishment

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JM 09.13.10 at 7:36 pm

“Engineers emphasis on working memory would seem to reinforce their authoritarian tendencies”? Seriously?

No, not seriously: you left off my apostrophe.

Yes, ‘kill and drill’ methods of learning, for instance, are also favored by the worst sort of homeschoolers with the same results: dogmatic jerks with high SAT’s.

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JM 09.13.10 at 7:37 pm

Should have been “Drill and Kill” sorry.

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Substance McGravitas 09.13.10 at 7:44 pm

Of the men Gambetta and Hertog interviewed how many were female?

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DFC 09.13.10 at 8:12 pm

I think in two possible explanations for the engineers’ involving more in terrorism than others professions:

a) Some organization try to recruit specifically engineers may be for two reasons: their skills, their economic situation, and also it is easy for them to work in others countries (movility and integration). So simply there are more engineers in terrorism because is the “rational choice” of the terrorist organizations who try to optimize they utility functions

b) I supose in some cases terrorists start to study engineering just as the way to make their jobs in a more professional way. So they are terrorist BEFORE to be engineers. I supose this was the case of the saudi “engineers” in the 9/11

I am an spanish engineer, and about the reason a), I know some organizations, like Opus Dei in Spain, that target engineers specifically as a way to have a more powerful and wealthy people inside (there were a lot of engineers from the Opues Dei that became Franco’s ministers in the 60´s, and with a very great power and influence)

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Lemuel Pitkin 09.13.10 at 8:26 pm

I’d still like to know: Overrepresented relative to what?

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bianca steele 09.13.10 at 8:34 pm

I think there are actually a couple of sources of discomfort here: (1) The question as to what D&H have really proved, versus what is interesting to talk about over lunch in the cafeteria. And (2) the question whether what D&H target is, specifically, engineers, or more generally, people with the traits they associate with engineers (e.g., attending selective bachelor’s degree programs, what people have been calling ASD related traits, etc.).

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Norwegian Guy 09.13.10 at 9:13 pm

Yes the question of overrepresented to what is very important.

As a petroleum engineer myself, I have to chime in here:

I also doubt that engineering education, or perhaps any specific education generally, has such effects on people as some are claiming here. In my opinion it’s much more likely that people might have certain traits/opinions/etc. before they start a specific higher education, and that this is one of the reasons (among many others) that they choose this education.

That engineers might have useful skills for terrorism that for instance teachers or economists lack, could be a reasonable explanation. But is this really the case? As an engineer, I don’t think I learned much at university or in the workplace that would be much useful for terrorism, except perhaps some basic chemistry. So with the possible exception of some kinds of chemical/process engineers (or why not chemists?), I can think of many educations/occupations that would be more useful. Obviously people working with explosives in for instance the construction industry, or people with a military background know more about this kind of stuff. I would think that mechanics, skilled workers in some industries, carpenters, perhaps farmers, all would have more useful knowledge for terrorist purposes than the average engineer have. But the reason might be that it’s much harder for a farmer in a third world country to travel somewhere, for terroristic purposes or otherwise, since they would not have gotten visas even if they could afford it, than it is for an engineer.

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AntiAlias 09.13.10 at 10:01 pm

What sg said @ 68.

(Italicfest, yay!)

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ScentOfViolets 09.13.10 at 11:22 pm

Does this work?

130

ScentOfViolets 09.13.10 at 11:29 pm

Close Tags

131

JanieM 09.13.10 at 11:35 pm

The comment box seems to eat unmatched close tags…Too bad.

132

ScentOfViolets 09.13.10 at 11:37 pm

Any Joy?

133

bianca steele 09.14.10 at 12:03 am

Only a moderator can fix this.

134

Salient 09.14.10 at 1:07 am

No no — only an engineer can fix this

:)

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bianca steele 09.14.10 at 1:15 am

Clever.

Back when my dad was an EE, I was pretty sure he drove a train and wore a cap and striped overalls. That would have been pretty cool.

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bad Jim 09.14.10 at 3:19 am

Salient, you’re right that we read the comment differently. The distinction drawn between two different sorts of empathy by Chris also may explain pgbb’s objection to my previous comment. Sloppy reading and writing on my part, apologies to all.

Bianca, my 3yo nephew is crazy about trains and has a striped cap and overalls. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what I mean when I tell him he’s going to grow up to be an engineer like his dad, since he knows his dad doesn’t drive a train.

Oh, and death to italics!

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bad Jim 09.14.10 at 5:13 am

One might suppose grape growers would be naturally inclined to terroirism. Oh wait.

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bad Jim 09.14.10 at 5:16 am

(It looked better in preview.)

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bad Jim 09.14.10 at 8:19 am

This will probably get fixed, but for now it appears that if you make what you feel is an unassailable argument, you can sabotage replies by leaving an unbalanced tag to render subsequent comments unreadable, or at least mildly risible.

Along the lines of “there must be a pony here somewhere”, is it now possible to say “socialism” without getting stuck in moderation?

140

Zamfir 09.14.10 at 9:37 am

141

Zamfir 09.14.10 at 9:38 am

and test

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Scott Martens 09.14.10 at 3:58 pm

@17: “begin{ramble}”

LaTeX!! He’s one of them!

Freedom-loving humanities students may not know how to close their tags, but they use XML!

143

Henry 09.14.10 at 4:08 pm

Sorry – this moderator has been out of action with various stuff for the last three days. Errant italics tag has been fixed.

144

Norwegian Guy 09.14.10 at 4:40 pm

As to why engineers are more right-wing than the rest of the population, I think the reasons are:

1a) Engineers have higher than average incomes. That middle class/upper middle class people vote for right-wing parties is not especially surprising.

1b) Engineers mostly work in the private and not in the public sector.

2) Some parts of the left focuses very much on environmentalism, sometimes with an anti-industrial tone. Since most engineers work in the industry, they are less likely to vote for parties than might want to close down the places where they are working. The same applies to industrial workers btw.

#2) is of course also the reason why engineers are more likely to be global warming deniers. Though geologist are usually worse, probably because the field is very connected to the oil industry.

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bianca steele 09.14.10 at 5:30 pm

Norwegian Guy @ 144(1) makes sense (though I think a significant fraction of engineers are better thought of as upwardly mobile than as middle-, much less upper middle-class–my understanding is that the upwardly mobile are actually more reliably right-leaning than the comfortable).

But … That engineers lean toward the right when they vote, and in certain other ways, is consistent with their having other characteristics that are more associated with the left. If they become radicalized, which trait is responsible? If they become radicalized toward the right and not the left, is that because of principle or opportunity?

(2) It is, I think, not just economic interest or identification with a corporation that leads them to deny the reality of global warming. It’s also the fact that they often reserve to themselves the right to reevaluate the evidence, no matter how many people disagree with them, and no matter who those people are. On the other hand, it may well be that some kinds of engineering education can have the opposite effect, making people less likely to reevaluate evidence for themselves. These two kinds of people probably have different likelihoods of becoming terrorists.

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grant 09.14.10 at 6:48 pm

All of this talk about engineers brought this line from early Derrida (“Structure, Sign, and Play” 1966) to mind: “The notion of the engineer who had supposedly broken with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea.” Forget all the empirical data — it’s in the (discursive) blood.

147

Norwegian Guy 09.14.10 at 9:02 pm

Only a minority of engineers are upper middle class, though I my be a larger portion in the low- and middle income countries terrorists often come from. My point was that engineers are not working class, though as you note many are upwardly socially mobile so it’s not unlikely that their parents might have been.

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Zamfir 09.15.10 at 9:50 am

Norwegian, i don’t think”right-wing” in the sense of wanting smaller welfare states and being sceptical about global warming has much to do with the “right-wing” of “right-wing terrorism”. Nationalism and religious conservatism seem to be the main ideologies of that.

More in general, explaining the behaviour of engineers you actually know has little to do with explaining the behaviour of engineer-terrorists. Hippy-bashing and Tory-voting are not on any scale weaker versions of joining Hamas.

In particular, you can’t really explain terrorism with references to people’s self-interest. It might make sense to vote for people who tax you lower and do not threaten your job. But becoming a terrorist hurts your career and income a lot.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 09.15.10 at 10:16 am

Not if you buy a bunch of puts on airlines and calls on guns manufacturers.

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Norwegian Guy 09.15.10 at 3:38 pm

Zamfir, I was addressing two different discussions here. One was why engineers are generally more likely to be right-wing than left-wing. Here real and/or perceived self-interest play a role.

The other was why engineers are more likely than others to join certain terrorist groups than say nurses. Though I don’t have a clear answer to that, but it should be noted that both engineers and terrorists (perhaps especially of this kind) are more likely to be male than female. I doubt it has much to do with anything an engineering education might do to people’s head.

The NY Times article says:

For their recent study, the two men collected records on 404 men who belonged to violent Islamist groups active over the past few decades (some in jail, some not). Had those groups reflected the working-age populations of their countries, engineers would have made up about 3.5 percent of the membership. Instead, nearly 20 percent of the militants had engineering degrees. When Gambetta and Hertog looked at only the militants whose education was known for certain to have gone beyond high school, close to half (44 percent) had trained in engineering. Among those with advanced degrees in the militants’ homelands, only 18 percent are engineers.

I’d like to see those numbers adjusted for gender and socioeconomic status. Would they still be statistically significant, with a sample size of 404?

151

Akshay 09.15.10 at 8:12 pm

Scott@142: LOL, you got me there :-)! (But actually I am a lapsed physicist.)

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ajay 09.20.10 at 8:40 am

I think the null hypothesis here needs to be looked at very carefully – i.e. “if there were nothing about studying engineering specifically that made you more likely to be a terrorist, what proportion of Islamic Middle Eastern terrorists would be engineers?”

I do not think that the answer is “the same as the proportion of the population as a whole”, because of the sociology of who studies engineering in Middle Eastern countries – i.e. reasonably bright urban lower middle class kids, often without connections and therefore with little stake in the status quo and little hope of getting a job. The study needs to look at what backgrounds are underrepresented: I’m guessing the upper classes (bin Laden being a bit of an outlier here) and the rural poor.

Which is to say, 89.

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dylan_07b 09.21.10 at 5:46 am

This engineer is late to the party.
The website for the magazine Spectrum of the IEEE has an interview with Hertog about the issue at hand. Take a looksee.

http://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/at-work/tech-careers/why-are-terrorists-often-engineers

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