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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.

Sex and the Single Terrorist

by Henry on November 25, 2007

Like several other contributors at Crooked Timber, I have little patience for evolutionary psychological explanations of the Sunday colour supplement variety. A couple of commenters suggested a couple of weeks ago that this was inconsistent with my suggestion that Diego Gambetta’s paper on suicide terrorism and engineering was ‘fascinating.’ The intimation, as I understood it, was that I was prepared to give a free pass to dubious explanations that fit my ideological priors while giving a hard time to equally (or perhaps less) dubious explanations that didn’t. As it happens, when checking out Gambetta’s website again (I’m trying to engage his arguments about the Sicilian mafia extensively in the book that I’m finishing), I came across an interesting link that draws out the actual contrasts between Gambetta’s work and the preponderance of the popular ev-psych literature.

Some of you may remember an article entitled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature” by Miller and Kanazawa that got some attention in the right-blogosphere a few months ago. Among other dodginesses, this article completely misrepresents the work of the aforementioned Diego Gambetta.
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Engineers of Jihad

by Henry on November 10, 2007

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.

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