Sex and the Single Terrorist

by Henry Farrell 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.

Turning over to “Gambetta himself”: (Word file).

[The Miller and Kanazawa article says] “Suicide missions are not always religiously motivated, but according to Oxford University sociologist Diego Gambetta, editor of Making Sense of Suicide Missions, when religion is involved, the attackers are always Muslim. Why? The surprising answer is that Muslim suicide bombing has nothing to do with Islam or the Quran (except for two lines). It has a lot to do with sex, or, in this case, the absence of sex. What distinguishes Islam from other major religions is that it tolerates polygyny. By allowing some men to monopolize all women and altogether excluding many men from reproductive opportunities, polygyny creates shortages of available women.”

The above paragraphs make it seem as if I am responsible for the view that the absence of sex endured by young men in polygynous societies has to do with suicide attackers’ motivations. I have never written or even thought of anything of the sort, nor have any of the authors in my book. This fanciful idea comes from a longer article by Kanazawa himself (“The evolutionary psychological imagination: why can’t you get a date on a Saturday night and why most suicide bombers are Muslim”, Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 2007, 1 (2): 7-17). … Psychology Today has now apologised and published an amended version of the article which avoids the confusion.

Even if we pass over the rather misleading representation of Gambetta’s work, the contrast between Gambetta and Hertog’s article, and the Kanazawa article on the evolutionary psychological imagination (available “here” as a PDF) is quite instructive. Gambetta and Hertog present an audacious thesis, which they acknowledge they can’t establish definitively given the statistical evidence that they have (it simply isn’t fine grained enough to actually get at the causal processes involved). However, they seek extensively to look for evidence that would disconfirm their hypothesis, and to test it against other explanations that might seem plausible, showing that their hypothesis is at the least not disconfirmed, and that none of the other explanations which would seem at first glance to be have merit seems to explain the patterns that emerge from the data. You can argue with the tests that they apply (some commenters did) – but they seem to me at least to be exceptionally careful and scrupulous in looking for alternative explanations. Which is as it should be – big claims demand extensive testing.

The Kanazawa article presents similarly audacious claims, but adheres to rather different evidentiary standards.

The more polygynous the society, the more young men face the distinct possibility of ending their lives as complete reproductive losers. Such is the mathematics of polygyny. This bleak prospect, created by polygyny, makes men very competitive and aggressive, because they must compete fiercely with each other not to be left out of the reproductive game altogether and to win mates. …

Terrorists, traditionally, are those who have clear political goals and are willing to resort to violence and destruction in order to achieve them. For traditional terrorists, what is most important is the political goals, and violence and destruction are means to their goals; they are not goals themselves. … Our enemies in the current “War on Terror” are very different. They aim to endanger as many lives as possible, including their own, and they do not seem to have clearly stated political goals … As a result, it appears that, for our current enemies, the murder and destruction is the goal, rather than means to political goals. That is why, for example, the Palestinians did not stop their suicide bombings even after Israeli government, under Ehud Barak, conceded virtually everything the Palestinians demanded. Yasir Arafat did not call off his suicide bombers even when he achieved his stated political goals, which were the total withdrawal of Israelis from the West Bank and the control of Jerusalem. …

What distinguishes Islam from other major world religions (Christianity and Judaism) is that it sanctions polygyny, and, as we saw earlier, polygyny increases competitive pressure on men, especially young men of low status, who are most likely to be left without reproductive opportunities when older men of higher status marry polygynously. Polygyny therefore increases the likelihood that young men resort to violent means to gain access to mates because they have little to lose and much to gain by doing so, compared to men who already have wives. …

The other key ingredient is the Koran’s promise of 72 virgins waiting in heaven for any martyr in Islam. This creates a strong motive for any young Muslim men who are excluded from reproductive opportunities to commit suicide bombings. Now a vague promise of 72 virgins waiting in heaven may not sound so appealing if they have even one real mate on earth, which monogamy in the context of a 50-50 sex ratio mathematically guarantees. However, for young, low-status Muslim men who are excluded from any mating opportunities because of polygyny among older, higher-status men, even such a vague promise in the afterlife begins to be appealing in light of their bleak reproductive prospect on earth. … Just as the brain of young Western men today is tricked by porn movies, which did not exist in the ancestral environment, the brain of young Muslim men today is tricked by the Koran, which also did not exist in the ancestral environment. …

The evolutionary psychological imagination suggests that there may be an intimate connection between your inability to find a date on a Saturday night, and World War III, the current so-called “War on Terror.” It suggests that Muslim suicide bombings may have nothing to do with Islam or the Koran (except for two lines in it, one condoning polygyny, another promising 72 virgins to all martyrs); they may have nothing to do with religion, politics, culture, race, ethnicity, language or region. As is everything else from an evolutionary psychological perspective, they may have a lot to do with sex, or, in this case, the absence of sex.

This is a bold thesis. What evidence does Kanazawa have to support it? As best as I can tell from the article, diddly squat. His primary empirical evidence is factoids from journalists – Thomas Friedman plays a loomingly large role in his account, whereas much of his discussion of Western terrorism rests on Tim Pat Coogan’s book on the IRA (hint: Tim Pat Coogan is not usually considered to be a dispassionate observer on these issues), with a few odd bits and pieces thrown in from the academic literature (much of which seems intended to try and discount real, actual scholarship that seems to tell against his interpretation). But as Gambetta points out, the real problem is that even if you pass over the skimpy empirics, there is good evidence _against_ Kanazawa’s argument that he conspicuously fails to mention.

Like conspiracy theorists, Kanazawa comes up with an idea and then scavenges for scraps of evidence in its favour oblivious to the the long list of available evidence against it – several of the Muslim suicide bombers were married or engaged, quite a few of them were women, many of the Muslim suicide bombers come from countries in which polygyny is not practiced, and a few thousand self-immolators have killed themselves for a cause since the 1960s especially in India and South Korea where polygyny is not practiced. After I read Kanazawa’s original article some weeks ago I put it in my pile of ‘bad science’ papers which I use to teach students what not to do

Instead of actual testing of hypotheses, Kanazawa provides us with the traditional digs against sociology, the even-more-traditional handwaving about the primal veldt (although the ‘we didn’t have the Koran on the savannah’ argument seems to me to be a new low in the literature), and a few dollops of half-arsed amateur journalism. This, apparently, is enough to get you published in the _Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology._

The sad thing is that the very broad claims of the evolutionary psychologists are clearly correct. We _are_ obviously the products of evolutionary processes, and our mental processes must reflect that. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there is some class of a selection bias here – that is, that the evolutionary psychology accounts that are most likely to rise to public prominence and attention are precisely those that are most crude, reductionist (in the bad sense of the word) and stupid. Tabloid journalists and Sunday supplement editors aren’t known for their scrupulous interest in nuanced explanations, testing against rival accounts etc. There may well be (I hope there are) evolutionary psychologists out there who are doing serious work on these issues. Unfortunately, this piece rather obviously doesn’t fall under the rubric of serious work. If Kanazawa had tried to publish it in a serious sociological journal, he’d have been laughed at – not because of the Xtreme Brillianse and Shockitude of his arguments, but because his purported evidence for his claims don’t pass scientific muster on even the most generous interpretation of what scientific muster should be.

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Witt 11.25.07 at 7:43 pm

Holy mackerel. I don’t have the background to add anything thoughtful to your critique, but I did want to pull out this sentence:

if they have even one real mate on earth, which monogamy in the context of a 50-50 sex ratio mathematically guarantees

and just say that it left me with my mouth hanging open. Talk about your superficially-plausible howlers. Um, what?


bob 11.25.07 at 7:58 pm

Not only does Kanazawa present unconvincing arguments in his papers, but his understanding of statistical method is weak at best. Andrew Gelman (at Columbia) talks about them here:


geo 11.25.07 at 8:05 pm

This one got my eyebrows shooting up:

Yasir Arafat did not call off his suicide bombers even when he achieved his stated political goals, which were the total withdrawal of Israelis from the West Bank and the control of Jerusalem.

When was that?


bellumregio 11.25.07 at 9:24 pm

Evolutionary psychology, like Freudianism, is a form of bad literature. The Kanazawa et al thesis does not even rise to the level of bad literature. It is just a hit job on Islam. It could be entitled “How Islam perverts Nature and makes dangerous killers”. Never mind the vast majority of families in the Middle East consist of one husband and one wife. Multiple wives are quite expensive and many see this as un-modern. If the assertion is true China with its unequal ratio of men to women should become the home of terrorism. It is all just rubbish and the only form of racism that is still acceptable.


Curious 11.25.07 at 9:47 pm

“We are obviously the products of evolutionary processes, and our mental processes must reflect that.”

Do evoltionary processes differentiate members of the sex that takes months to bear a child from members of the sex that itself bears no children? Do men differ from women from the neck up whatever the processes of acculturation and socialization?


Seth Finkelstein 11.25.07 at 10:06 pm

Henry, this post is basically: “The Engineer Terrorist” has been called a hack novel that panders to the fantasies of its audience. But compare it to a Harlequin Romance – on that basis it’s positively brilliant! It’s got a characters who are more than pure cardboard, it’s got a plot where the author considers complicated motivations, it even toys with having an unhappy ending. Surely those critics who say it’s really just another variety of genre boilerplate thus can’t be right, when it’s put alongside the very worst of the genre!


novakant 11.25.07 at 10:40 pm

what Seth said – bashing ev-psych and engineers seems to be rather popular at CT, so it’s certainly convenient to tie them together in this way, but the assumptions about the “engineer mindset” as such are still rubbish


noen 11.25.07 at 11:23 pm

I like this part:

“The sad thing is that the very broad claims of the evolutionary psychologists are clearly correct. We are obviously the products of evolutionary processes, and our mental processes must reflect that.”

Unfortunately politics intrudes from both sides. The right wants to make room for their prejudices and the left sometimes engages in a sort of “biological exceptionalism”. We will work it out eventually but It’ll take some time I believe.


SG 11.25.07 at 11:27 pm

If they’re competing for women shouldn’t they be blowing each other up, not married americans?


Seth Finkelstein 11.26.07 at 12:05 am

E.g. this part of the paper was pretty much a classic version of the pop-psych just-so-story:

“According to Olivier Roy, Islamist intellectuals, many of whom he says have a technical or scientific education, criticize the “messy” Western social sciences because they challenge the unity and divine
order of the world, while, by contrast, the sciences, pure and applied, reflect the “the coherence of the whole, the rationality of the one [God]”

To parody for effect (i.e. I’m exaggerating to get the point across) that’s “Those engineers, their rigid certainly-seeking minds can’t cope with the real world, not like us liberal arts types who are trained to embrace the glorious social construction of reality – so they are more likely to become terrorists“.

It’s using more highbrow language than the Sunday supplement, but the structure seems disturbingly similar.


Leinad 11.26.07 at 12:29 am

LTTE gets no love, which is sad considering all the effort they put in to be the Worlds No.1 Suicide Bombers 1979-2003.


Barry 11.26.07 at 12:31 am

Henry: “There may well be (I hope there are) evolutionary psychologists out there who are doing serious work on these issues. ”

Well, they’re doing a good job of keeping their work off of the internet.


Crystal 11.26.07 at 2:21 am

If celibacy makes men go nutso and blow things up, then why aren’t there squadrons of Buddhist monks as suicide bombers?

As Bellumregio above points out, most Middle Eastern men have just one wife. That’s the way it’s always been in most nominally “polygynous” societies unless war or the slave trade (as in West Africa) has created a highly female-biased sex ratio.

This is, I believe, the same Satoshi Kanazawa who created a furor by stating that Africa was so poor because black Africans were so stupid. In other words, the scientific (and moral) equivalent of something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe. The fact that this crud gets published and finds an audience says a lot about the (racist) biases in the mainstream media.


Jack Fear 11.26.07 at 2:25 am

This is the huge red flag for me:

Our enemies in the current “War on Terror” … do not seem to have clearly stated political goals

That formation—”there doesn’t seem to be any explanation”—is like a dog-whistle to me. Its presence in an allegedly scholarly article tells me that either the researcher wasn’t looking very hard, or he didn’t like what he found.


Justin 11.26.07 at 2:30 am

For what it’s worth, the JSECP (where Kanazawa published) is less than a year old. It’s unlikely to be a top journal in its field–though I’m not knowledgeable enough to say for sure.


s.e. 11.26.07 at 2:44 am

In the beginning of the last post you describe Gambetta’s paper as being concerned with Islamic terrorists. Later in response to Badger you ran down a list of previous associations of technical professionals and European radicalism, as if the paper was more about oversimplified politics than the oversimplified politics of certain strands of radical Islam. It may be, I dunno.

Also whether it has anything to do with evo psych or not the lumping together of Hamas and Al Qaeda even if not intended ideologically ends up serving that purpose. Would you casually associate for purposes of sociological study the Irish Republican Army of 1920 with the “Real IRA” of 1997?

On another note I remember an interview on NPR with an engineer who had a side gig writing comic novels, about engineers and engineering. His running theme was the absolute social clulessless of his characters.

“History is like foreign travel. It broadens the mind but does not deepen it”
I wish fans of Descartes would use that silly quote as their banner. At least they’d have to defend it.


a very public sociologist 11.26.07 at 12:34 pm

Lol, I hate evolutionary psychology. Not only is it tendentious to say the least, it frequently manages to command a media spotlight us sociologists have no chance of receiving :(


rea 11.26.07 at 12:45 pm

Colin Kelly was a Muslim–who knew?

(Yeah, I know he didn’t really crash his plane into a Japanese battleship–but a lot of people in 1942 thought he had, and the myth may be more important than the truth on a topic like this . . . )


Saul Edengarten 11.26.07 at 1:51 pm

The rule of law is re-enacted and reinterpreted with every debate at court. But the only trade-offs which engineers understand is between bandwidth and video resolution.

As I argued in this thread, “through irony, paradox, ambiguity and other rhetorical and poetic devices of his or her art, the poet works constantly to resist any reduction of the poem to a paraphrasable core, favoring the presentation of conflicting facets of theme and patterns of resolved stresses.” It fell on deaf ears, as usual. This is a process of dialogue and opposition between the artiste and the reader, with every reading a critical reassessment (illuminated by new experience), not a re-elaboration.

Compare with the brittle Leibnizian ideal of the monadic, autonomous minds whipping out some charts and saying “calculemus!” Academic peer review more as mutual scratching of pubic itches than as living sex. Rumsfeld and his known unknowns.

In the middle ages the fight between realists and nominalists did not put this silliness to rest. The humanists could not prevent the eventual return of fundationalist proto-Likudniks like Spinoza. But as I argued in this other thread, there were alternatives.

The senses and seduction are essential to rhetoric and learning, even in the quantum age, but engineers work with “models” of human visual perception to achieve video compression. Experience gets trimmed down, subordinated to a technical functionalism. MPEG and implicit dualism. Video as a stepping stone towards virtual “reality”. Video games: consciousness is supposed to slough off one body and slip into another. Apply this to political philosophy and you get libertarians dreaming of getting all the power-ups, if only the state would let them.

I met an engineer who dressed badly and listened to techno. He would have been at home in the Soviet Union, where apolitical nerds thrived and which artistes left if they could. Should he say “Thank you for the music”?

Al-Qaeda are modernist anti-modernists, just like Marinetti and the futurists. But if I hear the word islamofascist I get upset for some reason.

And then there’s this old thread. Jesus fucking Christ.


s.e. 11.26.07 at 3:39 pm

It may be thought better, in view of the allegations of ‘barbarity’ of air attacks, to preserve appearances by formulating milder rules and by still nominally confining bombardment to targets which are strictly military in character …to avoid emphasizing the truth that air warfare has made such restrictions obsolete and impossible. it may be some time until another war occurs and meanwhile the public may become educated as to the meaning of air power.

Rules as to Bombardment by Aircraft, 1921. In Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Extremes. And here’s a post I’ve kept a link to for a while.

I saw the documentary The Fog of War and was fascinated that Robert McNamara referred to himself as a war criminal, NOT in regard to Vietnam, where his self-judgment was somewhat ambiguous, but about his role in World War II. Back then, he was on the statistical team that helped plan the bombings of Japanese cities, which led to the total devastation of most of them and over 300,000 civilian deaths; Hiroshima was in many ways a sideline to the much broader conventional firebombing of their cities.
And McNamara noted his role as war criminal would only have come if the US had lost the war. With US victory, World War II recedes into memory as the “Good War” where the deliberate US mass murder of German and Japanese civilians is obscured.


s.e. 11.26.07 at 4:14 pm

My mistake. In an earlier version of my first post I’d tossed in some red meat about the history of military and state terror. Reading (and misreading) rea’s comment I forgot that I pulled it before posting. Now it reads like piling on, which was not the point.


lemuel pitkin 11.26.07 at 4:36 pm

If they’re competing for women shouldn’t they be blowing each other up, not married americans?

No, no, they want our women. That’s the whole point. Or wait — maybe it’s that they hate us for our women.


c.l. ball 11.26.07 at 6:16 pm

One quibble — the Gambetta & Hertog paper is not about “suicide terrorism” but about violent radical Islamicists. Suicide bombing per se plays nil role in their study, except to note that few Hamas suicide-bombers had technical backgrounds.


Henry 11.26.07 at 7:05 pm

seth finkelstein – the point is that Gambetta and Hertog, unlike Kanazawa, have done their best to test other plausible explanations given the available data. You seem to believe that you have an alternative explanation that they didn’t check for – but I was never able to decipher precisely what it was in testable terms. Nor, if you knew much about Gambetta’s position in broader debates (which in fairness there is no reason why you should) would you be likely to argue that this is evidence of a bias for the liberal arts and against the technical disciplines. It’s a widely remarked regularity in the literature on the topic – while you may disagree with his explanation, he’s clearly interested in it because it is a puzzle rather than because he has a particular gripe against engineers.

Which brings us to novakant’s charge that there is a persistent bias at CT against engineers. I did a quick search for mentions of the word ‘engineer’ in posts over the last couple of years, and didn’t manage to find anything. You could point to CT commenters with an axe to grind, I suppose, such as the prolix Mr. Edenbaum, but I don’t think there is good evidence that they are typical of CT (certainly not in the case of Edenbaum whose list of gripes and hostilities is as long and various as it is tedious, including not only engineers but analytic philosophers, economists, people with the surname Holbo etc etc etc).


novakant 11.26.07 at 9:13 pm

Well, I was solely referring to the comment thread in question, where at least to my mind (I think some others noted this too though) things turned a bit ugly, so my claim that “engineer bashing” seems to be popular amongst CT readers was indeed based on a too limited dataset. And I’m sure there are engineering boards where they occasionally make fun of people in the humanities, so it’s not such a big deal.

What struck me most, though, and a point that has implications regarding the problem at hand, was the rather distorted view many people seemed to have of how engineers actually work. While I’m not an engineer myself, I work in a field that interfaces with engineering and, in part, has similarities to it, and the image of engineers being trapped in a rigid system of thought is simply not very convincing. One would certainly hope that engineers are rigid, precise and diligent when they build something potentially dangerous like a bridge or an airplane. But that is only part of the story and completely ignores the fact that engineers are often presented with problems to which no known solution exists yet, so that they have to be rather creative if they want to solve them. Also, the solutions they come up with are often not by the book deductions within a closed system of reference but rather nonchalant hacks, cheats and workarounds.

I would say, it is actually easier to adhere to a rigid and closed system of thought if you are, say, a dyed in the wool Hegelian or Kantian or whatever, than if you are an engineer who has to come up with a product under financial and time pressures and whose primary goal is to get the job done.

But enough about engineers, I’m sure they’ll be able to fend for themselves.


perianwyr 11.26.07 at 10:40 pm

I’m reminded of the debate in Cryptonomicon where the modern, technical main character debates with a humanities-oriented academic over who should run society, and makes envy-laden comments about the smugness of the scholar and makes basically everyone look like an ass.


Seth Finkelstein 11.26.07 at 10:58 pm

Henry, I and other commenters have repeatedly pointed out the paper’s reasoning is shot full of holes. To summarize, drawing from the whole two threads:

1) Lumping together many different professions under the category of “engineer”.

2) Lumping together many different political movements under the rubric of radical Islam.

3) Specific cases listed have been questioned as to whether the basic facts are right.

4) The ruling out of alternative explanations is very weak and hand-wavish.

I’m not trying to make a broad statement about anyone’s position on liberal arts vs. hard sciences. Rather, my point is that this paper is resonating in part because of similar just-so-story aspects as in evolutionary psychology. There’s very much an underlying thread in the paper of Engineers are from Mars, Liberal Arts are from Venus, only in a more sophisticated telling. This is not to say nothing reasonable could be said on the topic, but it seems stretched to a degree of meaninglessness that I think would be apparent in different contexts. The shorter version of the paper is almost “The “engineering mindset” is most like Islamic radical ideology”.


engels 11.26.07 at 11:21 pm

Seth – Why is this “lumping together” supposed to invalidate their results?


s.e. 11.26.07 at 11:32 pm

As always: If you want to understand the difference between the humanities and the sciences talk to a lawyer [and not a law professor]. Better yet, talk to a politician [and not a political scientist] Or just follow the debate between Finkelstein and Farrell.
You can’t avoid your own humanity. You can’t avoid sense or sensibility. That’s why they call them the “Humanities.”

I’m surprsed no-one’s brought up Simon Baron Cohen


Seth Finkelstein 11.26.07 at 11:34 pm

engels: It makes it much less clear the results are anything other than seeing patterns in the clouds. That is, if there’s two big piles of vagueness (“Engineering in our definition includes computer sciences and architecture.”), and “Islamic radical ideology”, coming out with yet another vagueness – “mindset” – leaves a lot of room for tale-spinning.


Henry (not the famous one) 11.26.07 at 11:36 pm

On McNamara–as Lenny Bruce once said, if the Japanese had won they would have hanged Harry Truman by his balls as a war criminal. Or words to that effect.


s.e. 11.26.07 at 11:49 pm

Why is this “lumping together?”

Perhaps because popular nationalist movements are not usually “lumped together” with small cells of apocalyptic nihilists, except in the imaginations or at least the propaganda of their opponents.


Crystal 11.26.07 at 11:54 pm

Seth Finkelstein, 29: There’s very much an underlying thread in the paper of Engineers are from Mars, Liberal Arts are from Venus, only in a more sophisticated telling.

Just wanted to comment on this a bit. I’ve noticed an idolization of the so-called “hard” sciences and engineering and a disparagement of the so-called “soft” humanities and social sciences from certain mostly conservative quarters, even if the disparager in question isn’t a scientist or engineer at all. The humanities and social sciences are piffling, soft, and all-round useless. (Hmmmph and phhbbtt, I say.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the humanities and social sciences now are majority female (as are some of the life sciences like biology, I believe). The consies and ev-psychs are afraid of being tainted by Girl Cooties.


c.l. ball 11.26.07 at 11:57 pm

If there is an engineering mindset with the characteristics that G&H cite, should we expect that same mindset to characterize any other fields? For example, would mathematicians be likely to have similar mindsets?

Re #32, G&H did a breakdown of engineering for 42 cases where it was available (see table 4). Architecture and urban planning account for only 12% of those cases.

Nevertheless, I found the G&H’s description of the mindset too cursory. They convinced me there was a puzzle (why so many engineers?) but did not do so on the reason why. Does monism, simplism, etc. only characterize engineers?


engels 11.27.07 at 12:15 am

Seth F (and E) – Yes, but are you arguing that they constructed the definition to get the results they wanted? I haven’t read the other thread but all I’ve seen is complaints that eg. a definition of “violent Islamist movement” that includes Hamas alongside Al-Quaeda is not a good one. Which might be true but seems irrelevant. Why are their definitions ad hoc in a way which would cast doubt on their results, as opposed to being unattractive for political reasons, or whatever?


CG 11.27.07 at 1:00 am

This is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. I think something like 99.5% of all Muslim men in the Middle East have only one wife. Of course, there are regional variations, with Saudi Arabia perhaps at once extreme and Turkey at the other — but even in SA it’s still vanishingly rare. A sex ratio would get more skewed by things like prostate cancer than polygyny.

Terrorists might not be terrorists for purely religious reasons — nihilisms always have temporal causes — but surely this is not one of them.


s.e. 11.27.07 at 1:19 am

“Terrorists might not be terrorists for purely religious reasons—nihilisms always have temporal causes…”

Engels you should read the post. Badger answers your questions. For me frankly the defense of the paper has gone through so many changes, whether it’s about reactionary Islam or radical engineering, the mere existence of the above quote is it’s most important aspect I can’t call it an effect. Everything else is minor.

But still this is amusing, since we’re talking evo-psych and no one took the hint: Here’s Ali G’s cousin et al:

Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, Carol Stott, Patrick Bolton, and Ian Goodyer Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Cambridge: Is there a link between engineering and autism?


engels 11.27.07 at 1:35 am

I’ve looked through it, and I can’t see that Badger ever advances beyond the complaint summarised above.


lemuel pitkin 11.27.07 at 2:30 am

My sense is that engineering is a much higher-status and also more copmmon professional qualification in the Middle East than in the US or Europe. E.g. I went to a grad program in economcis with a bunch of Turks, and a lot of them had studied engineering in Turkey, simply because that’s waht smart, ambitious young people did. Sort of like studying law here.


novakant 11.27.07 at 8:24 am

I’ve noticed an idolization of the so-called “hard” sciences and engineering and a disparagement of the so-called “soft” humanities and social sciences from certain mostly conservative quarters, even if the disparager in question isn’t a scientist or engineer at all.

That’s certainly happening in some quarters (and conservatives almost always make an exception for history, even though that particular field isn’t very rigid methodically compared to e.g. philosophy – it’s quite funny actually), but people in the humanities shouldn’t return the favor by promoting a similarly flawed argument.

If you talk to the more intelligent people in the “hard sciences”, you’ll find that many of them are rather circumspect when it comes to claims of rigidity and absolute truths. I remember when I was sharing a flat with a friend of mine doing his PhD in chemistry while I was dabbling in epistemology and philosophy of science, I would frequently turn to him in search of assurances that all these irritating philosophical claims about everything just being a language game and there being no objectivity at all were flawed and that there was something like indisputable truth to be found in the natural sciences (I was young). And all I ever got from him was more of the same, i.e. that scientific truth and method are only possible within a set of man-made axioms which might turn out to be wrong, that we would indeed never get close to comprehending the Ding an sich, that it was all an interpretation hinging on the arbitrary setup of our mental faculties and interests.


Seth Finkelstein 11.27.07 at 9:38 am

engels / #37 – regarding “Yes, but are you arguing that they constructed the definition to get the results they wanted?”, I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, I’m arguing that the definitions are so broad that it correspondingly means the argument is a lot less rigorous than it might seem from the presentation.


phil 11.27.07 at 6:45 pm

I never realized explosion by suicide bomb was an effective way to scatter one’s seed to the wind.


seth edenbaum 11.27.07 at 9:05 pm

If you read the comments engels you didn’t read them carefully. Hamas is a political organization with a military “terrorist” contingent. Al Qaeda don’t do social services. Who were Gambetta’s sources, were they military or political? Badger covers that question and more. Other than that Seth F. puts it well.
Brad DeLong accused of all sorts of evil when I said that until the recent war Hezbollah hadn’t run a “terrorist” operation since 1994. He removed my comment, even though it included a well sourced link, and continued his argument. He did the same thing in a discussion of post revolutionary Iran, by pretending that nothing had changed in Iranian society over the past 20 years. Words are not numbers. Names are not values, they’re labels. Foundations change when context changes; meanings change when objects change their shape, and shapes change as you move around them. You should never be so wed to your definitions that you refuse to look at any other. “The reality based community” is a label; it bears little relation to reality, but the people who use it don’t think of it that way.

What’s most important, knowledge or certainty? Is economics a formal science? Is it a science at all? Is philosophy a science? If not why do so many philosophers mimic scientific techniques? Is that mimicry useful? Again and again I read that the struggle is between rationalism and irrationalism, while in fact if it exists it’s between rationalist formalism, the need for clarity even if its meaningless, and history. That’s what offends me Henry.
What’s a more worthwhile intellectual endeavor: using the methodology of academic libertarianism to understand human behavior or studying libertarianism itself as a historical phenomenon? The former precludes the latter. Studying the history of any language based subject/process/methodology/heuristic etc. etc. is the best way to undermine it. That’s as true for the history of methodological individualism as it is for the history of the Catholic Church. Oddly enough, it’s not so true for the study of atoms and molecules. The attempt to supplant words with numbers is as anti-intellectual as the worst of fuzzy-wuzzy relativism.

I guess the meaning of reality based just changed again
“Steve Clemons: Everyone in the reality-based world agrees that Hamas has to be a party to peace talks.”


lemuel pitkin 11.27.07 at 10:36 pm

Like, I reckon, many folks here, I’m ready to grant that there are important differences between Hamas and Al Qaeda. But is all the heavy breathing about “rationalist formalism” and “academic libertarianism” and “subject/process/methodology/heuristics” really needed to make that point?


engels 11.27.07 at 11:36 pm

Ok, I’ve just had a look at the paper and nowhere in it do they refer to Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation. They generally use the expression “violent Islamist” to refer to the movements they are studying.

Is your objection that they shouldn’t have included Hamas in the sample, because in your opinion it is not a “violent Islamist” movement? (Odd, to say the least, to deny that Hamas is a militant organisation, or an Islamist organisation, but whatever.) The percentage of engineers in Hamas (39.6% ) which is lower than the average for all the groups (43.8%); if anything Hamas’ inclusion is skewing the numbers downwards. So this is not a significant objection to the conclusion that engineer’s are over-represented in these movements.

(Seth F mutters that “the definitions are so broad that it correspondingly means the argument is a lot less rigorous than it might seem from the presentation” but it is also unclear, to me at least, exactly what he means by this.)

So if it isn’t too much to ask could one of you consider providing some evidence for your claims that this paper is methodologically flawed?


lemuel pitkin 11.27.07 at 11:39 pm


What’s the null hypothesis? What would the expected proportion of engineers be?


seth edenbaum 11.27.07 at 11:44 pm

Why keep defending abstract formalism? It either produces worthwhile information or it doesn’t. If you stick to it either way then maybe it’s the formalism itself that interests you and not what you claim it provides.
I’m not criticizing sensibility, I’m criticizing those who say they don’t have one, the result being that they seem to be ruled by something they don’t think exists.


seth edenbaum 11.27.07 at 11:52 pm

Engels I linked to this in my first comment in the last post. Here’s the first paragraph with the links stripped:

I have long argued– including in this article on Hizbullah, or this article on the women’s organizations of Hamas– that the bedrock of the political strength of well-organized Islamist organizations like Hamas or Hizbullah has been their ability to build sturdy, resilient civilian mass organizations covering all sectors of society– rather than merely their creation of the (much smaller) armed organizations whose activities seem to get most of the coverage in the western media.

Well now, the Hamas women have played a hugely important role in defusing the latest crisis in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.

The author among other things is a Quaker.


engels 11.28.07 at 12:04 am

Lemuel, I’m not really sure why you are asking me–maybe you should read it yourself?–but on page 14–

We estimate that the average share of engineers among the total male working population in the countries of our sample, weighted by the number of cases per country, is about 3.5 per cent. If we leave out Singapore, a country with an extraordinarily high number of engineers, the share is 2.1 per cent. By contrast, even if we include all missing values in the denominator, engineers are still about 19 per cent of our total sample (78/404). This means that the share of radical Islamic engineers is no less than nine times greater than the share we could expect if the proneness of engineers to radicalize was the same as that of the male adult population.


Seth Finkelstein 11.28.07 at 12:45 am

Note, by the way, the above phrasing loosely substitutes “proneness of engineers to radicalize” for the more precise “seek membership in, and be accepted by, an organization we define as radical Islamic”.


Gdr 11.28.07 at 12:50 am

I’m still puzzled by Saul Edengarten’s complaint about the MPEG video compression technology in comment 20. Why the quotes around “model”?

Experience gets trimmed down, subordinated to a technical functionalism

This seems to me to be about as true, or as false, of any visual medium, as it is of MPEG in particular. There’s technical functionalism in oil painting too, and painters work with models of human vision when they mix colours. Whether this amounts to trimming down, or subordination, I’m not so sure.


seth edenbaum 11.28.07 at 4:56 am

Didn’t catch that before. Holbo’s too stupid. it has to be Berube the original Iraq concern troll, now apostate.
Funny. And It would all be well and good if your language games didn’t get in the way of a discussion of the issues. The issues are the point right? Iraq, Palestine, US foreign policy… The war on Tourism? You’re not using Al Qaeda simply as source data to experiment with metrics are you? Like testing a new “statistical engine?” Vroom! Vroom! Some of us like subject matter with our formalism. But perhaps it’s only important to you if you can play with it the way you want to. “What’s so neoliberal about the liberal arts?” I know, I know, some of your best friends are… pick one: Jews? Arabs? Negroes? People without Ph.D.’s?

Henry you’re a refugee from what was until very recently the most backwards country in Western Europe. Talk about religious fundamentalism. Jayzus! [Jaezuz?] But all by yourself you made yourself… a modern man. Unlike the others you broke free, free from tradition, free from the past. You’re an individual. Why? Because you say so.
And if you weren’t so fucking afraid of history you’d know how fucking predictable it all is.


goatchowder 11.28.07 at 6:11 am

Umm… explain Kamikaze’s?

Not the drink, the pilots.

Was there a shortage of women in Japanese culture, or something?

This whole “competing for women” idea is stupid. Suicide attacks are epidemic in Islamic fundamentalism for the same reason that teenage suicide was an epidemic among in the USA in the 1980’s. For the same reason why carjackings were epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980’s too. For the same reason why dot-com stocks were epidemic in the 1990’s. Why totalitarianism was epidemic throughout the world in the 1930’s. Why free-market capitalism is epidemic throughout the world now. Why acid rock was so popular in the 1960’s. Why tulips were so popular in Holland in the 1600’s. Why idiotic internet memes– like this one– circulate and catch fire. Come on!!

There is no “rational explanation”. Humans are social creatures who carry a high risk of stupid mob behavior. Trends. Fads. Swarms.

I’ll bet the spread of Islamic suicide bombing displays the same kind of propogation curve as any other kind of human mob/swarm/meme behaviour.


engels 11.28.07 at 2:36 pm

To repeat, could one of you provide some evidence for your repeated claims that the Gambetti paper is methodologically flawed? One sentence that you would have worded differently doesn’t count!


Seth Finkelstein 11.28.07 at 3:17 pm

engels, haven’t we been doing this all along?

Does it not count to say Hamas isn’t like small suicide cells, that it’s dubious to lump together everything from computer sciences to architecture, that some of the data points given are arguably simply wrong, that the discussion of alternate explanations didn’t consider internal-promotion and was inconsistent with the very broad definition in the first place. AND SO ON.

I think one could gather a fairly detailed reubttal going through the comments of both threads, but that it’s just ignored.


engels 11.28.07 at 3:54 pm

Does it not count to say Hamas isn’t like small suicide cells, that it’s dubious to lump together everything from computer sciences to architecture

No, it doesn’t, as explained in #37 and #47 above.

some of the data points given are arguably simply wrong

Which ones? And why are they fatal to the paper’s reasoning?

the discussion of alternate explanations didn’t consider internal-promotion and was inconsistent with the very broad definition in the first place

This might be interesting if you were to elaborate; as it stands, it’s hard to know what you mean.

I think one could gather a fairly detailed reubttal going through the comments of both threads, but that it’s just ignored.

Repeating your opinion over and over again (with CAPITAL LETTERS and italics) without attempting to seriously defend it is not very convincing. I’ve looked through the last thread. Most of Badger’s and Seth’s comments–as on other occasions–don’t make whole a lot of sense to me and I am afraid that on this occasion yours don’t seem a lot clearer. But if there really is a clear and devastating criticism of Gambetti’s methods buried in there somewhere, why don’t you just say what it is? Otherwise some people might draw the conclusion that you don’t really know what you are talking about and are just trying to bluster your way through.


Seth Finkelstein 11.28.07 at 4:33 pm

engels, if you require me to repost the comment I made beforehand, and to repost other’s comments, does it do any good? All you’ll say is that you read it then, and it’s still not good enough.

Let me put it this way: I don’t think it’s worth my time to write-up a long quasi-paper. If what I and others have already written doesn’t convince you that at least there’s some sort of reasonable critique, I think it’s way past the point of diminishing returns going forward. You are free to believe that because I’m not going to put even more time and energy into this, that I am “bluster” and can’t back it up. It’s just not worth it for me to try to refute that, sorry.


engels 11.28.07 at 5:03 pm

Ok, Seth, in my opinion you are indeed just blustering. You won’t defend your evaluation of Gambetti’s paper; you are just insisting that a devastating argument has already been made… by someone… somewhere… but you refuse to say where, or what it is. Very disappointing. Never mind.


se 11.28.07 at 8:01 pm

surprised I’m still here.

“it’s dubious to lump together everything from computer sciences to architecture”

Does nobody read history, even intellectual history? There are books written on this stuff. Lots of them [Google book search: modernism+technology+utopia/ engineering+utopia] So what’s left to learn from the paper? Contra Seth F. and nearly every other critic, including badger, it’s not that it’s obviously “wrong” it’s that it’s results are so toweringly overshadowed by what it ignores that defenses of it end up a defense of myopia. That’s all henry is defending and the same for you engels. Adding everything you all ignore would make for an interesting discussion. [Google book search: modernism+technology+postcolonialism]
I’m out.


engels 11.28.07 at 9:25 pm

Seth, adding in everything you ignore would make for an interesting discussion. Unfortunately, since I am not an infinite being and–pace your own estimation of your intellectual and moral capacities–neither are you, that infinitely interesting and infinitely time-consuming discussion is one that neither of us shall ever be able to have.


se 11.29.07 at 7:12 am

engels, all that I could be accused of ignoring is the danger of lazy historicism, and since no-one has been so stupid as to accuse me of that I haven’t brought it up.

You wanna?


engels 11.29.07 at 5:41 pm

Not desperately, no.

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