Engineering Terrorism, Engineering Fundamentalism

Engineering Terrorism, Engineering Fundamentalism March 28, 2016

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the disproportionate number of engineers among the ranks of terrorists. This is not a new observation – articles on this subject, I learned, have appeared over the years, in Slate, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy. But as Greg Laden also pointed out, there is a new book out Engineers of Jihad which explores this topic.

One one level, none of this surprised me. The ranks of young-earth creationists have always included a strikingly large number of engineers. There are recent examples like this one, as well as “founding fathers” of the movement such as Henry Morris. This is so widely known, that there is a thing called the Salem Hypothesis which relates to this correlation.

But on another level, I am still baffled – what is it about engineering that leads it to coincide with fundamentalism and extremism of a variety of different sorts?

Of related interest, see Paul Wallace’s blog post on how to talk to creationists; Paul Braterman on creationists and carbon datingBrandon Ambrosino’s Boston Globe article on the ark park and the broader phenomenon of young-earth creationism; Jason Rosenhouse on problems with creationist talk of probability; an example of a recent YEC failure to fact check; and Yehrin Tong on the evolution of evolutionary theory.

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  • Robert Fisher

    I suppose us engineers are in some sense drawn towards extremes. We don’t want a more efficient solution, we want the most efficient solution. (Although, that is sometimes more of a stereotype. I often find it hard to convince coworkers when my argument is based on what is best for the customer because they assume I’m always putting technical considerations first.)

    Also, I think the logical challenge of rationalizing the irrational can also be appealing to engineers. e.g. We’re as good at explaining away the holes in science fiction as we are at finding them.

  • spinkham

    Robert is essentially correct from all I have read on the topic.

    Engineers tend to rate high on the need for closure scale that is an important part of the radicalization process.

    Engineers tend to be both higher IQ and more educated than the general population as well, which combined with the need to find absolute answers both lets them and forces them to rationalise their pre-existing core beliefs better than average .

  • Ian

    Engineering is about power. As an engineer you make stuff work. You’re a good engineer if you can find a way. Unlike science, which is a discipline about finding what is true, engineering is about making something true.

    Engineers and scientists are skeptical people, warranted or not, and in my experience quite robustly so. But unlike scientists, for engineers skepticism is personal: you are not being skeptical about the way the world works, but about their ability to get the job done. So when you do make something work, you’ve probably listened to at least a couple of ‘so-called-capable’ people tell you why you could not succeed: thus reinforcing intellectual arrogance.

    So you have this combination of finding fault, bombastic arrogance, and truth-creation. I think it attracts the same kind of people who would enjoy being the ‘voice of reason’ holding court on why the experts are wrong.

  • Grimlock

    Rather speculative, I guess it might be related to a need for consistency. It might be harder for engineers to take only parts of holy scripture literally, and others figuratively, thus making it a bit of an either/or thing.

    (I can actually relate to that, somewhat, even though my education was in mathematics instead of engineering.)

    But I think a much more interesting question is how religious belief correlates with an high interest in science fiction and fantasy. My immediate reaction is that I suspect a negative correlation, but considering the blog on which I’m currently commenting, that might not be entirely correct.

  • James, I can’t explain a connection between engineering and fundamentalism. Based on my limited observation of engineers, they are very process-oriented. If you trust the process, you can trust the conclusion that emerges from the process. If not, not.

  • John MacDonald

    Engineers like to BUILD and CREATE things. Maybe for this reason they are drawn toward causes (jihad, fundamentalist Christian, etc.) where the goal is to BUILD or CREATE a new and better world.

  • On a tube train yesterday I was sat next to this guy… He was wearing a hard hat, reading a copy of Highways and Transportation, and quietly reciting floor loading calculations. I felt guilty for stereotyping, but it scared the life out of me so I got off at the next stop.

    Engineers. You can’t take any chances.

  • arcseconds

    I wonder whether we’re asking the wrong question here. There are millions of engineers around the world, and only a tiny tiny proportion are terrorists, or even religious extremists.

    Gambetta and Hertog have identified some plausible psychological traits that might lead to extremism (the need for cognitive closure, acceptance of prevailing hierarchies, disgust at the unfamiliar, and a willingness to act on beliefs) that they find as being prevalent among engineers, but as Victoroff points out, this cluster of traits is pretty common, too: again far more common than being a terrorist, or even I suspect being a committed YEC.

    So maybe instead of looking for what about engineers in general that makes them terrorist material, or what it is about engineering programmes, we should be looking at a much smaller group of people and see why they’re prone toward both religious extremism and engineering.

    (Although I accept that there probably isn’t much in a typical engineering programme that will challenge or mitigate a tendency to religious or political extremism… might be worth another comment)

    If you’re someone who, at the age of 18, already has the makings of a religious extremist, and you’re pretty smart in the sense you’re an excellent problem-solver, and perhaps a little lacking in the empathy department, what are you going to study? Not biology or geology if you’re a YEC, and probably not physics for a similar reason (plus perhaps it more clearly leaves little room for divine activities). Nothing in the humanities or arts, they’re wishy-washy and leftist. Commerce is too people-focused (and also intellectually wishy-washy).

    If you do wind up in a subject that’s going to challenge your world-view, then perhaps you leave and do something else, or else perhaps you give up on your world-view or at least have it softened. And maybe you get some hard edges knocked off you socially.

    I’m not saying that’s a complete explanation, far from it, but perhaps it allows us to see that engineering can be a haven for rigidly doctrinaire people, even as it may at the same time be a great place for imaginative and curious sorts.

  • arcseconds

    Having said that, I’m always interested in how our day-to-day lived experience affects our outlook on the entire world.

    For example, I have a pet theory that high-level managers seem to frequently think that the world is infinitely malleable at the behest of senior management, and this is because their day-to-day experience the world is pretty malleable. If they declare that there’ll be a meeting at 9 o’clock on Tuesday, there will in fact be a meeting at that time, etc. They have a lot of immediate experience of reality being exactly as they will it.

    This leads to things like willing a space shuttle launch over the objections of engineers.

    The experience of engineers is they are dealing with a reality that they can’t just control by fiat. It takes a lot of dedicated work to press material reality into service to your design, and they have a lot of experience of things not working out as planned (particularly when known tolerances are exceeded). So they’re less likely to make the ‘we have made a decision and things will be great!’ mistake.

    However, they do deal with systems that are relatively simple (compared with, say, the economy, or ecology, human physiology, or even a single-celled organism), that are humanly comprehensible (as humans designed them in the first place), and are to a large extent controllable. They also have the experience of mastery: they can make their project do what they want. Few other roles have this kind of control and this form of freedom.

    Perhaps this feeds into the intellectual arrogance that’s sometimes seen amongst engineers.

    Also, this might mean they’re more inclined to see society as something that can be understood and controlled, and more inclined perhaps to see the universe as something that’s understood and controlled by someone (who will surely fix the evident problems in short order?).

    (By the way, software engineering is less constrained by flummoxing material reality than other forms of engineering… are software engineers statistically more likely to be religious extremists?)