Tag Archives: Engineers

Are Engineers More Likely To Be Terrorists, And If So, Why?

I met a student, I was on his examining committee, who had been a civil engineer for years (he was getting his undergraduate degree late in life). He was politically conservative and cynical about academia. He needed the degree in order to get a major promotion, hated the idea of going back to college, but he held his nose and did it anyway.

Part of the examination process involved asking the student how the completed degree program had changed is life. In this student’s case, one might expect the answer to have focused on the simple fact of getting a doubling in salary and promotion to the head of a major department because he now qualified, having the sheepskin in hand. But that was not his answer. I paraphrase:

“I hated the idea of taking all these politically correct courses this program requires. Then I took the courses, and realized that I’d been a narrow minded asshole most of my life. I’m still probably a narrow minded asshole, but not as much, and I appreciate things more. So-called ‘Liberal Arts’ is good for people like me. Thanks for making me do it.”

That program, by the way, was very heavy in liberal arts. Students would spend considerable effort, typically at the graduate level, focusing on their area of expertise, which was often quite developed in these older students with vast life experience. But at the same time they had to meet all the university liberal arts requirements, plus ones we added that consisted mainly of self reflection and integration of the other liberal arts study with each other and their core area.

The vast majority of engineers are not jihadist terrorists or suicide bombers.

But it turns out that among jihadists and suicide bombers, an alarmingly disproportionate share are engineers.

This is covered in Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog. I’ve not read that book, but I have read Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists? by Dan Berrett summarizing the research (hat tip Maggie Koerth-Baker).

(I’ll probably get the book and report back later.)

The researchers seem to have nailed down the data suggesting that more than expected terrorist bad guys have engineering backgrounds. All the objections I was thinking of as I read the article, related to how this apparent bias might have resulted as an artifact of the data, were addressed.

The explanations provided are multiple, and likely, several apply.

One possible expansion, which the data suggest explains part, but not most, of this phenomenon, is the concept of relative deprivation. You put sweat and tears and maybe some blood into developing skills and raising your own prospects, but then you fail because of external or contextual forces. Many of these engineer-terrorists became engineers in societies where they could not actually get jobs or status as engineers, and thus may feel bitter and disenfranchised. In countries where engineers do get high status and have a high employment rate, but otherwise provide a good number of terrorists (like Saudi Arabia) the percentage that are engineers is low. Looking across the data, this concept seems to explain part of the resulting pattern.

Another explanation has to do with the sort of person who becomes an engineer. I’m not going to go into this psychological argument here (read the article or book), though it is key to the discussion. I just feel this is pretty complex stuff and I’ll avoid forming an opinion until I see the book. Suffice it to say that the sort of mind set that makes one more likely to be drawn to engineering, or succeed in engineering training, has features that for a small number of individuals may lead to the determination to go blow oneself up and take a few perceived enemies with you.

That argument involves selection of those who go into the field, but a third argument involves what happens during the process of education. It is generally true that some professions, including engineering, have narrow liberal education requirements than other professions, such as the social sciences and humanities. As I demonstrated anecdotally above, taking liberal arts seriously can expand, change, and enrich minds, but if those requirements are reduced, then not so much.

This can be a vicious cycle of sorts. Large university units (such as a college with in a university, or a major program, controlling the details of undergraduate or graduate education) can move towards or away form liberal arts eduction over time as people “typical” of that subset of academia regularly make programmatic decisions. For example, a technically oriented college may have relaxed language requirements compared to the sister college in the same university system that focuses on social science and humanities.

Anyway, the argument here is that academic training matters. The leftist terrorist groups of yore (back in the 60s and 70s) involved operatives with a disproportionate number of humanities and social science education, while today, rightist (statist, jihadist) terrorists are more of the opposite bent.

But, again, that only explains part of the larger pattern. Yet it may be a factor, and that would be interesting.

The important thing about this study, and the reason I’m going on and on about it, is that it is an interesting and apparently well done look at the cultural and social nuances, and the role of lived experience, behind important geopolitical factors that matter. There is some good anthropology to be done here, if we can find some good anthropologists to do it (I don’t think there is much anthropology going on these days in this area, and what is done is mainly critical theory, so not much pragmatic use.)