A ridiculous proportion of Islamist Terrorists have engineering degrees

As it’s 9/11 today, here’s a terrorism related fact to ponder. Loads of Islamist terrorists have studied engineering. The attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon were inspired by, planned by and lead by men who all all appear to have gained engineering degrees of some sort. (Osama Bin Laden, Muhammad Atta and Khalid Sheik respectively)  Two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, have estimated that around half of all those Islamist terrorists with degrees studied engineering.

While the obvious explanation for this would be the utility of engineers to a terrorist group, Gambetta and Hertog found that this pattern held even for those terrorists who were not engaged in roles like bomb making where their technical skills would be useful.

They instead conclude that it is a combination of economic and psychological factors:

The engineer mind-set, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, might be a mix of emotional conservatism and intellectual habits that prefers clear answers to ambiguous questions — “the combination of a sharp mind with a loyal acceptance of authority.” Do people become engineers because they are this way? Or does engineering work shape them? It’s probably a feedback loop of both, Gambetta says.

Economic frustration also matters, Gambetta says. In their sample of militants, there was only one homeland out of 30 in which engineers were less common: Saudi Arabia — where engineers have always had plenty of work. But “engineers’ peculiar cognitive traits and dispositions” made them slightly more likely than accountants, waiters or philosophers to react to career frustration by adopting violent, right-wing beliefs.

It seems that engineers are in general a conservative bunch. They are overrepresented not only in Islamist terror groups but also in their extreme right-wing counterparts, but not amongst left-wing organisations like Shining Path and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Gambetta and Hertog also cite evidence showing that uniquely in American academia, the staff of Engineering Faculties tend to lean to the right.

We’ve already seen an illustration of this trend, this week on this blog. During his run for the presidency, Dilbert author Scott Adams promised that:

On day one of my presidency I would form a committee of libertarians to recommend ways to shrink government. But I would require them to describe in detail how the country would look when those government functions disappear. When they finish, I’ll turn over their recommendations to independent economists and other smart people for evaluation. Then I’d open it up for public scrutiny and debate. Then I’d let Bill Clinton decide which reductions in government passed the common sense filter.

This and similar pronouncements lead James Warner at Open Democracy to ponder whether “technocracy dressed up as libertarianism the natural political home of the engineer?

He explains that:

Adams studied economics at college but spent enough of his career working with engineers to take on their general mindset. In Dilbert’s company, nobody outside the Engineering department has much acquaintance with reality – other departments are dominated or heavily infiltrated by mythical creatures such as trolls or unicorns – and the engineers themselves are at the constant mercy of what Adams calls “random acts of management.”

But warns that:

China is Adams’s best example of an engineer’s utopia – the Soviet Union’s Politburo in the 1980s, incidentally, were also mostly engineers – suggests the limitations of the technocratic approach to politics. If Adams is truly Libertarian, he should see the danger of a government that makes efficiency an end in itself — defined without reference to what people, however irrationally, actually cherish. Adams wants to strip politics of all sideshow passions, noble reasons, and values — but what look to him like bugs in the political system, the majority of people consider to be features.

I don’t think this is quite right. I don’t think it is technocracy per se that appeals to those with an engineering mindset but ideologies that purport to provide a clear standard by which to evaluate societies. Gambetta and Hertog quote a study of Turkish Islamists finding that:

they entertain a strong belief in the superiority of logical and technical approaches towards societal issues, and see themselves as problem solvers, as “social engineers”, superior to the Kemalist elite of jurists preoccupied with debates on abstract ideas…They assume to know the “one best way” of improving society, and feel therefore entitled to speak in the interests of all.”

It seems that in Scott Adams case economists, engineers and ‘smart people’ substitute for the Qur’an and the findings of radical sharia jurists.


Hat tip: Slate

2 thoughts on “A ridiculous proportion of Islamist Terrorists have engineering degrees

  1. Interesting though I have some doubts. In what way was bin Laden & co “right wing”? Are you measuring engineers in terrorism/politics with a comparison to the proportion of qualified engineers in society, in whch case it is unsurprising to find them more than averagely qualified, or proportionate to the proportions of engineers & PPE graduates in society in which case the result may not be engineers are overrepresented among activists but that PPEists (the “bluffer’s degree) are way overrepresented in party politics.

  2. Pingback: The nasty side of nerds | Matter Of Facts

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