Engineering Terrorists

This can’t be good. It turns out that the Nigerian who narrowly missed blowing up the Northwestern flight near Detroit on Christmas was a recent graduate in Mechanical Engineering. By itself, that doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but it turns out that a disproportionate number of terrorists are engineers. European sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog researched more than 400 known violent jihadists since the 1970s, and of those with advanced degrees, 44% were engineers. That’s twice the percentage of the next highest group who majored in Islamic Studies.

What’s not clear is what comes first. Is there something about engineering that draws people to radicalism? Or are people with terror on their minds drawn to engineering? Minimally, there’s a recruitment factor here. If you were looking for young people to radicalize, engineers would be handy to have on your team. But it seems unlikely that accounts for the whole data skew.

The study’s authors assert a combination of mindset and professional circumstance. There are not a lot of engineering jobs in the Arab world, so many are frustrated. Okay, I’ll buy that. But then they go on to note that engineers by nature are more likely to be drawn to the kind of rigid, hierarchical worldviews that radical Islam provides: Their governing mentality “inclines them to take more extreme conservative and religious positions everywhere.” Engineers do incline toward the conservative, but apparently Islamic engineers are cut from a different cloth than the people I work with. Most of us just want to be left alone in our labs. There are few I know who gravitate to hierarchical structures, and as any Quality Assurance person who’s ever tried to herd engineers into a rigid process will tell you, they don’t usually respond well to structured environments.

Although there is that inherent fascination with blowing things up… but most of us try hard not to hurt anyone in the process. That kind of sucks all the fun out of it.

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