Paper explains how the “engineering mentality” produces terrorists

One of the biggest puzzles of Islamic terrorism is why so many of its participants are engineers. Perhaps the most famous one is Mohammad Atta, the 9/11 mastermind (pictured above); but when you read news reports of suicide bombing incidents, you realize he’s not alone. It’s engineer after engineer after engineer.

Why? Because in the Middle East, the mindset of engineers mixes with religiosity — and a lack of professional opportunity — to produce a toxic, combustive psychology. That’s the conclusion of “Engineers of Jihad”, a paper by sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog of the University of Oxford — the link is directly to the full PDF.

Their research is incredibly interesting and thorough. To start off, they compiled a list of 404 members of violent Islamist groups, and found that engineers were, indeed, wildly overrepresented. Engineers make up only 3.5 per cent of the Islamic countries they studied, yet they made up 19 per cent of the group of terrorists — which means engineers are six times more likely to be terrorists than they ought to be.

Where things get really interesting is their exploration of engineering psychology — and the dynamics of engineers’ lives in the Islamic countries. First off, Gambetta and Hertog note that previous sociological studies have found that engineers are far more likely to be religious and conservative than other academics — four times more than social scientists and three times more so than people in the arts and humanities. What’s more, this religiosity affects their careers. A study by the Carnegie Foundation found that the more religious and conservative an engineer is, the less likely she or he is to be regularly publishing work — and thus less likely to be employed as an engineer.

To make matters worse, as the academics point out, most of the Islamic countries in which these engineers become radicalized have crappy economies: When the engineers return home from their training in the West, they can’t find good jobs. In Egypt, for example, “Many graduates preferred joblessness even to relatively well-paying menial jobs, and for numerous young Egyptians marriage became unaffordable. Making a virtue out of necessity, many graduates tried to restore their dignity by declaring their adherence to antimaterialist Islamic morality.”

On top of this is what Gambetta and Hertog call the “engineering mentality”. To quote them at some length:

Friedrich von Hayek, in 1952, made a strong case for the peculiarity of the engineering mentality, which in his view is the result of an education which does not train them to understand individuals and their world as the outcome of a social process in which spontaneous behaviours and interactions play a significant part. Rather, it fosters on them a script in which a strict ‘rational’ control of processes plays the key role: this would make them on the one hand less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and the compromise and circumspection that these entail, and on the other hand inclined to think that societies should operate orderly akin to well-functioning machines — a feature which is reminiscent of the Islamist engineers …

The upshot? The creation of a class of young men who are highly educated, conservative, highly religious, economically thwarted, pissed off at both their own countries and the West, unable or unwilling to examine the complex social and political reasons for their personal troubles, and seeking a straightforward “answer”. “It appears that engineers … found themselves perfectly and painfully placed at a high-voltage point of intersection in which high ambitions and high frustration collided,” Gambetta and Hertog conclude.

It’s a really interesting analysis! Still, I was surprised to read some of their data and assumptions. For example, engineers being overall more conservative? That shocked me: I hang out with tons of computer and software engineers, and if anything they tend to be either left-wing or libertarian. (Or, as the Jargon File would have it, just generally suspicious of authority.) But possibly computer engineers, because they deal with the flow of information — a discipline that necessarily bumps you up intellectually against notions of freedom, secrecy, customization, personal choice, etc. — wind up in different emotional and psychological place than engineers who work more straightforwardly with physics. And one could easily dispute other parts of Gambetta and Hertog’s argument; Hayek’s analysis of engineering psychology has been disputed.

Still, this is one of the most ambitious attempts to tackle the puzzle of engineer terrorists I’ve yet seen.

(Thanks to the Atlantic Monthly for finding this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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