The Problem With Engineers

A couple of years ago I asked, “Could it be that we have trained too many engineers, when what our nation needs is actually poets?” It seems I may have been on to something. A story in the Associated Press earlier this week describes al Qaeda master mind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad requesting the CIA to allow him to design a vacuum cleaner while in prison. His lawyer describes him as a brilliant engineer:

“If he had access to educational programs in Guantanamo Bay, such as distance learning programs, I am confident that in addition to furthering his Islamic studies, he could obtain a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and very likely patent inventions,” Wright said.

Now, a new report by the website Foreign Policy shows that it may not be a coincidence.

In a 2009 paper, Diego Gambetta, an Oxford sociologist, and Steffen Hertog, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, found that “among violent Islamists with a degree, individuals with an engineering education are three to four times more frequent than we would expect given the share of engineers among university students in Islamic countries.” Of a group of 404 members of violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog tracked down the course of study for 178 individuals. Of those 178 violent Islamists, 78 (44 percent) were engineers. Broadening the course of study to engineering, medicine, and science, 56.7 percent of their sample had studied these fields.

According to Gambetta and Hertog’s findings, this is a problem unique to violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world. Among nonviolent Islamist groups, for example, engineers are present — but to a far lesser degree than in violent groups. And among violent Islamist groups in the West, education levels tend to be much lower on the whole. Meanwhile, non-Muslim left-wing groups — Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Red Brigades, and Latin American guerrilla groups — include almost no engineers. Among anarchist groups, engineers are equally absent. Right-wing groups include some engineers, but they are far from overrepresented.

To account for this disparity in occupation among Islamic terrorists in the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog sketch out a particular engineering “mindset” in which the profession is “more attractive to individuals seeking cognitive ‘closure’ and clear-cut answers as opposed to more open-ended sciences — a disposition which has been empirically linked to conservative political attitudes.” Engineers, the authors find, are far more conservative on the whole than members of other professions. Islamic extremism “rejects Western pluralism and argues for a unified ordered society” — a political worldview that lines up nicely with a profession averse to chaos.

There’s also a societal component. In countries like Egypt, the period after the 1970s was one of massively thwarted expectations, with engineers emerging on the job market only to struggle to find employment. Per the classic explanation of the onset of rebellion — thwarted expectations coupled with relative deprivation — a generation of highly trained students had been made promises (and made subsequent investments in their education) that their societies could not deliver on. Angry, they turned to violence to restore order in society.

It is widely agreed that we need to improve education in our country, but we also need to make sure that our students are learning how to engineer peace and hope.

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