Monday, September 27, 2010

Does the logical pursuit of clear answers lead to terrorism?

Or, more precisely, to a disdain for ambiguity and compromise that, in turn, leads to terrorism?

At least among engineers?

So concludes a study by sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog as reported in Slate, and, more recently, the New York Times Magazine. Examining more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa, Gambetta and Hertog found engineers three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than doctors, scientists and financiers. "The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second," writes Slate reporter Benjamin Popper, was Islamic Studies."

Reportedly teasing out the effects of engineers being particularly well-qualified to become terrorists,
Gambetta and Hertog write about a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise. They might be more passionate about bringing order to their society and see the rigid, religious law put forward in radical Islam as the best way of achieving those goals.
As the Times Magazine reports, their conclusions apply to right-wing groups in general: 
Gambetta and Hertog found engineers only in right-wing groups — the ones that claim to fight for the pious past of Islamic fundamentalists or the white-supremacy America of the Aryan Nations (founder: Richard Butler, engineer) or the minimal pre-modern U.S. government that Stack and Bedell extolled.

Among Communists, anarchists and other groups whose shining ideal lies in the future, the researchers found almost no engineers. Yet these organizations mastered the same technical skills as the right-wingers. Between 1970 and 1978, for instance, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany staged kidnappings, assassinations, bank robberies and bombings. Seventeen of its members had college or graduate degrees, mostly in law or the humanities. Not one studied engineering.
The Times Magazine sums up Gambetta and Hertog's conclusions as follows:
The engineer mind-set... 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.” 
As for the direction of causality:
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.
Either way, according to Slate:
Terrorist organizations seem to have recognized this proclivity... A 2005 report from British intelligence noted that Islamic extremists were frequenting college campuses, looking for "inquisitive" students who might be susceptible to their message. In particular, the report noted, they targeted engineers.
At least two engineers have raised questions about this study. As the Times Magazine article reports:
William A. Wulf, a former president of the National Academy of Engineering, is, no surprise, no fan of the Gambetta-Hertog theory... The sample of militants Gambetta and Hertog used was simply too small for them to be sure they haven’t stumbled into a meaningless numerical accident, he says. The theory, according to Wulf, misrepresents what engineers are about. “A person who is rigid,” he says, “is a bad engineer.”
And in a letter published in this week's Times Magazine, Julio M. Ottino, Dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, writes:
Most leading universities in the U.S. are cultivating thinking skills completely opposite to what they state as a preference for “clear answers to ambiguous questions.” The goal of my own school — and I know that we are not alone in this — is to produce whole-brain thinkers. We want to produce engineers who are firmly grounded in analysis, logic and rational thinking but who also have intuitive and metaphorical thinking skills — the kind that open up new avenues of thought.
This last remark leads my clear-answer-seeking mind to the following question: Is intuition really less likely to lead to radical beliefs than the logical pursuit of clear answers is?


Hainish said...

The correlation might be there, but that doesn't mean that their explanation for it is correct.

I've noticed, though, that engineers tend to skew right while scientists skew left.

kcab said...

Hmm. Well, I'm an engineer and a Unitarian Universalist ...'nuf said, I think.

Honestly, rigidity and pre-conceived ideas do not lead to good engineering or science.

Katharine Beals said...

"rigidity and pre-conceived ideas do not lead to good engineering or science"

Do rigidity and pre-conceived ideas lead to good *anything*?

kcab said...

Do rigidity and pre-conceived ideas lead to good *anything*?
LOL, terrorism, perhaps? Probably not even that.

Hainish said...

Aren't *most* ideas pre-conceived? I mean, new ideas are wonderful and all, but they are rare. Most of what any worker applies to a task (surgery, painting, engineering, etc.) is going to be a pre-conceived idea.

And a similar, devil's-advocate type of argument could be made of rigidity. How flexibly ought we apply Ohm's Law, anyway?

Hainish said...

P.S., love this:

Seth said...

"The engineer mind-set... 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."

As a left-wing engineer, the political part of me finds this irritating. And the engineering part finds it ignorant and insulting.