The over-representation of engineers in violent groups


When people think of violent Islamist groups, the image they have may be of disaffected young people who are the outcasts of society, poor and poorly educated. But a new book titled Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education based on research done by two academics Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog finds a surprisingly large number of engineers among the people labeled as Islamic radicals.

More than twice as many members of violent Islamist organizations have engineering degrees as have degrees in Islamic studies. Nearly half of those terrorists who had degrees had degrees in engineering. Even if you make extremely generous assumptions, nine times as many terrorists were engineers as you would expect by chance. They find a similar pattern among Islamist terrorists who grew up in the West – fewer of these terrorists had college degrees, but even more of those who had degrees were engineers.

Why engineers? The plausible explanation that they possess valuable technical skills does not seem to hold up since not that many engineers are needed and many of them actually play administrative rather than technical roles. The reasons why engineers are drawn to, and recruited by, these groups seem to be for other reasons.

Survey data indicates that engineering faculty at universities are far more likely to be conservative than people with other degrees, and far more likely to be religious. They are seven times as likely to be both religious and conservative as social scientists.

Gambetta and Hertog speculate that engineers combine these political predilections with a marked preference towards finding clearcut answers. This preference has affinities with the clear answer that radical Islamist groups propose for dealing with the complexities of modernity: Get rid of it. They quote the famous right-wing economist Friedrich von Hayek, who argues that people with engineering training “react violently against the deficiencies of their education and develop a passion for imposing on society the order which they are unable to detect by the means with which they are familiar.”

However there are subtleties. The authors of the book have a paper that was the basis of the book that provides more details of the membership and proportion of engineers in violent Islamic groups, non-violent Islamic groups, non-Islamic extremist groups.

The puzzle from which we started appears confirmed: the number of militant engineers relative to the total population of engineers is miniscule – yet engineers, relative to other graduates, are overrepresented among violent Islamic radicals by three to four times the size we would expect.

While the overrepresentation of university-educated individuals among Islamic extremists varies by country, group and sample, the engineering overrepresentation seems insensitive to all three variations – with the one exception of Saudi Arabia (Table VI).

Among non-Islamic extremists, we find virtually no engineers in the violent left-wing – in Europe, US, Japan and Latin America – even in those groups in which highly educated individuals are predominant. Only in some Middle Eastern countries has there been a significant presence of engineers among left-wing radicals. On the extreme right of the political spectrum, by contrast, while not overrepresented, engineers are present in groups of various kinds all over the world.

One of the problems with this study is that the sample sizes are not that large. By combing various sources, they found a total of 404 people of 30 nationalities.

We searched wherever we could for information on each of the 404 individuals in our sample, and found some biographical information for 326 cases and educational information for 284. Out of these, 196 had higher education, whether finished or unfinished, and at least 37 studied in Western countries; the median date of birth is 1968.

We were able to find the subject of study for 178 of the 196 cases engaged in higher education at some point (Figure 1). Unsurprisingly, we found that the second most numerous group was composed of 34 individuals who pursued Islamic studies. Yet, the group that comes first by far are indeed the engineers: 78 out of 178 individuals had studied this subject. This means that 44 % of those whose type of degree we know were engineers. On the whole, the individuals who studied for what we may call ‘‘elite degrees’’ – engineering, medicine, and science, generally the most selective programs in the Islamic world – represent 56.7 %.

They find that when you look at political and religious views by academic discipline using data from the US, engineers tend to be the most conservative.

We searched for evidence to test the latter by trying to discover whether there is anything unusual in engineers’ political-ideological orientations. The best data we could find in this regard comes from a survey of faculty members in undergraduate colleges and universities throughout the United States carried out in 1984 (Carnegie Foundation 1984 ). Of the 9 ,968 faculty sampled 5 ,057 (50 .7 %) returned completed mail questionnaires. We selected the males and looked at their self-reported political and religious views according to their highest degree.

The results are startling (Table VII). The proportion of engineers who declare themselves to be on the right of the political spectrum is greater than in any other disciplinary group: 57.6 % of them are either conservative or strongly conservative, as compared to 51.1% of economists, 42.5% of doctors and 33.5% of scientists, 21.4% of those in the humanities, and 18 .6 % of the social scientists, the least right-wing of all disciplinary groups. Only 1.4% of engineers are on the left, as opposed to 12 .9 % in the social sciences and 16.7 % in law. Perhaps this is an uncanny coincidence, but the four fields at the top of the conservatism scale – engineering, economics, medicine, and science – are the same four secular fields we found at the top of our main jihadist sample.

What they conclude is that it is not just engineers, but engineers who come from countries that do not have good employment prospects for engineers that were over-represented. So the suggestion is that a generally conservative attitude that is either inculcated by engineering schools or attracts people to engineering coupled with low expectations of gainful employment seems to be a dangerous mix.

But as I said, the total sample size they started with is small and when you start slicing and dicing it into smaller subpopulations, your conclusions become prone to significant statistical fluctuations, so these conclusions, while interesting and suggestive, are by no means definitive.

Comments

  1. Matt G says

    Engineers are also over-represented in creationism, probably for similar reasons: politically conservative, religious, and predisposed to seeing design.

  2. says

    I’d add to what Matt said.

    Engineers are also used to being told “this is the answer” without critical and skeptical thinking skills. Very few disciplines work very hard to teach people how to figure out whether something actually is true or not (countering things like confirmation bias, etc.).

    We’re discovering that about neurosurgeons now, too. (And many other doctors.) 😉

  3. says

    They find that when you look at political and religious views by academic discipline using data from the US, engineers tend to be the most conservative.

    To echo #1 and #2, Liberty University has an engineering and aeronautics program that are accredited and recognized as a quality education. The explanation I’ve heard – and would also apply to muslims – is that fields like engineering and mathematics don’t contradict and challenge their beliefs. Rabid ideologies can be more easily maintained because there’s no biology, no astrophysics, no particle physics, etc.

    Violent cults like Aum Shin Rikyo and other religious cults have actively seek or sought out technically educated people to help build chemical weapons, bombs and other weapons. The KKK and other white supremacist groups actively seek to recruit educated white people both for financial reasons and because white power from wealth is now more powerful, socially accepted and less likely to be arrested than a violent mob.

  4. Chiroptera says

    To flesh out the ahcuah’s point a bit, the mathematical sciences tend to give very definite, precise answers to questions which has to appeal those with a more dogmatic mind set. In most homework problems and projects, questions have very definite answers.

    In contrast, the social sciences rarely give clear cut answers to important social problems, and the humanities even pride themselves on avoiding definite answers since it’s the reasoning process itself that is important. That has to make dogmatists uncomfortable.

    Plus, unlike most other fields, engineering is seen as immediately marketable and lucrative which might appeal to the stereotypic “practicality” in the mindset of conservatives.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I had noticed this in the reports on 9/11, which included information not given in this post (& I lack the time to check the sources cited, sorry): the engineers and architects so heavily represented on the four hijacked airliners had found their careers stymied shortly after graduation by an acute shortage of employment prospects.

    They had played by the western rules, sacrificed and studied hard, passed all their tests, and still found the doors to better lives slammed in their faces. Their anger was quite predictable, and in sociopolitical context, so was the channel they chose to express it.

    Whether that pattern applies across the larger sample studied here, I wish I had time to explore, but … gotta run.

  6. expatriarchy says

    Engineers are not really trained with “this is the answer” as much as they are trained to accept an answer that will give them the desired result in the desired time frame. We are trained to figure out what will work for the given circumstances and then to implement it. Consequences? That can be engineered away too. Those of us who are more conscientious will be told not to waste time with perfecting the solution, not to “let good be the enemy of great.” Engineers are not trained in ethical thinking. The best engineers produce solutions that are loose fit, to allow the system to work iteratively.

  7. doublereed says

    Another point is that engineers are overwhelmingly male. People always talk about how math/computer fields are male-dominated, but engineering is significantly worse. These groups and such target men for recruitment, and because they’re in fields where they don’t have much or any interaction with women, they are less likely to be tempered by things like families and relationships. And a lot of the violence imo comes from this machismo and social dominance dynamics. All those awful, sexist fraternities have students that earning legit degrees, and oftentimes those degrees are engineering.

    And of course, because engineers attracts these more male, conservative voices, this only reinforces itself at discouraging women from going down that path.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Chiroptera @4:

    the mathematical sciences tend to give very definite, precise answers to questions which has to appeal those with a more dogmatic mind set.

    If you’re talking about physics (or chemistry, I guess), I have to disagree. Physicists spend a lot of time looking for useful approximations in theories which are known to be incomplete (Standard Model, Cosmic Inflation, etc) and which can change, or be overturned at any time. And the assumptions leading to results are often challenged by other people in the field. I expect other ‘mathematical’ sciences are the same.

    Homework problems often have precise answers because they are training for the real, hard, problems.

  9. Glenn says

    Heidegger’s perspective is that the essence of modern technology is Enframing, as a transition to Appropriation.

    Other are seen (enframed) in-their-use-toward-an-end rather than as ends-in-themselves.

    It is easier to take one (an enemy) apart when they are seen only as a machine to be disabled, and not foremost as human beings (no empathy).

    Militaries see other militaries as beings to be blinded by destroying their radar, immobilized by destroying the machine’s fuel and food, suffocated by fire, their communications ended by destroying their nerve centers, etc.

    Enframing is the essence of modern technology and is not specific to a particular ideology.

  10. says

    The over-representation of engineers in violent groups

    There’s a narrative that religious fervor is what motivates radicals. Over-representation of engineers doesn’t really seem to line up very well with that.

  11. lorn says

    An engineer is trained to reach a desired goal through proven means efficiently. Cost and the availability of materials are considerations but there is little or no resort to subjectivity or emotion. People are simply loads to calculate in or shapes to be accommodated. Killing people might be seen as just another adjustment. Like altering the size of a building slightly to more efficiently use the standard sizes of materials. Humans, in that view might very well be the least important materials. Humanity is awash with humans so the cost per unit is quite low.

    Engineers also like straightforward rules. Fundamentalist Islam offers what seems like logical rules. An I-beam of known composition and dimensions will consistently deflect a known amount under any set load. You build in your safety factors and use the known properties to get you what you want. It isn’t a matter of faith or belief. It is applies science. Likewise fundamentalist Islam seems to offer a set formula for a well ordered and productive society.

    Doctors also seem to be out of proportion. Odd until you remember that both engineers and doctors have a certain detachment from humans and suffering. Constructing a road or repairing a body are really just a matter of applied science and technique.

  12. Nick Gotts says

    Heidegger’s perspective is that the essence of modern technology is Enframing, as a transition to Appropriation.

    Other are seen (enframed) in-their-use-toward-an-end rather than as ends-in-themselves.

    It is easier to take one (an enemy) apart when they are seen only as a machine to be disabled, and not foremost as human beings (no empathy). – Glenn@10

    Ah, you mean the well-known and respected existentialist philosopher… and Nazi?

  13. Glenn says

    @Nick Gotts @13

    Of course all non-Nazi engineers are kind and loving persons.

    American engineers are well known for producing humane war technology that extinguishes human life with the least possible anguish to both its victims and the victimizers.

    I know of this engineering indifference from my time spent working around nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon delivery systems before my work as an engineer.

    I’m afraid that you have let your American Exceptionalism mindset get the better of your judgement if you believe your statement about Heidegger’s reputed Nazism to be relevant only to Nazis and not of weapons engineers of all ideological stripes.

    Next you may wish revert in nationalistic prejudice to believing the French to be “surrender monkeys”. But in doing so you obscure elements of human nature as being merely a product of nationalism.

  14. Nick Gotts says

    I’m afraid that you have let your American Exceptionalism mindset get the better of your judgement if you believe your statement about Heidegger’s reputed Nazism to be relevant only to Nazis and not of weapons engineers of all ideological stripes.

    Next you may wish revert in nationalistic prejudice to believing the French to be “surrender monkeys”. But in doing so you obscure elements of human nature as being merely a product of nationalism. – Glenn

    Er, I’m not American, and if you care to do a web-search on my name, you should find quite a few comments condemning various aspects of American and western imperialism. I’m a long-time member of CND, and have been arrested while protesting against the siting of nuclear weapons in the UK. Nor have I said anything that anyone with an ounce more brain than a cuckoo clock could honestly mistake for a defence of weapons engineers; I was merely commenting on the irony of citing a Nazi’s warnings of the dangers of treating people as “only as a machine to be disabled, and not foremost as human beings”. Somehow, Heidegger’s profound philosophical investigations into the nature of being and technological civilization failed to alert him to the nature of Hitler and the Nazis, which millions of less exalted thinkers were perfectly well able to see.

    As for “Heidegger’s reputed Nazism”, he joined the NSDAP in 1933, and remained a member until that party was dissolved in 1945. He made some feeble attempts postwar to justify himself, and some rather revolting comparisons of factory farming and the Berlin blockade with the Shoah, and indeed had and has defenders who make excuses for him, but he never publicly apologised for his support for the Nazi regime nor even publicly repudiated Nazism. Among his recorded statements are:

    Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your being (Sein). The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!

    and:

    The German people has been summoned by the Führer to vote; the Führer, however, is asking nothing from the people; rather, he is giving the people the possibility of making, directly, the highest free decision of all: whether it – the entire people – wants its own existence (Dasein), or whether it does not want it. […] On November 12, the German people as a whole will choose its future, and this future is bound to the Führer. […] There are not separate foreign and domestic policies. There is only one will to the full existence (Dasein) of the State. The Führer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into a single resolve.

    and:

    We have witnessed a revolution. The state has transformed itself. This revolution was not the advent of a power pre-existing in the bosom of the state or of a political party. The national-socialist revolution means rather the radical transformation of German existence. […] However, in the university, not only has the revolution not yet achieved its aims, it has not even started.

  15. Glenn says

    Bad assumption on my part that you are American or affiliated with any imperialist ideology.

    “Somehow, Heidegger’s profound philosophical investigations into the nature of being and technological civilization failed to alert him to the nature of Hitler and the Nazis, which millions of less exalted thinkers were perfectly well able to see.”
    — Same holds here for our contemporaries with respect to the USA’s push toward world domination.

    “Ah, you mean the well-known and respected existentialist philosopher… and Nazi?”
    — I assumed this apparently snarky response was intended to somehow refute Heidegger’s observation. I see this is not the case.

    Most people I encounter do not recognize the commonalities between pre-war Nazi Germany and the present USA. Your statement didn’t convey that understanding and I incorrectly assumed its absence.

    So what is to be done to avert this WWIII that the USA is attempting to precipitate with its overt aggression backed the best instruments its engineering can provide?

  16. Glenn says

    @Nick Gotts

    Interesting topics on your website.

    Any thoughts on regulatory capture and its relationship to Sheldon Wolins’ Democracy Inc. and inverted totalitarianism?

    I will contact you on your website if you choose to engage.

  17. Nick Gotts says

    Glenn@16, 17,
    Thanks for your generous response, and your interest in my website (which I must get round to updating).

    I assumed this apparently snarky response was intended to somehow refute Heidegger’s observation. I see this is not the case.

    I’m by no means familiar with his famously obscure writings, and I don’t accept his hostility to modern technology, which can be and is applied to improve people’s lives as well as to end or degrade them. However, any attempt to refute it would certainly require more than a few sentences. I’m not familiar with Wolins, but will see what I can find about him online.

  18. Glenn says

    @ Nick Gotts,18
    Excuse my misplaced apostrophe.
    The name is Sheldon Wolin.

    “However, any attempt to refute it would certainly require more than a few sentences.”
    — More apt than “to refute” would be “to discredit” an idea on the basis of its originator’s character in the context of my original sentence. More in the sense of a dismissal than a refutation.

  19. atheistblog says

    I call this bullshit. Just like lot of other degrees, not all engineers are rational or intellectual, they are trained professional. They are the mostly conservative group is bull shit. They maybe attracted to radicals more because they earn more money than most other degrees, next only to medicine.
    And another big bull shit some people are spewing is that
    “Engineers are also used to being told “this is the answer” without critical and skeptical thinking skills. Very few disciplines work very hard to teach people how to figure out whether something actually is true or not (countering things like confirmation bias, etc.).”
    You have no fucking idea about engineering. It is branch of science, mathematics, not homeopathy. Lot of engineers are narrowly focused on their discipline, but saying they just believe in their field without critical thinking is utter bullshit. I bet you never ever sit one engineering course in your fucking life. The reason you fucking typing this bullshit on a electronic device is because of engineering, the reason you can send a rocket to space is because of engineering. So, fucking get a clue about engineering first. There are not many computer science engineers learn about quantum physics or astro physics, so they are ignorant in these fields, so they fall in to the trap of religion and faith, is that mean they are not critical thinkers in their field ? So according to you, critical thinking mean you have to expert in the field of astronomy and biology, otherwise you just believe in the mathematics equation, you don’t think, critically think. Utter moronic.

  20. Nick Gotts says

    Glenn@19,

    Well yes, I do think that in such a case the biography of the author discredits what they say. Heidegger’s philosophical work was not a purely technical matter*, but intended to provide guidance as to how we should live, and in this specific case, he was warning against the dangers of treating human beings as mere machines to be disabled. But he showed quite clearly by joining and remaining in the NSDAP, words such as I have quoted, and his failure to apologise for or repudiate his behaviour postwar, that he failed to recognise or repudiate the epitome of this attitude when he met it in real life. This must cast doubt on his diagnosis of the cause of such attitudes (i.e., as a consequence of modern technology). Of course he could still be right in that diagnosis, but the reader is well entitled to raise an eyebrow.

    *In contrast, Gottlob Frege was a virulent antisemite and in his last years, an admirer of Hitler, but his philosophical work was on the foundations of logic and mathematics, and on some aspects of language. I would say that in his case, that work is not discredited by its author’s biography, because Frege was not telling us how we should live.

  21. Nick Gotts says

    atheistblog@20,

    I call this bullshit. Just like lot of other degrees, not all engineers are rational or intellectual, they are trained professional. They are the mostly conservative group is bull shit. They maybe attracted to radicals more because they earn more money than most other degrees, next only to medicine.

    Well, judging on past performance you do appear to have considerable expertise in bullshit, but the OP gives sources both for the striking prevalence of engineers in violent Islamist groups, and for the generally conservative views of American graduates in engineering, so simply saying this is “bullshit” is… well, bullshit. And why should earning more money attract people to radicalism? One might well expect the opposite.

    Your critique of the view that engineers are not critical thinkers in their own field is reasonable, but this:

    There are not many computer science engineers learn about quantum physics or astro physics, so they are ignorant in these fields, so they fall in to the trap of religion and faith, is that mean they are not critical thinkers in their field ? So according to you, critical thinking mean you have to expert in the field of astronomy and biology, otherwise you just believe in the mathematics equation, you don’t think, critically think.

    misses the point. If engineers are particularly likely to “fall in the trap of religion and faith”, then this suggests that at least, their critical thinking in their own field does not transfer well outside it.

  22. John Morales says

    Nick:

    If engineers are particularly likely to “fall in the trap of religion and faith” […]

    There is no such “if” in what you quoted.

    (I know you’re disputing a dumbass, but hey!)

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