Political scientist and columnist Gina Gustavsson had a piece in DN the other day, where she points to a surprising fact. Studies show that just about the strongest common denominator to people who become terrorists, is that they’re way more likely to be engineers than the rest of the population is.

According to Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education, the prevalence of engineers among a sample of 500 terrorists reached a staggering 50 percent. The equivalent number as a fraction of the population as a whole, is 12 percent.

Erin Cech has been trying to make sense of this. She says in her paper, titled Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education? that:

I track four specific public welfare considerations: the importance to students of professional/ethical responsibilities, understanding the consequences of technology, understanding how people use machines, and social consciousness. Suggesting a culture of disengagement, I find that the cultural emphases of students’ engineering programs are directly related to their public welfare commitments and students’ public welfare concerns decline significantly over the course of their engineering education.

(original emphasis)

Scholars don’t just claim that there’s a correlation between engineering education and extreme views, but they also have a strong opinion about which way the arrow of causality is pointing.

Apparently, it’s not that terrorists are desperate for tech-talent; it’s that engineering education breeds the type of mindset that’s conducive to extremism, and in the extreme extension of that, terrorism.

To quote (in my translation) Gina Gustavsson:

The explanation is not that engineers are needed to build good bombs (only 15 percent of these particular engineers were involved in such activities). Instead, it is about a lack of mental openness. That is, being drawn to order and clarity, but avoiding grey areas, ambivalence, and the unexpected. Both extremists and engineers generally exhibit more of these traits than others. Both groups are also more easily disgusted by what deviates from the norm. Note that this does not apply to every engineer (or even every terrorist), but rather represents average differences compared to the population at large.

One is left wondering about the hen and the egg here.

When the life and deeds of racist serial killer John Ausonius were fictionalised, there’s a strong subtext in the depiction of his brief interlude as a student at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology (my stomping grounds). The viewer is led to believe that he was drawn to something in the engineering mindset, and perhaps he really was. When the Chronicle of Higher Education asks the rhetorical question, Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists? the answer seems to be affirmative.

Getting served up with this string of evidence, I almost feel bad about recently having posted about our tendency, as denizens of a technical university, to opt for shop talk over civil discourse.

But then again, I guess that’s exactly the type of conversation we need to have.

After all, there are other ‘corps’ who are trying their best to fix culture problems. American police officers joining together in anti-racist book clubs, or the Stockholm School of Economics trying to foster a sense of values beyond financial gains through their Art Initiative. Or the toughest rangers in the Swedish army tenderly embracing each other while exercising slow dance.

I wonder what the equivalent step outside of the comfort zone would entail for us engineers.

One thing that comes to mind is Pepper White’s labour of love, The Idea Factory
: Learning to Think at MIT
, wherein he chronicles an often soul-crushing student life as well as the culture shift that was forced on the institution after a friend of the author, failing to make the grades, committed suicide.

Another book in the same vein would be Rosalind Williams’ Retooling : A Historian Confronts Technological Change, wherein a professor of the History of Science and Technology tells the inside story of what happened when she stumbled into a position as dean of students and undergraduate education at MIT (something I’ve touched on previously in this post).

Both Williams and White unflinchingly face the darker sides of engineering culture, but neither story would carry the punch they do if it wasn’t for both authors’ genuine love for the institutions they depict. It’s that love which establishes their credibility in the eyes of the reader, filling the same function as one of those coloured shards of glass through which it becomes possible to look directly into the sun.

Because ultimately, I sincerely believe that we can deal with our ghosts, but as any engineer will tell you: it’s imperative to clearly define the problem before attempting to solve it.