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  • Dancing Fast and Squinting Hard

    Posted by James R. Rummel on April 13th, 2008 (All posts by )

    I don’t read Industrial Equipment News on a regular basis (who does?), but they printed a fascinating article by Mark Devlin that is worth checking out.

    Mr. Devlin took umbrage at a recent paper written by two sociologist PhD’s in association with the University of Oxford. In the paper, the argument is made that there is something about engineers that causes them to become murderous, right wing radicals in greater numbers than other professions. This is due to the fact that most of the movers and shakers of international Islamic terrorist organizations were trained as engineers.

    The 800 pound gorilla that the two sociologists are trying oh-so-hard to ignore is that an engineering degree might just be something sought after by people who are desperate to build bombs and place them where they will do the most damage. Terrorist wannabes will take classes that reveal the weak points in infrastructure and how to use explosives, as opposed to Texas Instruments turning normal college students into monsters with their mind-warping engineering calculators.

    Or, as Mr. Devlin so pithily states, “Tough to overthrow much with an English degree.”

    But I actually think there are two factors that both Mr. Devlin and the authors of the paper missed.

    More than a few terrorist organizations of the Left in the 1960’s and 1970’s were started by, and heavily recruited, disgruntled college students and university professors. It worked back then, why wouldn’t it work now?

    (As an aside, I would like to point out that the majority of those Leftist college students who turned to terrorism were enrolled in the soft sciences, mostly philosophy. I think the authors of the Oxford study would get bent out of shape if someone would suggest that the humanities warps the mind and turns people into violent terrorists. I would never do that myself for fear that Ginny, our resident expert on the humanities and former college student in the 1970’s, would decide to retire to her kitchen and assemble something volatile from common household cleaning products.)

    It is also no secret that the Arab world is hardly a hotbed of growth and innovation. Seems to me that most of the families which can afford to pay for a modern Western style education would be pushing their spawn to get a degree in the hard sciences, if for no other reason than there is a real need for development through most of the Islamic world.

    I corresponded very briefly with our fellow Chicago Boyz and resident engineer Steven den Beste about this article, and he had this to say about well educated terrorists….

    “As to them being disproportionately engineers, I would suggest that observation of any large university will show that the vast majority of exchange students are to be found in departments who teach utilitarian subjects. Not too many Arabs are to be found studying postmodern literary theory or art history. And I don’t think you’ll find too many of them in the Women’s Studies department, let alone Queer Studies. Or any other “studies”, for that matter.”

    That appears to be sound wisdom to me.

    (Hat tip to Ace.)

     

    6 Responses to “Dancing Fast and Squinting Hard”

    1. Ginny Says:

      If you want to do something you train yourself to do it; if you want to get others to do it, you encourage them to train themselves to do it. Engineers do things, we don’t.

      On the other hand, Said had a wide (and largely unfortunate I suspect) influence – especially in the “studies” area. That was a way to get other things done. Look at the thinking of those trained in those areas and how they are likely to vote on issues that concern jihadists.

      I do know that chasing baking soda down the sink with vinegar is useful. That is it. Perhaps the bombers that didn’t blow themselves up came from engineering after some minor Darwinian culling of humanities majors.

      As Kinky Friedman puts it, the predictability of funds for social resesarch always ceases to amaze me.

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      I too think it might just be a matter of engineers being the type of people who get things done. After all, engineers are trained to identify a problem and then solve it, not talk it to death.

    3. David Foster Says:

      Just to stir the pot a bit…aren’t most of the members of China’s senior leadership engineers by training?

      This is probably largely a function of the development stage of the society, in line with Steven’s comments…there probably aren’t a lot of literary scholars being turned out by China’s universities. But that many not be the only factor…dominance of American politics by lawyers started a long, long time ago.

    4. Jonathan Says:

      Apparently you can get a PhD in sociology without having a basic understanding of statistical inference.

    5. Stephen Says:

      I’ve not read the paper being criticized, so can’t comment on its scholarship. However, one of the alternative hypotheses offered–that once radicalized, Islamists set about pursuing engineering degrees because of the usefulness of such knowledge–sounds rather suspect. First of all, it seems to suppose that pretty much anyone can go into engineering, at least for the introductory part of the discipline. Now, my intellectual interests have always been in the humanities, but when I started college lo so many years ago, most of my friends aspired to be engineers. And at least half had dropped out of engineering programs by the end of their first year. It was then, and I imagine still is, a demanding discipline at the undergrad level–unlike poli sci, which was my choice at the time. I don’t think a commitment to violent revolution could have altered my basic interests and skills enough to get me through the first year or two of any engineering program.

      On the other hand, looking over some of the excerpts from the article in question, it appears that comparisons were made between the percentage of more-or-less engineers in selected terrorist populations and the general population. Perhaps the better comparison would be engineers vs other academic disciplines in terrorist and general populations. The university I attended in the early ’80s had an exceptionally large contingent of Middle Eastern students, and most were (or seemed to be, to their fellow undergrads)enrolled in engineering programs. Is it possible that primary and secondary education in Islamic countries concentrate (in their secular aspect, of course) on math and basic sciences, i.e. subjects that serve to prepare one for engineering programs in college? In that case, we might simply be seeing a phenomenon whereby a self-selected “best and brightest” from college cohorts that are predominantly engineering-oriented tends rather naturally to be itself engineering-oriented.

    6. Vince P Says:

      Stepehn is the point of your first paragraph that since you would be insufficiently motivated by a violent revelationaly zeal you find it unlikely that the Muslims would be? Considering that the Muslim/Arab mindset is nothign like that of a Westerner, I fail to see how your own experiences can serve as a model to explain the Muslims.

      Regarding your second paragraph , considering that only 5 people total from Middle Eastern countries have won a Nobel Prize , then I think it’s entirely unlikely that the educational culture of the Middle East is one oriented to the hard physical sciences.