Do engineers make good terrorists?

31 January 2008

According to two sociologists at Oxford University, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, the mindset of a professional terrorist and the mindset of a professional engineer are so similar in makeup that there is a strong correlation between being an engineer and being a member of a terrorist group (paper downloadable from here). Their research states that members of the Islamist movement of Muslim culture show a disproportionately high number of doctors, engineers, and practitioners of other scientific fields. Their paper also makes the claim that engineers in particular tend to gravitate toward violent groups, but it isn't so much being a techie that does it, but having a general makeup of character that fits in well with terrorists. I reference this single quote: "A disproportionate share of engineers seem to have a mindset that makes them open to the quintessential right-wing features of ''monism'' (why argue where there is one best solution) and by ''simplism'' (if only people were rational, remedies would be simple)."

Let's talk about techies for a minute: Technical problems tend to have lots of individual components and some number of connections between them. In a well designed system, each component only does one or two things, but does them very well. In such a system, there is a small number of possible configurations of components and connections that will accomplish the task that the system was designed for; usually only one or two. A good engineer (or programmer, or system architect) will sit down, look at the problem to solve or the task to be carried out, and come up with a single solution that is implemented using those components. Common sense dictates that you cannot simultaneously implement more than one solution to a problem in a system, run them concurrently (let's show some love for redundancy, shall we?), and get anything done. It would be like trying to walk when one of your legs is going forward, one is going backward, and your left hand is holding onto an overhead water pipe - all of the parts have to be working toward the same goal if anything useful is going to happen.

What I'm driving at is this: Just because someone can look at a problem and find a single solution does not mean that they are terrorists, inclined to be terrorists, or even that a techie is inclined to be violent. The article in particular and the study in general seem to lack a basic understanding of the "common sense of engineering" (just as there is a "common sense of IT" ("Is it plugged in? Is it powered on?") and a "common sense of medicine" ("Air goes in and out. Blood goes 'round and 'round. Any deviation in these is a bad thing."), for example), which I think can be neatly summed up by the statement "One solution at a time."

Besides, I have to wonder if Gambetta and Hertog ever thought to ask the question "Do terrorist groups recruit engineers more than people in other professions because their skillsets are practical and relevant to their short term plans?" I also have to call into question their sample set - is it skewed in a particular direction? How was the data gathered?

On top of all of this, would it not make sense to a terrorist organization to recruit very intelligent people on the premise that they are less likely to get caught, and thus not bring the entire organization down? Pluswhich, by recruiting very intelligent people, it would stand to reason that they would thus be able to accomplish more due to the fact that they had neither blown themselves up nor gotten arrested.

All this article really does is make techies seem a bit less trustworthy because of their basic problem solving skills, a worthless and counterproductive act, indeed.