Islamic terrorists are more likely to be engineers than members of any other profession--and not because engineers possess superior technological skills. That's the conclusion of a controversial Oxford University study that has the engineering community buzzing.
The study's disturbing finding blames what it calls a universal engineering mindset, which it describes as one drawn to structure and rules plus clear, single solutions to complex problems. When coupled with the harsh realities of life in many Islamic countries, terrorism can be the result, the study says.
Unsurprisingly, the findings have met some blowback. A typical reaction came from George Haber, an EE and serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. "The conclusion that some engineers become terrorists means nothing," he said. "Doctors and poets and uneducated people turn out to be terrorists as well."
Released as a working paper by the sociology department of Oxford's Nuffield College late last year, the study, "Engineers of Jihad," attributes the engineering-terrorism link to a mix of psychological and socioeconomic factors.
The authors maintain that whatever their nationality, a disproportionate number of engineers tend toward what they label "monism" and "simplism," attitudes best expressed in the following statements: "Why argue when there is one best solution?" and "If only people were rational, remedies would be simple."
Those traits aren't purely the result of education, because it's impossible that would-be engineers come to their studies as psychological blank slates, the study says. Rather, it concludes that at least some of the mindset is inherent in those who choose to study engineering.
Earlier research done in the United States and Canada backs up one element of the British findings: that engineers incline toward more-conservative political and religious thought than those in other professions. The U.S. study was done in 1984 at the request of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and looked at college instructors; the Canadian study, done in 1999, drew the same conclusion.
The Oxford work acknowledges it takes more than an engineering mindset to create a terrorist, but speculates that violent extremism can result when that mindset runs into the professional roadblocks engineers face in many Islamic countries.
Haber, however, noted that while its numbers may be correct, the study didn't examine the root causes of terrorism, systematically examine other academic disciplines or seek to determine how many of the study subjects had leaned toward terrorism before pursuing engineering.