So now engineers are jihadis too?

[This post is to be treated as a draft rather than a fully-developed position: so I welcome comments, and requests to expand points, and may well change my mind about certain things.]

Not for the first time, the argument is being made that STEM turns its graduates into uncultured oafs, recoverable only through the application of the mind-soothing balm of the humanities. This time, however, it’s serious: Paul Vallely, citing a British Council study, claims that there is `“an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.

The study, by Martin Rose, is called Immunising the Mind and explores the apparent over-representation of STEM graduates, and in particular engineers, amongst the more highly educated members of violent Islamist organizations, leading into an argument that STEM education, in the Middle East and in the UK, should expose its students to the humanities in order to develop the habit of questioning authority and a mindset able to deal with ambiguity.

Science and medicine have their own perfectly capable defenders, so I limit myself here to Rose’s views on the “engineering mindset”. By qualification I am a mechanical engineer, now teaching aerospace engineering at the University of Bath, so I have an interest in engineering and in engineering education as a practitioner.

Rose opens the paper with a summary of the evidence for the over-representation of engineers amongst violent jihadis, though conceding the relative lack of data and the “extent to which such a discussion is anecdotal”. Rose, leaning heavily on two studies by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, lays out two factors which help account for the number of engineers amongst Islamists. The first is the frustrated ambitions of graduates who have qualified in engineering in the Middle East and North Africa, a prestigious profession in the post-colonial era, but which can no longer absorb the graduates now leaving universities and in which conditions have stagnated. This, combined with a tendency towards right-wing or conservative politics which has been noted in other contexts, has led engineers in particular to adopt the radical politics of doctrinaire Islamism.

This differentiated advance can be seen in two election processes noted by Gambetta. The Egyptian professional associations of engineers, doctors and pharmacists were the first to fall to the Islamists in the mid-1980s: the hitherto leftist lawyers’ association held out until the 1990s. And in the Cairo University faculty committee elections of 1990-91, he records the clean sweep of the engineering faculty (Islamists winning 60 out of 60 seats in what had been a leftist bastion), medicine (72 of 72), science (47 of 48) and contrasts these with economics and political science, where Islamists managed to win only 13 of 49 seats). This would seem to reflect the fast-growing politicisation of the free professions, perhaps particularly the engineers, in a hostile social environment; and their turn to Islamism ­ but also a resistance, to which we shall return, in the social and human sciences.

The contention that engineers are inherently right-wing seems to be contradicted by Rose’s note here that, like the lawyers’ professional association, the Cairo University engineering faculty committee was left-wing before it fell to Islamism. A genuinely interesting question here would be why engineering and law were leftist, and then became Islamist. It does not seem to be a question which would be answered by facile resort to claims about a “mindset” unless lawyers and engineers have some hitherto unsuspected intellectual affinities.

The second element, which Rose identifies as “more important to my argument”, is an “engineering mindset” which makes engineers more prone to fall into violent Islamism. It has three traits:

monism, simplism and preservatism. “Whether American, Canadian or Islamic, and whether due to selection or field socialisation, a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of “monism” ­ `why argue when there is one best solution’ ­ and of “simplism” ­ `if only people were rational, remedies would be simple.'” As for preservatism, “its underlying craving for a lost order, its match with the radical Islamic ideology is [sic] undeniable: the theme of returning to the order of the prophet’s early community is omnipresent in most salafist and jihadist ideology.”

It may well be true that engineers have a tendency to be politically conservative, but this paragraph is a caricature of the engineering “mindset”. Engineers simply do not believe that there is “one best solution”. Engineering design and analysis principally consist of generating and selecting from a number of not-wholly-satisfactory alternatives on the basis of often contradictory and imprecisely specified criteria. We deal routinely with ambiguity both in our knowledge of the world and in our predictions for it: we have no certainty about the materials we use, which are usually a compromise between cost, availability, and social acceptance, nor about the way they will be used. Earlier today (10 December) I was in discussions with a group of biologists looking at engineering analysis of ammonoids. The general conclusion was that their evolution led to them to be poor at swimming (probably), but that this `defect’ was compensated for by other advantages bestowed by the features that made them poor at swimming. This is as much an engineering analysis as an evolutionary one: our technologies are not `perfect’ single solutions to well-defined problems, but compromises which more or less acceptably meet vaguely stated, poorly-defined requirements.

The claim about `simplism’ is about as sensible. There are always debates or arguments about how systems should be designed taking into account human factors. The aviation industry has long studied the problem of how best to give a pilot control of an aircraft. The Air France 447 crash is one of the best known recent examples of a disaster caused by pilots being misinformed by the system. There are reasonable arguments to be had, and they are had routinely, about how to give control to a pilot without subjecting them to excessive workload, but no serious engineer claims that there is a single technological answer to the question and that the difficulty is caused by humans’ lack of `rationality’.

Finally, it is claimed that engineers crave a `lost order’. Without seeing the original source, it is hard to know what the evidence for this claim is, but it is difficult to believe that it comes from talking to engineers. Underlying engineering practice is the sense that things are various and contradictory, that there never was an order to lose, and certainly not one to be found or imposed. The diversity of co-existing solutions to what is notionally the same problem contradicts both the claim of there being only one best solution, and that of there being some hankering after `lost order’. Our streets are filled with multiple solutions to the same problem, even if we only limit our gaze to the cars. Add bicycles, as elegant an engineering solution to the problem of short-distance transport as exists, motorcycles, and public transport in various forms, and the surprise is not so much the diversity as the capacity for some measure of co-existence. This is not an ordered system and engineers do not expect it to be one: they deal with it as it is.

For what it’s worth, I believe there are serious problems with engineering education at university level. A non-exhaustive list would include the alignment to business objectives; limited teaching of the history and context of engineering; and the intellectual narrowness of students entering university in the UK, a problem caused by the structure of A Levels (I believe this is also true for students in non-STEM subjects, in the opposite sense).

These problems can be solved, but they will not be solved by writing off humanity’s oldest intellectual practice as monist, simplist, and preservatist.

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