Hey, some really smart professors have come up with a really convincing explanation for why there are so many terrorist bombings these days.
No, silly, it's not jihadism.
It's…get this!…that a lot of those terrorists went to engineering school. Well, maybe not the March 22 Brussels-massacre guys, but a lot.
And in those engineering programs, say the wise brains of academia, they picked up "rigid thinking." You know, since science is kind of exacting–and so is radical Islam–we need to do something about making bridge-building more softer-edged and fluid.
Recently two social scientists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, scrutinized the numbers and concluded that, yes, the proportion of terrorists who are engineers far outpaces expectations. Why is that? The researchers, who have pursued this question for the past several years, offer answers in a new book, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education (Princeton University Press). In the process, they join two current debates: about the seeds of terrorism and about the blind spots that can afflict engineering education.
"Blind spots"! And you thought engineers were a bunch of pointy-headed nerds!
And being social scientists, Gambetta and Hertog came up with some social-science-y explanations:
When people’s hopes for individual and social advancement are raised and then dashed, a dynamic called relative deprivation can occur. People who experience relative deprivation don’t need to be objectively disadvantaged; they must simply feel they’ve been denied their due.
And then there's the all-important "need for closure."
They focused on three traits. One is the need for cognitive closure, or a preference for order and distaste for ambiguity. Scholars like John T. Jost, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Jonathan Haidt have documented high levels of this trait among politically conservative voters. These groups, Gambetta and Hertog write, also have two other tendencies: They accept prevailing hierarchies and, when confronted with the unfamiliar, they experience high levels of disgust.
Such as when the bridge collapses or the plane won't fly.
Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland at College Park, has studied how the need for closure can figure into violent extremism. The term he uses is "certainty-seeking." In basic human terms, he says, people often seek certainty to help them regain a sense of significance, the feeling that they matter. Shame and humiliation can undermine this sense of significance. For example, Abdulazeez, the military-facility shooter in Tennessee, who had earned an electrical-engineering degree, couldn’t bring himself to tell his family that he had lost his job at a nuclear-power company. "The failure left him deeply embarrassed and ashamed," the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported, quoting a family member.
People in these situations face a choice. They can reframe their thinking and embrace, or at least tolerate, the feeling of uncertainty until they regain a sense of balance. Or they can double down, looking for closure, certainty, and reassurance from the like-minded. When engineers make the latter choice, another dynamic comes into play, says Kruglanski. Engineers are particularly likely to act on their beliefs. "It’s a perfect storm," he says.
Stern, the Boston University professor, observed a similar underlying cognitive trait in the religious extremists she interviewed for her book Terror in the Name of God. Many of them were serene in their certainty. They rarely second-guessed themselves or obsessed over gradations of gray.
"They just seemed to have an easier time," Stern says. "I felt almost envious."
She understands how simplicity can be seductive. Stern recalls the solace she sometimes found in several courses she took for her master’s degree in chemical engineering and technical policy. "Having equations that balanced was very comforting," she says. Life, on the other hand, can be messy. Many times the choice is not between right and wrong, Stern says, but "between bad and worse."
So we gotta do something about those engineering programs and those darned "equations that balanced."
The chief reason so many violent extremists are engineers, the authors think, is that these programs appeal to a certain kind of mind. "It seems they’re selected rather than being shaped," Hertog says. A college education can’t completely reframe how people think, he notes. "What you can do is influence the social environment that allows some problematic tendencies to emerge."…
Engineering curricula in the United States may unintentionally close minds, too, according to a 2014 study by Erin A. Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. Cech, who earned undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and sociology, analyzed survey responses by 326 students in four engineering programs. Between their freshman year and graduation, their self-reported answers showed drops in measures of public-mindedness, including a commitment to professional and ethical responsibilities and a social consciousness.
The discipline’s culture and curricula emphasize "an ideology of depoliticization," she argues, which treats nontechnical factors as irrelevant to the work of "real" engineering. The notion of meritocracy also runs through the discipline, she writes, but this ideal tends to accept existing social structures and relationships as inherently fair. "Engineering education," Cech writes, "fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering."
Translation: Let's make engineering programs focus on "gradations of gray" rather than building things that work. Then no more "certainty"-obsessed terrorists!