Are engineers more likely to become terrorists?

An essay in the 13 June issue of New Scientist suggests that people who study engineering in college are more likely to become terrorists or extremists.

The authors of that essay are Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, who are currently working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication called Engineers of Jihad.

The article focuses especially on Islamic terrorism, but their research has broader implications. The article begins with data showing that demographic profiling was useless in Germany, where immediately after 9/11, they looked for terrorists among 8 million people, narrowing the pool by using the following characteristics:


-age 18-40

-current or former student


-legally resident in Germany

-originating from one of 26 Islamic countries.

Then they added in potential to carry out terrorist attacks, such as a pilot’s license; familiarity with potential targets; and studying the German language at the Goethe Institute. They ended up with 1689 individuals to investigate, and they did so, one by one. The result? Not a single threat!

But further study of extremists and terrorists worldwide turned up a surprising number of engineers. The authors think the finding is significant.

Their article, of course, has many more details that lead to this conjecture: “A lot of piecemeal evidence suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can run like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers.” This leads to a 3-4 times greater likelihood that a college educated terrorist is an engineer than for other graduates.

I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve worked with plenty of engineers, and though they aren’t as accepting of ambiguity as the physicists I’ve known, and they are more likely to be meticulous about schedules, I don’t think that makes them more likely to go off the reservation.

Perhaps it makes more sense to postulate that people who are drawn to extremist views are also more likely to study engineering than science or other fields.

But whether there is cause or effect here, the correlation is sure to catch the eye of law enforcement officials.

I’d be interested in what other Science Blog readers make of this.

Fred Bortz
Science Books for Young Readers
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8 thoughts on “Are engineers more likely to become terrorists?”

  1. I think they do have it backwards:
    – Technology is an enabler. Since humanity parted from apes, tools are the enabler for the individual to do more with the rest of the planet than it could do with bare hands.
    – As technology evolves, tools and technology hand more and more power to the individual over an increasing portion of the rest of the system. Pushing the red button may still have a few safety features, but what about bioweapons in third world garages or some dangerous nanotech?
    – In fact technology helps to destabilize the system, since the system of humanity depends increasingly more fine grained on the sanity of individuals.
    – Ingenuity of the invention does not impose control how technology is used with respect to the system of earth and humanity. It can be used for great benefit developing new vaccines or to drop nuclear bombs, e.g., on Japan.
    – Engineers are just the first to construct and to use new tools, be it nuclear-, bio-, or nanotech. Once technology becomes ubiquitous enough for everyone to use, other people do follow.

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