Sociologists: Studying engineering turns you into a terrorist

Oxford prof cites Google and Wikipedia as proof

A pair of sociologists have produced a piece of research in which they claim that graduate engineers are statistically over-represented among jihadi terrorists. They go on to suggest that engineers have a "terrorist mindset" making them likelier to turn jihadi than other kinds of people.

The lead author of the study is Diego Gambetta, professor of sociology at some kind of further-learning institution located in the picturesque old marmalade-making town of Oxford. Gambetta, who describes himself (Word doc) as "more hedgehog than fox", was assisted by Steffen Hertog of Durham University.

According to the two academics:

We find that graduates from subjects such as science, engineering, and medicine are strongly overrepresented among Islamist movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in Western countries more recently. We also find that engineers alone are strongly over-represented among graduates in violent groups in both realms. This is all the more puzzling for engineers are virtually absent from left-wing violent extremists and only present rather than over-represented among right-wing extremists.

This assertion based on some very fuzzy numbers indeed.

We compiled a list of 404 members of violent Islamist groups drawing from a variety of sources... Our sources include... the press, governmental and nongovernmental organisations and websites... We searched in Lexis Nexis... and in Google. We also searched... Fox News; CTV News; Dutch News...

The duo also cite Wikipedia. (Honest, they really do - note 4, page 4.) Based on this rigorous trawl, they decide that 196 of the 404 jihadis had "engaged in higher education at some point". Within the 196 possibly-educated terrorists, the two surfer-sociologists identify the subject of study in 178 cases.

The degree that came "first by far" among the 178 graduate jihadis, according to Gambetta and Hertog, was engineering - with 78 of their sample group supposedly so qualified.

They speculate that the type of mindset who tends to become an engineer - apparently, conservative and religious are two of the markers - will also tend to become involved in Islamic terrorism.

In fact, the pair have had to push their little data set quite hard to get that many into the "engineering" box. The sociologists' definition of engineering includes architects (as distinct from civil engineers), all "computer related studies", town planning, "other" (which includes "rare subjects") and 36 terrorists where the type of "engineering" studied was unknown.

If you strike out all the architects, computer-studies guys and other random inclusions among the 42 cases where the precise subject is known, and apply the same ratio to the other 36, you come out with just 44 real engineers among the 178 jihadi graduates.

That still leaves engineers 29 per cent more numerous than the next biggest of the sociologists' arbitrarily-defined groups, the "Islamic Studies" grads. However, the groups are pretty random. If you rearranged them a bit, it would be easy to create one bigger than the engineers.

For instance, if one were to define a group consisting of literary, history, social services, philosophy, media, education, business, architecture, psychology and town-planning graduates - call it the "fuzzy studies" group, chuck in the sociologists too - it would come out at least 50 strong, probably outnumbering the engineers and hard sciences groups put together.

You could then conclude that there's just something about students too idle to do much work at university which makes them turn into terrorists, or into sociologists perhaps. But you'd feel pretty silly making wild conclusions like that based on data as ropey as this.

Read the whole paper in all its fascinating glory here (pdf). ®

Disclaimer: The writer has a degree in engineering - real engineering, not architecture or something - from Cambridge University. He almost got busted out into the computer science department at one point for being lazy.

Sponsored: 10 ways wire data helps conquer IT complexity