Friday, January 29, 2010

Engineers and Ethics

Are engineers more pre-disposed to become (right-wing) terrorists than others?

Apparently, violent jihadists are more likely to have been trained as engineers than to have attained degrees in other areas of higher ed. Three or four times as likely. Is this because terrorist organizations have the foresight to recruit highly trained technical experts?

Hertog and Gambetta argue in the New Scientist (and based on a peer-reviewed journal article) that instead it's due, in part, to the personality/cognitive traits that attract certain individuals to engineering in the first place. They found that the reason is
something at the individual level, that is, relating to cognitive traits. According to polling data, engineering professors in the US are seven times as likely to be right-wing and religious as other academics, and similar biases apply to students. In 16 other countries we investigated, engineers seem to be no more right-wing or religious than the rest of the population, but the number of engineers combining both traits is unusually high. A lot of piecemeal evidence suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers.
What we philosophers can take away from this is the importance of teaching ethics to engineers. And teaching it in a way that demonstrates comfort with ambiguity (not the same as relativism) and the difficulty of working through humanistic problems rather than jumping to some supposed take-home message. (My engineering students are the first to ask "Is this stuff going to be on the final exam? And if it is, what's the right answer supposed to be?")


Carrie said...

That's not surprising to me at all. My father-in-law runs an engineering firm, and I've gone to a few company terrorists there, but some VERY socially awkward people! I might speculate that if someone attracted to engineering is also more disposed to be socially awkward (can't deal with people but technically gifted), having fewer social ties might also make them more susceptible to radicalization.

Khadimir said...

Having a degree in science and spending most of my time with them in undergrad, I am not surprised that engineers show these traits. Engineers tend towards highly analytic skills and tend to treat other areas of knowledge as if it had (should have) the same certainty and methodicality. I've had the same problems with students--especially the many business students I get--they either expect clockwork conformity or "free love" anything goes.

Once in class to drive the point home, I asked the students to name three principles that their ideal government would have. The example that I most distinctly remember was an extreme socio-cultural-political authoritarian dictatorship (i.e., absolute, forceful rule by a person of virtue). When I told the student that she had described the conditions for dictatorship--maybe not the best pedagogical move--she was embarassed. However, she reiterated the view I've heard from many local fundamentalist evangelics, who are often avowedly anti-democratic.

p.s. hello from mid-America.