The dark side of engineers


Love this comic from Cowbirds in Love. Unfortunately, it's got a bit of a "funny 'cause it's true" vibe going on. Last year, two sociology researchers at Oxford looked at the statistics of who becomes a terrorist and found that engineers were three to four times more likely to go down that road than peers in other professions.

Why? There's a lot of social background that goes into that question, but one key issue is that engineers just don't seem to be hardwired to deal well with shades of gray. They like things definitive and uncompromising. In fact, even when they don't turn evil, engineers are more likely than other science-based professions to describe themselves as religious and conservative.

Slate: Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?

(Comic via hectocotyli)


  1. I bet other social groups have the same amount of these ambitions. Engineers are the only one with the technical expertise to build bombs, death ray, etc…

  2. I’m not religious, definately not conservative and actually quite like thinking in shades of grey. Should I be considering changing my degree?

    1. Naw. You’ve got the literalness down, so you’re well on your way to being an engineer. The rest will come once you actually get your degree.

  3. Agreed. I’m an engineer who loves shades of gray. (Than again, most of my engineering colleges call me a lawyer-y engineer).

  4. I know. I used to joke that my profession was mad scientist, ’cause that’s what test engineers are, essentially. We often build dangerous stuff, only concerned with it’s operation, not it’s dangerousness. Kinda amoral, but more to the fact that the modern world is fraught with danger of all kinds and that we are aware of how to be safe amidst it.

  5. I have noticed that engineer friends (and relatives) are also more likely to fall for woo woo beliefs and religious notions. Confirmation bias, perhaps, but there is something to the engineering mentality.

    1. … and wacky antiscience like nonstandard models of physics (Electric Universe, anyone?) or climate science denial.

  6. Engineers fix problems. That’s what they are trained to do. It’s a calling for them.

    When they look at society and see a problem, they can’t help thinking up possible ways to fix it.

    Often this involves explosives, because if you fix something using an explosion that’s extra credit.

    It really is that simple. You can’t throw people who have an urge to fix things into a flawed world and not expect them to do something about it.

  7. Speaking as an engineer, one of my observations about the preponderance religious/conservative views among engineers is that it probably has more to do with rules and structure than any thing else.

    Engineers really, really like rules, order and structure. things religion has in abundance.

  8. It seems like engineers tend to have low empathy… Someone once suggested that there is a natural correlation with that tendency and a fondness for what might be called “linear thinking”… Autism being an extreme end of the spectrum.

  9. I am an Enginner, and I have never been asn annoyed as when this bunk and Engineers and fundamentalists started to turn up. Take a step back and look at things like the education systems, societies, and economies of places like Saudi Arabia. They have listened to the west and poured money into universities and technical education. But much of their indiginous industry is still havily based on oil, rather than manufacturing, and the oil business there is also heavily dependent for expertise on expats. So they churn out loads of engineers, many of whom cannot get jobs, or are under employed. I think that is a far more likely source of the over-representation of Engineers in the statistics.

    I did Engineering myself. My class was a pretty mixed bunch in terms of faith. If anything a disproportionate number of us would be agnostics and athiests today.

  10. That’s funny. Out of the hundreds of engineering type people I know and have worked with, almost none – say 5% max – could be described as even faintly religious. Politically right-ish, certainly more, but usually from the perspective of liking things neat and orderly and well run financially, not so much the we-will-have-cameras-up-your-arse-to-make-sure-you-don’t-do-the-buttsex thing.

    And as for terrorism – well be glad it’s still only a very few. A bunch of competent engineers could make for a truly horrific terrorist group. Things would actually get blown up.

  11. I have noticed that there seem to be a lot more “supervillain” engineers in comics and movies than “superhero” engineers. For every Tony Stark there seem to be about a dozen dudes trying to conquer the world with an army of evil robots.

    1. tony stark may be a bad example, as he seems to be dancing back and forth over that line between hero and villain.

      as for the numbers themselves, can any of it be explained by the number of people from hight wing, overly religious parts of the world that travel elsewhere to get a degree that can “benefit their people”?

  12. I’ve got a small sample size to work with, but of the two I can think of off the top of my head, both would be considered “left leaning atheists”, but there’s a footnote on both of them.

    One is aggressive, prone to loud extremely emphatic ranting, and is better described as a “radical atheist” or Dawkins-type Atheist – the atheist’s answer to a religious fundamentalist, perhaps. Having known him for a pretty long time I don’t think he’d go mad-scientist, but given a little less mental stability and it would be plausible. A “near miss” :D

    The other converted to Christianity on his death bed, and may have been less of an actual Atheist so much as someone who really [i]wanted[/i] to be an Atheist, but wasn’t.

  13. See also: Salem Hypothesis.

    I have heard it said (i.e. no citations m’fraid) that In the USA, engineering faculties are more conservative than the rest of the academy. In the USSR, engineering faculties were more communist and orthodox than the rest of the academy.

    I’d love to see some more research into this sort of thing though.

    1. interesting, the later parts of the link, mentioning monism and simplism, makes me wonder how many engineers considered themselves objectivists or libertarians…

  14. People seem to be failing to grasp how much is lumped under the umbrella of engineering: aquatic, environmental, aerospace, aeronautical, agricultural, architectural, automotive, chemical, civil, computer, construction, ecological, electrical, environmental, fire protection, geotechnical, hydraulic, industrial, marine, materials, metallurgical, mechanical, mining, nuclear, petroleum, quality, RF, safety, security, software, structural, traffic, wireless, etc. On top of that train conductors, janitors, trash men, and many others have been given important sounding “engineering” positions of self importance.

    Engineering just has the largest group of professionals to recruit from and their technical knowledge makes them a resource to terrorist groups. Obviously an engineer like myself would be able to spot such a practical answer to a question like that.

    Also, good engineers will never be able to answer in absolutes.

  15. The scientific method is based entirely around questioning things.

    Engineering is based on following established rules.

    1. The scientific method is based entirely around questioning things.

      Engineering is based on following established rules

      Hmm. I don’t think you’re plausibly characterising either science or engineering.

      Just for starters, quite a bit of science in practice is about establishing the best approximation of ‘truth’ in respect of the behaviour of materials; engineering then uses that information to establish practical techniques for making use of those materials. Quite a lot of people that would be considered engineers from a professional perspective actually do research. Quite a lot of people engaged as scientists spend their time doing the engineering to make experimental apparatus etc. A lot of time is spent in both cases in puzzling out problems, analysing data, devising theories to explain and connect said data, explaining the theory to others and even writing papers for peer review. Yes, engineers write papers. Gosh.

      Engineering as a professional activity starts at the boundary with ‘pure’ science and stretches through development of practical uses for knowledge, codification of the knowledge and techniques so that technical people can make use of it on a routine basis and onward to design and manufacture of items made using those codes. The entire field is a big grey area; anyone that thinks engineers are all people with no ability to cope with anything but black and white issues is deluding themselves.

      Add the confusion caused by technical tradesmen being known as locomotive engineers, service engineers etc and you have recipe for chaos.

  16. At My university, the lecturers said that the classes of engineers and the classes of natural scientists always looked significantly different to one another.

    Engineers tended to be neater, and festooned with designer labels, while the nat.sci. lot tended to be scruffier. I imagine that both classes took this as a compliment.

  17. Make what you will of it, but the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, of the Unification Church (which isn’t doing terribly well anymore, trust me) happens to hold an electrical engineering degree. He’s just a paltry few degrees left of Falwell.

  18. Favorite movie? Things To Come

    Once all of you “shades of gray” types get things thoroughly screwed up, then the “Airmen” (aka engineers) come in and fix it all.

  19. “See now, this is why mad scientists are generally less desirable than your common or garden variety scientist.”

  20. I’ve got two degrees in mechanical engineering from the same school in the Southeast. Personally, I am a left-leaning atheist in addition to not being a terrorist (yet). In reference to the conservative/religious link, here’s my explanation:

    In undergrad, I found a lot of the students came from traditionally blue-collar and rural families. As these families grew progressively more educated and family farms started to sell their land, engineering was seen as a well-paying extension of the family tradition. A lot of students got their bachelors and then worked at a nearby power plant or steel mill or machine shop. Obviously, these rural/blue-collar families tended to be more conservative.

    On the other hand, my grad school classmates were a much more liberal, shades-of-gray-thinking group of students. Same goes for my coworkers when I worked in the research department of a company.

    He was making a different point, but Anon #19 mentioned that “engineer” can mean a lot of different things – from a maintenance man of a public school system to a research engineer with a doctorate at Livermore. Generally, other scientific fields aren’t as diverse. A physicist, for example, represents a relatively narrow range of occupations.

  21. Yes, the boundaries between engineering, applied science, and “pure” science are far blurrier than they are often made out to be. Even the “purest” research proposal has to have applications of some sort or it won’t get funded. The stereotype of scientists just caring about theory and engineers just caring about practical results may be the basis of many jokes, but doesn’t really match reality.

  22. A few notes:

    Engineers tend to have very strict degree requirements, as opposed to science majors which can often get a pretty well-rounded major. Often engineers just aren’t going to get a meaningful university education in history, philosophy, sociology – fields which tend to have more left-leaning faculty. If engineers double-major or minor in a non-engineering field, it’s more likely to be in a field like economics, business, or mathematics where there is no “slant.”

    My experience has been that engineers come in all types, but there are two big categories. One category is that of engineers who really just love the business of engineering – love math, love problem-solving, love learning about how things work. These engineers tend to be pretty passionate about what they do, fun to be around, non-stereotypical.
    The other category is people who major in engineering because they know it’ll secure a well-paying job. Most of these people LIKE engineering – you can’t endure four years of a serious engineering without at least a little fondness for the stuff – but they aren’t particularly curious about it. They tend to be cautious, introverted, and often hew pretty closely to engineering stereotypes. They hate risk and avoid change whenever possible. Their college activities are an extension of their high school activities, be that Christian fellowships or sports or politics. And since few people become committed leftists early in life (and those who do tend to be a bit artsy), most of these engineers stick with the rather reactionary views they’ve always had. They keep their simplistic black/white moral views, which they’ve often been brought up with, and seek to see things as simply as possible.

  23. Often engineers just aren’t going to get a meaningful university education in history, philosophy, sociology – fields which tend to have more left-leaning faculty. If engineers double-major or minor in a non-engineering field, it’s more likely to be in a field like economics, business, or mathematics where there is no “slant.”

    That must inevitably depend a lot upon the particular educational systems and college you attend. I went to Imperial College; we included plenty of sociology, languages, business, philosophy etc in the course.

    And as for the idea that there is no ‘slant’ in economics or business… wow.

  24. Yes, those evil heartless engineers. How *unlike* the brave concientious socially-responsible scientists who gave us eugenics, Ritalin, the autism “epidemic”, whole-language instruction, the New Math, and so on.

  25. As an engineer, I die a little inside every time I see a terrorist attack. They’re always *so badly engineered*!

  26. The real question is why there aren’t more Mad Artist supervillains in SF even despite a real one running Germany a few decades ago.

    Come to think of it, the most notable Mad Artist supervillain was Moyuscane the Illusionist in the Agent of Vega stories by James H. Schmitz (who left Germany shortly after Hitler took over).

  27. Well, well, well, Anon #34. The autism epidemic? So you’re of the anti-vaccination stripe? I don’t think either engineers nor scientists would step up to claim you as one of their own. That shit is pure superstitious woo-woo, tinfoil cap claptrap, dangerous and irresponsible.

    But yeah, if that’s the way your thinking goes, I can see how you’d see scientists as evil.

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