Political Engineers

One curious detail about Iran’s Ahmadinejad is that his degree was in transportation engineering — as far as I know, this makes him the only head of state with such a background (whether this makes the trains run on time in Tehran is another question).

I was thinking of this while reading an interesting piece in the New Scientist, which notes the following curious statistic:

Our finding holds up quite well in another sample of 259 Islamic extremists who are citizens or residents of 14 western, mostly European, countries, and who have recently come to the attention of the authorities for carrying out or plotting a terrorist attack in the west. Although this sample contains far fewer people with higher education than the older members of the first group, nearly 6 out of 10 of those with higher education are engineers.

The authors sort through a number of competing explanations and confounding factors and conclude that, no matter what the actual reason may be, the fact remains that:

So the bottom line is that while the probability of a Muslim engineer becoming a violent Islamist is minuscule, it is still be between three and four times that for other graduates.

Another piece of information from the article is noteworthy in terms of the U.S.:

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.

Does this apply to traffic engineers as well? One often thinks as engineers as being essentially apolitical (which itself may be political), but if true I wonder where this right-wing bias might come from. Is it a John Galt/Fountainhead sort of thing? (perhaps because her ideas are more memorable or appealing — to some — than her prose, the fans of Ayn Rand rarely tend to be writers, and instead economists and their ilk)

The speculation of the article’s authors, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, is:

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.

Any left-wing engineers care to weigh in? How do you reconcile these various strands? Do you welcome ambiguity?

An irony about the political strand of engineers to my mind is the proliferation of engineers one finds (or found) in the centrally planned communist countries; in Cuba, for example, you can hardly catch a taxi or order a meal in a restaurant without meeting a former engineer. Per capita the Soviet Union must have dwarfed the U.S. in numbers of engineers.

This entry was posted on Sunday, June 14th, 2009 at 10:47 am and is filed under Etc.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 Responses to “Political Engineers”

  1. Christopher Monnier Says:

    I think that engineering, like any technical discipline, has a disproportionate number of libertarians, which (total speculation) could come from a “do it yourself” mindset and a general opposition to authority. Some might classify this as “right-wing” simply because it’s not “left-wing,” but this of course assumes a false dichotomy. Speaking for myself (I am an engineer and a libertarian), I do not consider myself left-wing or right-wing.

  2. Thomas Kent Says:

    Potentially, engineers are (if so inclined) the worst sort of terrorist.
    Engineers not only build things, but they can destroy them (They know where the weak points are).

  3. 2fs Says:

    I think that if more engineers are right-wing than are most other academics, it’s because many other academic fields traffic in ambiguity and uncertainty, whereas engineering has more appeal to those who want definitive, right-and-wrong answers. And right-wing politics, generally, is more enamored of black/white, yes/no, right/wrong thinking.

    Jerry Falwell was an engineering student before he found religion, for example.

  4. Lee Watkins Says:

    I only know one engineer, and I tell you she has almost no concept of grey areas or social signals. Often times when I argue with her, she gets caught in these circular-logic arguments, which is so typical of the right wing here.

  5. Fritz Says:

    I’m in an engineering profession, know many engineers, and I’ve noticed this myself. It’s fascinating that somebody’s actually done a statistical analysis of this.

    The usual engineer’s response is that it’s the liberals who are overrepresented in non-engineering disciplines. Who are the people who become teachers, artists and social workers?

  6. Jack Says:

    “What have I done” asks Colonel Nicholson before falling on top of the detonator and destroying the Bridge on the River Kwais. “Madness!” declares Major Clipton.

    The underlying story of how lives were sacrificed to satisfy engineering dreams is once again understated. Just 35 years ago, only 30% of our oil was imported and now after building more bridges, more highways, more roads, it is now closer to 70%. The grand scheme favored the enemy?


  7. Eileen Says:

    Why would a libertarian engineer become a traffic engineer, though? They’d be working for the government, helping to impose the government’s rules…wouldn’t that be the last job that would be consistent with their values?

  8. Bossi Says:

    One of my coworkers had been the head of Tehran’s traffic engineering department right up until Pres. Ahmadinejad acquired that title & booted her on account of being a woman. I’m not 100% aware of why it didn’t happen during his mayoral days, though, unless mayors don’t actually wield that degree of power.

    Speaking from PA, civil engineering was sometimes referred to as a “redneck major”. Many of the disciplines share some particular aspect with a rural / farming lifestyle: damming a stream to provide a household reservoir, frequent work with concrete, laying out the land & its infrastructure, water collection & drainage, waste management, soil types and qualities, etc.

    I’ll readily confirm that my class was more conservative as compared to other majors, but I’d say the class average was really more moderate; whereas other majors tended to be outright liberal. There were certainly outliers: we had some students & professors that leaned far left or far right. As for myself: I consider myself an extreme moderate… I’m passionate about my beliefs, but I believe in some right-wing issues as well as some left-wing issues (and also some stances that don’t fit in either wing).

    I’ve had an infatuation with urban infrastructure planning. I’ve drawn up a slew of concepts in Google Earth of a network of transitways spanning cities, counties, states, and nations. …Yet I know none of it will get built unless I just so happen to take over the world. So if that ever happens: now you all know my reason. :)

  9. Doug Says:

    The middle-east has a long and impressive history of math, science, and engineering (for instance, our number system comes from there). It is also true that other countries produce far more scientists and engineers than the US does. And guess what, other countries tend to be less democratic than ours.

    If we don’t produce more scientists and engineers, in 50 years they will be running a less democratic world and we’ll be writing about it on blog sites that don’t make any money.

  10. TLP Says:

    One idea (nothing to corroborate here, of course) would be that very religious or right-wing students feel they would never have their views accepted in the liberal arts and humanities world. Following the engineering path promises an academic and professional career where your views ans your work do not intersect.

  11. General Schematic Says:

    I think you have two factors at work here. The first is the standard engineering (and for that matter “hard science”) curricula and philosophical outlook. Answers are knowable through a structured and rigorous methodology. In the chaotic structure of the world, this provides a way to structure and organize the world into a logical construct. Chaos is not good in engineering. I think this both draws certain personalities as well as reinforces characteristics of those personalities.

    The other is to look at the political regimes in the countries that are supporting the universities that oversee these curricula and the operating methodology. Engineers are useful, they build the physical aspects of the society and enable the lofty visions of the ruling order. They can be very effective and not challenge the regime. The flipside is if engineering is one of the few allowed or encouraged educational paths, you are going to find engineers who are both a part of the regime (Iran) and those opposed to it with equal fervor (al-Qaeda).

  12. Ben Says:

    First, engineer’s are bad politicians. Why? Easy. We hate politics. Those good at politics generally are bad engineers but move up quickly. Good Engineer’s want practical flexible adaptable solutions that work instead of cutting corners or playing for political gain.

    The short version is: few engineer’s are in politics because they’d rather fix the problems. There is a good saying… if you aren’t part of the solution there is good money in prolonging the problem. It’s so true it’s not even funny.

  13. Richard C. Moeur Says:

    Remember, though, that traffic engineering is the one discipline in civil engineering that is dominated by human factors issues, which makes it the least “precise” of these branches – it’s the old saying that most of our job is “adjusting the nut that holds down the steering wheel”. Sure, there’s lots of formulae and equations, but they’re sure not as predictable and precise as the ones used by our structural colleagues.

    While my personal politics do tend slightly to starboard, I don’t see a political monoculture in my field. My colleagues range from out & out socialists all the way to those who suspect Objectivism is a government plot. :)

    Engineers can be excellent politicians, just like engineers can be excellent artists. It has more to do with cultivating a parallel skill set, and using good judgment in applying each approach (engineering or political) appropriately.

    And as for libertarians working for government? I’ve seen it throughout my career – there are quite a few. It’s actually a good thing, in that they typically inject a bit of in-house skepticism to the latest grandiose plan of how the agency will Make Things Better.


  14. azf Says:

    The notion that engineering is somehow interested in black/white answers is quite false. The quantification and communication of uncertainty is what (should) reign supreme, at least within recent curricula.

    This might be pushing more would-be traffic engineers to ideas that challenge their previously mobility driven counterparts. Alt fuels and vehicles sure are sexy, but travel behavior research and reducing VMT are going to be part of any sustainable transportation future. What could be more “liberal” than changing transportation behavior?

  15. maxpower Says:

    All I can say is traffic must suck in Iran. Ahmadinejad is a poor leader and had to be an even worse engineer. His idea of traffic control is tear gas. Real engineers discuss politics but don’t pay to play. Poor engineers become politicians so they can get their slice of the pie from every project

  16. HCHarris Says:

    Since engineering works with development of workable things, whatever you may be working with, and also with writing such things as specifications and criteria which must be internally consistent you get a great appreciation of the functionality of natural things and the difficulty of writing an internally consistent document. Likewise true in most scientific endevours.

    Therefore, if it were not for the indoctrination to the contrary you get from the educational system, those in engineering and science should be overwhelmingly beleivers in an Omnipitent Creator, whether from a Christian or a Jewish perspective, as the internal coherence of the Bible would also be impossible without the hand of God.

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