Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Engineering Terrorism

This piece builds on the recent failed attempt and an old paper that I saw presented a few years ago--that Islamic terrorists are disproportionately engineers.  The Slate review lists the usual suspected explanations: lack of good engineering jobs in most of their home countries (Saudi Arabia excepted); the skills issue; that engineers are more conservative and rigid, so they adapt poorly to change; and the like. 

But the article omits a key issue--the data that Gambetta and Hertog use relies on whose college majors?  Those terrorists that have either been captured or killed.  So, this raises some questions--does being an engineer make someone more likely to get killed or captured?  Well, in the original paper, Gambetta raises an issue that might be relevant here--engineers are more likely to have autistic children and are more likely to have borderline social skills.  While they spin that as meaning that these folks adjust poorly, I take another reading--that their dataset may include more engineers because engineers may be more likely to get caught due to poor social skills.  Either they reveal themselves or they may be bad at detecting infiltrators.... 

Anyhow, read the original piece, as it is a model of interesting social science--taking a correlation and then working backwards to figure out all kinds of possible explanations.

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