In the article Why some engineers become terrorists in today’s Sunday Times, Shashi Tharoor asks “Is there something about engineering that makes its most proficient graduates vulnerable to the temptations of violent extremism?”. He goes on to cite a study by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog that reports the presence of a large number of engineers in right-wing extremist groups in general and radical Islamist groups in particular. He writes
“Engineers consider themselves problem solvers, and when the world seems to present a problem, they look to engineering-type solutions to solve it. Engineering, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, predisposes its votaries to absolute and non-negotiable principles, and therefore to fundamentalism; it is a short step from appreciating the predictable laws of engineering to following an ideology or a creed that is infused with its own immutable laws. It is easy for engineers to become radicalised, the researchers argue, because they are attracted by the “intellectually clean, unambiguous, and all-encompassing” solutions that both the laws of engineering and radical Islam provide.”
This is partly true and partly and viciously false. The method of engineering is the method of science. The principles and laws of science are indeed absolute and non-negotiable. But they are not just that. Unlike religious principles, they are objective, evidence-based, verifiable and demonstrably true. To the extent that an engineer is attracted to radical religion, he is denying the validity of the scientific method.
What does one hope to achieve by trying to show a similarity between the method of science and religion? Here is a clue
“…Without the humanities, we cannot recognise that there is more than one side to a story, and more than one answer to a question.
That, of course, is never true in engineering…”
Note that Tharoor never asks the question “Is there anything in religion that makes its practioners violent extremists?” The intent of the article is to discredit the power of reason, the validity of the scientific method and the confidence that they generate. Since it is impossible to do this honestly, one must resort to tying science and religion together so that the effects of religion can be used to discredit science.
What does one hope to achieve by discrediting the scientific method? Since there is not much evidence in the article, that is a question I will leave to my readers to ponder over. In the last line of the article though, there is a hint of a clue.
“…Perhaps the solution lies in making it compulsory for every engineering student to take at least 20% of his courses in the humanities.”