The Salem Hypothesis explained!

In Creation/Evolution circles, the Salem Hypothesis suggests that "In any Evolution vs. Creation debate, A person who claims scientific credentials and sides with Creation will most likely have an Engineering degree." Surveys of the phenomenon suggest that it is a very real phenomenon. Explanations vary, with some proposing the corollary that "An education in the Engineering disciplines forms a predisposition to Creation/Intelligent Design viewpoints."

Then again, the same mindset that drives someone to engineering could predispose them to nutty ideas like creationism. Or Islamic terrorism.

Non sequitur? Perhaps not. Sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog have published a paper on "Engineers of Jihad," trying to explain why "engineers alone [out of scientists, doctors and engineers] are strongly over-represented among graduates in violent groups in both realms ["Islamist movements in the Muslim world" and "the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in Western countries."]

Is the engineers’ prominence among violent Islamists an accident of history amplified through network links, or do their technical skills make them attractive recruits? Do engineers have a ‘mindset’ that makes them a particularly good match for Islamism, or is their vigorous radicalization explained by the social conditions they endured in Islamic countries? We argue that the interaction between the last two causes is the most plausible explanation of our findings, casting a new light on the sources of Islamic extremism and grounding macro theories of radicalization in a micro-level perspective.

In other words, engineers recruit other engineers, but they also are predisposed to be a particular sort of extremist. Islamic extremism matches many characteristics of right wing extremism, and engineers have a certain bias towards those properties. As the authors observe:

The Carnegie survey reveals an even more surprising fact, hitherto unnoticed, that strengthens the suspicion that the engineers’ mindset plays a part in their proneness not only to radicalise to the right of the political spectrum but do so with a religious slant: engineers turn out to be by far the most religious group of all academics.


Their mindset may explain why we find engineers among right-wing extremists and virtually none among left-wing ones, but why should it help us to explain their attraction to Islamism? A plausible answer is that the Islamists’ Weltanschauung shares several features with the worldviews found in the extreme right. … a corporatist and mechanistic view of the ideal society … preserving integrity in the social order. … rejects Western pluralism and argues for a unified, ordered society ruled by a strong … leader, in which an authoritative division of labour is created between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, political leaders and their flock. The fear of social chaos is a leitmotif of Islamist thought….

…the characteristics … defining … right-wing extremism map out near-perfectly on those of Islamic extremism. …"monism", is "the tendency to treat cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate (…) the repression of difference and dissent, the closing down of the market place of ideas". …"simplism", is the "unambiguous ascription of single causes and remedies for multifactored phenomena", which in turn is closely related to seeing history as shaped by the clash between good and evil, and conspiratorially ascribing the forces of evil to one identifiable foe.

While monism and simplism may be shared by left-wing extremism, the last feature, … “preservatism”, is typical only of the right. Unlike left-wing extremism which aims at broadening the lines of power and privilege, preservatism aims to restore a lost, often mythical order of privileges and authority, and … emerges as a backlash against displacement or status deprivation in a period of sharp social change. Preservatism does not appear in just one guise: depending on circumstances it emerges as anti-state or pro-state, as individualism or collectivism. But in its underlying craving for a lost order, its match with the radical Islamic ideology is undeniable: the theme of returning to the order of the prophet’s early community is omnipresent in most salafist and jihadist ideology.

And, of course, in creationism.

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I have an uncle who is a brilliant electrical engineer. It stops at the engineering, however. He actually knows, not believes, that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. He's a master of applied physcial principals, yet he's a YEC. I don't get it. The cognitive dissonance he must live with. Or, he's mentally ill.

I don't think it's a coincidence that male engineers, notoriously bad at courtship, would cling to a creation myth that provides a reason to denigrate women and keep them in perpetual concubinage. If youre a man without the skills to woo and keep, better keep them barefoot and pregnant. And Blame Eve. Thanks, Dilbert.

If you want to kill Creationism, youre going to have to kill the story that turns women into slaves. No amount of science will ever overcome that sense of entitlement and possession.

Don't take my word for it; the next time some troll pops off about 'God's Word', ask him if he would care if the creation story didn't include the subjugation of women.

Engineering, creationism, and conservative politics all share a strong bent toward hierarchical authority. An engineer is an unchallengeable authority figure, just like God. God, as the supreme architect of the universe, will be a very appealing image to engineers. Engineers are creators and enforcers of order. All of that leads to conservative political and social values and yearning for a mythical past when there was perfect order and everyone knew their place.

Hey, some of us electrical engineers are atheists, liberals and ID/creationism critics, so let's not get too carried away with this hypothesis. In fact, I suspect that engineers are over-represented in skeptic organizations, just as on the ID/creationism side. Engineers are more driven to rules/standards and less comfortable living with uncertainty than scientists.

IMHO this is all backwards. First, most engineers are not in extremist groups, so there is no reason to postulate engineering predisposes people to extremism. I suspect the situation is more like this: what kinds of people become engineers rather than scientists, artists, etc.? It may be that they have some tendency to be more linear, practical, black-and-white thinkers, etc. (and obviously this would be a gross generalization). Thus fundamentalists (or people predisposed towards fundamentalism even if not yet fundamentalists) with interests/talents in technical fields may tend to self-select towards engineering rather than other things.

With American creationists (and perhaps conservative Muslims, I coundn't say) there is probably the additional influence which is simply that bright, science-talented students who are already creationists will be offended by what people try to teach them in biology, geology, cosmology, etc., and so self-select themselves into things like engineering, chemistry, & computer science.

All that said, I think comparing creationists to terrorists is a bad idea on multiple levels for all sorts of reasons. Especially: American creationists at least have no history of violence or terrorism.

The proper comparison is probably between the fundamentalists of different religions. These may or may not be violent, just like any other group (e.g. communists, capitalists, atheists, whatever) depending on much more specific circumstances & issues that are not particularly closely tied to the underlying theology.

By Nick (Matzke) (not verified) on 11 Nov 2007 #permalink

It may be that the figures are just apparently skewed towards creationist engineers rather than there being a real bias in their direction.
If you are judging by the numbers of technology graduates - biology, physics, chemistry and engineering/mathematics then in terms of pure numbers you are really dealing with biologists and engineers (there are much less physicists and chemist graduates in number terms). Now we all know that the more you learn in biology the more you are likely to accept evolutionary theory. That leads to a huge bias in favor of evolution amongst biologists. Engineers, on the other hand, even though they may have a much higher likelihood of accepting evolution than the general population, will not be as skewed in its favor as the biologists. Unlike biologists they are not be exposed to the theory and the evidence that supports it throughout their education and work and so are not as likely to understand its principles and evidential base.
The question these survey results pose is not why engineers are more likely to be creationists but to creationists - why is it the more education you get in biology the more likely you are to accept evolution?

I agree with Nick (Matzke). Engineering is about machines, and machines won't argue about religious problems. So engineering is a safe choice for faithheads. My prediction is that creationist engineers were creationists first. Personally I know about only one engineer who converted after graduation, and for him religion was an escape from alcohol.

Engineering itself doesn't need religion. My favourite quote is from Laplace (to Napoleon): "Sir, I did not need that hypothesis." It's an obvious reference to Newton, who expected that God gave the planets an occasional nudge to keep them in their orbits - and Laplace had just shown that the orbits are stable without divine help.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 11 Nov 2007 #permalink

One more thought:

A person who claims to be a scientist, when actually being an engineer, is demonstrating a lack of confidence. There is surely nothing wrong with being an engineer. Why would someone who is an engineer claim to be a scientist? It isn't as if someone when they flunk out of biology that they decide to settle for second best, and become a chemical engineer.

TomS: "Why would someone who is an engineer claim to be a scientist?"

It isn't that clear cut - depends on how you use the word "engineer". It can be a title or a job description. Some of the students I graduated with (MSc in Comp Eng) have gone to become university professors. And as students most of us had a summer job that included applying grease on various machines. I have myself fluently jumped between commercial and academic worlds.

By Lassi Hippel�inen (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

I think engineers stand out because they can and do get things done in a spectacular fashion. Janitors and waitresses may become violent extremists, but what is the result? But when an engineer decides to do some damage we read about it in the papers. Engineers may also have the confidence to move from that "sitting on the porch, dreaming" phase to actually doing something, whereas most others don't know where to start.

Thanks, Nick, for the most rational comments on this subject. Phaedrus makes a good point also.

I think the Salem hypothesis is embeddable in that you meet identifiable engineers as cranks and denialists of all kinds, among other professions. And that engineers may bloviate on their experiences and qualifications.

Why that is so may have several explanations.

From the poor basis of personal experience, I would agree with Nick Matzke's explanation on pattern matchers, pattern matching yes/no, yes-or-no, black-and-white, formal and/or procedural (not "linear", I think), thinkers.

And I would think from the same poor basis that engineers basic orientation and/or interest in science but often inexperience in it, make them open for pursuing such interests outside the academic frame.

By Torbj�rn Lar… (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

Another factor to consider is the engineering curriculum. An engineering student takes mostly technical courses and seldom, if ever, is exposed to the type of subjects that challenge ones assumptions and presuppositions. Most of the engineers that I know never had any biology and very little,if any, exposure to philosophy, political science, or any of the social sciences. All those subject areas are likely to lead a student to at least question their beliefs about a variety of things. The result is that a lot of engineers are quite comfortable with the world view that they were brought up with and do not change it. If more start out as creationists then they are more likely than other professions to remain so (at least that's my guess).

By Dale Hoyt (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

I think I lean toward Nick Matzke's explanation above. Engineers are probably overrepresented in the creo/fundie camp because there is a self-selection bias among the latter to go into the former. I agree that engineering is probably the technical field least likely to conflict with a pre-existing worldview, so that may explain it to a large degree.

No one is claiming that engineers are all terrorists. But this study says that they are empirically more likely to be terrorists (or possibly creationists) than other professional groups. It is a stretch to argue causation, but the correlation is there, making discussion of predisposition reasonable (provided we don't take "predisposition" to be synonymous with "causation").

Yes, the relevant issue here is the extremism, and also the notable right-wing bias to the extremism. This study shows that engineers aren't just more politically extreme, they are more religious and more conservative/right-wing than other professional groups. I think this probably can all be attributed to latent variables (desire for order, or some such factor which drives people toward engineering and right-wing extremism).

You're stereotyping engineers' social and political views a bit harshly here. Much of what you say about them , e.g. preference for stable, predictable, and hierarchical social structures, could be said about just about any other group of professionals, from dental hygienists to (eek!) lawyers.

The characteristic of engineers that I find most likely to explain the affinity that some (perhaps a significant subset of them) have for religious wingnuttery is that their training teaches them to apply scientific principles in order to achieve particular goals. Consider the old joke: Q: "How many corporate accountants does it take to change a light bulb?" A:"Did you have a particular number in mind?" In the same way, engineers start a point X and try to find ways to arrive at point Y. Those with fundy leanings (generally somewhere past the centre of gravity, in my experience...) therefore approach Evo/Bible problems with a mindset that seeks to use what they know of science to bridge the gaps. In contrast, a scientist (ideally...) says, in her best disinterested voice, "Hmmm, wonder what would happen if the globular thringdible rotated the other way".

I am available to solve all other problems. Reasonable rates, dishwasing and household repairs by prior arrangement.

"An engineer is an unchallengeable authority figure, just like God."


You're kidding, right? Does the name "Morton Thiokol" mean anything to you?

Wondering how the Engineering Physics people fit into this diatribe, or how I do, as somebody with a Mathematics / Electrical Engineering background. I would go on to explain that I am a theist (a Conservative Jew, to be precise) who doesn't believe in Creationism and that to be religious and to be a fanatic aren't at all the same thing ... but I get a feeling that the owner of this blog is on a roll and won't really be listening.

Joseph, you're coming a little late to the party, and you are rather badly missing everyone's point. No one is saying that engineers actually are infallible (though some think they are). Neither is anyone saying all engineers are creationists (or violent Islamic extremists). The point is just that engineers are more likely per capita to belong to those extremist religious groups than members of other professions.

Sigh. Josh, you might want to actually try to understand a reference before commenting on it, as you will end up looking a little less silly that way. Look up at the Google box at the upper right hand corner of the screen, enter the words "Morton Thiokol" and you'll pull up...

With any luck and certainly with any decent amount of looking (I should think) an account of the Challenger disaster. Ever hear of it? It's not really an obscure piece of 20th century history quite yet, even though it comes down to us from way back in 1986. The shuttle was launched under unfavorable weather conditions, an O ring leaked, and the booster exploded. All that remained of the astronauts were some bone fragments pulled up from the ocean a few weeks later. Mildly creepy was the observation that came out of observing tapes of the blast: the astronauts probably survived the blast itself, and there is a good chance that they were conscious all of the way down to a hard impact on the ocean surface, spending the last few moments of their lives waiting to be turned into strawberry jam. They have to have known that terminal velocity for the compartment they were in would be unsurvivably high.

What was a lot creepy was the infamous line that came out during the congressional hearings that followed. Engineers working on the shuttle project had already voiced concerns about the safety of launching the shuttle when the temperature had dropped so low, finding those concerns summarily dismissed by their managers, one of whom allegedly uttered the words

"take off your engineering hats and put on your managerial hats"

honestly seeming to believe that a positive mental attitude would be enough to revise the laws of Physics. This is the reality of work in engineering; it is a low status profession. When John McKay, in the third comment (which you now seem to be trying to deny the existence of) writes, as I had already quoted in part

"Engineering, creationism, and conservative politics all share a strong bent toward hierarchical authority. An engineer is an unchallengeable authority figure, just like God."

he is, in context, offering an assertion of the existence of an exalted social status for engineers that is absurdly far from reality. Hardly any layman would think of arguing a point of law with an attorney, or tell a physician how to shrink a tumor, but the shmuck of a suit who flunked every math and science course he took and was running a greeting card company until last week will barge into a clean room, pick up one of the boats with his bare hands, tell the still stunned design team how to pattern chips, and nobody seems to see anything odd about this at all, except for the team that will now have to decontaminate what the suit just finished playing around with.

McKay's point was understood, Josh, it just wasn't much of a point. In the future, please read and try to know what is going on before you respond, so that your next complaint of inattentiveness in others won't be as unintentionally humorous as this last one was.

Coming, now, to your own remarks, let us start by noting your sources:

1. An article in Wikipedia, the site anybody can edit. Joshua, as an academic in training, you know better than to cite something like that.

2. John W. Patterson's paper: A record of the personal frustrations of an engineering professor at Iowa State who ran into a great many fundamentalists in the course of his day. Do you suppose the fact that he was living in Iowa might have played a small role in that? One finds what amounts to being a diary entry dressed up with footnotes in a crude attempt to make it look like a scientific paper, fooling nobody who takes the time to read it, but even so, it's on the page you link to in the sentence that reads "Surveys of the phenomenon suggest that it is a very real phenomenon". This clearly implies that the link will take one to an actual survey instead of to a lengthy bellyaching session from somebody who was unhappy to discover that on accepting a position at a small town campus, that he was, in fact, living in the rural Midwest. These things happen.

Doing a survey by noting that attitudes of those one encounters in the course of one's day is an atrocious methodology, a mistake unworthy of a freshman, for the excellent reason that as one samples the population that one is encountering individuals from, the event of one individual being included and that one of his nearby neighbors being included in the sample must be assumed to be far from being stochastically independent unless we assume that like that little blue man in that "X-man" movie that came on cable a few weeks ago, we assume that Prof.Patterson is capable of instantly and easily teleporting from place to place to place so quickly that the eye can barely follow him. But if this is so, one may well wonder why he doesn't simply teleport to the Bay Area for the weekend, and spare us his tale of predictable woe?

Let us, however, just for the sake of discussion assume that life does not follow the rules of a comic book based movie, and that much like the rest of us mere mortals, Patterson must move step by step in a continuous manner. Then since the probability of a passage turning into an encounter is certainly going to be increased by proximity, the simple realities of geometry eliminate any possibility that his sampling procedure was a properly unbiased one, and I believe that you know that, Mr.Rosenau.

3. We have a report by a pair of sociologists - the question left hanging in the air of when sociology became a real science - in which the Islamist's own explanation of the reason for the presence of disproportionately many engineers among their ranks (namely the fact that they need people who know how to blow things up) is breezily brushed aside with a sociologist's opinion as to the level of expertise needed to build and effectively use an explosive device.

Tell you what, Josh. Give me one electrical engineer from the U of I, and I'll give you the entire art history department at Northwestern, and let's see who manages to wire a bomb first. I might even throw in a few cosmologists from the U of C. You won't get much built, but at least you will know how many millionths of a degree kelvin your inoperative device will have been warmed by proton decay, and the art historians, as they look at what was supposed to be the timer circuit, will be able to tell you whether it looks more like a Pollock or a Kandinsky and surely these things must be worth something. Just not to a terrorist, unless he's been enjoying the kif a little too much.

Having skimmed the article, spending about as much time dealing with this sort of nonsense as I feel compelled to, I notice that Gambetta and Hertog very casually lump Western Political Conservatism with Islamic Fundamentalism, as if there were some natural connection between a belief in fiscal restraint and the expectation that a few dozen virgins were waiting in lustful anticipation of one's suicide bombing of an Israeli embassy, so clear that one would surely accept without much further explanation that these were different manifestations of some similar phenomenon, manifesting itself in different cultural settings. I don't doubt that they feel comfortable with that decision, but what it reflects is personal prejudice, not any kind of valid statistical methodology, a personal prejudice they bury in the midst of some tens of pages worth of mind numbing circumloction.

I wonder what they would make of a conservative atheist. How very remarkable that work like this gets funded and how even more remarkable that anybody could manage to quote it with what I'm assuming to be a straight face.

When I proposed the so-called Salem Hypothesis, it was to address the claims of a particular Christian fundamentalist who was an EE at TeKtronix in Beaverton Or, that his engineering training gave him enough expertise to weigh in on the creation-evolution debate on an equal footing with someone like myself who actually had training in geology and biology. This was in 1988, way back before the intelligent design ruse or the emergence of Islamic extremists. I argued that engineering can leave one unprepared to be competent in matters of science in a broad way, that bias and bigotry can easily cloud one's opinions because the the concentration required in many engineering tasks, and because engineering need not entail full scientific method, especially suspension of judgement against unknowns. What the discussion above suggests is that the personality traits that engineers can possess, along with incomplete training, can lead to errors in judgement that lead to scientifically untenable beliefs. I have experienced this many times. There is no better example of this than the beliefs about race and innate learning ability of Blacks expressed by William Shockley in the 1970's. Shockley invented the transister, won a Nobel Prize for that but was probably mistaken in his views about intelligence and race. The traits of engineers that get them into the most trouble, and it is why a high percentage of them are Libertarians, is that they approach stress in "fix-it" mode and go off half-cocked. The critical thought necessary for main-stream science tends to beat this rush to simple answers out of people more broadly trained in science, or used to having to suspend judgement when information is incomplete. This is not to say that all engineers have this problem. There are many people in engineering whose work is indistinguishable for good science, just as rigorous, but there are people who earned the degree who go beyond the limits of their own expertise, and it shows.

By Bruce Salem (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

Engineers tend to be libertarian because as a group they are far more likely to understand why charity and compassion are necessary for progress but why when those two things are forced upon society by law leads to a long term social and moral decline. If you don't understand this paradox you need to go back and think about all the cause and effect that us so called engineers don't understand.

I also read about 50% of the posts above of which about 90% were obviously written by people who think they are way way smarter than they really are. For those that rely upon their IQ score as a way of communicating that you are very smart yet and yes insecure I feel sorry for you. That said I find that most academic types are bascially surround themselves with a very small group of people who think just like them. Why do you ask why?

By johhngonole (not verified) on 17 Jan 2009 #permalink

An engineering student takes mostly technical courses and seldom, if ever, is exposed to the type of subjects that challenge ones assumptions and presuppositions

I and my husband BOTH are engineers and believe in evolution, (and also God, but not in the fluffy cloud, old man kind of way, just in something greater we are not too knowledgeable about most likely). I am a Democrat and he an Independent. Maybe we are rare? I HAVE noticed lots of the types of engineers you speak of where we work, but not all are that way. There are those engineers that think beyond engineering. Alot of them don't believe global warming is taking place either and are verrrry conservative. We however do admit to global warming and are liberal in our views. It sucks sometimes working with people who are so smart in one way, but pretty narrow-minded with other issues.

I and my husband BOTH are engineers and believe in evolution, (and also God, but not in the fluffy cloud, old man kind of way, just in something greater we are not too knowledgeable about most likely). I am a Democrat and he an Independent. Maybe we are rare? I HAVE noticed lots of the types of engineers you speak of where we work, but not all are that way. There are those engineers that think beyond engineering. Alot of them don't believe global warming is taking place either and are verrrry conservative. We however do admit to global warming and are liberal in our views. It sucks sometimes working with people who are so smart in one way, but pretty narrow-minded with other issues.