What Do Skeptics, Creationists, and Terrorists Have in Common?

No, it’s not the love of explosives. It’s the observation that we have an inordinate number of engineers in our groups. A recent article posted to the geek news website slashdot discussed some reasons for why engineers may be so attracted to terrorism. The whole time I was reading the article and comments I couldn’t help but think of our more benign, and in my opinion, beneficial group of like minded individuals: skeptics. This issue is of relevance to me in particular because I happen to be a skeptic and an engineer.

At local Ottawa Skeptics events, we’ve been averaging around 20 people. Of those 20, I’d say that at least half are an engineer of some type. This may be an anomaly due to the fact that Ottawa has a fairly active high tech industry, but from meeting people at skeptical events in other cities, such as TAM, I think it’s safe to say that we have a lot of skeptic engineers. On the other hand, the creationists also tend to have a lot of outspoken engineers in their group too (check out the Salem hypothesis). Why so many engineers in skepticism, creationism, and even terrorism?

Before I attempt to answer, you may fairly ask if there is even anything to be explained. I’m well aware of Ray Hyman’s “categorical imperative”, the idea that a phenomenon should be confirmed to exist before attempting an explanation. I don’t have data to offer, just an anecdote. When my wife asked me what I was going to write about this week I gave her the title of the article. She quickly shot back: “engineers”. The look on her face when I told her she was right was priceless. That was all the confirmation I needed to spend my time writing this article.

So, what do they all have in common? I don’t have the answer, but I like some of the hypotheses generated in the slashdot comments. One commenter suggested a reason for terrorists being engineers comes down to the observation that engineers view the world in black and white:

Engineers are ALWAYS right. ALWAYS. Even when (especially when?) something is clearly opinion based. Ask a non-eng what their favorite color is, you get a simple answer. Ask an eng the same, you get an answer PLUS reasons why it is superior to other colors.

You won’t find many postmodernist engineers. For many engineers, their solution to a given problem is the correct one, and everyone else’s solution is “stupid”. You also will find this trait amongst skeptics. We will often be very opinionated, and be able to debate our opinion to the bitter end.

Another commenter replied with his view of liberal arts students:

All of them have real trouble in fields like math and science because in those fields there are correct and incorrect answers, and incorrect answers cannot be met by “that’s just, like, your opinion, man”. Of course, xkcd shows it far better than I ever could.

Worth mentioning is that the smarter liberal arts types aren’t like this at all. For instance, smart English majors can point out the structures of literature that make it all tick, or exactly how a sentence can be better phrased. Smart history majors can provide all the major sources for a historical event, explain what biases each source had and how that affected their description of the event, piece together what probably actually happened, and are probably some of the best BS detectors out there.

The latter group I recognize from the liberal arts graduates that are in the skeptical community. One common issue that we’re constantly trying to get across to people is that in scientific debates, such as vaccine safety or creationism, there are some opinions that are just plain wrong. People with engineering backgrounds seem to grasp this concept very easily.

LordKazan writes of engineering:

… it doesn’t challenge their religious dogma like the other departments with their more rounded gen ed requirements do. Let alone the departments in Arts and Sciences like Geology, Biology, Paleontology, etc that the findings of openly challenge their dogma.

This might help explain why you find terrorist engineers and creationist engineers. It provides a technical background without the basic science to challenge religious beliefs. This doesn’t explain skeptics, but it doesn’t have to. There’s of course many possible explanations, some more influential than others, but no single explanation.

Timothy Brownawall says it’s all about “rules”:

Engineering is about carefully following an existing set of rules, like building codes and the laws of physics. It can require cleverness, but only in how to best achieve your goals while staying within the rules (“solve this problem, within these constraints”). Maybe there’s a mindset where it just doesn’t really matter where the rules come from, and religious rules are just as good as physical or legal rules? This would be in contrast to science, where the goal is to find the rules and poke at them until you understand them (“find out what the constraints are, and why”).

Maybe engineers are attracted to religious terrorism, creationism (which is religion based) and skepticism because both religion and skepticism offer “rules”. Mainstream religions offer rigid rules codified in the Bible/Koran, while skepticism offers the rigid rules of logic and evidence. Perhaps this may be a possible explanation for why some of the more well known skeptics are, such as Michael Shermer, former religious believers.

One aspect to an engineer’s view of life that I’ve noticed is the belief that every problem has a solution. For a skeptic, this may mean that every strange phenomenon has a rational explanation waiting to be found. For a creationist that may mean that the appearance of design implies a designer. I’ve also noticed this mindset in the world of alternative medicine. I know a few engineers that have fallen for the empty claims of alternative medicine, and I suspect that it’s due to this idea of every problem having a solution. Scientific medicine has not cured all disease, and humans still must face death, which is a problem. Since a solution must exist for every problem, and mainstream medicine doesn’t provide it, then quack medicine must, or so their subconscious thinking may go. I don’t really know, but I suspect this may be influencing some people I know.

As for the mystery laid out in the provocative title, I doubt that I have provided an adequate explanation, but as an engineer, I can’t help but suspect that there is a solution to this problem.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.