Is it true scientists and engineers are more prone to being recruited as jihadis? Paul Vallely in his Guardian article, Are scientists easy prey for jihadism? suggests maybe it is. This is not an easy question to answer but perhaps we see fundamentalist economics at play here!
Engineers solve convergent problems. These can be highly complex but if you crunch the numbers, the likelihood is they will converge on one or a few answers. Furthermore, once you get it right, others can reproduce your answers and there may be consensus about the correct answer.
This approach contrasts with divergent problems where more information leads to increasing numbers of answers. There is no right answer and so everyone has to choose the answers they want to run with. This means answers are contested and any consensus will be provisional. The arts and humanities generate divergent problems.
Vallely’s article suggests someone has studied mainly convergent problems might seek convergent answers in all disciplines. This leads to a fundamentalist mindset, where there is one answer and everyone who disagrees is being deliberately obtuse.
I have two problems with this view:
Are Scientists and Engineers really More Prone to Fundamentalism?
Vallely suggests this problem may originate in universities in the Middle East. This could be so. However, if the problem is with convergent problem solving, then any student in engineering or science disciplines would be vulnerable.
First, whilst I appreciate scientific disciplines may be taught in such a way that only convergent problems count, it simply is not true that all scientific problems are convergent. Indeed physicists sometimes adopt a mystical worldview as they probe the mysteries of relativity and quantum mechanics.
I can appreciate some people who work in IT might see all problems as convergent. Certainly many people treat website design as if it is! A moment’s reflection would show website design is far more a human than a technical challenge. They are communication tools and so good design addresses the infinite range of human perceptions.
Surely, the problem is the other way round? Many religious people do not understand science. The fundamentalist mindset is attracted to a worldview where both science and religion produce single correct answers.
Take a look at this passage from Vallely’s paper:
What Rose has done is to highlight three specific traits that characterise the “engineering mindset”: first, it asks “why argue when there is one best solution?”; second, it asserts “if only people were rational, remedies would be simple”; and third, it appeals to those with an underlying craving for a lost order, which lies at the heart of both salafi and jihadi ideology.
These are traits of fundamentalist thinking. Vallely is right when he says it depends on how scientific subjects are taught. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Fundamentalists attracted to engineering are just as likely as engineers becoming fundamentalists.
Here’s a cartoon about Religion, Science and the Fundamentalist Mindset.
It is an Economic Problem
So, what explains this correlation (if it exists)? I think the clue is right at the end of Vallely’s article:
But they will need something that cannot come from western cultural experts. What the report omits to point out is that students will require input from others within their faith – to open up to them the richness of the Islamic traditions that constituted the religion before the arrival of oil-rich salafi fundamentalism.
The key word is “oil-rich”. Fundamentalism is divisive because it promotes superiority for those who are right and traditionally wealth is the primary indicator of who is right.
Neo-liberal economic systems treat economics as a science. When I was at university in the 1970s, economics was a part of the social sciences and as a real scientist, I looked down on social sciences as a subject that had pretensions to scientific rigour.
Certainly, some social scientists envy science’s clarity. But economics is a divergent system. Whilst it is possible to play the system if you have enough wealth or power, it still depends on multiple human interactions.
IS Same or Different?
The wealthy use the power of wealth to control others. Fundamentalism is one way of doing this. Islamic State (you know who I mean) opposes the West, not because they are different but because they are similar. The neo-liberal state is a direct competitor to their power base.
Most of us don’t have a stake in this rivalry. Refugees and those killed as a result of terrorist attacks in the West are victims of a proxy war between two competing ideologies. The wealthy have a lot to defend and can afford the weapons.
We’re often told IS is not Medieval because they use the Internet and modern warfare but the rich and powerful have always been with us. They’ve always dealt in certainties because it allows them to divide the world into good and evil.
Vallely is right about the richness of Islamic traditions. The best in all the religious traditions favours supporting ordinary people who simply want to make a living in the world.