Sunday, March 30, 2008

Engineering terror

On Shashi Tharoor's article in ToI dated March 30, 2008

ST refers to a research by Oxford academicians Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog that points to a link between engineers and terrorists, implying that engineers are more susceptible (than people of other educational background) to the influence of radicalism.

IMHO, this is being naive. That engineers are part of recent terrorist outfits is beyond doubt. How else could it be? Terrorism needs exacting engineering acumen. And it has the wherewithal to get it. But should one therefore conclude that it is engineering education (or attitudes) that pushes people over the thin line between construction and destruction?

Fact is, it takes engineers to construct or destruct. And therefore, engineers become sitting ducks for the likes of Gambetta and Hertog. Just how many farmers or lawyers or bakers or dentists or accountants or historians or archeologists does Al Qaida employ? Zilch. And therefore, all these other professions are so noble. And Brutus is an honorable man.

The researchers seem to imply the following: Engineers are the ever-vulnerable species, waiting to be hooked willingly into a terrorist network that allows them all the engineering freedom they would ever need. Terrorism throws up the most challenging engineering problems which no self-respecting engineer would turn his back on. Worse, an engineering turned terrorist starts a viral marketing session infecting other (innocent) fellow engineers with the the lethal doze of terrorism and then it continues all over again.

The following questions beg for answers:
a) The research seems to ignore government sponsored wars. One man's war is another's terrorism. The governments, by far, employ far more engineers than do terror outfits. If engineers are seen as vulnerable to the advances of radicalism, what should one conclude from the huge number of engineers that work in defense departments of governments the world over? Look beyond the mere 25 years of terrorism history and you will see an engineer behind every man-made catastrophe - the atom bomb, the holocaust gas chambers..all the way back to the gun powder. Engineers of all shades have not been deciding for what and how their skill is employed. They offer their services to a master who decides to bomb a city or crash the twin towers. In all cases, the motivations behind the masters decisions can always be questioned. Academicians are expected to be unbiased and see the simple truth in this argument.

b) ST argues that engineering creates a one-sided view of the world, where there can be no two solutions to a problem. Shashi, you couldn't be further away from truth. Engineering never implies a single solution to a problem. Engineering is all about thinking out of the box and offering several solutions(Management is about evaluating these solutions and choosing from them). Lets take a simple example - traffic problem in Indian cities. Engineers would come up with 4 different solutions and let someone else decide. Studying humanities is not the only way to understand or appreciate multiple perspectives. Humanities could well be Shashi's favorite way. But there are several others, and probably better ones too.

c) ST states that ignorance and lack of imagination cause violence. And Shashi is naive. The war-on-terror is not due to lack of imagination or ignorance. On the contrary, there is clear agenda (ex-diplomats will hate to admit) and a clearer objective behind the war. No, that does not include the removal of Saddam or Bin Laden for their inhuman acts. The real reason for the war is in the bottom lines of the engineering firms behind the war. Unless you are crippled by ignorance or lack imagination (most likely due to an extended course in humanities while being completely unaware of the commerce departments), you will recognise this simple truth. Money talks. Others, who merely talk, dont matter.

ST concludes with a recommendation for making humanities a compulsory part of engineering education. Good idea. As an engineering student, I missed it. Yes, I did more than compensate for it by spending as much (if not more) time on reading literature as engineering texts. However, one needs to understand that the world of engineering is growing at a rapid rate and professors can not keep pace with the change. Adding humanities to the curriculum cannot be at the cost of engineering education, especially because engineering is already a great way to understand multiple perspectives and broaden ones horizon. A study in humanities, I must admit, will hardly bring any further benefit.