Tag Archives: Middle East

“Innovation and its enemies” and “Science in Wonderland”: a commentary on two books and a few thoughts about fish (1 of 2)

There’s more than one way to approach the introduction of emerging technologies and sciences to ‘the public’. Calestous Juma in his 2016 book, ”Innovation and Its Enemies; Why People Resist New Technologies” takes a direct approach, as can be seen from the title while Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain” presents a more fantastical one. The fish in the headline tie together, thematically and tenuously, both books with a real life situation.

Innovation and Its Enemies

Calestous Juma, the author of “Innovation and Its Enemies” has impressive credentials,

  • Professor of the Practice of International Development,
  • Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Better Science and International Affairs,
  • Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and
  • Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Even better, Juma is an excellent storyteller perhaps too much so for a book which presents a series of science and technology adoption case histories. (Given the range of historical time periods, geography, and the innovations themselves, he always has to stop short.)  The breadth is breathtaking and Juma manages with aplomb. For example, the innovations covered include: coffee, electricity, mechanical refrigeration, margarine, recorded sound, farm mechanization, and the printing press. He also covers two recently emerging technologies/innovations: transgenic crops and AquAdvantage salmon (more about the salmon later).

Juma provides an analysis of the various ways in which the public and institutions panic over innovation and goes on to offer solutions. He also injects a subtle note of humour from time to time. Here’s how Juma describes various countries’ response to risks and benefits,

In the United States products are safe until proven risky.

In France products are risky until proven safe.

In the United Kingdom products are risky even when proven safe.

In India products are safe when proven risky.

In Canada products are neither safe nor risky.

In Japan products are either safe or risky.

In Brazil products are both safe and risky.

In sub-Saharan Africa products are risky even if they do not exist. (pp. 4-5)

To Calestous Juma, thank you for mentioning Canada and for so aptly describing the quintessentially Canadian approach to not just products and innovation but to life itself, ‘we just don’t know; it could be this or it could be that or it could be something entirely different; we just don’t know and probably will never know.’.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated in this book was the broadening of the geographical perspective on innovation and emerging technologies to include the Middle East, China, and other regions/countries. As I’ve  noted in past postings, much of the discussion here in Canada is Eurocentric and/or UScentric. For example, the Council of Canadian Academies which conducts assessments of various science questions at the request of Canadian and regional governments routinely fills the ‘international’ slot(s) for their expert panels with academics from Europe (mostly Great Britain) and/or the US (or sometimes from Australia and/or New Zealand).

A good example of Juma’s expanded perspective on emerging technology is offered in Art Carden’s July 7, 2017 book review for Forbes.com (Note: A link has been removed),

In the chapter on coffee, Juma discusses how Middle Eastern and European societies resisted the beverage and, in particular, worked to shut down coffeehouses. Islamic jurists debated whether the kick from coffee is the same as intoxication and therefore something to be prohibited. Appealing to “the principle of original permissibility — al-ibaha, al-asliya — under which products were considered acceptable until expressly outlawed,” the fifteenth-century jurist Muhamad al-Dhabani issued several fatwas in support of keeping coffee legal.

This wasn’t the last word on coffee, which was banned and permitted and banned and permitted and banned and permitted in various places over time. Some rulers were skeptical of coffee because it was brewed and consumed in public coffeehouses — places where people could indulge in vices like gambling and tobacco use or perhaps exchange unorthodox ideas that were a threat to their power. It seems absurd in retrospect, but political control of all things coffee is no laughing matter.

The bans extended to Europe, where coffee threatened beverages like tea, wine, and beer. Predictably, and all in the name of public safety (of course!), European governments with the counsel of experts like brewers, vintners, and the British East India Tea Company regulated coffee importation and consumption. The list of affected interest groups is long, as is the list of meddlesome governments. Charles II of England would issue A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses in 1675. Sweden prohibited coffee imports on five separate occasions between 1756 and 1817. In the late seventeenth century, France required that all coffee be imported through Marseilles so that it could be more easily monopolized and taxed.

Carden who teaches economics at Stanford University (California, US) focuses on issues of individual liberty and the rule of law with regards to innovation. I can appreciate the need to focus tightly when you have a limited word count but Carden could have a spared a few words to do more justice to Juma’s comprehensive and focused work.

At the risk of being accused of the fault I’ve attributed to Carden, I must mention the printing press chapter. While it was good to see a history of the printing press and attendant social upheavals noting its impact and discovery in regions other than Europe; it was shocking to someone educated in Canada to find Marshall McLuhan entirely ignored. Even now, I believe it’s virtually impossible to discuss the printing press as a technology, in Canada anyway, without mentioning our ‘communications god’ Marshall McLuhan and his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Getting back to Juma’s book, his breadth and depth of knowledge, history, and geography is packaged in a relatively succinct 316 pp. As a writer, I admire his ability to distill the salient points and to devote chapters on two emerging technologies. It’s notoriously difficult to write about a currently emerging technology and Juma even managed to include a reference published only months (in early 2016) before “Innovation and its enemires” was published in July 2016.

Irrespective of Marshall McLuhan, I feel there are a few flaws. The book is intended for policy makers and industry (lobbyists, anyone?), he reaffirms (in academia, industry, government) a tendency toward a top-down approach to eliminating resistance. From Juma’s perspective, there needs to be better science education because no one who is properly informed should have any objections to an emerging/new technology. Juma never considers the possibility that resistance to a new technology might be a reasonable response. As well, while there was some mention of corporate resistance to new technologies which might threaten profits and revenue, Juma didn’t spare any comments about how corporate sovereignty and/or intellectual property issues are used to stifle innovation and quite successfully, by the way.

My concerns aside, testimony to the book’s worth is Carden’s review almost a year after publication. As well, Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the federal government of New Zealand, mentions Juma’s book in his January 16, 2017 talk, Science Advice in a Troubled World, for the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

Science in Wonderland

Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain” provides an overview of the fashion for writing and reading scientific and mathematical fairy tales and, inadvertently, provides an overview of a public education programme,

A fairy queen (Victoria) sat on the throne of Victoria’s Britain, and she presided over a fairy tale age. The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented interest in fairies and in their tales, as they were used as an enchanted mirror in which to reflection question, and distort contemporary society.30  …  Fairies could be found disporting themselves thought the century on stage and page, in picture and print, from local haunts to global transports. There were myriad ways in which authors, painters, illustrators, advertisers, pantomime performers, singers, and more, capture this contemporary enthusiasm and engaged with fairyland and folklore; books, exhibitions, and images for children were one of the most significant. (p. 13)

… Anthropologists even made fairies the subject of scientific analysis, as ‘fairyology’ determined whether fairies should be part of natural history or part of supernatural lore; just on aspect of the revival of interest in folklore. Was there a tribe of fairy creatures somewhere out thee waiting to be discovered, across the globe of in the fossil record? Were fairies some kind of folks memory of any extinct race? (p. 14)

Scientific engagements with fairyland was widespread, and not just as an attractive means of packaging new facts for Victorian children.42 … The fairy tales of science had an important role to play in conceiving of new scientific disciplines; in celebrating new discoveries; in criticizing lofty ambitions; in inculcating habits of mind and body; in inspiring wonder; in positing future directions; and in the consideration of what the sciences were, and should be. A close reading of these tales provides a more sophisticated understanding of the content and status of the Victorian sciences; they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants. (p. 18)

Segue: Should you be inclined to believe that society has moved on from fairies; it is possible to become a certified fairyologist (check out the fairyologist.com website).

“Science in Wonderland,” the title being a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, was marketed quite differently than “innovation and its enemies”. There is no description of the author, as is the protocol in academic tomes, so here’s more from her webpage on the University of Cambridge (Homerton College) website,

Fellow, Graduate Tutor, Director of Studies for History and Philosophy of Science

Getting back to Keene’s book, she makes the point that the fairy tales were based on science and integrated scientific terminology in imaginative ways although some books with more success than other others. Topics ranged from paleontology, botany, and astronomy to microscopy and more.

This book provides a contrast to Juma’s direct focus on policy makers with its overview of the fairy narratives. Keene is primarily interested in children but her book casts a wider net  “… they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants.”

In a sense both authors are describing how technologies are introduced and integrated into society. Keene provides a view that must seem almost halcyon for many contemporary innovation enthusiasts. As her topic area is children’s literature any resistance she notes is primarily literary invoking a debate about whether or not science was killing imagination and whimsy.

It would probably help if you’d taken a course in children’s literature of the 19th century before reading Keene’s book is written . Even if you haven’t taken a course, it’s still quite accessible, although I was left wondering about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and its relationship to mathematics (see Melanie Bayley’s December 16, 2009 story for the New Scientist for a detailed rundown).

As an added bonus, fairy tale illustrations are included throughout the book along with a section of higher quality reproductions.

One of the unexpected delights of Keene’s book was the section on L. Frank Baum and his electricity fairy tale, “The Master Key.” She stretches to include “The Wizard of Oz,” which doesn’t really fit but I can’t see how she could avoid mentioning Baum’s most famous creation. There’s also a surprising (to me) focus on water, which when it’s paired with the interest in microscopy makes sense. Keene isn’t the only one who has to stretch to make things fit into her narrative and so from water I move onto fish bringing me back to one of Juma’s emerging technologies

Part 2: Fish and final comments

Masdar Institute and rainmaking

Water security, of course, is a key issue and of particular concern in many parts of the world including the Middle East. (In the Pacific Northwest, an area described as a temperate rain forest, there tends to be less awareness but even we are sometimes forced to ration water.) According to a July 5, 2017 posting by Bhok Thompson (on the Green Prophet website) scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [UA]E) have applied for a patent on a new technique for rainmaking,

Umbrella sales in the UAE may soon see a surge in pricing. Researchers at the Masdar Institute have filed for a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for their discovery – and innovative cloud seeding material that moves them closer to their goal of producing rain on demand. It appears to be a more practical approach than building artificial mountains.

Dr. Linda Zou is leading the project. A professor of chemical and environmental engineering, she is one of the first scientists to explore nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain. By filing a patent, the team is paving a way to commercialize their discovery, and aligning with Masdar Institute’s aim to position the UAE as a world leader in science and tech, specifically in the realm of environmental sustainability.

A January 31, 2017 posting by Erica Solomon for the Masdar Institute reveals more about the project,

The Masdar Institute research team that was one of the inaugural recipients of the US$ 5 million grant from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science last year has made significant progress in their work as evidenced by the filing a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

By filing a patent on their innovative cloud seeding material, the research team is bringing the material in the pathway for commercialization, thereby supporting Masdar Institute’s goal of bolstering the United Arab Emirates’ local intellectual property, which is a key measure of the country’s innovation drive. It also signifies a milestone towards achieving greater water security in the UAE, as rainfall enhancement via cloud seeding can potentially increase rainfall between 10% to 30%, helping to refresh groundwater reserves, boost agricultural production, and reduce the country’s heavy reliance on freshwater produced by energy-intensive seawater desalination.

Masdar Institute Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Linda Zou, is the principal investigator of this research project, and one of the first scientists in the world to explore the use of nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain.

“Using nanotechnology to accelerate water droplet formation on a typical cloud seeding material has never been researched before. It is a new approach that could revolutionize the development of cloud seeding materials and make them significantly more efficient and effective,” Dr. Zou remarked.

Conventional cloud seeding materials are small particles such as pure salt crystals, dry ice and silver iodide. These tiny particles, which are a few microns (one-thousandth of a millimeter) in size, act as the core around which water condenses in the clouds, stimulating water droplet growth. Once the air in the cloud reaches a certain level of saturation, it can no longer hold in that moisture, and rain falls. Cloud seeding essentially mimics what naturally occurs in clouds, but enhances the process by adding particles that can stimulate and accelerate the condensation process.

Dr. Zou and her collaborators, Dr. Mustapha Jouiad, Principal Research Scientist in Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nabil El Hadri and PhD student Haoran Liang, explored ways to improve the process of condensation on a pure salt crystal by layering it with a thin coating of titanium dioxide.

The extremely thin coating measures around 50 nanometers, which is more than one thousand times thinner than a human hair. Despite the coating’s miniscule size, the titanium dioxide’s effect on the salt’s condensation efficiency is significant. Titanium dioxide is a hydrophilic photocatalyst, which means that when in contact with water vapor in the cloud, it helps to initiate and sustain the water vapor adsorption and condensation on the nanoparticle’s surface. This important property of the cloud seeding material speeds up the formation of large water droplets for rainfall.

Dr. Zou’s team found that the titanium dioxide coating improved the salt’s ability to adsorb and condense water vapor over 100 times compared to a pure salt crystal. Such an increase in condensation efficiency could improve a cloud’s ability to produce more precipitation, making rain enhancement operations more efficient and effective. The research will now move to the next stage of simulated cloud and field testing in the future.

Dr. Zou’s research grant covers two more years of research. During this time, her team will continue to study different design concepts and structures for cloud seeding materials inspired by nanotechnology.

To give you a sense of the urgent need for these technologies, here’s the title from my Aug. 24, 2015 posting, The Gaza is running out of water by 2016 if the United Nations predictions are correct. I’ve not come across any updates on the situation in the Gaza Strip but both Israel and Palestine have recently signed a deal concerning water. Dalia Hatuqa’s August 2017 feature on the water deal for Al Jazeera is critical primarily of Israel (as might be expected) but there are one or two subtle criticisms of Palestine too,

Critics have also warned that the plan does not address Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to water and the development of infrastructure needed to address the water crisis in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians in the West Bank consume only 70 litres of water per capita per day, well below what the World Health Organization recommends as a minimum (100).

In the most vulnerable communities in Area C – those not connected to the water network – that number further drops to 20, according to EWASH, a coalition of Palestinian and international organisations working on water and sanitation in the Palestinian territories.

The recent bilateral agreement, which does not increase the Palestinians’ quota of water in the Jordan River, makes an untenable situation permanent and guarantees Israel a lion’s share of its water, thus reinforcing the status quo, Buttu [Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team] said.

“They have moved away from the idea that water is a shared resource and instead adopted the approach that Israel controls and allocates water to Palestinians,” she added. “Israel has been selling water to Palestinians for a long time, but this is enshrining it even further by saying that this is the way to alleviate the water problem.”

Israeli officials say that water problems in the territories could have been addressed had the Palestinians attended the meetings of the joint committee. Palestinians attribute their refusal to conditions set by their counterparts, namely that they must support Israeli settlement water projects for any Palestinian water improvements to be approved.

According to Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, “There are many things to be done together to upgrade the water infrastructure in the PA. We are talking about old, leaking pipes, and a more rational use of water.” He also pointed to the illegal tapping into pipes, which he maintained Palestinians did because they did not want to pay for water. “This is something we’ve been wanting to do over the years, and the new water agreement is one of the ways to deal with that. The new agreement … is not only about water quotas; it’s also about more coherent and better use of water, in order to address the needs of the Palestinians.”

But water specialists say that the root cause of the problem is not illegal activity, but the unavailability of water resources to Palestinians and the mismanagement and diversion of the Jordan River.

Access to water is gong to be of increasing urgency should temperatures continue to rise as they have. In many parts of the world, potable water is not easy to find and if temperatures continue to rise areas that did have some water security will lose it and the potential for conflict rises hugely. Palestine and Israel may be a harbinger of what’s to come. As for the commodification of water, I have trouble accepting it; I think everyone has a right to water.

Water desalination to be researched at Oman’s newly opened Nanotechnology Laboratory at Sultan Qaboos University

Before getting to the news, here’s some information (for those who may not be familiar with the country) about the Sultanate of Oman and why this water desalination project is very important. From the Oman Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Oman (Listeni/oʊˈmɑːn/ oh-MAAN; Arabic: عمان‎ ʻUmān), officially called the Sultanate of Oman (Arabic: سلطنة عُمان‎ Salṭanat ʻUmān), is an Arab state in southwest Asia on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It has a strategically important position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is bordered by the United Arab Emirates to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Yemen to the southwest and also shares a marine border with Iran. The coast is formed by the Arabian Sea on the southeast and the Gulf of Oman on the northeast. The Madha and Musandam exclaves are surrounded by the UAE on their land borders, with the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman forming Musandam’s coastal boundaries.

From the 17th century, Oman had its own empire, and vied with Portugal and Britain for influence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. At its peak in the 19th century, Omani influence or control extended across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran, and modern-day Pakistan, and as far south as Zanzibar.[7] As its power declined in the 20th century, the sultanate came under heavy influence from the United Kingdom, though Oman was never formally part of the British Empire, or a British protectorate.

Oman has a hot climate and very little rainfall. Annual rainfall in Muscat averages 100 mm (3.9 in), falling mostly in January. The Dhofar Mountains area receives seasonal rainfall (from late June to late September) as a result of the monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean saturated with cool moisture and heavy fog.[39] The mountain areas receive more plentiful rainfall, and annual rainfall on the higher parts of the Jabal Akhdar probably exceeds 400 mm (15.7 in).[40] Some parts of the coast, particularly near the island of Masirah, sometimes receive no rain at all within the course of a year. The climate generally is very hot, with temperatures reaching around 50 °C (122.0 °F) (peak) in the hot season, from May to September.

The Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Information’s Omanet.om website offers this about water (from the Water webpage),

Oman is in the world’s arid belt and depends on groundwater and its limited rainfall . The demand for water continues to rise.   A national water resources conservation plan has been drawn up to further rationalise and improve water consumption practices and explore for new groundwater reserves. The Sultanate now has a complete, up-to-date and properly documented database covering all the country’s available and potential water resources, together with details of their status and conditions. Studies on new ways of rationalising water consumption are ongoing.

 Water Resources Management

The approach here is the emphasis on making judicious use of available water resources and reducing waste.

The management plan includes:

Reduction of water loss to the sea or desert

Providing potable water in communities

Developing and improving aflaj systems

Intensification of studies

Changing land use in some regions

Increasing recovery rates of water loss

Implementation of awareness programs

The fact that there is a Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC)suggests an important problem especially in this region. (If you know of any collaborative water projects for other regions, please do let me know about them in the Comments.) From the MEDRC homepage,

MEDRC is a Center of Excellence in Desalination and Water  Reuse Technology established in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, December 1996.

MEDRC Mission Statement

The mission of MEDRC is to contribute to the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa by promoting and supporting the use of desalination to satisfy the needs of the people of this region for available, affordable, clean fresh water for human use and economic development. This is done through the advancement of desalination technology, education in the technology and training in its use, technology transfer, technical assistance, and building cooperation between nations to form the joint projects and international relationships necessary to meet the needs for fresh water.

The Peace Process to resolve the issues of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority that have troubled the Middle East for almost a century included the establishment of MEDRC to assist in meeting the fresh water needs of the parties involved. This is still the first priority of MEDRC. However, MEDRC’s activities extend to and benefit the entire region and beyond. MEDRC is advancing the use of desalination and waste water reuse thru regional and international cooperation to overcome current and future world water supply deficiencies.

The MEDRC also has a 6 pp. PDF titled: Overview on Desalinated Water in the Sultanate of Oman. So this news about a nanotechnology lab opening in Oman which is focused on water desalination is big news, from the Feb. 19, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The Nanotechnology laboratory at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman, as a part of The Research Council (TRC ) Chair in Nanotechnology for Water Desalination, was officially opened yesterday under the patronage of Dr Hilal bin Ali al Hinai, Secretary-General of TRC. The state-of-the-art laboratory of the TRC Chair, contains wet-chemistry facilities and analytical equipment rooms, and has been built in a single workspace on the College of Engineering premises. Talking about the activities of the Chair in terms of research and related activities, Prof Joydeep Dutta, the Chair Professor, said that research and development focused on the application of nanoparticles, nanomaterials and desalination processes.

A Feb. 18, 2014 news item in the Oman Observer provides additional detail,

“The Chair aims at innovative research suited to the region, education and training of highly qualified personnel and in increasing public and industrial awareness of nanotechnology, amongst others. The current research group is involved in developing applications that address the needs of those who are without — clean drinking water, cheap energy, unspoiled food and the other necessities required to provide for a decent living. The Chair is focusing on dedicated research and development issues addressing water desalination-both of seawater as well as brackish water”, he said. At present, a few broad themes for research were identified in consultation with the technical committee and work is continuing along these themes. The research themes are “Designer metal-oxide nanostructures”, “Capacitive desalination with functionalised nanostructures”, “Condensation induced renewable desalting”, and “Functionalised micro or nano membranes”.

The unifying concept in the laboratory is to make use of inexpensive wet-chemical methods to fabricate innovative materials and futuristic device components with an eye on its application in water desalination and water treatment. …

Although dated Feb. 19, 2014, a news release on the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) website appears to have originated the news item on the Nanowerk website and on the Osman Observer website.

I have previously written about water in the Middle East within the context of a June 25, 2013 post regarding a research collaboration between the University of Chicago and Ben Gurion University in Israel. I managed to include a bit about Palestine and its very serious water problem (the Gaza’s sole aquifer may be unusable by 2016) in that post, about 3/4 of the way down.

Higher education and political violence

There’s a fascinating study by Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog, of the London School of Economics, first published in 2008, where amongst other findings they noted a disproportionate number of engineers were found in right-wing groups that practice or advocate political violence. Since the 2008 publication,  Gambetta and Hertog have continued the study and are preparing to publish a book on their work. Steven Curry at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum recently (Sept. 15, 2010) interviewed Hertog about the findings. You can find the podcast here.

Thanks to Christine Peterson’s (Foresight Institute) Sept. 16, 2010 posting for pointing to this podcast and here are a couple of excerpts on her thoughts about the study,

I have not listened to this, but the obvious answer would seem to be that many people might wish to be effective terrorists, but only the more technical ones have the needed skills to carry out an action that causes significant harm. (I have often been thankful that the superb technical people I know appear to have no leanings in that direction.)

For now, nanotechnologies are primarily being developed by people who are not likely to deploy them for terrorist purposes, but as time passes this will change. It took about a century for airplanes to be used outside traditional warfare to do major harm; probably that sequence will be faster for nanotechnologies.

I did listen to the podcast and Hertog was very careful to make clear that there are some nuances to be considered. First, the study was not focused on engineers or right-wing groups.  As he points out in the podcast, left-wing groups also practice or advocate political violence but they don’t tend to have disproportionate numbers (as compared to what you’d expect from a random sampling of the population) of engineers. If I understand Hertog correctly, left-wing groups tend to attract students and graduates from the humanities and social sciences and can be just as successful with their attempts at political violence. (Note: In the Vancouver (Canada) area, there was the Squamish Five [aka Direct Action] in the early 1980s who firebombed three porn video outlets, a munitions manufacturer (located in the Toronto area), and a BC Hydro substation on Vancouver Island amongst other activities to protest capitalism and the failure of other forms of political activism. Not a single one of the ‘activists’ was an engineer. Wikipedia essay here.)

In much the same way that trying to establish simple causal relationships has led to some of the disappointments in gene therapy and other recent scientific endeavours (my Sept. 21, 2010 posting), Hertog is careful to provide some nuance to this social discussion.

The researchers broke down Islamist and other groups by country and found that in Middle Eastern countries engineers are held in high esteem so ambitious young people study to be engineers. High numbers of recently graduated engineers when coupled with a poor labour market in Middle Eastern countries that also host groups advocating/practicing political violence had a higher than expected  proportion of engineers. In other words, the engineers’ job prospects were not good.The two Middle Eastern countries with the best labour markets for engineers didn’t have disproportionate numbers of engineers in right-wing groups advocating/ practicing political violence.

The researchers also noted that engineers regardless of their geographic location tend to be more politically right-wing than other occupations which, if they are frustrated, may predispose them to right-wing causes. By that token, I imagine that frustrated social scientists and humanities graduates would be predisposed to left-wing causes. In any event, having a predisposition to left-wing or right-wing causes and being frustrated in the labour market doesn’t guarantee that you will be practicing political violence. It’s not that simple but the study does provide some food for thought as we try to figure out why people are moved to political violence and whether we can find better ways to respond ahead of time. Bravo to Steven Curry and the IEEE for opening a discussion about this work.