One of the mysteries that haunts my wife — Junko Yoshida, editor of EE Times — is why engineers, as a rule, tend to be so politically conservative.
As an amateur political scientist and lifelong know-it-all, I tell her that this tendency is partly explained by ethnicity, income, and gender. America's conservative party, the Republicans, are overwhelmingly white and traditionally wealthier than the average bear. They also get more votes from men than women. This description — affluent white male — tends to cover most engineers.
But this is a pretty rough thumbnail. Although engineers tend to lean Republican, they're also scientists. This is why my wife assumed — reasonably — that even if engineers were otherwise conservative, they would dissent from the virulent anti-science movement that has emerged on America's right wing. But they don't dissent.
Judging from their correspondence, most engineers are skeptical of climatologists whose body of evidence on the human role in climate change seems overwhelming. Similarly, many engineers are dubious of most environmental science, and they seem to prefer Old Testament literalism to the daring curiosity of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and generations of paleontologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and others who have expanded human knowledge of evolution.
But I think I know why engineers seem alienated from disciplines so close to their own. The explanation lies in my hometown and the choices made by two high school friends, Vern and Victor (not their real names). The hometown is a Midwest university city, where the campus is vast and mostly beautiful. The one section that isn't so pretty is a flat stretch on the far side of the railroad tracks, where they keep the School of Engineering.
Vern was valedictorian of his class, gifted in math, chemistry, and physics. But he also wrote poetry, read philosophy, and pontificated passionately about the fragile ecosystem of the American prairie. When he entered the university, he faced Yogi Berra's fork in the road. Would he climb the hill beside the lake and study humanities, or would he trudge into the dusty valley and sign up at the School of Engineering?
Vern had never been “cool” in high school. But he attained instant cool when he decided to get a degree in English, among the hippies and tree-huggers up on the hill. Meanwhile, Vern's classmate, Victor, chose engineering. He grew more and more conservative as his college years progressed. Victor — like Vern — didn't take any political science courses, nor did he pay much heed to politics at all. He didn't even read Ayn Rand. But he gradually styled his politics on those of Vern's — not in imitation, but in opposition.
He resented the self-styled “intellectuals” on the hill, who were supposedly immersed in Schopenhauer and Loren Eiseley but — Victor perceived — were mostly smoking dope, advancing the sexual revolution, sunbathing on the lakefront, and occasionally joining an anti-war demonstration and running wild in the streets. So he decided that whatever they were for, he was against, and vice-versa.
Victor's sense was that, if all this laziness, looseness, and looniness was what it took to be an intellectual, then he — who was pre-emptively blackballed from the club anyhow — would go the other way. Hence, largely out of a contrarianism fueled by his outsider status, Victor tapped into a persistent strain in American culture that historian Richard Hofstadter has traced back to the Salem witch trials. Hofstadter's book is entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
There might also be a movie. But I'm not sure the shoe fits. As a self-styled intellectual, I could never bring myself to watch Revenge of the Nerds .