Salon points us to this study/ sociological working paper entitled "Engineers of Jihad," which looks at the prevalence of science professionals and engineers among radical Islamist movements. Here is an excerpt from the abstract:
We find that graduates from subjects such as science, engineering, and medicine are strongly overrepresented among Islamist movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in Western countries more recently. We also find that engineers alone are strongly over-represented among graduates in violent groups in both realms. This is all the more puzzling for engineers are virtually absent from left-wing violent extremists and only present rather than over-represented among right-wing extremists. We consider four hypotheses that could explain this pattern. Is the engineers’ prominence among violent Islamists an accident of history amplified through network links, or do their technical skills make them attractive recruits? Do engineers have a ‘mindset’ that makes them a particularly good match for Islamism, or is their vigorous radicalization explained by the social conditions they endured in Islamic countries?
Can this logic be applied to supervillains? Indeed, there seems to be something unique about Islamist extremism, as the authors note that engineers were "virtually absent from left-wing violent extremists and only present rather than over-represented among right-wing extremists." However, most supervillains are not motivated by politics, but rather by pathology.
The authors also note that the interaction between the latter two hypotheses proposed (in bold) is a more plausible explanation for the phenomenon. Social conditions is an unlikely explanation in the case of supervillains, since engineers in Western countries who later turn to villainy are likely to experience the same, non-radicalizing conditions as those who don't. But, do engineers (and scientists in this case) have a mindset that would make them a good match for supervillainy?
When you think about it, this seems pretty reasonable. The most successful supervillains, after all, are the ones who wield creative scientific powers and are able to build massive doomsday devices, teleporters, or mind-control machines. There are also plenty of engineer/scientist supervillains in the lot: Dr. Doom, The Leader, The Mad Hatter, The Fixer, The Wizard, and so on. Even guys like the Joker are known to have aptitudes in physics and chemistry; in fact, if your interpretation is the Alan Moore one, then the Joker was formerly an engineer!
Let's take a sample of notable Batman villains, as provided by Wikipedia, and check out their professions. Out of the list, the following were formerly scientists and engineers:
Mark Desmond (Blockbuster)
Preston Payne (Clayface)
The Joker (Moore's interpretation)
The Mad Hatter
Ra's al Ghul
This is 10 out of 39 villains, or about 26% who were professional scientists of some kind. This does not include the foes of lesser renown, in which I'm sure there are plenty of engineers/scientists. Of course, most from the list above are not actually engineers and many (Poision Ivy, the Scarecrow, etc.) are trained in biological and social sciences (psychology, neuroscience, etc.), rather than the physical sciences (chemistry, physics). So it actually looks like the presence of engineer-type science professionals, at least in this sample, is smaller than I had initially thought.
I would also like to point out that Ra's al Ghul is a particularly interesting case since he is, in addition to being a supervillain, an international terrorist. Furthermore, although not having roots in the physical sciences (chemistry, physics and engineering), he was a professional physician with a deep passion for conducting scientific research. This training eventually helped him develop his biologically engineered weapons that he would often use in his schemes against the world.
What do you all think? Can you think of any other samples of villains (as specific or broad as you want--specific superhero titles, for instance, or even entire universes) that would likely have more scientists/engineers among their ranks? Can the conclusions drawn from the paper be applied to supervillainy or does the logic fall apart when you stop outside of Islamist extremism?