Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Supervillain Engineers

The Wizard:  Genius Inventor/Lame Supervillain

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)
Hugo Strange
The Joker (Moore's interpretation)
The Mad Hatter
The Man-Bat
Mr. Freeze
Poison Ivy
The Scarecrow
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?


Tom said...

Are you looking at villains independent of heroes? Just off the top of my head there are eight or nine heroes with engineering (or hard science) backgrounds (Tony Stark, Hank Pym, Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, hell, even The Engineer!)

What is the balance of percentage of engineers btwn good and evil?

So is it the opposite in comics? Or is it pretty much dead even?

Chakat Firepaw said...

I think you hit on one of the reasons for the number of engineer/scientist villains:

"The most successful supervillains, after all, are the ones who wield creative scientific powers...."

A lot of the mad scientist/inventor types do see a reasonable amount of success, which means that they are less likely to say "fsck this, I'm getting a real job." Also, some of them are scoring successes even when the heroes stop their plots, just demonstrating the working device/chemical/organism is proof of the creator's genius even if the application does not pan out.

algeya said...

If where more accountants and lawyer super villains probably they would be more succesful.

Norman osborn used his dumb luck and his political powers instead of his chemical and business skills to become one of the most important persons in M.U.

Anonymous said...

TOM most of the succesful super heroes are dumb

Will said...

I always found it interesting how many psychiatrists/psychologists go bad in comic books. The Batman villains noted in the article are some, but also Moonstone, Doctor Faustus, one of the Green Goblins, and Harley Quinn (not mentioned in Batman list). It seems like that profession ends up with a fair number of villains and quite a few enter the villain profession without any "accident" driving them insane.

I would agree with the others that mad genius villains are a common theme in comic books, so engineers would be a big fit. I guess given the changing world and the desire to build small explosives that fit in underwear or shoes, there is a reason why engineers might be overrepresented in terrorist groups. I would also guess, without any real knowledge, that the cultures in the middle east favor science over the liberal arts for education. Considering the primary work in the region (oil, construction, etc.), engineers might be a very common degree, so the prevalance of science of professionals and engineers in radical Islamist movements might mirror the prevalance in the societies where the radical Islamist movements stem.

ShadowBanker said...

Tom - That's a great question. Possible post topic!

Chakat - The more scientific-oriented villains definitely seem to be the most successful.

Algeya - Perhaps it's the combination of both.

Will - Interesting point about psychiatrists. Do you think that it has something to do with how psychiatrists are portrayed in Miller's "Dark Knight Returns?" That is to say, some are simply sympathetic to villains, believing them to be creations borne out of the very existence of Batman. Take Harley's origin in Batman TAS as an example of this--her training as a psychiatrist seemed to make her MORE susceptible to the will of the Joker.

All - I had a discussion with a friend last night about this topic, who noted the emphasis in the study on engineers as opposed to scientists in general. He proposed that one reason for the extremism among engineers could be that scientists are taught to question, whereas engineers focus more on building. What do you think about this?

Anonymous said...

Has preety impressive list of Engineers:

Shocker and Mysterio I assume can be counted in this group

Chakat Firepaw said...

I can buy that as part of the reason for engineers being on the nutty fringe, I've seen a similar effect with creationists.

BTW: Used in a name, Chakat is effectively an honorific.

Granite26 said...

Engineers tend to be further right than other educated types. Check the reputations of technical schools versus normal universities.

Islamic Terrorism is (uniquely for terrorism, I think) right-wing.

Socially awkward, Right wing, Good with hands, thinks of the world as something that can be 'fixed' with a pull of the right lever.

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yeah you are right, all the super villains are super genius in some scientific area, Joker is a chemistry master, Dr Freeze is a medic, or for example Dr Octopus a physic, with all this cualities is too hard to take down for our heroes.

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