Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Salem Conjecture

The Salem Conjecture was popularized by Bruce Salem on the newsgroup It dates to before my time on that newsgroup (1990) and I haven't been able to find archives to research the exact origin. The conjecture was explained by Bruce on numerous occasions, here's a statement from Sept, 5, 1996.
My position is not that most creationists are engineers or even that engineering predisposes one to Creationism. In fact, most engineers are not Creationists and more well-educated people are less predisposed to Creationism, the points the statistics in the study bear out. My position was that of those Creationists who presented themselves with professional credentials, or with training that they wished to represent as giving them competence to be critics of Evolution while offering Creationism as the alternative, a significant number turned out to be engineers.
This is the so-called "soft" version of the conjecture. The "hard" version is that there is something about being an engineer that leads one to become a creationist. That's not what Bruce said,
For a long the so-called "soft" hypothesis is the one I have been putting forth, not the one earlier attributed to me. I have also further qualified it by saying numerous times that religious belief was the most significant factor. The reason I prefer to call my idea a "conjecture" is that I have had only anecdotal data to support it.
The Salem Hypothesis has its own entry on Wikipedia [Salem Hypothesis]. Both versions of the Salem Conjecture are listed there. The Jargon File is incorrect because it only lists the hard version and attributes it to Bruce Salem.

We all know that scientists overwhelmingly reject creationism so it doesn't come as a surprise that there are so few scientists in the creationists movement. Ironically, the creationists long for scientific validity while, at the same time, they attack all the basic principles of science. The few so-called scientists who subscribe to superstition get very prominent play among the creationists.

Engineers are not scientists and they did not have much scientific training in school. They are technologists (i.e., engineers) and that's not the same thing. I don't think engineers spend much time studying evolutionary theory in university. (It's probably too difficult for them.)

Among the general public the distinction between scientists and technologists is lost so whenever an engineer comes out in favor of superstition (s)he is counted as a scientist. This is what the Salem Conjecture says. Whenever you see a common run-of-the-mill creationist who claims to have scientific knowledge, chances are they're an engineer and not a scientist.

Here's how Bruce explained it on on May 10, 1996 in response to an engineer who was objecting to the conjecture.
By your own admission you are running the risk of becoming yet another data point for something called the "Salem Hypothesis" or "Salem Conjecture" in which I noticed some time ago the number of people publically supporting Creationism whether in Creationist publications or this group claiming to be "scientists" were mostly engineers. Most of them had little knowledge of the scientific disciplines that relate to the scientific acceptance of evolution and an old earth. Many people have noticed subsequently that while engineers as a group seem more inclined as a majority to believe Darwin, those with a background in certain religions and those concerned with intelligent design seemed predisposed to accept
Creationism or the arguments that support it.
This morning Larry Faraman, the author of the blog I'm From Missouri, posted this message [The Salem Hypothesis].
I have been aware for a long time that engineers have an especially strong tendency to be skeptical of Darwinism, but I just now learned that this tendency has a name: the "Salem hypothesis." I am especially interested in this tendency because I am an engineer myself ....

I feel that the reason why we engineers tend to be skeptical of Darwinism is that we are a logical, practical, no bullshit, cut the malarkey, "I'm from Missouri," "show me" kind of people.
The irony is palpable. Mr. Faraman, an engineer, is skeptical of evolutionary biology and, by implication, most of the rest of science. On the other hand, he's not the least bit skeptical of creationism. Another solid data point for the Salem Conjecture. In this case, it's the "hard" version that Mr. Faraman is supporting. He claims that training in technology predisposes one to believe in superstitious nonsense. Maybe he's right. I look forward to hearing from other engineers on this point.

BTW, Missouri must be a very strange state. These days when someone begins a conversation with "I'm from Missouri" it's usually following by something irrational.


  1. I feel I should repost this

    COEN 432 Applied Genetic and
    Evolutionary Systems (3 credits)
    Prerequisite: COEN 352 or COMP 352. Motivation
    for the use of Genetic Algorithms (GAs). Theory:
    the Schema Theorem, the K‑armed Bandit, the
    Building Block Hypothesis, the Idealized GA and
    comparison of GAs. Methodology: representation,
    fitness and selection, crossover and mutation,
    parameterization and constraints, implementation.
    Applications: function optimization, evolving computer
    programs, optimizing a pattern recognizer,
    system modelling. Identification of classes of
    problems suitable for the use of GAs. Lectures:
    three hours per week.

    COEN means computer engineering, personaly I think the reason there are more creationist engineers then scientists is because there are more engineers then scientists.

  2. I don't think engineers spend much time studying evolutionary theory in university. (It's probably too difficult for them.)

    Gratuitous insults aside, as Pascal points out, there are in fact engineering courses in the *application* of evolution/genetics to engineering. Engineering is, of course, all about application.

    My personal theory (hem, hem) about why there appear to be more creationist engineers than scientists is (hem, hem):
    1) If one is religious while being inclined towards science and/or technology, engineering is a safe place to express that inclination without being threatened by incovenient facts.

    2) The general public can't tell science from engineering. Creationist organizations can take advantage of this by citing the academic and professional credentials of their engineer spokespersons* as if they were qualifications in science.

    *has anyone heard of female engineer creationists?

  3. Long before I saw anything in writing about the "Salem Conjecture", I had arrived at a similar but more limited conclusion about my own field, computer software engineering. My own conjecture was that computer programmers have a strong psychological preference for things that have clear discrete values (binary being the extreme case) and can be processed by deterministic algorithms. By comparison, biology seems messy, probabilistic, and full of exceptions and oddities.

    My own biology education consisted of a worthless and boring high school class taught by a Catholic nun, and a computer science degree which I obtained without having to take any biology whatsoever. Following an encounter with a computer programmer and rabid young earth creationist, I embarked on a 10+ year self-study program of intensive reading. Gradually I came to see the beautifully intricate structure that evolution brought to the messiness of biology. I also came to see how the oddities and quirkiness exhibited by many species made perfect sense in light of evolution, and made no sense whatsoever in the intelligent design / creationist model.

    I wonder if others would think that some of the reasons I have cited for computer engineers' attraction to creationism are applicable to engineers in general?

  4. As a former engineer (now a geoscientist-in-training) and the spouse of an engineer, I want to point out that engineers tend to assume they're right until compelling contrary evidence comes along. It usually doesn't matter if their default position is well-thought-out or not. And the more attached to the default position, the more compelling the evidence required to make the engineer re-think that position.

    Scientists, on the other hand, tend to know we're living in a world of hypotheses. (I don't mean to imply that evolution, or plate tectonics, or what have you are hypotheses, just that the details of the most current research are by their nature playing with hypotheses.) Those of us with large egos may have trouble admitting publicly that new evidence trashes our hypothesis, at least initially. But we're generally aware that the possibility exists. Our engineering colleagues are often not.

  5. I did mean to sign that last comment about engineer-think vs. scientist-think. Sorry.

  6. Just out of interest, engineers make up 8.27% of the DI's Darwin dissenters list.

  7. I think there is an important distinction that has to be made. The issue is "relative to what?" Engineers are statistically much less likely to be creationists than the national average (at least in the U.S.), but more likely to be creationists than true scientists are.

    I think something important to keep in mind is that the whole of engineering education is taught from a design standpoint. All problems engineers solve in their education are based on the assumption the whatever it is they are working with was designed. The problems are unsolvable if you don't make that assumption. If you are trying to analyze something, it was obviously designed. If you are trying to solve a something the problem you are trying to solve was designed to be solvable. The entire engineering problem-solving strategy in the coursework is based on that assumption. Everything they work with has a purpose, everything they work with has a goal. Circuits do not evolve. Trusses do not mutate. Engineers are taught the tools necessary to solve engineering problems, but they are never taught to limit those tools to those problems.

    Now I am not saying that engineers are better able to detect design. It is more of a "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" sort of thing. They are just trained to operate that way. And I can tell you it is an extraordinarily difficult mindset to break out of. It is not something explicitly taught, it is the fundamental basis on which the thinking in the field is built. That means it is ingrained in people without them even realizing it. It is sort of like the way everything that is done in science education is based on the premise that nature always follows invariable rules. It is necessary for the field to operate. Unlike that assumption, however, engineering's assumption cannot be relied on outside of engineering itself. But since it is not something explicitly dealt with it is not something that engineers, in my experience, consciously realize they are doing. In fact, from what I have seen it seems to be something that engineers making the transition to biology have to be actively trained not to do.

    As for evolution being too difficult, don't count on it. Engineers aren't taught it because it really is not useful for most engineers (although that is changing I hear). Engineerings deal with extremely difficult courses. But the courses are limited to those that it is perceived engineers will be required to use. That means physics, math, and engineering, primarily. Basic chemistry and basic biology maybe, but otherwise it is mostly physics, math, and engineering.

  8. I don't for one moment think that engineers couldn't understand evolutionary theory: they are trained to take in huge masses of detail and see the big picture as well. In fact, if exposed to it without bias, I think they'd love it--the way the happenstances of individual lives add up statistically; the way DNA codes tRNA codes peptide chains, which fold in a certain way, which bring certain stretches of protein together, which form chemically active sites; the way cane toads that have slightly longer legs are more likely to push into new territory; they way; the way one winter storm can raise the average mass of birds in a a flock by 50%.... The trouble is that they emerge from university without having been exposed to evolution's principles and mechanism. Instead they come out thinking that they know everything that matters and used to looking at everything as design.

  9. This tells me that the perfect gift for an engineering student who is at all interested in science is the complete popular works of Stephen Jay Gould--not the textbooks but The Panda's Thumb, Bully for Brontosaurus, An Urchin in the Storm, The Flamingo's Smile, Dinosaur in a Haystack, and so on. And then throw in Carl Zimmer's "Evolution," the one with the eyes on the cover, because it's extremely breezy and readable. That will get them on the side of logic and mechanism if anything will.

  10. My own conjecture was that computer programmers have a strong psychological preference for things that have clear discrete values (binary being the extreme case) and can be processed by deterministic algorithms. By comparison, biology seems messy, probabilistic, and full of exceptions and oddities.

    I think this is too broad a generalization. There are many areas of both theoretical and applied computer science that are incredibly messy and probabilistic. Quantum computing computing is an extreme example, more mundane ones are optimization theory, adaptive computing and most areas of artificial intelligence.

    I would also take issue with the hard and fast distinction assumed in this thread. I don't think you can effectively decouple science from technology in any meaningful way. Many PhD. level research scientists (a career I'm aiming for) in fields like physics and computer science end up in industry researching topics that are effectively technology, such as semiconductor fabrication and fiber optic communications. The same thing is true of biology, where you have applied genomics, medicine and other biotech areas.

    Understanding science is required for technology, and our technological achievements can often inform our scientific understanding in return. I don't think strict demarcation between the two is really as necessary as would seem in the current academic discourse.

  11. An understanding of science facts is required for technology, but an understanding of the practice of science is not. That is they key distinction. A mechanical engineer has to know the physics behind the movement of fluids, for instance, but he or she does not need to know how the principles were determined. It would contribute little or nothing to their ability to apply those principles to whatever they are working on. Similarly an electrical engineer needs to know the physics behind the flow of current, but it would not help him to know how those principles were originally discovered. It may even be counterproductive. An engineering education is already extremely time-consuming and difficult even at the undergraduate level, there simply is not time for a lot of additional coursework that will not help them solve engineering problems. No matter how much it may be nice for engineers to learn biology, for instance, it simply takes too much time if they are not going to be working on biological problems.

    The problem is not that engineers are not trained in biology. Neither are physicists. The problem is that some engineers seem to feel that their engineering training makes them experts on topics they know absolutely nothing about. By speaking out on these topics they are violating the National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics that all engineers are supposed to abide by. Rules they break include:

    I.2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.

    I.3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

    II.2. Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.

    II.2.a. Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields involved.

    II.2.b. Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control.

    II.5.a. Engineers shall not falsify their qualifications or permit misrepresentation of their or their associates’ qualifications. They shall not misrepresent or exaggerate their responsibility in or for the subject matter of prior assignments. Brochures or other presentations incident to the solicitation of employment shall not misrepresent pertinent facts concerning employers, employees, associates, joint venturers, or past accomplishments.

    III.3. Engineers shall avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public.

    III.3.a Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact.

    III.3.c. Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may prepare articles for the lay or technical press, but such articles shall not imply credit to the author for work performed by others.

  12. There are more creationists among engineers than among scientists because scientists are more knowledgable about science than engineers. Duh! I'll also bet there are more creationists among lawyers than among scientists. Duh again!

    But engineers are definitely more creative than scientists (since scientists are more constrained by the physical world). And artists are the most creative of all.

  13. I've been both a biology student and an engineering student (and work as a civil engineer-in-training now), and I did feel like there were slightly more hardcore religious people in engineering, though I didn't take a survey or anything.

    Echoing Todd, part of the problem may be that we engineers aren't scientists per se. We start with the science that's given to us and then figure out ways to use it. We tend not to think about how the science works (we have design codes so we don't need to think that much) nor do we deal with the type of problems that interfere with religious thinking (with the possible exception of mining engineers who get to see all that geology stuff). Another difference between engineering and scientific thinking is that when faced with a very complicated problem, the scientist will try to understand the workings of the system in minute detail, whereas the engineer will make a bold simplifying assumption then build in a safety factor.

    "Engineers are not scientists and they did not have much scientific training in school. They are technologists (i.e., engineers) and that's not the same thing. I don't think engineers spend much time studying evolutionary theory in university. (It's probably too difficult for them.)"

    You are way off base here, Dr. Moran. We're not scientists, but engineers are far more than technologists. We have technologists where I work - they do the CAD, run materials tests, do surveys etc. Engineers on the other hand have the body of knowledge that enables them to understand and design whatever it is they work with, and most of the time, that includes some significant understanding of the underlying science.

    In university, you study what's important to your discipline. Hell, my wife's an electrical engineer and I don't have the slightest clue what she does, and that's still considered engineering. There's no way I'd study evolutionary biology (except that I did when I was a biology student, but I'm an exception). Let me tell you, as someone who's done both, engineering courses are ridiculously more difficult than biology courses. I don't think biologists spend much time studying structural dynamics in university. (It's probably too difficult for them.)

    "has anyone heard of female engineer creationists? "
    Sadly, there are not enough female engineers to be that much of a problem. It's one of the blemishes on our profession that we've been relatively unsuccessful in increasing the number of women in engineering, though not for lack of trying.

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  15. Aside from the unearned insults and provocations, I think the answer to the question if "training in technology predisposes one to believe in superstitious nonsense" is negative. But the practices may support such a conflation between superstition and woo which I think this is about.

    First, a direly needed disclosure. My training is first in engineering and then science, so I'm not neutral but also feel for both sides. I was also early interested in nature, up to the point that I received a token stipend as best student in biology at my high school, but I steered away from it because it was too easy, too small a challenge. ;-) (I'm not sure I would say so today though, seeing some of the messy modeling problems that biologists may want to attack.)

    "Engineers are not scientists and they did not have much scientific training in school. They are technologists (i.e., engineers) and that's not the same thing. I don't think engineers spend much time studying evolutionary theory in university. (It's probably too difficult for them.)"

    Most of my basic points have been made already. As Aardvark I see a lack of understanding of the diversity of engineers, ranging from technologists (short course alternatives in some countries) to doing 1-2 preparatory years of much the same studies and laboratory work as physicists, sharing courses.

    And as Tyler I see unmotivated distinctions between science and technology. I think modeling and the axiomatic methods of science are well known among engineers with longer educations. And for myself I don't think I fully appreciated the usefulness of the predictive parts of science until well after my PhD. I have met engineers that are consistently working experimentally and theoretically when elaborating new systems and designs, albeit in the small scale that immediate need necessitate.

    The point that remains for me to make is that besides the numbers statistics of engineers vs scientists, IMHO the characterization of engineers as figuring in woo and crankery was well established before the internet and ID. The design speculations seems unjustified. A convenient "just so model", perhaps? ;-)

    Some engineers have been introvert or extrovert market opportunists and pushed the most elaborate Rube Goldberg inventions, scams and grand failures in later history. (Though to come back to technologists, there is a lot of conflation here too.)

    And the need for engineers to often rapidly survey and come up with solutions in new situations makes the then useful habit of ad hocs easily spill over into other areas, at least as far as I can observe. It is just that ad hocs seldom luck out to be generalizable knowledge, and especially without real feedback from observations and tests mostly not working at all.

    It can become woo galore in some cases, especially when some engineers want to mess further with the science they have become acquainted with and interested in. It isn't just evolution and creationism.

    Perhaps the useful question is instead how to try to channel and meaningfully put to work some (realistically not all :-( of the creative energies shown?

  16. Torbjorn,

    I can't find a private message function on blogger, so I hope Larry doesn't mind this. I'd like you to drop me a line when you have a sec, my email address is in my profile (link embedded in name, of course).

  17. I am Bruce Salem, who originated the so-called Salem Conjecture on in 1988. The Wikipedia page on this had been probationary until someone found a published paper I had seen some years ago lending support to the "soft" version. The page has been veted with that citation, when I looked recently.

    This issue comes up again for me when I hear engineers who don't seem to practice the art of suspending judgement, which seems to be the one of the prime skills of scientists. Several of the postings here make the useful distinctions about the focus of an engineer's training and the mental stance of being in problem solving mode. What I think the idea I brought up back in 1988 is cautionary, not a condemnation of engineering, but of the tendancy of a type of personality that "fixes" things and sticks too strongly to the solution. So, the
    individual who inspired the conjecture was an EE who worked for Tecktronix and said he had the expertise to judge evolutionary beliefs, when in fact he was a theist with a bias that he wanted to conceal and misrepresent himself.

    I live in Silicon Valley where there are per capita as many engineers as almost anywhere else in the world. Where I am seeing the Salem Conjecture at work here is not in the Creationism arena but in the political arena, which is all about solutions to problems, analysis and problem solving, and I see the same pattern mistakes in areas beyond a narrow expertise, of being arrogant and holding a strong if poorly constructed opinion.

  18. Sorry, I meant to say that there are MORE engineers in Silicon Valley per capita than almost anywhere else. I
    didn't see the review button; I need the wheelchair icon :-)

  19. Bruce Salem writes,

    I am Bruce Salem, who originated the so-called Salem Conjecture on in 1988.

    Hi Bruce! Welcome to Sandwalk.

    And thank-you for the Salem Conjecture. I still use it to poke fun at Steve and Seanna Watson.