The Human Souls of Engineers | Bleader

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Human Souls of Engineers

Posted By on 06.17.10 at 02:02 PM

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As a semi-lapsed academic, I've been really disappointed in the way accused spree killer Dr. Amy Bishop, PhD, got dropped down the mass media's memory hole after the initial flurry of excitement over her alleged rampage last February. (Do you have to be a broken-down football player to stay in the homicidal spotlight? What a sad comment on American anti-intellectualism.)

Bishop, you may not recall, is the Harvard-trained University of Alabama engineering prof charged with blowing away three of her colleagues and wounding three others after her department denied her tenure. It subsequently emerged that she'd previously been on the Dick Cheney end of a shotgun blast that killed her younger brother in 1986. That death was originally deemed an accident, despite the fact that Amy fled the supposed crime scene with the weapon and then tried to hijack a getaway car with it.

As of yesterday, reports the New York Times today, Bishop has been charged in connection with that incident as well. But here's the crazy-cool part of this new development. The new murder charge rests in part on a real-world implementation of one of TV forensics' hokiest tropes: the magically felicitous computer enhancement of a randomly acquired old photograph. (If you're not familiar with this well-traveled wheeze, Youtube has this stellar greatest-hits reel to bring you up to speed.)

Per the Times:

When Mr. Keating announced a judicial inquest into Seth Bishop’s death in late February, he said investigators had re-examined photographs taken of Dr. Bishop’s bedroom shortly after her brother’s death and enlarged them. They found a newspaper article that described someone killing a relative with a shotgun and then stealing a getaway car from a dealership, he said.

Here's another fun angle to the story: it would seem that engineers are statistically overrepresented among the ranks of Islamofascist terrorists. What's that got to do with Bishop? Stay with me: according to this Slate piece from late last year, a couple of sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, recently put their minds to figuring out why this was the case. After testing a variety of theses, the scholars attributed this pattern to what Slate contributor Benjamin Popper termed “a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise.”

I don't know whether that diagnosis necessarily applies to Bishop, but it definitely accords with the case of Dr. Valery Fabrikant, a former engineering prof at my alma mater, Concordia University in Montreal. In 1992, the year I graduated, Fabrikant shot and killed four of his colleagues and winged a secretary. His beef with the department was rooted in his conviction that he'd been unfairly denied tenure and that he'd been forced to share publishing credits for his solo research with higher-ups who hadn't contributed to the papers. From the prison cell where he'll likely spend the rest of his days the notoriously rigid Fabrikant still maintains that the killings were justified.

On a personal note, a few months before the shooting I was personally compared in print to Fabrikant by the editor of the university administration's weekly newspaper. The good doctor and I were both prone to writing a lot of seething letters to the editors of that and other campus organs. Mine were outlets for my exasperation at the hideous prevailing climate of brain-dead political correctness at every level of the institution, so it's a matter of record that I was a high-profile campus crank. I always thought my stuff was funnier than Fabrikant's though. More concise, too.

Fabrikant, by the way, seems to take umbrage at any comparison between his rampage and Bishop's. That's assuming that the comment at the bottom of this blog post was actually written by him. Hey, Valery, drop a line if you read this!

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