George Will on the Arizona shooting, sociology, and social engineering

The opinions are flying regarding the Arizona shooting over the weekend. Conservative commentator George Will enters the fray with some thoughts about sociology:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson’s occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds. The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

This does seem to be a common human desire: to establish order within the chaos of life. But I would make a distinction between his quick thought here that sociology and half-baked explanations are related. As a discipline, sociology seeks to observe and measure reality. Bad sociology leaps to half-baked conclusions while good sociology follows the scientific process, looking for evidence of causation. Bad sociology is really “pop sociology” or “armchair sociology” where commentators leap to certain conclusions without carefully considering the evidence or attempting to be objective.

Will then goes on to talk about what he thinks is behind the desire of the Left to blame the Right for the shootings:

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

Using the term “social engineering” is an interesting choice. It implies images of 1984 or A Brave New World where a powerful government dictates what people should do in order to fulfill their own ideas of human perfection. Of course, there is a lot that could be discussed on the subject of human perfection (can humankind bring about its own redemption?), what kind of perfection is desirable (individualism or a Marxist collective?), and how to reach this point (and whether it has to be “clever” or not). And if we have some tools and knowledge that could help improve the social environment, available through disciplines like sociology, shouldn’t we pursue some of these options?

But by linking sociology and social engineering, Will is obscuring the fact that the social environment does play some role in influencing human behavior. It does not completely determine human behavior but there would be few social scientists who would claim this. Figuring out why humans do what they do is a complicated story involving both nature and nurture.

From Will’s point of view, do conservatives deny that the social environment affects human behavior? Do conservatives not try some social engineering of their own to advance particular ideas and policies?