A superb critique of “The Spirit Level”

If you haven’t read a book that made you laugh out loud on the bus or the Tube in a while, try Christopher Snowdon’s superb release, The Spirit Level Delusion (SLD).

But the book’s subtle humour is not the reason I am recommending it. The SLD is, above all, a book that delivers and goes well beyond the promise of its subtitle – “fact-checking the left’s new theory of everything”.    

It starts by exposing the empirical flaws in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (SL), which claims that just about every social problem is caused by income inequality. Using where possible the same data sources as the authors, Snowdon shows that the results have been influenced by the choice of countries and indicators. Including just a handful of additional countries is enough to make many of the SL graphs, which show data points scattering around a straight line, dissolve into shapeless point clouds. Approximating the same abstract concept with a different proxy measure does either the same, or even reverses the correlation shown in the SL. And where this is not the case, an alternative explanation for the observed pattern is usually not too difficult to find.

Snowdon does not, of course, conclude that inequality “causes” positive social outcomes, or that the English-speaking countries perform per se better than Scandinavia. The SLD is not the inverse of the SL. Its message is merely that if you were searching for the philosopher’s stone, keep searching. The SL does not contain it.

The first three-quarters of the SL, while ultimately unconvincing, at least make an interesting and engaging read. Towards the last quarter, the SL degenerates into a conventional anti-consumerist rant. In this part, the authors repeat the same old story that the government should curtail our wealth and force us to live more simple lives, so that we can discover the things that “truly” matter. It is therefore appropriate that towards the last third of the SLD, Snowdon broadens his attack well beyond the SL itself. He critically examines a range of popular anti-consumerist literature and exposes it for the badly concealed, authoritarian elitism that it is.

When all is said and done, the SL is a variant of this strand of literature. It envisions a social system in which wise rulers prevent us from developing aspirations by insulating us from the sight of wealth and success, and thus protect us from the dangers of disappointment, failure, stress and anxiety. If a metaphor was to be chosen for this type of social system, it would be a giant playpen.

And this is precisely the reason why Snowdon’s full-scale attack is relevant. Some have argued that the SL was just a temporary intellectual fad which will be forgotten in a few years. But the wider idea that a happier society could be created by restricting people’s lifestyle choices and material possessions has come to fascinate many intellectuals, and it has been around well before the SL. The parallels with the ascent of socialism, described by Hayek in The Intellectuals and Socialism, are eerie. It may well be that the next big battle for a free society will be fought against the new anti-wealth egalitarianism. Christopher Snowdon has provided defenders of freedom with powerful ammunition.

“If a metaphor was to be chosen for this type of social system, it would be a giant playpen.”I disagree. The word is more like “paddock”, “sty” or more likely, “farm”.When I see such scrit, I tend to imagine the authors believing that “we” (the proles) must have our choices limited and curtailed, but “they”, (the elite), can go on as normal.

Peter Saunders’ critique of The Spirit Level for Policy Exchange is also worth reading: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/publication.cgi?id=195

The debate on this book has a further aspect as well. Wilkinson and Pickett’s response to to criticism has been to attack the motives of the critics rather than their ideas. I think this is due to the fact that left-wing intellectuals and academics usually only discuss with those they already agree this and so they develop a false idea of what the consensus of opinion is. Hence they cannot accept criticisms can be anything but extreme or ill-motivated. This happens to an extent on the right as well, but the left dominates academic social research and so their ability to marginalise views they find uncongenial is significant.

@Peter – A case in point is their article in the Guardian attacking Peter Saunders’ report: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/09/spirit-level-policy-...

Richard, you’re quite right and there have been articles in the Guardian more recently – they are seriously rattled on this. What is interesting in the article you cite is that Wilkinson and Pickett criticise Saunders for cherry picking his data, but this is precisely what they do in order to fulfil their desire to prove inequality.Also note the automatic use of ‘extreme right wing’ to refer to any and all critics. I think it was David Marsland who made the point that there are only two types of sociology: ‘academic sociology’ and ‘right wing sociology’.

The Times Higher reported last week that the authors of The Spirit Level are no longer going to respond to critics of their work unless the criticisms appear in a peer-reviewed journal. Professor Wilkinson compares his critics like Chris Snowdon to “climate change deniers”.

well done kristian. this devastating critique of the spirit level deserves the strongest support from everyone interested in truth

I would suggest Kristian Niemietz if Snowden and Saunders work is so good, so devastating, so undeniably robust and so intellectually and academically honest they should have their work peer reviewed as Wilkinson and Pickett have done by hundreds of academics and specialist in this field – BUT they dare don’t!

@petrov petrovic – Why should they have faith in the peer review process when academia, particularly the social sciences, is dominated by neo-Marxists and other hardline socialists?

Snowdon studied history; Saunders a sociologist; Wilkinson and Pickett are Epidemiologists; Epidemiology is highly regarded in evidence-based medicine and is a highly specialised discipline – it is not sociology, it is not history and it is not the social sciences. If Snowdon and Saunders have a killer, argument their arguments will cut through the so-called bias that you believe exists in whatever discipline. However, I suspect their real audience are the ignorant, the uninitiated the layperson who do not know their elbow from their backbone on these matters. Snowdon and Saunders arguments are not for academia in a controlled forum where false claims and sloppy work will be accepted. Their efforts are to create controversy where none exists and so to create doubt in our minds.

Petrov,
peer-reviewed journals publish papers which make an original contribution to some narrowly defined field. They don’t publish rebuttals of popular books. If you know a journal which does, tell S&S about it. But as for the academic standard: If you think a scatterplot comprising 20-ish country-dots (=W&P) is brilliant science, then please explain why a scatterplot comprising 27-ish country-dots (=Snowdon) is trash. In the empirical part, all that Snowdon does is repeat the W&P-exercise plus adding Hong Kong, S. Korea, Slovenia, CZ, Hungary, Israel and (where missing in W&P) Singapore. Or replacing 2004-data with 2006-data. Or… well, you get the point.

Actually, let me put it shorter: Could it be that when you say something is “devastating, undeniably robust, intellectually and academically honest”, what you really mean is that you personally sympathise with the content, and that when you say something is NOT “devastating, undeniably robust, intellectually and academically honest”, what you really mean is that you DON’T personally sympathise with the content?

Kris, Since I was blocked at the time from responding on 14/9/10 I'll respond now. W&P had their research tested by their peers in a peered review process. The criticisms that S&S make would have been picked up in that process. The process didn't because there was no error in their work. S&S very well know they can do the same in the very same peer review forum, but they don't. They don't because they know their work is wrong. I sympathise with the content because the work has passed the test of a scientific standard. S&W work has not and wouldn't.

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