In the preface to their best-selling book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett compare what they call their ‘discovery’ that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’ with the scientific breakthroughs of Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur. The intention may be to equate the work of social scientists with that of biologists, chemists and bacteriologists. By placing themselves in the company of those who made world-changing discoveries in the sphere of biology and germ theory, they perhaps hope to narrow the gap between the social sciences and the physical sciences. Above all, they seem to want to medicalise the issues of income inequality and wealth redistribution.
There are, I think, two reasons for this - firstly, the desire to portray income inequality - and the free market capitalism believed to cause it - as a disease infecting the social state. If viewed in the context of a public health peril, governments can wage war on it as they did with smallpox. Secondly, presenting the case as if it were based on hard science enables it to be portrayed as non-ideological and not politically motivated.
Neither claim stands up to scrutiny. The soft social sciences are always going to provide more equivocal evidence than the physical sciences and while Wilkinson and Pickett are social epidemiologists, The Spirit Level is much closer to sociology than epidemiology. Societies are not lab rats and the simplistic bivariate scatter-plots presented in The Spirit Level could not be further away from double-blind randomised control trials.
The notion that Wilkinson and Pickett are non-ideological is difficult to maintain in the light of their political activity. As well as being involved with the Socialist Health Association and a long-standing campaigner for left-wing causes, Wilkinson has spoken about the need to rebuild the empirical evidence for socialism that was once provided by Marx, and explicitly sees his work on inequality as being one component of this. He and Pickett helped found two political pressure groups (the Equality Trust and the One Society) and by the time The Spirit Level has reached its closing chapters, any pretense of political impartiality has been abandoned.
None of this means that their conclusions are wrong, but empirical claims are there to be tested and in the last year a number of people, including myself, the British sociologist Peter Saunders and the Swedish team of Sanandjai et al., have done so. Despite working independently, all three of the resulting critiques identified similar serious flaws in their analysis. I doubt any of us were expecting Christmas cards from Wilkinson and Pickett for our trouble, but nor could we have anticipated the vitriol of the response. For having the temerity to show that health and social outcomes tend to be worse for black Americans than for whites, Saunders was effectively called a racist. For no reason whatsoever, critics were described as being of the ‘far-right’.
In November 2010, a fresh edition of The Spirit Level was published ‘with a new chapter responding to critics’. More of a counter-attack than a defence, this chapter centred around the twin notions that (a) The Spirit Level reflected a well-established scientific consensus, and (b) criticism of their methods and findings were ‘foul attacks’ from well-funded right-wing groups determined to refute an irrefutable large body of evidence. In my view neither of these claims resemble the truth and as an addendum to The Spirit Level Delusion I have released an additional chapter of my own (for free download) critiquing Wilkinson and Pickett’s interpretation of the academic literature and their defence of their methods.
To read the new chapter, click here.