Criticism of The Spirit Level

September 29, 2012

Earlier this year the RSA hosted a debate on The Spirit Level, the highly influential book by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. That book and the subsequent TED lecture by Wilkinson provided what seemed to many like an extraordinarily strong case for the idea that income inequality is the driving force in social dysfunction and that reducing income inequality will benefit virtually everyone in wealthy societies, even those at the top of the economic pyramid. The sobering RSA debate presents evidence and arguments to the contrary, from Christopher Snowdon and Peter Saunders. The main critique that Snowdon and Saunders advance, a claim repeated in this article in the Guardian, is that Wilkinson and Picket seem to be picking certain data, excluding other data (e.g. data on South Korea), and ignoring certain rules of statistical analysis in order to get results that fit their pre-determined political views. That’s a serious criticism, if it’s true, and Wilkinson and Pickett aren’t completely persuasive in their attempt to demonstrate that it is not true. Part of the problem is that the debate turns on technical questions in statistics and research methods that are  beyond the competence of the average person. In the absence of expertise in the relevant field, it seems that the average person will need to wait for some sort of a consensus to emerge among those who do have expertise and interest in this area. 

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