As promised last week, ResPublica Research Assistant Florinda Pjetri reports on the RSA's Spirit Level debate
Last week at the RSA
, the co-authors of the Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett went head-to-head with Peter Saunders and Christopher Snowdon, the fiercest critics of their influential work, to debate its methodology and the conclusion that “more unequal countries (and within the USA, more unequal states) suffer from higher crime rates, worse infant mortality, greater obesity, poorer education standards, lower average life expectancy, less social mobility, and much else besides.”
Christopher Snowdon, the author of The Spirit Level Delusion, argued that the Wilkinson and Pickett ignore issues that don't suit their argument – such as the correlation between happiness and income, whereby as societies grow wealthier they become happier. Even at a very high level of economic development, societies benefit from greater income.
He also stressed that there is not a significant body of peer reviewed research showing the direct cause of all the problems The Spirit Level does address. Snowdon acknowledged the correlation between inequality and life expectancy but he then added that there is a lot of data contradicting this relationship. Snowdon supported his claims with an article from the British Medical Journal, which showed that, good data on income inequality recently having become available in sixteen westernised countries, the association between income inequlity and life expectancy has disappeared. He also cited the Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality in 2009, which shows that
‘The preponderance of evidence suggests that the relationship between income inequality and health is either non-existent or too fragile to show up in a robustly estimated panel specification. The best cross-national studies now uniformly fail to find a statistically reliable relationship between economic inequality and longevity.'
According to Snowdon, The Spirit Level thesis became so popular because of a selective use of data.
Peter Saunders, the author of Beware False Prophets, argued that The Spirit Level did not into account other possible variables besides inequality which may explain the differing social outcomes. Specifically, Saunders argued that The Spirit Level disregards culture and history as important factors. According to Saunders, there is something culturally and historically specific about the Anglo-American countries and the Scandinavian countries which has generated both their different wealth distributions and their differing social outcomes, as opposed to their differing income distribution generating these outcomes. For example, he challenges the relationship between inequality and the status of women in the Scandinavian countries, arguing female status in Scandinavian countries is higher because these countries have developed liberal policies – such as those increasing the number of women in the Parliament. On similar grounds, he challenged the example used in The Spirit Level that if Britain becomes as equal as Scandinavian countries, the homicide level could fall by 75%.
On this account, the problem is not inequality itself but its deep connection to its sociological and historical causes.
In defence of the Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett responded by saying that all of the research and proposals presented in The Spirit Level have been peer reviewed – as opposed to the works of some critics, defending their position that ‘In order to distinguish between well founded criticism and unsubstantiated claims made for political purposes, all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed publications.' Further, they noted that all claims regarding the relationship between income inequality and health and social problems were fully referenced.
Responding to specific points, they argued that the correlation between inequality and homicide would remain the same, even if the suggested “outlier” countries such as Japan, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Portugal were removed. For specific details on this, see The Index of Social Problems in the recently published ‘Beware False Rebuttals – Our Response to Peter Saunders Policy Exchange report'
The authors also claimed that the research cited on social mobility and inequality in Saunder's book is misunderstood and misquoted. The report in question, by Doctor Jo Blanden of the London School of Economics, clearly shows that almost all equal societies do better on social mobility.
They concluded by arguing that they did not use evidence selectively, rather that countries and social issues were chosen based on pre-specified criteria. The Spirit Level was not trying to produce a theory of all problems, but a theory of problems which have social gradients – or “problems which become more common further down the social ladder.”
You can listen to the debate here
and weigh in on who was the winner of this statistical cat-fight