Thursday 27 January 2011

A right-wing conspiracy?

Having hastily reinvented themselves as bearers of the consensus (see earlier post), it is a simple matter for Wilkinson and Pickett to portray those who have put their claims to the test as deniers, right-wing extremists and paid lackeys of industry. It is an impressive trick for a long-standing member of the Socialist Health Association to write a book which concludes with a rousing political call-to-arms while forming two left-wing pressure groups and penning articles in The Guardian about how “broken Britain is Thatcher’s bitter legacy” to accuse other people of being “politically motivated”. This unlikely defence has, however, been remarkably successful.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s first response to the criticisms made in Peter Saunder’s Beware False Prophets was from page one from the manual of knee-jerk student politics. They called him a racist and described his publishers at the Policy Exchange, the manifestly moderate centre-right think tank, as being from the “far-right”. This was no slip of the tongue, since Wilkinson has repeated the slur whilst touring his book in Canada (“then the attacks started coming from the far-right”). Wilkinson can hardly be unaware that the term “far-right” is used almost exclusively to describe neo-Nazis and fascists. That he immediately resorted to malicious defamation of a fellow Emeritus Professor, and former colleague at the University of Sussex, was an early sign that the debate about The Spirit Level was going to be ugly.

It was also a sign that Wilkinson and Pickett would spread their net far and wide in seeking to disparage their opponents. In the new postscript, they write about “the bans on smoking in public places (implemented in Scotland, parts of the USA and Canada, Rome, Ireland, and England); which in each case have been followed by declines in death rates and have saved thousands of lives.”

This requires a little background information. In recent years, a number of studies have been published purporting to show a large drop in the heart attack rate in the aftermath of a smoking ban. In Scotland, for example, it was claimed that the rate of acute coronary syndrome fell by 17% following the implementation of smokefree legislation. Oddly, however, the study was based on extrapolations from a selection of hospitals, rather than the admissions records for all Scottish hospitals, which were freely available. When the real figures from the NHS were examined, it became clear that there had not been a drop of 17%, or anything like it.

Today, several years after the ban came into effect, it is quite apparent that the smoking ban had no apparent effect on the rate of acute coronary syndrome in Scotland. A number of other studies have claimed to find a drop in heart attacks following the enactment of smoke-free legislation, but whenever hospital admissions data have been publicly available there has, without exception, been no indication of a significant decline. A recent study—the largest ever conducted on the subject—found that “large short-term increases in myocardial infarction incidence following a smoking ban are as common as the large decreases reported in the published literature”. The disproportionate number of studies finding a decline in numbers is, the authors suggested, the result of publication bias and retrospective data-mining.

I was one of a number of journalists to write articles about the Scottish ‘heart miracle’ and similar studies elsewhere. I was not alone. When the Scottish hospital records were released in 2007, the BBC reported it with the headline ‘The facts get in the way of a good story’. The Times included in its end-of-the-year ‘Worst Junk Stats of 2007’ feature. Michael Siegel, a Professor at Boston University School of Public Health and a long-standing campaigner for indoor smoking bans, said that "these data are just so unconvincing that even I cannot, with any conscience, look at them and opine that they show a significant short-term effect of smoking bans on heart attack admissions". He blamed the result on "unconscious bias".

If this seems wildly off-topic, it is. Wilkinson and Pickett’s reason for going off on this tangent is to mark me down as some sort of tobacco industry lobbyist just for having written about such issues. They are wise enough not to risk libel by stating that explicitly, but the implication is allowed to hang in the air.

Upon this thread of innuendo, Wilkinson and Pickett construct an elaborate fantasy involving two unassuming and impartial social scientists under siege from industry-funded “merchants of doubt” who are trying to “give the impression that crucial areas of science affecting public policy are controversial, long after the implications of the science were quite clear.” (Why the tobacco industry would want to discredit The Spirit Level, of all books, can only be guessed at. One would think they had bigger fish to fry, but conspiracy theorists are able to overlook such logical conundrums.)

Wilkinson and Pickett’s combination of paranoia and self-aggrandisement falters for the simple reason that critics of The Spirit Level are not “free market fundamentalists” and they are certainly not all right-wing. The left-wing journalist Gerry Hassan has written about what he calls “the Fantasyland of The Spirit Level”:

Yet, it is almost impossible to compare these countries on equality; they are very different in their cultures, values and histories. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’—a universalist, sweeping statement—which cannot be substantiated by most of their data.... Part of the success of The Spirit Level is liberal guilt, part the retreat of the left, part wish-fulfilment and projection.

John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Oxford University, said: “As I read through the book, I have to say that my reaction was one of increasing dismay.” Also a left-winger, Goldthorpe’s review of The Spirit Level can hardly be attributed to “free market fundamentalism.”

Wilkinson and Pickett [WP] have no time for nicely balanced judgements. They believe that the evidence they present shows beyond doubt that more equal societies ‘do better’, and they are also confident that they have the right explanation for why this is so... Their case is by no means so securely established as they try to make out... it has been called into question by other leading figures in the field—a fact that WP might have more fully acknowledged... WP’s inadequate, one-dimensional understanding of social stratification leads to major problems in their account of how the contextual effect is produced.

John Kay, Professor of Economics at London Business School, prefaced his review of The Spirit Level by saying that he was “sympathetic to its basic stance.” Nevertheless, he found it difficult to take the book’s methodology and conclusions seriously when he reviewed it in the Financial Times:

A larger source of irritation is the authors’ apparent belief that the application of regression methods to economic and social statistics is as novel to social science as it apparently is to medicine. The evidence presented in the book is mostly a series of scatter diagrams, with a regression line drawn through them. No data is provided on the estimated equations, or on relevant statistical tests. If you remove the bold lines from the diagram, the pattern of points mostly looks random, and the data dominated by a few outliers.

... An obvious conclusion is that there are many societies which perform well in terms of their own criteria. America, Sweden and Japan are just different from each other. Their achievements are not really commensurable. But Wilkinson and Pickett are not content with this relativist position.

Andrew Leigh describes himself as “about as anti-inequality an economist as you’ll find”. Formerly a Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, and now an Australian Labor Party politician, Leigh said of his own research into equality: “I had begun the project secretly hoping to find that inequality was bad, and wound up reluctantly reporting no such thing.” When asked his opinion of The Spirit Level, he wrote that “John Kay’s view in the FT comes closest to my own.”

“He didn't read the book thoroughly, obviously,” was Kate Pickett’s response when told about Kay’s review. Another person who didn’t read it properly was Christian Bjornskov, Professor of Economics at the University of Aarhus, who reviewed it in Population and Development Review:

The bottom line is that this is a well-written, stimulating polemic. It nevertheless suffers from the same problems as one-trick ponies: if the one trick does not impress you, the show is a failure. Wilkinson and Pickett’s trick simply does not hold up to empirical scrutiny. When assessing this book as a contribution to the debate on the “right” level of income differences in modern society, it is a highly interesting, sympathetic attempt at addressing some of the important problems of Western societies. Yet, when assessing this book from a scientific point of view, one is forced to conclude that it is a failure.

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and arguably America’s most prominent left-wing social scientist, has also expressed his discomfort with The Spirit Level. Putnam is quoted somewhat out of context by Wilkinson and Pickett to give the impression that Bowling Alone concludes that inequality erodes social capital. When asked his view of their work by journalist Shane Leavy, Putnam replied:

I have a mixed view about The Spirit Level. On the one hand, I believe that inequality is bad for society in many ways, just as that book argues. On the other hand, Pickett and Williamson’s [sic] work has been heavily (and I believe correctly) criticized as methodologically flawed. (For example, they don’t really show that the relationship between inequality and other bad things is causal, though they assume it is.) I hope that they (or others) will pursue that basic hypothesis in ways that are more scientifically persuasive.

These criticisms, and others like them, are manifestly not politically motivated. While there was no shortage of positive reviews from journalists, particularly on the left (The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman, Socialist Review all provided rave reviews), many respected academics from both left and right have expressed serious concerns.

It suits Wilkinson and Pickett’s narrative to portray critics as being professional ‘merchants of doubt’ from the ‘far-right’. It helps to marginalise those who find fault with the book and deters their natural supporters from reading the critiques. It is, however, a fiction.

Questions have been raised about the bold conclusions of The Spirit Level because it is riddled with methodological flaws, selection bias, obvious cherry-picking, flawed reasoning and wishful thinking. Far from being the subject of a co-ordinated attack by nefarious vested interests, The Spirit Level has been criticised by everyone from Swedish economists, Irish psychologists and British sociologists—as well as numerous journalists, bloggers and reviewers around the world—for the simple reason that they have read it. It has been a best-seller and has transcended what Wilkinson calls the "left-wing ghetto". And amongst its large readership have been many rational people whose jaws dropped a little more at the turn of every page.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to be non-judgemental about a book with such a strong political sub-text. If one FEELS societies should be competitive and financially rewarded or punished people differentially, according to whosoever they are or what they have become, one will probably accept the status quo. On the other hand, if one FEELS (and can demonstrate) that people have no free will and simply cannot help becoming society's 'winners' or 'losers' then rewards and punishments are ill-conceived and should eventually be replaced by non-judgemental alternatives.