Wednesday 18 August 2010

What's Swedish for 'appeal to authority'?

This morning saw the launch of the Swedish edition of The Spirit Level Delusion and an accompanying debate. If you speak Swedish, you can watch it here. I don't, so I've had to rely on reports of what was said, and was amused to see that The Spirit Level's Scandinavnian defenders resort to the same fallacious reasoning as those closer to home. With a mass of empirical evidence to discuss and dozens of questions to answer, this was the socialist response:

Journalist Ulrika Borg, who praised The Spirit Level as a new science, stressed that Wilkinson was a professor at three universities and has written for several major scientific journals, while the critics do not have such qualifications. She returned full time to what the majority of established scientists believe, and argued that critics are not worth listening to. Instead of discussing The Spirit Level, she seemed to imply that we should trust those with the finest qualifications and leave everything for them.

That's us told, then. Shut up and trust two social epidemiologists.

Alternatively, of course, you could listen to what these highly qualified academics have said...

"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."

Christian Bjornskov, Professor of Economics, University of Aarhus

"Wilkinson and Pickett 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 Goldthorpe, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Nuffield College, Oxford

"The book [The Spirit Level] will probably irritate most economists, including those like me who are sympathetic to its basic stance... One 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.  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."

John Kay, Professor of Economics at London Business School and former Director of Institute of Fiscal Studies

"The evidence in The Spirit Level is weak, the analysis is superficial and the theory is unsupported."

Peter Saunders, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Sussex

"I had strong suspicions about [The Spirit Level's] hypothesis and now a book has come along which I strongly recommend. The Spirit Level Delusion not only successfully and dramatically undermines much of the evidence in The Spirit Level, but also takes on the other fashionable opponents of economic growth. Author Christopher Snowden finds that social ills have many causes and that we need an economic system – free-market capitalism – that encourages economic growth if we are to have a flourishing society. His engaging discussion unpicks the evidence of the anti-growth brigade and demonstrates that it is selective and partial."

Professor Phillip Booth, Institute of Economic Affairs

“The analyses reported here have provided strong evidence that Wilkinson’s ecological approach to the study of the links between income, income inequality and health status is potentially flawed; his claim for a contextual relationship is not sustained when an underlying compositional relationship is also tested for... Wilkinson’s argument regarding contextual influences was based on a statistical artifact.”

Min Hua Jen, Imperial College, Kelvyn Jones, Professor of Human Quantitative Geography, Univ of Bristol, Ron Johnston, Professor of Geography, University of Bristol

"Although many aspects of this debate are still unresolved, it has recently become clear that the findings of that paper [Wilkinson, BMJ, 1992] were an artifact of the selection of countries... the evidence for a correlation between income inequality and the health of the population is slowly dissipating’

Johan Mackenbach, Professor of Public Health, University of Rotterdam

"Much of the literature needs to be treated sceptically, if only because of the low quality of much of the data on income inequality. Although there are many puzzles that remain, I conclude that there is no direct link from income inequality to ill-health; individuals are no more likely to die if they live in more unequal places.”

Prof. Angus Deaton, Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and the Economics Department at Princeton

"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."

Andrew Leigh, Professor of Economics, Australian National University, Christopher Jencks, Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, Timothy Smeeding, Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin (The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality, 2009)

The choice is yours.

[PS. If any Swedish visitors do watch the video, can you let me know how it went?]


Unknown said...

Bloody hell Chris, you don't pick "soft" targets to write about when you put a book together. It does seem though that you are not alone in dissecting a subject and finding it wanting, which makes me, a person from the 'sink estate' think that something is wrong with The Spirit Level, a polemic that governments, especially those with a, dare I say, a communist bent, will take heed to the detrement of the subjects governments are supposed serve.

I am not an avid reader of books, to my shame, but I must buy the Spirit Level, and your book on it just to know what the hell the big fuss is all about.

BTW I'd never heard of The Spirit Level until your book came out.

Good luck with everything you do, I wouldn't have the patience.


Alltid varför said...

Auktoritetsargument (literally 'authority argument') is (as far as I know) the most used Swedish term for 'appeal to authority'.