Dodgy statistics, or missing the point?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote on this blog about Richard Wilkinson’s fascinating Spirit Level thesis: that…

…time and time again, using any number of societal outcomes as indicators, the more unequal a society is – i.e. the greater the multiplier between the richest and poorest, measured in terms of income – the worse a place it is to live, not just for the poorer people themselves, but for everyone. Whether you’re looking at physical health, mental health, crime, education, community cohesion or quality of life, the correlation holds firm and true.

Well you might be interested to hear that Policy Exchange today published what the Deputy Director of the think-tank describes as a “hard-hitting critique that shines a powerful spotlight on the flaws in the analysis, assumptions and conclusions of The Spirit Level”, which you can read online here (this links to a PDF) or stick to the CiF summary here.

In brief, Policy Exchange says that The Spirit Level falls down because:

…the single-minded focus of Wilkinson and Pickett to prove their hypothesis led them to resist consideration of the impact of factors such as history and culture, which in fact are often one of the key factors behind their findings. It also meant they were selective in their choice of evidence, so The Spirit Level ignores a range of social indicators such as suicide rates, HIV infection rates, alcohol consumption and divorce rates, which are in fact worse in more equal countries.

So this means I now have to read the original in full – it’s on my shelf, which is one better than when I wrote my original post – and this too. Genuine intellectual debate? The Policy Exchange report says there are serious flaws in the original analysis. Ideologically-driven bun fight? Quite possibly a bit of that too.

POSTSCRIPT: wow this really is a quickfire intellectual tussle! An excellent and robust response from The Spirit Level’s authors was published the same afternoon I wrote this post, in response to the Policy Exchange report. Check it out here.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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