Saturday, 28 August 2010

That Spirit Level nonsense

Via Dick Puddlecote, I come across this defence by critics of 'The Spirit Level', which pours scorn on the authors of said book for wingeing of a 'right-wing conspiracy' to rubbish their work. Apparently the nasty people are 'professional wreckers of ideas'.

However, claim the critics, it's got nothing to do with politics, it's merely that the scientific basis for 'The Spirit Level' is flawed beyond redemption. Thus, whether or not a more equal society brings all manner of benefits, this book doesn't prove it.

So far, so good. My will to live is holding up, so I go further and start reading the comment string. Big mistake, especially on my first coffee of the morning. Here's an early comment:
"Fair enough, I've not read the book, but I understand it proposes that a more fair and equal soceity is benificial for the majority and therefore soceity as a whole. Picking away at a few graphs doesn't stop that being an obvious truth."
To paraphrase this person "okay the book is bollocks, but the book is still right, as it's asserting an 'obvious truth'".

And here's another one, and I will go no further down the thread:
"Science is about testing empirical claims, which is what we've done."

"Meh...this is sociology, which is about as scientific as astrology. This argument is like listening to Russel Grant attacking the rigour of Mystic Meg.

That said, the sympathy of any compassionate human being will sit with the authors of The Spirit Level in this circumstance. Why? Well mostly because...

ANY HUMAN SERIOUSLY CLAIMING INEQUALITY MAKES SOCIETY BETTER IS SELF EVIDENTLY A TWAT. doesn't take science to prove that point, just a conscience."

Firstly, sociology is a science. As we humans are the object of study, it is more contentious than looking at rocks and butterflies, but this doesn't make it not a science. Scientific principles can and must be used. The problem is that long ago socialists and their ilk lept upon social sciences because they believed that they would be able to use them to prove the scientific case for their erroneous ideas, and when this was not the case, they started denying that such things as sociology and economics were any more than sub-divisions of politics. This fellow above shows the tendency. Firstly the critics of 'The Spirit Level' are not claiming that inequality makes society better, merely that the book doesn't prove the opposite case. Secondly he gives the anti-scientific game away by stating that science should be subservient to a conscience, a clear rejection of science. So his view can be summed up as 'sociology is not science... but even if it is, my morally-superior conscience out-ranks it'.

It's difficult to argue with such a position, as argument involves the use of reason, and he has explicitly rejected reason, so ... I'll just call him a prick.


Longrider said...

Oh, it got worse, much worse. The strawman that these two were claiming that in unequal society is a good thing cropped up several times. This despite them making it clear that all they were doing was picking apart the methodology used in the book.

Move any Mountain was rather good at deconsrtucting one of these cretins, so that was worth the read.

And another (forget the name) made the perfectly good point that inequality is, in fact, a good thing as it creates an incentive to strive for better. In an equal world, the brain surgeon would be paid the same as a dustman. Who, then, would want to be a brain surgeon?

Trooper Thompson said...

The worst element is the concept that science should be denied, dismissed or even condemned for failing to support a political (emotional) point of view. We all, no doubt, have an urge to reject facts that we don't like, but we have to guard against this tendency and try to fit our views around the facts, not the other way around.

Inequality is a fact of nature, and I'm sure I've read that it is also the basis of the division of labour, which is in turn the basis of society (I'll have to dig through my von Mises library to find that).

It strikes me that the left-wing mentality is based on a concept of eternal war, therefore at all times one is prevailed upon to support the party line, and play one's part in the propaganda campaign. Hence the term 'politically correct'; something may be true, but is it in keeping with the ideological struggle to admit it?

Snowdon said...

Yup, it was the usual Guardian bearpit, but right at the end there were a few comments from people who heard Kate Pickett trying to defend The Spirit Level on Radio 4's More or Less (the day after The Guardian article came out).

27 Aug 2010, 1:55PM

Just listened to Kate Wilkinson on Radio 4's Face the Facts. I am so disapointed. It became more and more clear as the interview progressed that the authors had set out to prove something and used whatever came to hand to make their case. I am sure that there is a moral case for more equal societies. This kind of work is just an own goal...

My first reaction to the discussion was to dismiss the critics. However it is quite clear that the bivariate approach adopted assumes the conclusion. Ms Wilkinson kept asserting facts that the interviewer demonstrated were simply wrong...

I would add, that my disappointment with this is absolutely real. I would like this to be a powerful argument for equality but it isn't. In fact if this is the best research that the left can come up with at the moment, we are in deep mire."

Kate Pickett did more damage to her case in 5 minutes than this utterly fictitious right-wing conspiracy managed in 6 months.

Trooper Thompson said...


you stayed til the end? Well done.
I'm listening to the interview right now, and I'm wincing.