Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Spirit Level delusion: It’s not about the evidence

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, the chattering classes have been all abuzz over recent months about a book called The Spirit Level purporting  to demonstrate, by statistics aplenty, that places with less difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” are happier places—where everyone lives longer, has better health and happiness, and has far more sex on Sundays.

The conclusions have been embraced here in EnZed.  “An unequal society is a sick society. It’s a simple, powerful idea,” enthuses the Double Standard: “These people’s work can not be dismissed,” says a hopeful Grant Robertson at Labour’s other blog. “It is important!” pontificates Scott Yorke at his. “It's to ideological politics what An Inconvenient Truth is to climate change,” assesses Tim Watkin accurately at the Pundit blog.   And Colin James, the country’s most stale pundit, wonders if the 300-page tome might not become  “a sort of guidebook for the next Labour ministry,” should there ever be one.

Now, the figures on which these hopeful conclusions are based have been solidly debunked as cherry-picking in books and reports like The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact Checking the Left's New Theory of Everything,  When Prophecy Fails: The Spirit Level and the Illusion of Scientific Socialism, The Spirit Illusion and Beware False Prophets.  As Luke Malpass  at Australia’s Center of Independent Studies point out,

the income statistics are faulty … the authors ignore some key countries which don’t fit their hypothesis … [and] ignore social indicators where equal countries tend to perform badly…
    The authors present a series of graphs plotting the income distribution in each country against selected social indicators, and in each case they claim to show problems getting worse as we move from less to more unequal countries.  In fact, however, most of their graphs show no such thing

Despite the huge disparity however between what the authors claim and what they can actually prove, the book has taken the whole world by storm, with one uncritical Guardian journalist, Polly Toynbee, calling co-author Richard Wilkinson “the 21st Century’s equivalent of Charles Darwin.” Charles Darwin!

In a sense however, Polly is right. Darwin used the evidential methodology of his day (observation and integration) to replace previous bogus theories with sound science. And now Wilkinson and his co-author are using the methodology of the post-modern age (fiddle and fudge)  to do the reverse.  As Chris Snowdon points out in his own book on the delusion, both Spirit Level authors have prior form in generating crap statistics to bolster shoddy politically-driven arguments. About which, and about the bogus figures, the chattering classes have no apparent interest.  Which is really the leitmotif of our postmodern 21st Century age, isn’t it: never mind the quality of the research as long as your conclusions are supported by those who can shout the loudest.  (Of such “research” are this century’s “Charles Darwins” undoubtedly going to be made.)

Or to put it bluntly, it’s not about the evidence. Because if it were, a few other things would arise.

Just consider for a moment an observation made by Ludwig von Mises:

"The European worker today lives under more favourable and more agreeable outward circumstances than the pharaoh of Egypt once did, in spite of the fact that the pharaoh commanded thousands of slaves, while the worker has nothing to depend on but the strength and skill of his hands."

Now any honest commentator would notice that, wouldn’t you think?  And anyone truly concerned with lifting up the “have-nots” would be trumpeting the system that raised from them and all of us from dirt-poor slavery to a time when virtually anyone can live better than the kings, pharaohs and pashas of the past ever did.  Even a day labourer these days has the capacity to live well, eat well, and have at his or her command a library of the world’s greatest books, a collection of the world’s greatest music, access to enjoy the greatest sporting contests on the planet, and the ability to sip ice-cold martinis while flying at enormous speeds ten-thousand feet above the Tasman. And that process didn’t happen because Karl Marx and his confreres got hold of the economy’s commanding heights.

So if its not about evidence or helping the “have-nots,” then what is it all about?

imageSimple. It’s about politics. And morality. It’s about using sacrifice to power politics, and the have-nots to build a power base.

The point was made by Andy Kessler in an interview about his book Eat People, when asked to explain why he repeatedly slams Obama’s hero Saul Alinsky:

Saul Alinsky was a community organizer who, in the early 70s, built a movement based on the disparity of the haves and have-nots, then have them elect someone to office who would take from the haves and give to the have-nots.

It’s not complicated. It’s not about evidence; it’s not about research; it’s certainly not about facts: it’s about building a power-base on the morality of sacrifice. (And as Yaron Brook and Don Watkins argue, “no system that treats you as other people’s servant can be called moral.”)

Because if it were really about helping the “have-nots,” the chattering classes wouldn’t be so excited about fudging figures about haves and “have-nots,” they’d be asking instead how someone becomes a “have” in the first place—which, if he does it right, is by driving productivity and thereby making us all wealthier—and doing everything they can to turn today’s “have-nots” into tomorrows “haves.”

But we see, however, by their embracing of bad statistics and their resolute intent to keep educational standards low (“Labour would ditch national standards” is this morning’s unerringly accurate headline), that helping have-nots become haves is not any part of their project.

Because if they got rid of the “have-nots” altogether, what then would happen to their power base?


  1. Not a new idea - it sounds similar, and about as useful, as the Gini coefficient ( where presumably the goal is to get a score as close to 0 as possible.
    Although left of the map is North Korea the country that I think is most likely to get this score. Not something to aspire to really is it?

  2. ".. never mind the quality of the research as long as your conclusions are supported by those who can shout the loudest.."

    Oh so true Peter!

    The saddest thing about recent history is that entire nations (NZ, UK, America et al) have been impoverished due to peer pressure imposed on stupid people by loud mouthed idiots - causing the whole thing to snowball.

    What the chattering classes need to do is actually meet some of these 'have not' folk. They may get a surprise.

    For instance the average Labour MP would be astounded to learn that Samoans and Tongans in Otara do not sit around sipping chardonnay and calling each other "pacifica people" and few, if any, Samoans and Tongans have even heard the term, let alone know what it may mean ha ha!

    I also note the chattering classes seem to think the way to prosperity (and they blog incessantly and make speeches in Parliament on the subject) is some sort of dramatic increase in manufacturing for export.
    If NZ became awash in factories making and selling products abroad all would be solved. Apparently.

    I also notice, however, these chattering class folk tell their children each morning "go to school, study hard so you can go to university"; apparently actually working in one of these factories is reserved for others - presumably 'brown skinned' people they have never met (and barricade themselves into their houses to protect against ever meeting)

  3. The supporters of The Spirit Level are dumbfuck idiots.

  4. ""The supporters of The Spirit Level are dumbfuck idiots.""

    True, but contraception and education has made them the majority these days, with the best of us being swamped in the genepool. This was aimed for in the 60s, a small population, intelligent adn educated with a short working week supervising machines dong the manual labour.

    Amazing how things don't work out as expected. No-one realised that the 'haves' would drop their breeding rate while the 'have-nots' couldn't give a shit. That becomes terminal if you are going to have a democracy.

  5. The authors of The Spirit Level used only univariate statistical analysis. The problem here, is that anyone can just grab any random variable that he can think of then do trend-line fitting and it will show some correlation or lack of it using the same data.

    Prof. Peter Saunders pointed out exactly that. The lack of the use of multivariate statistical analysis, such as Multiple Linear Regression (MLR). In MLR, one can examine (statistically) which of the hypothesized (independent) variables (Saunders' example is ethnicity) used have more weight in their influence on the variable. Multivariate analysis was never used by the authors of TSL, therefore their work can be equated to kindergarten data analysis. Not rigorous. Its simply a joke.

    Amazing that people like Colin James, Tim Watkin, Rob Salmon are so thick to understand the serious flaw in the statistical analysis used by TSL authors. They're probably enamored by the word, statistical analysis as if it is nuclear physics predicting the existence of some unknown particles only to be confirmed years later after it was first proposed . There is kindergarten statistical analysis (used by TSL authors) and there is rigorous advanced statistical analysis (used by Prof Saunders, et al).

    This kind of proclaimed scientific basis for the finding by authors of TSL and their supporters are exactly what Richard Feynman was warning about a few decades ago, in his lecture at Caltech about CARGO CULT SCIENCE.

  6. I love it when you get all technical Falafula....cures my insomnia everytime. ;-)

  7. Those Saul Alinsky tactics are working so well in the USA.
    Obama has delivered much poverty and unemployment in America.
    Especially to its blacks and poorest!

  8. The left will always be guilty of fueling ignorance. They found that people with a brain and/or an education make more well informed choices. They manufacture class wars for their own purposes attempting to permanently remove Darwin’s observations from humanity.

    The left’s ideology is that evolution by way of competition or excellence should no longer be the premise for survival or evolution of the species. No one should ever have to worry about anything – economics, performance, innovation, progress – all the things that make the human species great. They insist that people should be saved from themselves and the effects of their own poor decisions. The world’s a big scary place, and adherents to socialism should not have the burden of worrying about such things.

    Part of the reason the income gap gets bigger is that while the left has chosen to remain stagnant in its under-reach, a minority of us have still chosen to adapt, improve and survive as our grandparents did.

    Like the dysfunctional mother whose need to keep her offspring dependent upon her, socialism has created the exact same maternally inspired failure to launch for its adherents, who are now ill equipped to cope with modern society.

    The income gap is simply a measurement of that failed (maternally inspired) political emotionalism.


  9. You guys are particularly screechy today. Real estate market a bit slow?


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