Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A week's levelling

Over at Ep-ology, Carl Philips has turned his critical eye towards a subject close to my heart—the eye-watering, near-medieval pseudo-science of The Spirit Level.

Snowdon's book (and associated interviews and blog posts) do a thorough job of debunking Wilkinson & Pickett and showing that [The Spirit Level] is utter junk science. I am confident that no serious reader who was genuinely interested in learning the truth could read what he wrote and still believe that there was a legitimate debate about whether W&P's analysis was legitimate.

You might surmise from this that Dr Philips—like many serious academics—is less than convinced by the evidence presented for Wilkinson and Pickett's curious brand of 'scientific socialism'. And you'd be right. He's writing about one of the five new articles I put up on The Spirit Level Delusion website last week. These are excerpts from a new chapter of the book that will be available shortly as a free download.

I hadn't intended to write more on this subject but Wilkinson and Pickett (The Spirit Level's authors) forced my hand when they published a new edition of the book attacking their critics for being professional "merchants of doubt" who are making "foul attacks" on their work because they're "free market fundamentalists". (As opposed to being normal, educated people who thought that empirical claims were there to be tested.) This paranoid and borderline libellous fairy-tale demands rebuttal, as do their other distortions and inaccuracies.

Specifically, it needs to be said that...

I've exhausted everything I can say about The Spirit Level (for now at least). I've never had any illusions about how far people's minds can be changed through the use of mere facts, logic and evidence. Ultimately, the great majority of people believe what they want to believe and I'm mildly annoyed at having spent so much time writing about all this when there are so many good books out there still to read. Nevertheless, The Spirit Level remains a fascinating case study of how far the credulity of reasonably intelligent people can be stretched so long as they are told what they want to hear. For that reason alone, it should be of interest to anyone interested in today's intellectual environment.

I'll leave the last word to Carl, who makes some interesting points about trust and whose post—as with all his posts—should be read in full:

Of course, W&P made it easy for Snowdon to shatter their credibility by making it so brittle. They put the reader in the position of either believing they have unequivocal evidence for a "new theory of everything" (to quote from Snowdon's snarky subtitle), or concluding that they were just pulling a sales-job on the reader. If they had behaved like scientists – recognizing the best contrary evidence and being properly equivocal – rather than peddlers or evangelists, it would have been necessary to explore the merits of their argument to challenge their claims and credibility.

Still, it is useful to figure out how to debunk as easy a target as is The Spirit Level. We need to start with the challenge of winning one-sided debates before we can take on arguments that have some credibility.

1 comment:

Simon Cooke said...

The problem is that out in the real world it isn't debunked at all but presented - at meeting after meeting - a scientific proof of leftiness being right.