Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Spirit Level dishonest about the state of research

The Journal of Economic Literature is the most prestigious journal for summarizing the findings of a field of research. Princeton Economist Agnus Deaton surveyed the literature on inequality and health. Deaton is not just anyone, there is talk about eventually awarding him the Noble prize.

Deaton starts his conclusions by writing:

"The stories about income inequality affecting health are stronger than the evidence"

He further concludes:

But who are you going to trust, one of the world's leading Health Economists in the Journal of Economic Literature, or Wilkinson and Pickets own(!) meta-study, and their claims on their book selling tour?

The Spirit Level makes a big deal about the association between inequality and health within American States. But in another paper Deaton and Lubotsky have shown that:

(from abstract) "Conditional on the fraction black, neither city nor state mortality rates are correlated with income inequality"

Here is the share of minorities in 2000 and Gini in 1999.

I did the regression to make sure: Controlling for the share of African Americans Gini has no statistically significant effect on life expectancy within American States (p value 0.431).

The Spirit Level authors are not only wrong, they are dishonest. They must be aware that their correlation within states has been proven to be due to demographic factors. They must be aware that the more heavy-weight surveys of the literature conclude that there is no robust relationship between inequality and life expectancy.

But they know that they audience does not know this, and exploit the trust of the readers to sell them a false view of the state of the science.


  1. I haven't read the book, but why is it called The Spirit Level? It sounds like the title of a New Age tract.

    If you want to make your criticisms of the book better known, you should post a review to amazon.com. Currently, the book's page is full of glowing reviews, with claims like "readers will be hard pressed to deny the correlation between economic inequality and negative social outcomes". See here: http://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Level-Equality-Societies-Stronger/dp/1608190366/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

  2. jlovborg:

    I don't have the time to write a well-written review. Anyone is welcome to use what I have written as a base for a review, although this should only be done by people who have actually read their book.

    What I will note is that because these guys have no scientific scruples, they present data in a way that *seems* very convincing. Especially the fraudulent cross country graphs have this effect.

    One question people should ask themselves, is if reality was this simple and favored the left so much, why haven't you heard of it before?
    Because evidence is not robust. Other left of center social scientists have not claimed there is evidence that most good social outcomes are directly cause by equality, because there is no such scientific evidence.

    These two people just don't care about scientific standards, so they can *sell* a very nice story to their audience, as long as the audience doesn't bother looking up the evidence.

    This disregard for science and abuse of trust of the public is why I am so disgusted by their book, more than the message itself (as I wrote previously I have nothing against a equal distribution of income).

  3. Someone has written:

    "A note regarding the title: The Spirit Level has two meanings - while one will be obvious to all, the other maybe lost on those who are not British. A "spirit level" is the common British term for a bubble level, used for determining whether a surface is level or plumb, thus the title refers to both the balance of equality and also the spirit of the people engendered by that balance."

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