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A quick post to alert readers to yesterday's wonderful event about 'The Spirit Level' held in The Great Room.

A quick post to alert readers to yesterday's wonderful event about 'The Spirit Level' held in The Great Room.

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better, were pitted against Peter Saunders, author of the Policy Exchange publication, 'Beware False Prophets' and Christopher Snowdon, author of 'The Spirit Level Delusion'.

I have never seen anything quite like it.

The substance is hugely important. The question at stake is how much inequality matters, and the relative importance of increasing wealth or redistributing it more fairly. This is an old ethical question about distributive justice, which is the core turf of political theory, but 'The Spirit Level' attempts to cut through the ethical quandary with a statistical analysis of the world's 50 wealthiest countries. The debate was therefore not so much about the importance of inequality, but about the uses and abuses of statistics to make political arguments.

And the style of the debate.... Matthew Taylor began by asking the speakers to seek the 'transcendent moment' in which the two sides avoid mud-slinging and assuming that the other side is incompetent or immoral, and instead try to find a way to agree what exactly it is that they disagree about.

That didn't really happen. Instead we had what felt like a 'statistical cat fight' with both sides accusing the other of missing points, statistical or otherwise.

(Image from National History Museum website)

You can listen to the audio, but I encourage you to wait for the video which will soon be available because there you can see the facial expressions on both sides, which reveal contempt, embarrassment, ridicule, anger and disdain. What I heard in the debate (not exact quotes) was something like:

"My regression line is better than you regression line". "My outlier is more significant than your outlier". "My research methods class is more worthy than your research method class". "Just because I want to control for ethnicity doesn't make me a racist". "If this was a second year statistics assignment it would fail." And so they went on, tearing into each other with technical details of statistical analysis coated in layers of moral invective.

I need to read all the relevant material to decide where I stand on the issue, but as I mentioned at the end of the debate, I want to believe in the thesis of The Spirit Level, for ideological reasons, but after this event I have serious doubts about whether the evidence stacks up.


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