Nick Cohen's misleading defence of The Spirit Level

In an article about The Spirit Level for the Observer yesterday, Nick Cohen wrote that:

"The Taxpayers' Alliance warns that it legitimises a fleecing of the middle class."


Elsewhere in the same article, he describes the attacks on the book as "raging polemics".


Poor readers of the Observer will be left with no idea that our work has taken the form of careful examination of the empirical claims in the book.  You won't find the argument he describes above in the study we've published on this subject or in my article for Prospect.  I can't find a combination of "taxpayers' alliance", "fleecing", "middle class" and "the spirit level" anywhere online except in reprints of Nick Cohen's article.  Presumably he has found something vaguely similar somewhere but I'm not sure how.  Our warning has simply been that the book is wrong.


And I don't think anyone could honestly read the report we published, The Spirit Level Delusion or the Policy Exchange report and describe them as "raging polemics".  All three are careful dissections of the statistics.  Cohen is again misleading to the point of being actively dishonest.

Nick Cohen notes that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett - the authors of The Spirit Level - have produced a response to the critics on their website.  But he doesn't find time to mention that the response has been taken apart. To give just a couple of examples, authors of our study found that Wilkinson and Pickett were using data on patent intensity that was outright wrong and clearly hadn't been checked against the original source, and that their description of the literature was so misleading a Nobel laureate described it as a misrepresentation of his work.  Last week, Chris Snowdon wrote a summary of where the debate currently stands for this website and it is becoming increasingly clear that the book has failed to stand up to scrutiny.




In the end, Cohen starts from the premise that "their broad thesis strikes me as incontrovertible" and he writes that Wilkinson finds his book's conclusions "self-evident".  Rather than trying to come to an informed view about where the debate stands over The Spirit Level, he has done everything he can to avoid challenging his own preconceptions, which is a shame as that is normally something he does quite well.

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