Make room for a new right-wing assault on scientific research. In the cross-hairs this time: the massive epidemiological evidence on inequality’s horrific toll on our health and overall well-being.
Just over three decades ago, in 1979, an obscure research paper began a scientific revolution — on how we think about what makes us healthy.
Up until then, epidemiologists — scientists who study the health of populations — had seen a simple and straightforward relationship between wealth and health. The wealthier a society, they believed, the healthier that society would be.
But that 1979 paper introduced a new factor into this simple equation: wealth’s distribution. People who live in more equal societies, the paper reported, appear to enjoy better health than people who live in more unequal societies.
In due course, hundreds of other epidemiological studies would test — and substantiate — this same phenomenon.
People, investigators would repeatedly find, do indeed live healthier as nations grow economically and create more wealth, but only up to a point. Among already developed nations, the best health outcomes don’t come in the richest societies. They come in societies that distribute riches the most equally.
Other investigators would find this same relationship on other benchmarks of social decency. They began showing that people don’t just live longer in more equal societies. They trust each other more. They bully each other less. In equal societies, infants die much less frequently and adults grow obese much less often.
All these findings generated considerable discussion — and excitement — in scientific research journals. But these perspectives remained largely off the general public radar screen until last year when two British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published a book that aimed to introduce this vast scientific literature on inequality to a wider audience.
Their book, The Spirit Level, quickly began succeeding at that aim. In the UK, The Spirit Level is recasting the political discourse over poverty and wealth. Pundits and national political leaders are increasingly making the case that we all benefit — not just the poor — when we narrow the great divide that separates the most affluent from everyone else.
In the United States, Wilkinson and Pickett conducted a successful national speaking tour earlier this year, and public policy organizations are picking up on their message. One veteran group, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, last month gave Wilkinson and Pickett their publication cover.
“Violence, poor health or school failure are not problems that can be solved by economic growth,” the two wrote in that cover story. “Everyone getting richer without redistribution doesn’t help.”
Our conventional conservative wisdom has, of course, long insisted on the exact opposite. And now the propagators of that wisdom are striking back.
Right-wing foundations in the UK and Sweden have recently published attacks on The Spirit Level, and denunciations of the book’s thesis — and authors — have appeared in a string of newspaper columns on both sides of the Atlantic, including a Wall Street Journal piece earlier this month.
The Journal article accuses Wilkinson and Pickett of “excluding inconvenient data” and presenting a “misleading representation of scientific research.”
In a UK critique, published the day before the Wall Street Journal attack, an editor from the Policy Exchange, a right-wing British think tank, calls most of the statistical claims that appear in The Spirit Level “spurious or invalid.”
Another blast, from the same think tank, denies any “connection between inequality and life expectancy” — or between inequality and any of the other indicators, from jail rates to social mobility, that Wilkinson and Pickett examine.
Still another attack, published in a UK daily, would up the stridency level considerably. The theory behind The Spirit Level, conservative commentator Ed West charged on the same day the Wall Street Journal piece appeared, “has just one tiny flaw — it’s complete rubbish.”
Wilkinson, a professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and Pickett, a University of York professor and a National Institute for Health Research career scientist, have begun the work of rebutting this finely tuned transatlantic blitz against their work.
At the Equality Trust, a comprehensive online site that details the evidence The Spirit Level presents, Wilkinson and Pickett have published an initial point-by-point refutation of the Policy Exchange case against their work.
And this Thursday, in London, the two epidemiologists will square off, face to face, against both the author of the Policy Exchange attack and the co-author of another denial paper, in a debate hosted by the Royal Society for Arts.
That figures to be a fascinating exchange. But the drive to discredit The Spirit Level — and the 30 years of scientific research behind it — will continue, no matter what happens Thursday.
Apologists for our unequal social order simply cannot afford to let The Spirit Level rise or fall on its intellectual merits, in much the same way that ExxonMobil can’t afford to leave the debate over climate change to a give-and-take between independent scientific researchers.
Corporations like ExxonMobil are continuing to bankroll the climate change deniers. That right-wing think tanks, generously bankrolled by the holders of the world’s highest incomes, now feel compelled to deny any link between income distribution and the social ills that plague us should come as no surprise.
This new denial campaign may well turn out to be even fiercer than the onslaught against climate change science. The rich and powerful, after all, can outlast an end to our carbon-based economy. But a more equitable distribution of income and wealth? For our rich and powerful, that’s a threat existential.
Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.