The Spirit Level

Another book that I was pointed to (this time by a friend, not a stranger!), this is a very different read to Tuesdays. An ambitious meta-review of research looking at a range of factors (as the back of the book remarks, “from life expectancy to mental illness, violence to illiteracy”), the authors conclude that it is not a society’s wealth that impacts these areas (once societies reach a basic level of wealth), but their equality. The authors look at differences between wealthy western countries, and between different states of the USA (a nice way to double-check their findings).

Perhaps inevitably, as an academic work for the layperson, the language is sometimes a little complex, but they’ve generally done a fab job of conveying sometimes complicated material in an understandable fashion. There’s a lovely line towards the end about how, of course, when examining whole societies you can’t run active experiments with control groups — but that observational science, as demonstrated by astronomy, can be extremely powerful.

The authors also point out that sometimes in the social sciences, conclusions are reached and people say “Oh, but that was obvious”… but that it’s important to have evidence for those conclusions, and that the conclusions that seem obvious with hindsight may not have been so beforehand. For instance, it’s not so hard to see that the quality of life is generally higher in more equal countries (compare Scandinavian countries with, well, pretty much anywhere else!), but you /could/ conclude from this that Poor People Drag Things Down, or perhaps that As Long As You’re In The Uppermost Half, You’re Ok (conversely, the evidence suggests quality of life is better for almost everyone in more equal societies).

A thought-provoking book, recommended.

(Available on Amazon)

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