We’ll only listen to you if you’ve been peer-reviewed

The decree that all future debate about The Spirit Level should take place in peer-reviewed journals highlights a new censorious dynamic.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Since it was published last year, The Spirit Level – Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s book on why equal societies do better than unequal ones – has become a sparkplug for heated, testy debate. Not one, not two, but three pamphlet-length critiques of it have been published, while others have rushed to man the book’s intellectual barricades (‘This book’s inconvenient truths must be faced’, said a Guardian editorial).

Yet now Pickett and Wilkinson have imposed an extraordinary condition on future debate about their book. Because much of the criticism of The Spirit Level has consisted of ‘unsubstantiated claims made for political purposes’ (in their view), ‘all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed journals’, they decree.

Wow. In one fell swoop they have painted any criticism of their book that appears in non-peer-reviewed journals as somehow illegitimate. They snootily say that ‘none of [the] critiques are peer-reviewed’ and announce that from now on they’ll only engage in discussions that ‘take place in peer-reviewed journals’. So any peep of a critique that appears in a newspaper, a book published by a publishing house that doesn’t do peer review, a non-academic magazine, an online magazine, a blog or a radio show – never mind those criticisms aired in sweaty seminar rooms, bars or on park benches – is unworthy because it hasn’t been stamped with that modern-day mark of decency, that indicator of seriousness, that licence which proves you’re a Person Worth Listening To: the two magic words ‘Peer Reviewed.’

One of Pickett and Wilkinson’s severest critics – the non-peer-reviewed Christopher Snowdon, author of The Spirit Level Delusion – is taken aback. ‘This displays an eagerness to close down debate and hide behind the supposed gatekeepers of knowledge’, he tells spiked. ‘Some people who don’t understand what peer review is seem determined to present it as some arbiter of truth’, he continues. ‘But it just means a study is fit for publication or is not obviously fabricated.’

In a nutshell, Pickett and Wilkinson’s book argues that societies in which there is a smaller gap between the rich and the poor generally ‘do better’ – that is, have higher happiness levels, less violence, more social mobility, etc – than societies in which there’s a chasm between the very wealthiest men and the lowliest paupers. It sounds commonsensical (‘It’s Better For A Society To Be Equal Than Unequal Shocker!’) but actually there’s a lot in their theory to tease out, explore, question and, yes, critique.

For example, obsessing over the gap between the rich and the poor, and calling for it to be shrunk, can easily translate into a demand that the living standards of the richest be lowered as well as calling for the living standards of the poorest to be raised a little bit. When your focus is less on liberating everyone from need in order that they might fulfil their human potential as they see fit, and more on making sure that no one has way more stuff than anyone else, you can end up problematising the ideals of plenty, growth, aspiration. Indeed, Pickett and Wilkinson demonise economic growth, arguing that where once it was ‘the great engine of progress’, in rich countries it has now ‘largely finished its work’. They claim that as ‘affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems’. In short – echoing arguments Wilkinson made in a 1996 book – wanting more and more stuff, whether it’s fast cars, burgers on demand or a mock-Tudor mansion, can make you mentally ill.

Now there’s a lot in this that one might want to have a row with, even if one – like me – has not been peer-reviewed (which is fast becoming the intellectual equivalent of being deloused). For example, Pickett and Wilkinson argue that where the methodology in the three published critiques of their work has been ‘seriously flawed’, their methodology is based on sound scientific fact and evidence; they even flirted with the idea of calling their book ‘Evidence-Based Politics’. Yet I would argue that if they did indeed find ‘evidence’ that there’s more anxiety and other mental afflictions in well-off but unequal countries than there are in more humble but more equal societies, then it might be because the ‘therapy culture’ is more pronounced in these, largely Western parts of the world. If more people in America, for example, claim to have an angsty, emotional, brain-based issue than do people in Cuba, then I bet my weekly wage packet that it isn’t because of growth and consumerism, but because there is a widespread, very influential, Oprahite invitation to American people to define their every problem in therapeutic terms, whereas that isn’t yet the case in Havana and its surrounds.

Moreover, Pickett and Wilkinson’s focus on closing the gap between rich and poor means that, despite seeing themselves as being in the left-wing progressive tradition, they end up calling for something very different to what someone like the radical Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst demanded. Where she wanted ‘a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume’, Pickett and Wilkinson say economic growth drives us round the bend. (Pankhurst’s comments were published in the non-peer-reviewed publication Workers’ Dreadnought, in 1923, so Pickett and Wilkinson should of course feel free to ignore them.)

So there is a lot in The Spirit Level to chew over and, if you want, spit out. Do you really need to be peer-reviewed in order to do this and have your concerns or criticisms taken seriously? Snowdon says Pickett and Wilkinson’s suggestion that ‘all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed journals’ highlights some big problems with what peer review has become and how it is viewed today. Where traditionally it played an important role in ensuring that only ‘fit-for-publication’ studies appeared in academic journals, today it has become politicised, he says. ‘I think peer review can act as a way of keeping out research that doesn’t fit the editorial line. It can act as a clique. I’ve heard from a number of scientists who have struggled to publish unfashionable or “unhelpful” research, despite being leading academics.

‘And certainly a huge amount of rubbish gets published in peer-reviewed journals, especially in epidemiology, because there are too many epidemiologists chasing too few undiscovered associations. You only have to look at the health section of the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph to see that.’

As a writer who sees it as his job to ask awkward questions about contemporary trends, and to weigh up the evidence and arguments he is presented with, Snowdon says he doesn’t understand why his book critiquing Pickett and Wilkinson’s work should ‘require the stamp of approval from some public health journal’. Effectively, he says, he has been ‘tarred’ as Not Respectable, in contrast to the Respectable Pickett and Wilkinson.

This points to an important distortion that has taken place in the use – or rather abuse – of peer review in recent years. Being peer-reviewed no longer simply means that you wrote an academic report that was considered by other academics to be serious enough for publication – it means you possess the truth, Pure Knowledge, elevated insights that are not available to mere mortals who have not been PR’d. So in the debate about climate change in particular, those whose work has been peer-reviewed are now held up as oracles of wisdom in contrast to their critics, who are increasingly written off and sent to the intellectual equivalent of Connaught with three simple words: ‘Not peer reviewed.’ To be peer-reviewed is to have the right to speak publicly on important matters – to be non-peer-reviewed makes you immediately untrustworthy, a bit of an intellectual charlatan, possibly even suspect in your motives.

There is a censorious dynamic at play here, as a divide is erected between those who are PR’d and those who are not, between those who we should listen to and engage with and those we should look down our noses at – in effect between those who say mainstream, acceptable things and those who spout off-the-wall, experimental stuff. It is ironic that Pickett and Wilkinson, so very keen on the idea of equality, don’t like the idea of an equal right to speak and critique. In this area of life, their attitude is: ‘If you’ve been peer-reviewed, let’s talk. If not? Screw you.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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