Thursday, 3 January 2008

Peddling Misery

The holiday season is over, the work-year has started and it's freezing cold outside. What better time to reinvigorate a modish theory of unhappiness?

The theory in question is 'Affluenza', described in the subtitle of Oliver James' book of the same name as follows: "a contagious middle class virus causing depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui."1. James' theory makes use of scanty evidence, augmented by a generous helping of anecdote, to blame 'selfish capitalism' - Consumerism, envy and greed - for a 'spiralling rate of mental illness' in English-speaking nations2.

As a work of popular psychology, James' book is a diverting, sometimes entertaining, and thought-provoking read. So, what's the problem? Far too many people are taking 'Affluenza' far too seriously!

From the point of view of a political debater rather than a scientist, this could not exactly be described as a surprise.

The affluenza concept sits very well indeed with large swathes of the political left. To pick out just two examples, journalist-cum-blogger and self-described "unreconstructed socialist" Neil Clark has leapt on the theory3,4, as has Chris Dillow5, a left-wing journalist who states in his profile that he "despise[s] public schoolboys - and, to a lesser extent, the entire British middle class"6*.

It is repugnant to the individualist right and Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein7, and Tim Worstall (also in the Times)8, ridicule the concept and book; as does conservative commentator and author of 'Rich Is Beautiful'9 Richard North at the site of the Social Affairs Unit10.

Undeterred by these dismantlings of what little evidence there is for taking this theory as seriously as Clark and Dillow, the pages of the Guardian once again featured a thinly-disguised advertorial for 'Affluenza' and for three seminars on the subject taking place in Waterstones11 - An article headed 'Selfish capitalism is bad for our mental health'12 that, aside from acknowledging a point regarding prevalence of mental illness in developing countries made in Tim Worstall's review8, consists of more of the same - dubious data-interpretation and anti-capitalist rhetoric.

The CiF commenters are on top form, and in a thread of 160 comments and counting punch hole after hole in the theory. 'EvilTory' (1:18AM) points out the subjectivity of mental illness diagnosis in the very first comment, getting the sceptics off to a flyer; 'stevejones123' (8:18AM) discusses opportunity and motive for diagnosis; 'englishhermit' (in is own inimitable way, 9:44AM) makes the link between capitalism and mental health that isn't mentioned in the book; and MrJoe (9:54AM) produces some hard, if a little outdated, evidence that distinctly fails to back up James' theory13! That's just up until 10am on the day of publication. When it comes to critical appraisal of the evidence, this thread represents a thumping away win.

None of this is to say that there is no kernel of truth in what James says. But with such slim cherry-pickings14 dressed up as supportive evidence for its central theory, 'Affluenza' is a miserable work upon which to base any political point!

* I hadn't read this profile until researching this post - I certainly didn't expect this sort of statement from such an erudite blogger!

13. (assumed source of MrJoe's stats)


petros diveris said...

I am sorry but EvilTory's very first comment is patently wrong.

EvilTory's assertion that it can be explained by better diagnostic techniques is a rhetorical (in fact sophist) device since we are looking not at the number (of diagnosed illnesses) itself but the numbers in comparison (between the countries that is). It makes for a seemingly good punch but not good maths. It serves as a distraction and makes one wonder whether EvilTory is actually speaking ideology and not the maths he/she's pretending to.

QT said...

I responded to the previous commenter's similar post in the CiF thread as follows:

This is the trouble with trying to write about an issue such as this - you end up generating all kinds of spin-off arguments in the process!

OK, @BoutrosDiveris (I assume you are the same person who commented on my blog post, I may be wrong).

I don't think @EvilTory's post that started this thread off is a particularly great argument as it is worded. But it hints at the more real problem with Oliver James' use of data, so I included it in my post. The problem with it is the word "improved". The trouble with mental illness diagnosis is it is so SUBJECTIVE (consider how the DSM has changed over the years).

Diagnosis hasn't improved, it has changed. And it does differ from country to country, but the reasons for that don't necessarily concord with actual existence or severity of the stated conditions in individuals. I suspect for instance that willingness of people to seek and accept labels differs between countries for sociological reasons - A subject for another post another day?

Another reason, which relates capitalism with mental illness diagnosis rates but without the causative link James posits, was touched on by @englishhermit - Once you have a LABEL, drug companies can sell you stuff! Again, that's a whole 'nother article's, nay, book's worth of contention just there!

It seems to me like you're attacking @EvilTory over a relatively minor flaw in the weight of argument stacked against 'Affluenza'.

Further reading: