Everyone knows the social sciences are fuzzy. Economists, political scientists and anthropologists bring their moralistic baggage into the ivory tower as soon as they decide what to study and what not to. There’s no avoiding social science’s value-ladenness.
But on the value-ladenness continuum, there’s a point at which you undermine your credibility as a scholar. That is, if you use your status as a scholarly “expert” to launch a political crusade, you are engaging in a form of academic malpractice. Michael I. Norton of Harvard and Dan Ariely of Duke are guilty of such malpractice. Let me explain.
In a recent “study,” Norton and Ariely seem to be engaging in a kind of democracy-by-proxy. They claim Americans really want more “wealth redistribution” and they have the evidence to prove it. Here’s their own description of the findings from the Los Angeles Times.
We recently asked a representative sample of more than 5,000 Americans (young and old, men and women, rich and poor, liberal and conservative) to answer two questions. They first were asked to estimate the current level of wealth inequality in the United States, and then they were asked about what they saw as an ideal level of wealth inequality.
In our survey, Americans drastically underestimated the current gap between the very rich and the poor. The typical respondent believed that the top 20% of Americans owned 60% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% owned 10%. They knew, in other words, that wealth in the United States was not distributed equally, but were unaware of just how unequal that distribution was.
When we asked respondents to tell us what their ideal distribution of wealth was, things got even more interesting: Americans wanted the top 20% to own just over 30% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% to own about 25%. They still wanted the rich to be richer than the poor, but they wanted the disparity to be much less extreme.
Okay. So Norton and Ariely succeeded in proving that Americans don’t know who has how much money. We the People are not only largely ignorant of quintiles, but how many assets are controlled by each quintile.