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Crime Medicine Stats Science

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead 627

Posted by samzenpus
from the is-not-causation dept.
2muchcoffeeman writes "The cause of the great increase in violent crime that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s may have been isolated: lead. This leads directly to the reason for the sharp decline in violent crime since then: lead abatement programs and especially the ban of tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock agent in gasoline starting in 1996. There are three reasons why this makes sense. First, the statistics correlate almost perfectly. Second, it holds true worldwide with no exceptions. Every country studied has shown this same strong correlation between leaded gasoline and violent crime rates. Third, the chemistry and neuroscience of lead gives us good reason to believe the connection. Decades of research has shown that lead poisoning causes significant and probably irreversible damage to the brain. Not only does lead degrade cognitive abilities and lower intelligence, it also degrades a person's ability to make decisions by damaging areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. Another thing that stands out: if you overlay a map showing areas with higher incidence of violent crime with one showing lead contamination, there's a strikingly high correlation."
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America's Real Criminal Element: Lead

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:44PM (#42509479)

    its not lead its the upbringing of people out of poverty

    Except that the rise in the standard of living of the poor does not match the decline in crime.

  • Curious (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:44PM (#42509495)

    Admittedly inspired by an XKCD comic, are they sure the violent crime/lead contamination map isn't just a slightly variant on a population density map? The more people, the more cars, the more lead contamination potential, etc.

  • by pezpunk (205653) on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:51PM (#42509637) Homepage

    all of this, yes.

    furthermore, it is patently absurd to expect to find a single, simple chemical cause for the myriad complex and varied set of behaviors which fall under the umbrella of "violent crime".

    it's the kind of childishly simplistic worldview that i'd expect of a libertarian, not Mother Jones.

  • Re:Roman Empire (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:55PM (#42509717)

    Or, were they so much more advanced than the rest of the world because they drank so much lead?

  • by zeidrich (2793777) on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:58PM (#42509755)

    Nobody in a right state of mind is going to rob or kill a random someone just because they're bored.

    However, lead poisoning causes brain damage, which can lead to psychosis. And the study shows correlation between violent crime rates and lead concentration.

    If it were just a matter of being bored, I would fear for the world. That would imply that we're all rapists and murderers, and that unless we're significantly distracted by our 'stuff' we're prone to rape and murder out of sheer boredom. That's not really the case though. For the most part, people don't rape and murder eachother, except under pretty significant mental distress or disorder.

    A study like this is useful because it might bring up other ways of investigating criminal trends. Could there be something environmental that causes mental health issues in a population? Drug/alcohol abuse? Lack of health care opportunities? Birth defects caused by some environmental source? Toxins from some environmental source?

    Dismissing it as "people just have more x-boxes so they probably don't get bored and kill people" is pretty pointless. Does poverty factor into it? Maybe. But can we tell if poverty instigates the crime, or if the mental degradation caused by something like lead poisoning (or drug/alcohol abuse, or mental deficiency from birth) both instigates the crime and makes the person have a more difficult time caring for themselves leading to a life of poverty?

    That's not even to say that bringing people out of poverty doesn't help the situation. It has a mental effect (reducing stress by making available necessities). But why weren't those people in Central Park just happy to play chess? It's not just that they had nothing better to do, it's more likely that they had a problem that went ignored.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @04:59PM (#42509765)

    You didn't even bother to read the full summary let alone the actual article did you?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:06PM (#42509895)

    Did you read the linked article in full? They have more than a simple correlation. They have multiple correlations cross-culturally, and at every level of analysis examined, national, state and neighborhood. It's also backed up by the neurobiological research about the effects of even small quantities of lead on the brain.

    Yes, it is correct to be skeptical of claims of causation from correlational data. That's what additional research is for to check for other possible causes is for. That additional research has all supported the claim of causation, to a far higher degree than any other claimed cause.

    Skepticism simply for the sake of skepticism is not a virtue. If you demand a high standard of proof, it behooves you to be ready to accept the claims of those who actually manage to meet that standard of proof.

  • by HornWumpus (783565) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:07PM (#42509921)

    You're kidding? Is this the first time you've read Mother Jones?

  • So just because you didn't become a criminal, means there can't be a correlation?

    You're a sample of one. Your experiences, while important to you, mean nothing in isolation when it comes to statistics.

    If one person in a hundred were to die a year in car crashes, and we changed cars to have different tires and suddenly ten people died a year, but you lived, that doesn't mean that the death rate didn't go up 1000%. You were just lucky and lived.

    The article quite succinctly discusses how lead might take borderline violent people and trigger their latent violence. It's an interesting article. It seems you weren't a borderline violent person. Yay for you!

  • by Qzukk (229616) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:10PM (#42509983) Journal

    basically anything except their own half witted feckless personalities

    And now we know that lead causes people to develop half-witted feckless personalities.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:12PM (#42510017)

    Well, the current theories don't actually provide us with predictable results, even against *historical* data. This theory does. It's worth being looked at rather than simply dismissed out of hand.

  • Re:Roman Empire (Score:4, Insightful)

    by stymy (1223496) <pdezuviria@@@gmail...com> on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:31PM (#42510327)
    My house has lead plumbing. As do many places, like Buenos Aires, Argentina. Generally, as long as the water does not stagnate in lead pipes, the concentration is too low to be harmful. So, when I return from a vacation or something, I just need to let the water run for a few minutes. Of far more concern would be Roman mens' use of lead combs to blacken their hair.
  • Re:Roman Empire (Score:-1, Insightful)

    by udachny (2454394) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:31PM (#42510333) Journal

    Roman empire fell due to expansion of its government policies, destruction of the Republic, which by the way, was quite advanced in terms of property ownership and adherence to contracts once upon the time.

    It was the constant expansion of the government due to reduction of the Republic to tyranny of one dictator after another, which eventually caused massive flight of productive investments, since property rights don't mean anything once you have a dictatorship. Of-course money was devalued (actual coin clipping, etc.), wars, bread and circuses social programs.

    Like all empires, Roman empire fell because it devoured itself in a consumer frenzy while not producing nearly enough to sustain its levels of consumption.

  • by Dastardly (4204) on Monday January 07, 2013 @05:42PM (#42510541)

    But, if you subdivide across multiple countries, states, and cities where the lead in gasoline was phased out at different times and the 22 year correlation remains consistent, it becomes highly unlikely that you will find something(s) else that can account for the change.

    And, as you said it is statistical because clearly every child exposed to lead during those time periods did not become a criminal. Some just suffered from losing a few IQ points (or whatever intelligence measure you care to use). But, you take a large group of people that have all the other risks for becoming criminals and add lead on top of that and you get a significant rise in crime.

  • by nedlohs (1335013) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:01PM (#42510799)

    Why would is it absurd that a substance which has been shown to cause increased aggression and lower impulse control and lower intelligence would have any effect on "violent crime"?

    Sure it's not a proven fact, but absurd seems a stretch.

  • by dcollins (135727) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:10PM (#42510917) Homepage

    False. "Wilding" in general, and that famous NYC case, were totally fictitious bullshit made up by wild-eyed media and cops. The convictions of the juveniles were overturned years later, when a single man confessed and also had DNA evidence confirm it. Ken Burns had a documentary on their story at Cannes just last year. Exemplary case study of the great fraud that is our law-enforcement and security apparatus.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park_Jogger_case [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:Freakonomics? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Monday January 07, 2013 @06:44PM (#42511429)

    Gun control mitigates the damage criminals do, and significantly raises the difficulty of getting enraged and killing someone with a particularly lethal weapon at hand.

    Not really. You could kill more people with a gallon of gasoline and a couple of bike locks than I could with all the guns I could carry.

    The worst mass murders have always been committed by means other than guns, even in the US. Most such killings are committed with guns but there is no reason to think the perpetrators wouldn't just move on to the next most convenient methodology if they couldn't obtain firearms.

    The UK and germany for example have much higher violent crime rates than the US (and a lot of that is stabbings, and football hooliganism), but much lower murder rates because criminals in those places try and stab rather than shoot.

    One huge problem with that old canard is the correlation between firearm murder rates and firearms regulations in various areas of the US. Areas with more guns in the hands of more law-abiding citizens have less crime, not more. If you're worried about being killed with a gun, the last place you want to live in the US is an area like DC or Chicago with strict gun control laws.

    You can mutter about post-hoc fallacies and correlation not implying causation, but the reality is that gun-control proponents have very few statistics they can cite to advance their cause, and a lot of statistics they don't dare cite.

    Ultimately it's very hard to separate cultural effects from the effects of firearms availability. This is true both within the US and between different nations as a whole. I won't go too far down that path because I don't have time to defend myself against accusations of bias and worse, but I will say that as a middle-aged male in an economically well off, culturally-homogenous area, any gun control measures that affect what weapons I can own are not going to make you any safer.

  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:00PM (#42511671) Journal

    However, there statistics are far from a perfect match. If it were, we would have reverted back to pre 1950's crime levels. We haven't, we're not really even close.

    Because all the lead that has accumulated from burning leaded gasoline while it was widespread has just magically disappeared away?

    This group seems to believe that just because "the statistics correlate almost perfectly" that they have a cause.

    They happen to believe that they have a cause because they have came up with a simple rule of correlation based on two data sets, and then went on to see if it applies to a dozen different unrelated ones (matching the dates of introduction of leaded gasoline and the ban on it in various countries across the globe) - and they found that the correlation still holds in all cases that they've measured so far. In other words, they've made a prediction, and found that it matches the facts. That's hard science.

  • Re:Freakonomics? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by canadian_right (410687) <alexander.russell@telus.net> on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:43PM (#42512143) Homepage

    Most gun deaths are spur of the moment killings because someone lost their temper. You don't bring a gallon of gasoline to a card game because you might get mad and want to kill everyone. You do carry a gun for "protection". Almost NO mass killing are unplanned, so yes, gun control won't stop mass killings, but it does make them harder to do.

  • Re:Freakonomics? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ScentCone (795499) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:48PM (#42512203)

    and significantly raises the difficulty of getting enraged and killing someone

    And so we have another legislative push to curtail "assault" rifles. Except ... even the FBI points out that far more people are killed with hammers, and with bare hands than with rifles. It's about murderers, not tools. Guns are harder to get now than they were 50 years ago - so what's changed? Culture.

    If you're right, and more control means less murder, how do you explain the recent relaxation of gun control in Washington DC, and the substantial drop in murder with guns? How do you reconcile that with very restrictive gun control in Chicago, and a very, very high murder rate? It's about people, not gun (or hammer) control.

  • Re:Roman Empire (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sique (173459) on Monday January 07, 2013 @08:44PM (#42512775) Homepage

    The Romans were advanced. They had indoor plumbing, flush toilets (of a sort) and aquaducts that could transport water for hundreds of miles (most stretches of the aquaducts were enclosed in water mains similar to what we have today)

    You know why we call this "plumbing"? Because it was done with plumbum, the latin word for lead.

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