Unintended Consequences, Lead And Crime

from the the-world-works-in-bizarre-ways dept

If you haven't yet, you owe it to yourself to read Kevin Drum's recent article for Mother Jones about the possible link between crime rates and leaded gasoline. The article makes a rather convincing case that the massive growth, and then subsequent decline, in crime over the last six decades or so was influenced quite strongly by the fact that automobile gasoline had lead -- and then went unleaded due to environmental concerns. The article cites numerous studies that all seem to suggest the same thing -- and carefully tries to get past the "correlation is not causation" issue by looking at multiple studies that tackle the same question from different angles (different time periods, locations, population types, etc.) to try to eliminate other possible explanations. One of the parts that struck me as most interesting was the data on big cities as compared to other regions:
Like many good theories, the gasoline lead hypothesis helps explain some things we might not have realized even needed explaining. For example, murder rates have always been higher in big cities than in towns and small cities. We're so used to this that it seems unsurprising, but Nevin points out that it might actually have a surprising explanation—because big cities have lots of cars in a small area, they also had high densities of atmospheric lead during the postwar era. But as lead levels in gasoline decreased, the differences between big and small cities largely went away. And guess what? The difference in murder rates went away too. Today, homicide rates are similar in cities of all sizes. It may be that violent crime isn't an inevitable consequence of being a big city after all.
The article has not gone entirely without criticism. Drum has distanced himself from the claim of the key researcher he relies on in the piece that 90% of the rise and fall of crime (not 90% of crime) is attributable to lead, suggesting that 50% might be a more reasonable number. Separately, Ronald Bailey has reasonably taken Drum to task for blithely making statements about "blindingly obvious" things concerning IQ and ADHD that turn out to be... not true. When you take those things out of the equation, some of the report relies on "aggressiveness" and "impulsivity," but as Bailey notes, there is no national data series on aggressiveness or impulsivity. And, having seen way too many "studies" on video games / violent media causing greater "aggressiveness" and "impulsivity," but always failing to show that those traits actually lead to more crime, it pays to be somewhat skeptical.

That said, the data is very interesting, and certainly worth much more research and better understanding. At the very least, it's a reminder of our complex ecosystem and economy, where understanding cause and effect is often incredibly complicated, and the end results may be quite surprising. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about cause and effect (and, yes, we are just as guilty of this as others at times) -- but the real world is an impossibly complex mixture of inputs and variables, that rarely succumb to simple explanations that follow the initial "most obvious" rationale.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    JimTomPul, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 5:54pm

    wonderfully stated

    Nicely written!

    Recently I saw Freakonomics. The author makes a strong case for legalization of abortion dropping crime. You could apply that theory to the correlation of big/small city crime stats.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 5:31am

      Re: wonderfully stated

      There may be strong correlation between legalization and crime in various cities across the us but that would not explain the similar data seen in many countries across the globe where such changes in law did not occur.

       

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        ChrisB (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 6:38am

        Re: Re: wonderfully stated

        The same correlation was seen in other countries like Canada and Australia. In any case, only part of the decline was explained by legalized abortion. Other factors were more police spending, the ending crack epidemic, etc.

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 7:59am

      Re: wonderfully stated

      His book was interesting but much of his data was countered in Freedomonics. Either he was wrong or you can make data correlations from anything as long as it seems to show proof.

       

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        Brandon Rinebold (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 4:36pm

        Re: Re: wonderfully stated

        It's the latter. You can come to 500 different conclusions for causality for any situation in which you can't run a control study. Welcome to economicx where your pet theory can be the cause of everything good while the other sides' is the cause of everything bad without interfering with their ability to believe their pet theory is responsible for the good results while yours is responsible for the bad ones.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Jan 9th, 2013 @ 5:04am

          Re: Re: Re: wonderfully stated

          Yeah.
          In addition, there is no disputing the fact that lead poisoning causes mental issues and therefore removing the source of said poisoning would be a good thing.

           

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      PRMan, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 8:26am

      Re: wonderfully stated

      The legalization of abortion happened at the height of the lead era. Are we sure the Supreme Court Justices weren't completely insane when the voted on that case?

       

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    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 6:57pm

    Higher crime rates in cities because of higher atmospheric lead concentrations?

    Really?

    Hey, I gotcher correlation right here, pal.

    You know what happens when you put too many rats in a cage? They fight. Often brutally. They not only kill each other, they eat their own young. Not each others' young, their own.

    Humans are the only animals that do this to themselves. On purpose.

    Perhaps this should be eliminated as a variable before blaming crime on heavy metal poisoning. Sheesh.

    The author has obviously been sniffing too many exhaust fumes.

     

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      Liz (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 12:30am

      Re:

      With an average lag time of 23 years between the heavy use of leaded fuels and the dramatic shift in crime rates. They pinpointed several factors and biological links which lead to criminal activity.

      The data tallied has been done by a number researchers in different fields and they come to the same conclusion.

      You might want to actually read the article. It even touches on your hypothesis of population density leading to increased crime. The data they collected shows that the per-capita crime rates between urban and rural areas were about the same with lowered lead exposure levels.

       

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 3:42am

      Re:

      Higher crime rates in cities because of higher atmospheric lead concentrations?

      Really?

      Hey, I gotcher correlation right here, pal.


      You really ought to read the article in question. As I noted, they go beyond just correlation. Multiple studies from different angles -- ALL showing the same thing.

      You know what happens when you put too many rats in a cage? They fight. Often brutally. They not only kill each other, they eat their own young. Not each others' young, their own.

      Humans are the only animals that do this to themselves. On purpose.

      Perhaps this should be eliminated as a variable before blaming crime on heavy metal poisoning. Sheesh.


      And yet, if you read the article, the data says something different.

      I dunno. I trust the data rather than your anecdotes.

      Also: humans aren't rats.

       

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        Ninja (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 5:48am

        Re: Re:

        Wait.

        While there may be some sort of relation between lead and criminality I think, and correct me if I'm wrong, that the real point of the article is that if you torture data sets enough they'll say virtually anything and that a great deal of scrutiny is needed when presenting studies that intend to find causes for a determined behavior/fact. Right?

        I think you can basically summarize the point of the article in:

        At the very least, it's a reminder of our complex ecosystem and economy, where understanding cause and effect is often incredibly complicated, and the end results may be quite surprising. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about cause and effect (and, yes, we are just as guilty of this as others at times) -- but the real world is an impossibly complex mixture of inputs and variables, that rarely succumb to simple explanations that follow the initial "most obvious" rationale.

        Right?

         

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          nasch (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 11:03am

          Re: Re: Re:

          While there may be some sort of relation between lead and criminality I think, and correct me if I'm wrong, that the real point of the article is that if you torture data sets enough they'll say virtually anything and that a great deal of scrutiny is needed when presenting studies that intend to find causes for a determined behavior/fact. Right?

          That's not what I got from it at all. The last part is good - scrutiny and skepticism is needed. But I didn't get an impression of tortured data.

           

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        dennis deems (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 6:43am

        Re: Re:

        Also: humans aren't rats.
        Close enough for spitting. You trust observations of rats used in medical research. Why not in behavioral research?

         

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 5:13am

      Re:

      Are you talking through that funny hat of yours?

       

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      Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 7:08am

      Re:

      Humans are the only animals that do this to themselves. On purpose.

      Except in the case of rats...as you mentioned...prior to your above statement.

       

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      Barrett, Feb 21st, 2013 @ 9:05am

      Safety

      Actually there is safety in numbers.

      Its seems counter intuitive but if you take Canada for example the largest cities have lower crime rates than smaller cities.

      The more populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec have lower provincial crime rates that low density provinces such as Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 8:09pm

    The majority of violent crime happens in population densities greater than 225K.
    The majority of guns crimes involve a hand gun in cities with heavy gun control.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 9:58pm

      Re:

      It's also shown that the most video game purchases occur in populations exceeding 225K

      WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

       

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      DCX2, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 10:10am

      Re:

      That's great that you feel like making declarations about absolute values of crime based on population density.

      Too bad the study dealt with relative values of crime, showing that they rise and fall with a 23-year lag time from when lead is introduced and removed from gasoline.

      Perhaps next time you should review the research before jumping to conclusions. Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

       

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      Barrett, Feb 21st, 2013 @ 9:15am

      Re:

      We don't live in walled and moated cities anymore. Without some kind of more unified system of enforcement a city is completely helpless to stop the flow of guns into their city.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 7th, 2013 @ 8:10pm

    moral of the story: smoke lead, not weed

    clearly murder rates will go down if every one dies of lung cancer

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 12:14am

    So lead leads to crime?

     

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    Richard (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 3:37am

    Marginal

    There may be a marginal impact of lead- but crime is much more readily explained by viewing it like any other business.

    Crime rises when criminal business opportunities increase and declines as they decline.

    Take burglary for example. Go back to the 1930s and few homes have much in them that is worth stealing. The post war boom saw an increase in consumer durables - making burglary more attractive. This trend peaked in the 1980s when most homes had a video recorder - which was expensive enough to be worth stealing and easily portable.

    Since then the price of these items has fallen - and the few remaining household items that are expensive are too bulky - so burglary has declined. In the meantime street robbery has increased due to the prevalence of expensive personal electronics!

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 8th, 2013 @ 5:15am

      Re: Marginal

      Didn't read the article, huh.

       

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      Ninja (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 5:55am

      Re: Marginal

      I'd say that it's a mistake to treat crime as a single entity. There are several types of crimes. I"d say that lead may influence more violent types of crimes (ie: murder). Lead influences the nervous system and while the levels found in air when there was lead in gasoline would not kill or severely harm a human being it might influence the nervous system as a whole inducing some types of behaviors. It is said that Augustus (Rome) went insane (in a violent way) and there are those that blame the aqueducts that were mainly made of lead at the time.

      In the end it's a complex matter.

       

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    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 10:03am

    Leaded gasoline and crime

    Well, two comments, one on point, the other ...
    1. There is bound to be data on the conduct of, say, mice exposed to lead and mice not so exposed. Seems to me that would be highly relevant.
    2. There is bound to be data on how much lead was put into the air. That should be relevant.
    3. But the big problem is, that like Techdirt's blindness to data showing a possible correlation between video games and crime, even if it is for a small segment of the population. While it is easy to believe video games are not a significant factor (we just don't know) to say it is NEVER a
    factor at all is a massive stretch of "faith", or bias.

     

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      nasch (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 11:20am

      Re: Leaded gasoline and crime

      But the big problem is, that like Techdirt's blindness to data showing a possible correlation between video games and crime, even if it is for a small segment of the population. While it is easy to believe video games are not a significant factor (we just don't know) to say it is NEVER a
      factor at all is a massive stretch of "faith", or bias.


      I don't remember Techdirt ever claiming that it is never a factor. What they've written is that there is no reliable evidence linking violent video games to violent behavior. There's no faith involved, just a decision not to believe in something that doesn't have any evidence for it. Kind of the opposite of faith really. But if you have references to good data showing a correlation that Techdirt has ignored, that could be evidence of bias. Do you?

       

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    xenomancer (profile), Jan 8th, 2013 @ 12:01pm

    Next, someone will take the unleaded/leaded coffee metaphor seriously and all sorts of hell will break loose!

     

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    Kris, Feb 8th, 2014 @ 11:38am

    Crime Rates were lower in the 50s and 60s with lead

    The important FLAW in this argument is that crime rates were LOWER when lead poisoning awareness was not as prevalent.

    New york city for instance banned paint in 1960, crime rates in new york city were low until the 1970s, obviously all lead paint was probably not removed and much was preexist ant but it does not support the theory.

    Although lead does to an extent cross certain socio-economic barriers since old homes that could be owned by the wealthy can have lead, there does seem to be an increase in crime by those of lower income although whites who may have had some privilege also had crime increases back in the 1970s.

    So while the theory has some valid reasoning, it doesn't really meet its mark.

     

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      nasch (profile), Feb 8th, 2014 @ 12:39pm

      Re: Crime Rates were lower in the 50s and 60s with lead

      New york city for instance banned paint in 1960

      The story is about atmospheric lead from leaded gasoline, why are you bringing in lead paint?

       

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