Lead, Violence and Gorillas

This is kind of out of the blue, but it just annoys me. Today’s WaPo:

The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. … What makes Nevin’s work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries. … Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research. “There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

Specifically, lead is supposed to increase “impulsivity,” the inability to control criminal impulses. And sure, that’s been solidly established.

But let’s look at some further data. These stats happen to be for 2005 from the Federal Justice Statistics Resource Center, but they’re in the same ballpark no matter where you get the numbers. (Sorry, the table’s a bit funky. Best I can do.)

  murder, assault drug, public order, parole offenses property, immigration, material witness offenses
female 750 9380 9989
male 13,053 56920 49029

Anything strike you about it? (Women do catch up a bit with less impulsive “crimes” like immigration violations, but even there the gap is out of all proportion to the population involved.)

I mean, for God’s sake. I understand that the author isn’t implying lead is the only factor, or that there aren’t plenty of others. But people will discuss absolutely anything, anything–race, poverty, education–as causes of high crime rates, and they can’t even seem to see the 800 pound gorilla in the living room.

I wonder why that would be.



Filed under 13_quixote

12 responses to “Lead, Violence and Gorillas

  1. I wonder why that would be.

    Never mind all that. Let’s go back to talking about how we can’t have a woman president because we don’t trust her unstable, irrational finger on Teh Button once a month!


  2. How would you reduce the greater propensity of males to violence? Or if it cannot be reduced, how would you address it in order to reduce the harm?

  3. Obviously, we need the EPA to establish acceptable levels of men in the environment, and work to reach that goal.

    That is – what exactly are you getting at?

  4. Sara, I’m not sure I was getting at anything in particular. It’s obviously a fact that men are either biologically or socially conditioned to more violence, and I am sincerely interested in ways that reduce that tendency.

    I recommend a mellow toke, and relax.

  5. This Nevin guy never heard that correlation is not causation?

    Without more info — like, say, how alcohol abuse might fit in here — the whole “study” is meaningless.

  6. DBK

    The statistics reflect the numbers that are caught. Have you considered that women just don’t get caught?

    I’m just sayin’.

  7. Have you considered that women just don’t get caught?


    That reminds me…I was supposed to have a little talk with Mrs. DBK. Something about how she needs an alibi…

  8. DBK

    The last thing I need is for some radical extremist feminist to get her hands on Mrs DBK. I have enough troubles.

  9. Neneh

    Not only is correlation not causation, dude forgot a major CONFOUNDER: areas of high crime are not just areas with high levels of lead in old, not-well-kept buildings but are also areas of high poverty/segregation. The fundamental issue is the poverty/segregation; the association between lead poisoning and crime is a byproduct.

    (Caveat: I haven’t read the study or clicked through to the link. I’m just a public health researcher with a jerky knee.)

  10. I gather the association between lead poisoning and various brain wiring problems, of which impulsivity is one, is pretty well established. ie it’s not just correlation in this case, although correlation-not-equal-to-causation is always a good point to remember.

    whig: as to what to do about it: that’s exactly my point. We have no idea because nobody will even consider this issue. Without studying it, we really don’t know. Is it something about the way male brains are wired in the second trimester in the womb? Is it testosterone? Is it all socialization?

    And there obviously are very effective ways of working around whatever the problem might be since the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and all kinds of other shining lights of humanity were all men. Besides, it’s a small *minority* of men who succumb. So why do they?

    I think the reason the issue is so totally ignored is for precisely the reason Liss said: can’t diss the top dogs. And, of course, the fact that the top dogs are “normal” and “universal” so there’s never anything wrong with them. It’s all someone else’s fault.

    Except when it isn’t and the whole society gets to deal with the crap because it refuses to try to figure out where it’s coming from.

  11. Obviously, we need the EPA to establish acceptable levels of men in the environment, and work to reach that goal.


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