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Lead, Crime, and New York City

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The lead-crime hypothesis has been solidly verified, but journalists seem to remain ignorant of it. Kevin Drum in Mother Jones points out the most recent example of journalistic ignorance on display:

A whole bunch of people have emailed to ask what I think of Adam Gopnik’s latest piece in the New Yorker“The Great Crime Decline.” It’s a review of Patrick Sharkey’s new book, “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.” Sharkey’s basic point is that crime is bad, a view that I hardly need to be convinced of, but he seems to have an unfortunately conventional view of why it declined so much in the 90s and aughts:

What made the crime wave happen and what made it halt?…[Sharkey] is an enthusiast of the hypothesis that local community organizing was a key factor in the crime drop….He also finds that incarceration accounted for some of the crime decline, and so did more aggressive policing.

….Sharkey, as good as he is at explaining what happened—whom it helped, what it permitted—isn’t as good at explaining why it happened. The curious truth is that the decline in crime happened across the entire Western world, in East London just as it did in the South Bronx. At the same time, the relative decline in New York was significantly bigger than elsewhere. Sharkey’s guess that the crime decline can be attributed to the uncomfortable but potent intersection of community action and coercive policing seems about as good as any….With the crime wave, it would seem, small measures that pushed the numbers down by some noticeable amount engendered a virtuous circle that brought the numbers further and further down.

….We cured the crime wave without fixing “the broken black family,” that neocon bugaboo. For that matter, we cured it without greater income equality or even remotely solving the gun problem. The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities.

In some sense I don’t blame Gopnik for this. He’s primarily an essayist and critic, not a social scientist or a reporter who specializes in urban policing. At the same time, reviewing a book in an unfamiliar field and then shrugging his shoulders and saying the book’s guess about crime “seems about as good as any”—well, even an essayist might think about spending an hour or two googling to get up to speed on alternate theories.

Sharkey, of course, is a different matter. For some reason he doesn’t explain, he dismisses the effect of lead as “vastly overstated” and says he finds it “difficult to believe” that the crime decline was caused by either lead or any other exogenous shock. Ten years ago that would have been fine. Today it’s journalistic malpractice. And the weird thing is that if Sharkey had spent any time with the lead-crime hypothesis, he would have found that it was practically made to order for him. Check this out:

A real problem, going forward, is the one identified by Black Lives Matter and associated groups: police violence. As the social cost of stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration has become, rightly, intolerable, we ask if the crime decline, with its unprecedented benefits for the marginalized populations, can survive. Sharkey emphatically thinks it can, and so far there’s no evidence to counter his view.

….Effects that we don’t normally track are surely related to the crime decline, not least the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement itself. Without a general understanding that crime was no longer the real problem but that the response to crime might be, the movement could not have caught a surprisingly large, sympathetic audience….Ironically, though the urban crime wave is over, it still persists as a kind of zombified general terror, particularly in places where it was never particularly acute.

Sharkey very much wants to persuade us that the crime decline is permanent, and that we should change our policing and incarceration strategies to recognize this. He’s absolutely right, but the best evidence for this is the lead-crime connection. It was lead that poisoned young brains and produced a generation of criminals. With the lead mostly gone, young people today are back to normal. They just aren’t as dangerous as they used to be, and that change is permanent. It’s really peculiar that Sharkey dismisses this, given how strongly it reinforces his point. It’s also peculiar since it explains otherwise mysterious things like the fact that crime declined throughout the world, not just in the United States.

But in another way, this isn’t surprising. I don’t understand why this is so, but for some reason New Yorkers seem to be especially resistant to recognizing lead as a prime cause of crime. Part of this, I suppose, is that New York was ground zero of the great crime wave and New Yorkers have been bombarded with theories about crime for decades now: Bill Bratton, CompStat, Rudy Giuliani, broken windows, community policing, stop-and-frisk, the breakdown of the black family, etc. etc. More than any other city, they’ve been told over and over and over that the great crime decline is due to various interventions by the great and good. But the truth is that although New York’s crime rate fell faster than the national average, it didn’t fall any faster than it did in other big cities, all of which have seen violent crime rates drop by 70-80 percent since 1991:

I don’t know why Sharkey so casually dismisses the effect of lead, since it explains so much: the overall decline in crime; the decline in different cities with different policing strategies; the international decline in crime; the fact that crime rose and fell more in big cities than in rural areas; and the fact that crime rose and fell more among blacks. No other theory comes close to explaining all this, or to explaining why crime rose in the first place. In the end, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2018 at 11:09 am

An Updated Lead-Crime Roundup for 2018

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Kevin Drum blogs in Mother Jones:

A few weeks ago I promised an updated roundup of evidence about the link between lead poisoning and violent crime. Here it is.

It’s in three parts. Part 1 is the basic story. Part 2 is various bits of commentary explaining different details and predictions of the hypothesis. Part 3 is a roundup of all the lead-crime studies that have been done since 2012 that I’m aware of.

1. A Brief Summary of Lead and Crime

The lead-crime hypothesis is pretty simple: lead poisoning degrades the development of childhood brains in ways that increase aggression, reduce impulse control, and impair the executive functions that allow people to understand the consequences of their actions. Because of this, infants who are exposed to high levels of lead are more likely to commit violent crimes later in life. There are three types of research that confirm the connection between lead and crime:

  • Brain studies. Neurologists have performed MRI scans of adults who were exposed to lead as children. They’ve found that because lead is chemically similar to calcium, it displaces the calcium needed for normal brain development.
  • Prospective studies. These are studies that begin in childhood and follow a group of children through adulthood. The children are measured along the way and their adult outcomes are catalogued. Several prospective studies have shown that children who are exposed to high levels of lead are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for violent crimes later in life.
  • Population studies. These are studies that depend on statistical analysis of groups, rather than individuals. Dozens of population studies have found strong correlations between the exposure of a group to lead and the level of violent crime committed by the group later in life. These groups can be neighborhoods, cities, states, or countries. For the USA, the correlation between lead and crime looks like this:

No single study is proof of the lead-crime hypothesis. However, the accumulated evidence for the hypothesis is pretty overwhelming. I outlined the case for the lead-crime hypothesis in 2012 in a magazine piece called: Lead: America’s Real Criminal Element.

In a nutshell, this article argues that atmospheric lead from gasoline tailpipes rose steadily after World War II, affecting babies born in the late 40s and beyond. The leading edge of this generation became teenagers in the late 60s and was more prone than previous generations to committing violent crime. Every year the population of teenagers with lead poisoning increased, and violent crime increased with it. This is why the 70s and 80s were eras in which crime skyrocketed.

In the early 70s the United States began to phase out leaded gasoline and newborns became steadily less lead poisoned. Like clockwork, as the leading edge of this generation became teenagers in the early 90s, the crime wave started to recede. By 2010, an entire generation of teenagers and young adults—the age group responsible for most crime—had grown up nearly lead free, and the violent crime rate had plummeted to half or less of its high point. This happened across the board: in big and small cities; among blacks and whites; in every state; in every city; and, as it turns out, in every other country that also phased out leaded gasoline.

It’s important to emphasize that the lead-crime hypothesis doesn’t claim that lead is solely responsible for crime. It primarily explains only one thing: the huge rise in crime of the 70s and 80s and the equally huge—and completely unexpected—decline in crime of the 90s and aughts. The lead-crime hypothesis is the answer to the question mark in the stylized chart below: . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, including more charts.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 10:17 am

In honor of the upcoming Super Bowl: The film the NFL does not want you to see

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So watch it anyway.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2018 at 2:06 pm

Can Magic Mushrooms Fight Authoritarianism?

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Philip Smith writes in Drug War Chronicles:

Psychedelic drugs have been associated with anti-authoritarian counter-cultures since the 1960s, but a new studysuggests using psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, actually makes people less likely to embrace authoritarian views, PsyPost reports. The study conducted by the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London was published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

While other studies have linked the use of psychedelics to a greater sense of oneness with nature, openness to new experiences and political and social liberalism, this is the first to provide experimental evidence their use can leading to lasting changes in these attitudes.

In the study, researchers gave two oral doses of psilocybin to seven participants suffering from treatment-resistant major depression while a control group of seven healthy subjects did not receive psilocybin. Researchers surveyed participants about their political views and relationship to nature before the sessions, one week after the sessions, and 7-12 months later.

Subjects who received the psilocybin treatment showed a significant decrease in authoritarian attitudes after treatment, and that reduction was sustained over time. They also reported a significant increase in a sense of relatedness to nature.

“Before I enjoyed nature, now I feel part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like TV or a painting… But now I see there’s no separation or distinction — you are it,” one participant told researchers.

Subjects who had not received psilocybin did not exhibit significant changes in attitudes.

“Our findings tentatively raise the possibility that given in this way, psilocybin may produce sustained changes in outlook and political perspective, here in the direction of increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarianism,” wrote study authors Taylor Lyons and Robin L. Carhart-Harris.

That is a significant advance in the research on the links between . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2018 at 11:10 am

Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness

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David Shimer reports in the NY Times:

On Jan. 12, a few days after registration opened at Yale for Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life, roughly 300 people had signed up. Within three days, the figure had more than doubled. After three more days, about 1,200 students, or nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates, were enrolled.

The course, taught by Laurie Santos, 42, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said in an interview. “With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”

Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.

“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”

Students have long requested that Yale offer a course on positive psychology, according to Woo-Kyoung Ahn, director of undergraduate studies in psychology, who said she was “blown away” by Dr. Santos’s proposal for the class.

Administrators like Dr. Ahn expected significant enrollment for the class, but none anticipated it to be quite so large. Psychology and the Good Life, with 1,182 undergraduates currently enrolled, stands as the most popular course in Yale’s 316-year history. The previous record-holder — Psychology and the Law — was offered in 1992 and had about 1,050 students, according to Marvin Chun, the Yale College dean. Most large lectures at Yale don’t exceed 600.

Offering such a large class has  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 January 2018 at 1:06 pm

A family of doctors helps reinvent medical marijuana

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Justin Moyer reports in the Washington Post:

The Knoxes are a clan of four doctors living in Oregon and California who specialize in medical marijuana. They seem to be doing quite well selling something that is illegal in many states, working with those they know best.

“We’re all fighting the same fight,” said Janice Knox, the founding doctor behind American Cannabinoid Clinics in Portland, Ore. — and the mother of two fellow physicians and the wife of the other. “I think when they do see us they’re surprised at who we are,” she said of her patients. The family aims for something not always associated with medical marijuana: professionalism.

Knox led the family’s move into medical marijuana in 2012, when she retired from a decades-long career in anesthesiology. One of 15 children, she grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and went north for medical school in the 1970s.

“There were not very many black women or men, at least not at the University of Washington,” she said. “It felt like a cultural shock when I went there.”

Knox stuck it out, choosing a career as an anesthesiologist because she thought — wrongly — it would give her more time to raise children. (A lot more on them in a minute.) After 35 years, however, she got tired of working up to seven days a week. And she got tired of being mistaken for a nurse. “Patients would say, ‘I want a white male doctor,’ ” Knox said.

After she stepped away from the job, she got a call from a “card mill” — a practice known more for writing prescriptions for medical marijuana quickly than for close attention to patients’ needs. One of the doctors couldn’t be found. Could she fill in?

Knox wasn’t sure. One of her colleagues, a marijuana enthusiast, had been sent to rehab. And despite attending the University of California at Berkeley, she was a square — Knox had never seen or smelled marijuana “at a time when drugs were everywhere,” she said.

But she had always been interested in natural treatments, and she agreed to fill in — and was pleasantly surprised to see that the patients were not a bunch of a reprobates. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 January 2018 at 3:25 pm

Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?

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Johann Hari writes in the Guardian:

In the 1970s, a truth was accidentally discovered about depression – one that was quickly swept aside, because its implications were too inconvenient, and too explosive. American psychiatrists had produced a book that would lay out, in detail, all the symptoms of different mental illnesses, so they could be identified and treated in the same way across the United States. It was called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In the latest edition, they laid out nine symptoms that a patient has to show to be diagnosed with depression – like, for example, decreased interest in pleasure or persistent low mood. For a doctor to conclude you were depressed, you had to show five of these symptoms over several weeks.

The manual was sent out to doctors across the US and they began to use it to diagnose people. However, after a while they came back to the authors and pointed out something that was bothering them. If they followed this guide, they had to diagnose every grieving person who came to them as depressed and start giving them medical treatment. If you lose someone, it turns out that these symptoms will come to you automatically. So, the doctors wanted to know, are we supposed to start drugging all the bereaved people in America?

The authors conferred, and they decided that there would be a special clause added to the list of symptoms of depression. None of this applies, they said, if you have lost somebody you love in the past year. In that situation, all these symptoms are natural, and not a disorder. It was called “the grief exception”, and it seemed to resolve the problem.

Then, as the years and decades passed, doctors on the frontline started to come back with another question. All over the world, they were being encouraged to tell patients that depression is, in fact, just the result of a spontaneous chemical imbalance in your brain – it is produced by low serotonin, or a natural lack of some other chemical. It’s not caused by your life – it’s caused by your broken brain. Some of the doctors began to ask how this fitted with the grief exception. If you agree that the symptoms of depression are a logical and understandable response to one set of life circumstances – losing a loved one – might they not be an understandable response to other situations? What about if you lose your job? What if you are stuck in a job that you hate for the next 40 years? What about if you are alone and friendless?

The grief exception seemed to have blasted a hole in the claim that the causes of depression are sealed away in your skull. It suggested that there are causes out here, in the world, and they needed to be investigated and solved there. This was a debate that mainstream psychiatry (with some exceptions) did not want to have. So, they responded in a simple way – by whittling away the grief exception. With each new edition of the manual they reduced the period of grief that you were allowed before being labelled mentally ill – down to a few months and then, finally, to nothing at all. Now, if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away.

Dr Joanne Cacciatore, of Arizona State University, became a leading expert on the grief exception after her own baby, Cheyenne, died during childbirth. She had seen many grieving people being told that they were mentally ill for showing distress. She told me this debate reveals a key problem with how we talk about depression, anxiety and other forms of suffering: we don’t, she said, “consider context”. We act like human distress can be assessed solely on a checklist that can be separated out from our lives, and labelled as brain diseases. If we started to take people’s actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, Joanne explained, it would require “an entire system overhaul”. She told me that when “you have a person with extreme human distress, [we need to] stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Let’s get to the deeper problem.”


I was a teenager when I swallowed my first antidepressant. I was standing in the weak English sunshine, outside a pharmacy in a shopping centre in London. The tablet was white and small, and as I swallowed, it felt like a chemical kiss. That morning I had gone to see my doctor and I had told him – crouched, embarrassed – that pain was leaking out of me uncontrollably, like a bad smell, and I had felt this way for several years. In reply, he told me a story. There is a chemical called serotonin that makes people feel good, he said, and some people are naturally lacking it in their brains. You are clearly one of those people. There are now, thankfully, new drugs that will restore your serotonin level to that of a normal person. Take them, and you will be well. At last, I understood what had been happening to me, and why.

However, a few months into my drugging, something odd happened. The pain started to seep through again. Before long, I felt as bad as I had at the start. I went back to my doctor, and he told me that I was clearly on too low a dose. And so, 20 milligrams became 30 milligrams; the white pill became blue. I felt better for several months. And then the pain came back through once more. My dose kept being jacked up, until I was on 80mg, where it stayed for many years, with only a few short breaks. And still the pain broke back through.

I started to research my book, Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, because I was puzzled by two mysteries. Why was I still depressed when I was doing everything I had been told to do? I had identified the low serotonin in my brain, and I was boosting my serotonin levels – yet I still felt awful. But there was a deeper mystery still. Why were so many other people across the western world feeling like me? Around one in five US adults are taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in a decade, to the point where now one in 11 of us drug ourselves to deal with these feelings. What has been causing depression and its twin, anxiety, to spiral in this way? I began to ask myself: could it really be that in our separate heads, all of us had brain chemistries that were spontaneously malfunctioning at the same time?

To find the answers, I ended up going on a 40,000-mile journey across the world and back. I talked to the leading social scientists investigating these questions, and to people who have been overcoming depression in unexpected ways – from an Amish village in Indiana, to a Brazilian city that banned advertising and a laboratory in Baltimore conducting a startling wave of experiments. From these people, I learned the best scientific evidence about what really causes depression and anxiety. They taught me that it is not what we have been told it is up to now. I found there is evidence that seven specific factors in the way we are living today are causing depression and anxiety to rise – alongside two real biological factors (such as your genes) that can combine with these forces to make it worse.

Once I learned this, I was able to see that a very different set of solutions to my depression – and to our depression – had been waiting for me all along.

To understand this different way of thinking, though, I had to first investigate the old story, the one that had given me so much relief at first. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 January 2018 at 4:10 pm

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