Here in the West, we are all benefiting from an unprecedented, steady drop in many kinds of social dysfunction, including crime and teen pregnancy. And it's likely to continue. The explanation, I'm increasingly convinced, is the fact that the West outlawed lead in gasoline in the early 1970s. Kevin Drum, who's been on this beat for a while, points to a new study finding a strong correlation between lead reduction and drops in teen pregnancy. For those new to this debate, it turns out that exposure to lead in early childhood permanently damages the brain in ways associated with impulsive conduct in later life. So if lead levels go down, we would expect a drop in impulsive behavior with about a 15-18 year lag. And that's just what we see, in many different areas, right now:
The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.
It's a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn't just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.
But liberals were right that it wasn't related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn't suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn't suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down.
Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.
This doesn't mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot.
Obviously, correlation does not itself prove causation, etc. etc. But every time the lead-crime hypothesis has been tested, as far as I'm aware, the results have suggested a link. So, our societies are getting safer and safer, all due to a wise environmental policy decision we made 40 years ago (in the U.S., under President Richard Nixon!). Which, at the time, was of course fought tooth and nail by our friends, corporate lobbyists.
Can anyone point me to German studies on this? I'd really be interested to see whether a similar argument can be made here.
(World map by average IQ, from here).
In the new atheism debates, you sometimes see two people -- most prominently, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair -- sparring on the subject of whether religion does more harm than good. I'm not going to weigh in on this question, except to note that a recent study of sanitation in India delivers ammunition for the does-harm side: scientific proof that religion (in this case, Hinduism) literally makes people stupid.
The mechanism is public defecation. Anyone who has been to India has seen this happening routinely, and it's impossible to get used to. Large urban areas in India are literally covered in a thin film of human waste, which is dangerous. It gets on crops at their origins, and flies deposit it on food all over the country, which is why Delhi belly is an all-too-horrifying reality for any visitor. (The irony is that all the Green/lefty friends of mine who accompanied me on my India trip ate everything so as to respect the cultural heritage blah blah blah, and stayed healthy. I politely refused to drink the water, ate practically nothing but crackers, and got a mild case of DB anyway.)
But I digress. It turns out the consequences are much farther-reaching than a few inconvenienced tourists:
As a result [of public defecation], children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often sickens them, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat.
“These children’s bodies divert energy and nutrients away from growth and brain development to prioritize infection-fighting survival,” said Jean Humphrey, a professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When this happens during the first two years of life, children become stunted. What’s particularly disturbing is that the lost height and intelligence are permanent.”
...This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?
A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting affects 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families.This disconnect between wealth and malnutrition is so striking that economists have concluded that economic growth does almost nothing to reduce malnutrition.
And why is public defecation so prevalent? The Economist explains:
Hindu tradition, seen for example in the “Laws of Manu”, a Hindu text some 2,000 years old, encourages defecation in the open, far from home, to avoid ritual impurity. Caste division is another factor, as by tradition it was only the lowliest in society, “untouchables” (now Dalits), who cleared human waste. Many people, notably in the Hindu-dominated Gangetic plains, today still show a preference for going in the open—even if they have latrines at home.
So there you have it: a religiously-based custom causes profound developmental problems in children, leading to stunting and irreversible losses in intelligence. Christopher Hitchens, call your office! Oh wait...
AIDS might 'kill more Australians than World War II'. Whew, glad the Aussies dodged that bullet.
Epidemiology_rulez_ok commented, to the last post:
Drink Wawa-beer! The risk of becoming infected with life threatening bacteria is only 0.4% each time you drink Wawa-beer! Don't think about what happens if you drink Wawa-beer once a week, year after year!
Don't forget that the .04% risk figure is based on the number of sex acts with an HIV-positive person. Assuming you sleep with 10 different people a year, how likely is it that any of them is (1) going to be HIV positive; and (2) also be in a phase of the infection in which they are shedding enough viruses to infect others?
If you're straight, don't associate with IV drug users, and don't live in sub-Saharan Africa, the chances of you sleeping with someone who is HIV positive is tiny -- and it's only then, when you sleep with that HIV-positive person, that you'll encounter the 1 in 2500 chance of infection. So the real chance, for people outside the high-risk categories, is probably not even 1 in 2500, but something like one in a couple of million. Which explains why verifiable, recorded instances of HIV transmission resulting from casual sexual encounters among people outside the risk categories are almost unknown.
Obviously, ERO is snarking a bit, but it got me thinking: isn't the attitude he or she mocks the basic logic we all use every day? Take, for example, unpasteurized cheese. I eat it, as well as millions of Europeans, every day, even though there's a small chance it will make us seriously ill. In fact, the United States bans or regulates the import 'dangerous' European cheese made from raw milk, and US government organs officially warn people of the dangers of raw milk and cheese. Yet probably half the cheeses in my ordinary grocery store are labeled rohmilchkaese (cheese from raw milk). Or how about the people I see every day riding their bicycles around without helmets, as I do myself? We are knowingly encountering a tiny chance of death that we could eliminate completely by wearing a helmet, but we don't.
My point is, as a matter of policy, it was foolish and irresponsible to try to frighten people outside the main risk groups. It spread irrational fear far out of proportion to any real public-health benefit. Also, it reduced the credibility of public-health figures. They cried wolf once (see the ad above), so who's to say they won't do so the next time some alleged threat looms on the horizon? It's also worth noting that the people responsible for the notorious 'Grim Reaper' ad later acknowledged it was a mistake, since it led to a backlash by straight Australians against gay men. Some people took the Grim Reaper to be a dramatization of the supposed danger of a virus localized in the gay community now threatening heterosexuals -- even small children.
We've all been bombarded with messages about safe sex. Often, these messages are manage to be both hysterical and curiously vague. We are warned that all sex is dangerous, there's no such thing as safe sex, only safer sex, and solemnly enjoined to do ludicrous things like use condoms and dental dams during oral sex. Dental dams!
The patronizing tone of this propaganda always annoyed me. I felt as if I were in a dictatorship, constantly being told what to do, but never why. I remember looking up the actual statistics of HIV transmission in the 1990s and being amazed at how incredibly tiny they were. Over at Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory takes a look at the question of exactly how risky oral sex is:
A University of California, San Francisco, study put the per-contact risk of transmission through “receptive” fellatio with an HIV positive partner at 0.04 percent. (For perspective, consider that the same study found a much higher per-contact risk of 0.82 percent for unprotected receptive anal sex.) The researchers calculated the rate of HIV transmission to be 4 out of 10,000 acts of fellatio. Without ejaculation in the mouth, though, some experts have called HIV transmission via performing fellatio “extremely low risk.”
As for the danger of having someone perform unprotected oral sex on you: “The only risk in this scenario would be from bleeding wounds or gums in the HIV positive person’s mouth or on their lips, which may transfer blood onto the mucous membranes of the other person’s genitals or anus, or into any cuts or sores they may have,” according to AVERT.
This more or less conforms to the information I got looking at controlled clinical studies of HIV transmission. The canard that everyone was at equal risk for HIV was just that, a canard. If you are healthy, straight, and don't use IV drugs you can have unprotected oral or vaginal sex with an HIV-positive person literally thousands of times without contracting HIV. And, as Flory reports, pretty much the same goes for other sexually-transmitted diseases and oral sex. Note how the public-health experts she quotes constantly emphasize the risks, but are then forced, almost sheepishly, in the fine print, to admit that actual number of cases of transmission by oral sex is small. And if you use your imagination, you'll probably conclude that most of those transmissions involved the kind of moist, unhygienic frolicking that most sensible people are not going to find tempting.
Obviously, these diseases are unpleasant, people should probably try to have safer sex, etc., etc. But I've always thought the fear-mongering does more harm than good. After all, if you suggest to people that obvious common sense (i.e. that oral sex is less risky than other kinds) is misleading and warn them they must use absurd precautions or they will die, they're going to stop taking you seriously. People wanna have fun. Don't point fingers at them. Explain to them like adults the risks they face, and design a better condom so it's a bit safer for them to do what they're going to do anyway.
When I hear that Obama has denounced anti-gay legislation in Uganda and Russia, I always wonder at the futility of this sort of thing. In fact, it's probably counterproductive. Majorities of Ugandans and Russians disapprove of homosexuality, and they want their laws to reflect that fact. Criticism from foreign countries triggers a natural reaction to dig in even deeper.
And who should know that better than the United States? Decades of criticism of capital punishment from the EU, the Pope, Latin American nations have had no impact. To the extent Americans are even aware of the EU's disapproval of the death penalty, they scoff at it. 'We have our own country,' they think, 'our own history, our own traditions, and our own reasons for having the laws we do.' You might think policy X has become a fundamental human-rights norm which all civilized nations must respect, but we disagree.
Germany is pretty much the same. The U.S. has repeatedly accused Germany of violating the human rights of Scientologists, and Germany reacts with a loud 'mind your own f**king business'. Something similar can be said for the German coalition's new plans for Turkish-German dual citizenship, which the Turkish foreign minister has denounced as a 'human rights violation'. German and especially British courts are notorious for responding rather touchily (g) to criticism from the European Court of Human Rights.
Foreign criticism of executive decisions and policies seems to have some impact, but criticism of a country's laws -- especially when passed by democratically-elected legislatures -- rarely accomplishes anything.
As I mentioned recently, German convenience kiosks don't have bulletproof glass, because there's almost no stranger-on-stranger violent crime in Germany.
Meanwhile America, according to a recent study, is the most heavily-guarded nation on earth right now, with more private security guards than schoolteachers. The authors say income inequality is one reason for this:
Note that, in 1979 (shown by the pink dot), the United States was less unequal and employed less guard labor. In the graph, inequality in income takes account of payment of taxes and receipt of government transfers such as Social Security. (We measure inequality by the Gini index, a measure that varies from 0 for complete equality — that is, if all families have the same income — to a value of 1 if a single person has all of the income.) The data shown are the most recent for all nations on which comparable measures of inequality and guard labor are available.
For the same countries, guard labor is also more common where those starting out in life face a sharply tilted playing field, such as America, Britain and Italy. These are countries in which the income of a father is a good predictor of the income of his adult son. The countries with the least guard labor are those in which there is greater equality of economic opportunity by this measure: These are Denmark and Sweden, countries in which knowing the father’s income does not enable a very accurate guess of the son’s income when he grows up.
...[T]he correlation evident in the graph could be evidence that economic disparities push nations to devote more of their productive capacity to guarding people and property. Fear and distrust of one’s neighbors and fellow citizens fuel the demand for guard labor. Economic disparities can contribute to both. Among the countries shown, a common measure of distrust of strangers is strongly correlated with both the guard-labor fraction and inequality.
Social spending, also, is strongly and inversely correlated with guard labor across the nations shown in the graph. There is a simple economic lesson here: A nation whose policies result in substantial inequalities may end up spending more on guns and getting less butter as a result.
Quartz explores Germany's low rate of home ownership, and finds it's due to a sensible mix of policy initiatives which result in decent rental housing, low rents (yes, low rents) and strong tenants'-rights protections:
By the time of Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, 20% of Germany’s housing stock was rubble. Some 2.25 million homes were gone. Another 2 million were damaged. A 1946 census showed an additional 5.5 million housing units were needed in what would ultimately become West Germany.
So, almost a month ago I was asked whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a villain. I thought that was a pretty foolish question, and it still is. His personality is irrelevant: what is important is that he's uncovered a level of arrogance and cynicism on the part of the NSA -- and, by extension, the U.S. government -- that will damage America's reputation for decades.
The revelation of spying on American citizens, although dramatic, was not the biggest bombshell. Many Americans surmised as much, and given how many liberties Americans have sacrificed in recent years, you could perhaps almost argue that Americans implicitly consented to being spied on. But that's certainly not true of the citizens of Germany and Brazil. As I pointed out in an earlier post, U.S. law currently affords zero protection -- zero -- to the privacy rights of non-U.S. citizens located outside of the U.S. And it now appears the NSA has been ruthlessly exploiting this fact to hoover up millions of pieces of data on all other countries. According to Der Spiegel, the NSA has spied on 500 million data connections of Germans. And just 2 days, ago, also relying on Snowden documents, Glenn Greenwald reported that the NSA is also indiscrimately vaccuming up the emails, phone calls, and other data of millions of citizens of Brazil:
I've written an article on NSA surveillance for the front page of the Sunday edition of O Globo, the large Brazilian newspaper based in Rio de Janeiro. The article is headlined (translated) "US spied on millions of emails and calls of Brazilians", and I co-wrote it with Globo reporters Roberto Kaz and Jose Casado. The rough translation of the article into English is here....
That the US government - in complete secrecy - is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world's citizens, has profound consequences. It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security. It vests the US government with boundless power over those to whom it has no accountability. It permits allies of the US - including aggressively oppressive ones - to benefit from indiscriminate spying on their citizens' communications. It radically alters the balance of power between the US and ordinary citizens of the world. And it sends an unmistakable signal to the world that while the US very minimally values the privacy rights of Americans, it assigns zero value to the privacy of everyone else on the planet.
The reason for the mass violation of privacy rights is apparently the fact that Brazilians don't speak English. Only a few countries worldwide are exempt from NSA spying, as Der Spiegel reports:
One top secret document also states that while Germany may be a partner, it is still also a target of the NSA's electronic snooping. According to the document, Germany is a so-called "3rd party foreign partner." The only countries that are explicitly excluded from spying attacks are Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. "We can, and often do, target the signals of most 3d party foreign partners," a slide from an internal presentation states.
If these revelations turn out to be largely true -- and, after a month of embarrassed, foot-shuffling silence from Washington, does anyone really doubt that anymore? -- this should provoke a massive diplomatic crisis. Imagine that: you're a Brazilian using the Internet, and you know know that it's entirely possible that some spy thousands of miles away in Virginia can, if she wants to, read your emails or listen to your phone calls to your children, or mistress, or dying relative. If that doesn't provoke outrage and fan anti-American sentiment, it's hard to imagine what would.
What possible rejoinder could there be? 'Oh, don't worry, we don't listen to the really personal stuff, but we can't prove that, because the guidelines are all secret and you we won't tell you anything about them.' The U.S. is effectively saying to millions of Brazilians: 'We are going to spy on you, not because we deserve to, not because we need to, not because you authorized us to, but just because we want to and we can. If you don't like that, go dance a little samba or something.' This doesn't just climb the summit of arrogance, it jumps into a balloon and ascends into the troposphere.
Books I've written or translated