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We need to get smarter about reporting the news -- and responding to it, too

Robert Niles
Published: January 7, 2013 at 9:55 AM (MST)
If you've not yet read Kevin Drum's smart take on the connection between leaded gasoline and the crime waves of the late 20th Century, please do. Drum builds a compelling narrative out of math (one of my favorite topics!), illustrating the strong correlation between the use of leaded gasoline and crime levels from the 1950s to today.

Of course, correlation should not imply causation, and Drum acknowledges this. The Mother Jones writer reports deeper, debunking alternate explanations and finding medical science that supports the hypothesis that America's crime wave may have been the result of mental impairment caused mass lead poisoning -- an environmental catastrophe that continues to affect some U.S. communities to this day.

Even though the United States banned leaded gasoline years ago, Drum explains how the lead our cars once spewed into our air hasn't gone away. Some of it has worked its way into our soil, continuing to pollute neighborhoods around the country. Aircraft have continued to use leaded gas, and neighborhoods with higher levels of lead in their soil continue to show adverse affects, with higher crime and lower IQ among their residents. Even as crime has declined since the mid 1990s -- the benefit of no longer selling lead at the pump -- we're not yet completely free of leaded gasoline's damaging effects.

Drum makes the case that a $20 billion-a-year lead clean-up effort could help further lower crime, improve education results and kick-start economic activity to a level of up to $210 billion a year. That's a 10-to-1 return on investment -- one that even the greediest Wall Street Banker could love. Please show this graphic to your favorite "fiscal conservative":

Mother Jones infographic

Drum's work is masterful reporting, in full control of the data reported and presented with a purpose -- not some weak he-said/she-said narrative that wastes its readers' time. This is a call to action -- precisely what investigative journalism needs to attract an audience in today's highly competitive media market.

But as much as I love Drum's work here, I'm no so naive as to believe that its strong use of math to build the case for a lead clean-up will convince the Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representative to get behind it. They've been ignoring math for years, whether it is a red-state economist making the financial case of pollution control, Wall Street analysts showing that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits returns $1.61 to the U.S. economy, MIT researchers finding a substantial return on investment from spending money on early-childhood education, or university research proving that abstinence-based sex education leads to a rise in teen pregnancy rates. And let's not forget that having more guns around make life more dangerous, not less.

These aren't hip-shot opinions, talking points designed to conform to some fashionable ideology -- they're all well-supported research, backed by math and data. Why would any sane lawmaker ignore them?

And then I remembered what happened to that generation of Americans who grew up while lead-spewing automobiles were poisoning our communities in the 1950s through 1970s. No, they're too old to be committing street crime now. But they're not too old to be… serving in Congress.

We need to get smarter in this country -- not just about how we report the news, but in how we respond to the news, as well.

Robert Niles also can be found at

© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.