Long-chain correlation: lead paint and crime

by ChrisHibbert1 min read19th Jan 201321 comments


Personal Blog

A friend has been asking my views on the likelihood that there's anything to a correlation between changing levels of lead in paint (and automotive exhaust) and the levels of crime. He quoted from a Reason Blog:

So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

I responded with the following:

Sounds like a stretch to me. I'd want to hear that they didn't test more than 5 other hypothesis before coming to that conclusion, or the p value was far better than .05. I kind of doubt that either is the case. 

He's apparently continued to pursue the question, and just forwarded these remarks from Steven Pinker that I thought were very illuminating, and probably deserve a place in this community's toolkit for skeptics. Pinker's main point is that the association between Lead and crime is a long tenuous chain of suppositions, and several of the intermediate points should be far easier to measure. Finding correlations at this distance is not very informative.


Does the phrase "long-chain correlation" stick in your head and make it easier to dismiss this kind of argument?