Did Gasoline Cause a Crime Wave? Journalism 101, Cont.

A few minutes ago I mentioned a dicey example of journalism gone bad, or at least gone mushy, from one of our most respected mainstream-news publications.

Here's an example of journalism from a less-mainstream source grappling seriously and impressively with a very challenging topic. It's Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, writing about an under-appreciated reason for America's violent-crime epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

At first impression, Drum's argument seems far-fetched enough to produce an "Oh, sure!" reaction. He asserts that the main variable in the rise and fall of violent-crime rates over the past generation was not the crack cocaine phenomenon, or changes in police procedures or sentencing standards, or poverty or family structure, or any other "normal" factor. Instead, he argues, it was the level of lead pollution in the environment, mainly from leaded gasoline and also from lead-based house paint.

"Oh, sure," I thought, and you will think. But Drum approaches the evidence with his own "Oh, sure" sensibility and goes systematically through the reasons to take this correlation seriously. I don't know all the potential counter-arguments, but at face value he has made a strong case for thinking of lead as a central causal factor -- and for the sometimes-surprising policy steps that would follow. Very much worth checking out.