Monday, January 07, 2013

Getting the lead out: a quirky tale of saving the world

This somewhat autobiographical missive was sparked by recent research that confirms something long suspected -- our civilization dodged a bullet a while back. A bullet made of lead. We dodged it thanks to science, open argument, and the power of dramatically-conveyed evidence...

... plus a fascinating coincidence in which I played a minor-but-interesting role.

== A root cause of violence? ==

Lead has long been rumored as a major culprit of individual and societal downfall - even in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Starting in the 1960s we found that remediation of houses that had lead-based paint correlated with improved IQ tests for children in poor neighborhoods.

A connection with violent crime now seems to be statistically proved.  The elimination of lead-based octane enhancers from gasoline in the United States just may have been the most dramatically cost effective step taken to improve the lives of Americans, and then people around the world.

Lead_CrimeA couple of snippets from a fascinating article, America's Real Criminal Element, Lead"...if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America."  and "If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly." And that's exactly what the data showed.

Read this fascinating look into how science can be used to rescue us from devastating errors, then contemplate whether those now waging relentless war on science are dangerously life-threatening to your kids.

== Strange angles to a weighty matter ==

Okay so here is my first of three interesting addenda you won't find in the article:  Leaded gas is still sold in some countries.  These include Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Algeria, Yemen and Myanmar,  Holy mackaral, just look at that list and tell me there aren't alarm bells.

lead-poisoning chartSecond addendum: this is almost certainly not the only case where some environmental factor may have debilitated or hampered millions of humans into being or behaving less than they could be.  Beyond malnutrition, poor sanitation and general poverty, I mean.  Or even the lobotomizing effects of TV, video games and Twitter. Take the parasitical paramecium Toxoplasma gondii which is endemic in many populations around the globe, entering human brains and - according to strong studies - systematically altering the behavior of tens or hundreds of millions on this planet.  Suppose we find even more such mind-altering infections?  Would that be good news, allowing us to use simple medical techniques and thus eliminate harmful behavior biases that cynics always assumed to be inherent in human nature?  Should this perhaps be made a really, really top priority for research?

I'll get to my third addendum - the personal one, describing my own role - in a moment.  First though...

== How we got the lead out ==

car-exhaustBy 1970, some far-seeing types had begun pushing for regulation or legislation to curb this horrific poison  pouring from the tail pipes of millions of automobiles. But they got nowhere, foiled by The Ethyl Corporation (TEC), which successfully pioneered obfuscate-and-delay tactics identical to those later applied by the tobacco industry and then by the Climate Denialist Cult.  Using some of the same public relations firms and "think tanks."

That year, opinion polls showed a majority of Americans opposed to changes that might (according to scare-mongering by TEC)  cause everyone's car engines to erode or explode, if we were all forced to use abominably inferior unleaded gas.  That, in turn, would destroy the economy, all because a bunch of pointy-headed scientists, doctors and public health officials were spreading chicken-little panic about a "purely hypothetical and overblown danger." That was the situation in August 1970.

And yet, by 1972, the situation was transformed! In less than two years' time, with rapidly changing public attitudes, the EPA launched an initiative to phase out leaded gasoline. What led to the plummet in support for lead?  Could a simple demonstration have been responsible?

Let's get to that final addendum.  This one is a personal anecdote. For you see, I was an eyewitness and participant in an event of some historic significance, though it has only been in the last few years that I came to realize just how important it was.

Many of us thought we were participating in something like a great big science fair.  Little more.  But we helped to change the world.

== The Clean Air Car Race of 1970 ==

Do smoking cars cause CACR?

hybridIn July and August, 1970, while an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, I served as a member of the coordinating committee for the Clean Air Car Race, which pitted 44 student-built vehicles against each other in many categories (electric, propane, natural gas, hybrid....) for a rally-race from MIT across the continent to Caltech. There were some truly amazing innovations.  No, not the electric cars, which were way, way not ready for prime time! But several of the very first hybrid gas-electric vehicles participated, including one from the University of Toronto that we all voted "grooviest car" because it had regenerative braking and several other features now standard on your Prius.  It required a full-time co-driver, in those days, way back when putting a computer in a car was the stuff of science fiction.  But it worked and got real attention.

There was also a truck propelled by a Lear Jet turbine engine that scored well on exhaust quality, but got a zero in the noise pollution part of the competition, leaving a trail of seared underpasses and shattered toll booths across the nation. (It also parked outside my room at Caltech for a week, after the rally, while the drivers gave ear-splitting demos to the press, ouch!)


And yes, here I am, among the cars and drivers and officials of the 1970 CACR, posing for a full-page center spread in LIFE Magazine below the dome at MIT.  I'm the fellow with all that black hair and no tie, standing in the front row at the far left, looking like I actually know what I'm doing there.

Surprised by the prominent national coverage?  That's nothing!  We were mentioned every day during the race by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. Much of America tracked our progress. It was one year after the Apollo 11 landing, so folks were expecting good things from science. And we delivered! Though perhaps not precisely in the way that we imagined.

== Okay, then what was world-changing? ==

So what does all of this have to do with getting the lead out of gas?  Simple. There were three cars participating in CACR whose sole "clean air" attribute was that they ran on unleaded gas.  Deliberately kept in stock condition, these performed perfectly and made it to Pasadena without a glitch... which is more than could be said for the entry subsidized by the The Ethyl Corporation.

Remember all that press coverage?  These results got lots of play. Moreover, while we students were enthralled by things like hybrid-electrics (and CACR 1970 definitely helped push those ideas into research labs at Toyota and Honda and Wayne State etc, leading eventually to your Prius), it turns out that the most historically significant thing we accomplished was effected by the least romantic or innovative vehicles in the race!  Those three boring old internal combustion cars that made it across the country on unleaded gas... without any explosions. Not even any excess engine wear.  They still went vroom in Pasadena, and then were driven all the way back east again...

51wMygi0+FL... and the public noticed. Poll numbers shifted. Scare tactics about "panic-mongers destroying the economy" withered. Within 18 months the EPA had enough support to start acting to reduce lead poisoning, which soon resulted in far lower parts-per-million in the blood of children. And 20 years later, when a new generation of boys entered their "high crime age" something amazing happened.  They did a whole lot less crime.

Am I claiming credit for the sharp decline of violence in the United States of America, and later around the world?  Nonsense. I wasn't the chairman or prime mover of the Clean Air Car Race and anyway, there were thousands of scientists , engineers, doctors and activists at the forefront of the struggle against lead poisoning, folks who made the real difference.

Still, to have been  a participant and witness -- and to realize, decades later, that a very public blow was struck, a clear demonstration that might have accelerated progress by a year or two or more, affecting many lives? Well, that's priceless.

It also teaches a lesson.  Good things happen because of human effort.  But sometimes in twisty ways that aren't obvious at the time.  We were jazzed and excited (rightfully) by the hybrids. But all we accomplished was to interest some companies and labs who then needed thirty years to actually deliver them.

Meanwhile, we ignored or barely tolerated unromantic vehicles that cruised placidly amid the tech-dazzler jalopies. But that placid cruising was what most significantly and rapidly changed our world.

Ah well.  Story finished.  Except to suggest that we should all learn the basic lesson.  That progress will always be blocked by fools who emphasize short-sighted greed and play upon the prejudices of the gullible. By now their suite of tricks is well-known and perfected. But so should be our quiver of responses. Sometimes, the ongoing War on Science can best be stymied with symbols and imagery that are simple, clear... and utterly true.

Only now, on a related topic, a bit of lagniappe...

== A plague of psychopaths? ==

JEFFERSONRIFLEJust because overall statistical rates of violence have plummeted, that is poor comfort when tragedies such as Aurora or Newtown erupt, sending shock and despair through communities and terrifying the innocent, everywhere. As fresh calls arise for measures to reduce gun-related devastation, let me again suggest that sensible approaches to gun control will only happen if advocates study the needs and fears of moderate gun owners and then tailor proposals with those concerns in mind.

But let's agree that weapons aren't the core problem. (Nor will filling our schools with armed guards provide a solution.) Indeed, much has been said recently about the fact that mass-shooting calamities are rooted in desperate problems of mental disease and our inability to grapple with needed changes. We all need to start by doing what we can, locally, to see to it that those isolated "loners" out there get shown less harshness and more kindness -- more reason to feel connected -- during formative years. A final end to bullying won't make this go away. But if we haven't reached out, we can never say we weren't in part to blame.

Still... that only illustrates one end of a spectrum in which - it appears - civilization is being harmed by socipoaths at all levels, including the political and economic elite.

I've spoken elsewhere of the worst addictive problem in the world today - a plague of self-doped self-righteous indignation that is so rooted in brain chemistry that I gave a talk about it at the National Institute for Drugs and Addiction. Strong evidence suggests that much of our current "culture war" --  thwarting the American genius for can-do negotiation and pragmatic solutions -- is amplified by this modern curse that prompts us to rage instead of negotiate.

Yes, the Indignation Addiction Plague is bad.  But sociopathy is another aspect: one that probably does just as much harm. Have a look at an interesting (even though overly partisan) perspective on psychological factors plaguing the high end of the socio-economic spectrum: Psychopaths holding America hostage?

"Dr. Dale Archer, a psychiatrist and frequent guest on " Live" of all places writes, "Physically, studies have shown that the brain chemistry is different in powerful politicians, leading to sensation seeking and risky behavior. They have lower levels of the brain chemical monoamine oxidase-A, which means they have higher highs when they engage in risky behavior and that they get bored much more easily than the norm." 

Another excerpt: "Psychopaths often appear normal, even charming. Underneath, they lack conscience and empathy, making them manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal. The psychologist Kevin Dutton in his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, notes society, and especially Wall Street, admires and rewards many of the qualities of psychopaths - fearlessness, emotional sterility, supreme confidence, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, refusal to take responsibility, narcissism and delusions of grandeur. Who could argue that those characteristics virtually defined the Wall Street crowd responsible for blowing up the world's economy in 2008? In fact, a recent study showed psychopaths were four times more common among business leaders than among the general population." (Babiak P, Neumann CS, Hare RD. Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behav Sci Law. 2010 Mar-Apr;28(2):174-93.)

== A path to sanity ==

So, what can we conclude? Despite the fact that the lower and middle classes have languished economically, without growth in prosperity for 20 years, there appears to be less danger than ever of dissolving into chaotic, spasmodic violence from below, of the kind that lead poisoning once fostered.  That bullet is being dodged. If the lower castes get violent, it will be with cause, as in 1789 France, not out of inchoate, poison-induced rage.

OpenLetterAddictionWe are in danger, however, from other forms of mental illness. That plague of indignation, tearing through our middle class politics, causing neighbors to despise each other over abstract issues and to disdain experts like scientists.  Plus a tsunami of psychopathy where it is most dangerous, in the top layers where any self-serving machination or risky behavior can be rationalized away, the manner that such things always were, back in feudal times.  By proclaiming (without cause or evidence or justification) that "My kind of folks are inherently superior."

The stakes are high.  But remember this.  Our scientific enlightenment is the great exception to the rank/repeated stupidity of feudal oligarchies that ran 99% of human cultures.  We are capable of detecting and noticing and even dodging some of the bullets that struck down other societies. We've proved this can happen. So let's ignore the cynics of both left and right, and let's believe we can do it again. And again. Dodging bullets and gradually making larger the fraction of children who grow up healthy, un-poisoned, with sane and knowledge-filled and vigorously curious-empathic brains...

...until our grandkids -- vastly saner and smarter than we neanderthals can now imagine -- are ready to take over.

David Brin
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Alex Tolley said...

I would be a bit careful in accepting the lead and criminal behavior correlation. After all, wasn't it the abortion rights and criminal behavior link that was similarly found? (Both studies were done only in the US - ignoring the experiences of the rest of the planet which might have shed more light on other factors). Which is not to say that the cognitive effects of lead are not well established.

Is there any evidence that socio-/ psychopaths are any more common in positions of power today than in the past? Or is it more that we can recognize those individuals much more easily today?

I would make the similar observation of this "plague of indignation". I think we can observe it, and I also see it being stirred up by certain parts of the media, but is it more common today than in the past? A problem for rational problem solving certainly, but is it really worsening, or just more observed and recognized?

The issue of turning public opinion away from lead additives in gasoline cannot all be about the US experience. The rest of the world has pretty much removed lead from gasoline too. Was the US experience the driver for this, or were other factors involved? (And did crime rates start declining in those countries after making the changes?) If we are talking about AGW and fossil fuels, we don't appear to have the same fairly costless decision to make as in the gasoline case. We are talking substantial lifestyle and standard of living changes, and not for the better. I'm not seeing a viable road map to fossil fuel free (or hugely reduced) future even if there was no opposition from the energy companies.

Larry C. Lyons said...

Very interesting Dr. Brin, regarding the Indignation Plague as you term it. If as you postulate, that it invokes the intrinsic reward systems in the brain, that may result in some interesting effects when the reinforcer is blocked or eliminated. I would expect to see classic extinction occurring. See

But to make a long story short, while in the long term it results in the decrease in the response rate or elimination of the behavior. In the short term there may be a sudden and temporary increase in the response's frequency, followed by the eventual decline and extinction of the behavior targeted for elimination. Novel behavior, or emotional responses or aggressive behavior, may also occur.

So in short those who are hooked on indignation rage would most likely show an exaggerated response (Imagine Glen Beck frothing at the mouth even more so than ususal) followed by possibly aggressive behavior before the behavior demonstrates extinction.

Just a thought.

Larry C. Lyons said...

Alex Tolley said...
I would be a bit careful in accepting the lead and criminal behavior correlation. After all, wasn't it the abortion rights and criminal behavior link that was similarly found?

In reading the original article, the authors note that phenomenon. According to their data 56% of the variability in the drop was due to their model, while a further 29% were due to abortions.

David Brin said...

Alex, it is one thing to simply apply one curve to another. But there are several other aspects beyond simply overlaying two graphs. Read my article and then the source. In states where lead removal was slow, the 23 year-later violence decline was similarly slow... and rapid where the lead removal was rapid. That truly adds statistical weight.

Other assertions like Ro-V-Wade are much weaker statistically. They may have been factors, along with community policing and a crackdown on bullying in Schools. But the correlation with lead is by far the strongest.

I never claimed that sociopathy has increased, nor indignation. The "plague" is endemic and has always been with us. Look at a thing called "history" The difference now is (1) we are able to measure it and (2) we can no longer afford it.

As for timing, in the 1970s and 1980s the US had by far the best environmental laws on the planet. Only in the 1990s did Europe pull ahead. The example was set by America. Alas, no longer.

Larry Lyons, what you describe... the overcompensation overshoot of need by an addict... is in fact a plot element in my novel EXISTENCE!

Geez, it's as if you described it in detail!

Alex Tolley said...

@Dr. Brin "Read my article and then the source. In states where lead removal was slow, the 23 year-later violence decline was similarly slow... and rapid where the lead removal was rapid. That truly adds statistical weight."

I have read the source analysis. The reason I am careful with this sort of analysis is that there is no direct evidence that lead exposure is causing the crime. To see why epidemiological studies are a weak piece of evidence, consider these (admittedly very silly) alternative explanations:

1. Crimes could be committed by by the low lead exposed population against the highly exposed, cognitively impaired population. The crime rate declines when the relative cognitive ability differential declines. IOW, the criminals are the least exposed.

2. Economic opportunities allowed parts of the population to migrate to cleaner, more environmentally friendly states thus changing the crime rate stats by selection bias. (This was partially accounted for in the study with general population shifts, but not population IQ shifts).

Again, let me reiterate that I am not trying to deny the findings, just issuing some words of caution about the findings due to the methodology. While we cannot experiment on humans, I would certain;y like an animal study using animals that have behaviors that are proxies for criminal activity ("cheating"?) to indicate a stronger link between cognitive impairment due to lead (or any environmental factor) and actual criminal behavior. As for humans, it would be interesting to track actual criminal behavior with known childhood lead exposure for matched cohorts.

Regarding indignation/sociopathy changes. While you did not state that they increased, I read words like "plague" and "tsunami" as implying changes with time, preferably with returns to lower incidences when they have passed. If you meant that they are a scourge that are always with us, then I would agree. One minor observation, do we want to get rid of these behaviors completely, or always have them around so that the general population can grow stronger resisting them, a sort of mental state hormesis effect?

sociotard said...

Er, isn't it also possible that sociopathy is occasionally beneficial in business, and that is why it is more common in businessmen? It makes them more likely to take risks. In business, that can be good. It means they can fire people without remorse. Sad, but in a free market it may be necessary.

Compare with increased frequency of schitzophrenia among mathemeticians or manic-depressive disorder among artists or Autism among programmers.

ERic said...

Is my memory crap, or wasn't there also a comment in the article about having also looked at leaded gasoline and crime rates in other countries which also supported the argument?

sociotard said...

You mean the one Brin just listed? Sort of. He listed countries that still use leaded gasoline today:
Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Algeria, Yemen and Myanmar

with a sort of nudge*nudge*wink*wink "you know how they are".

The thing is, that isn't very persuasive without cross-referencing their violence statistics with countries with similar economic statuses and gasoline usage and population densities.

Tony Fisk said...

Alex. You asked whether the lead studies were seen in other countries. The article states that they were.

Hank Roberts said...

Hank Roberts said...

(that's 2007; note the many citing papers)

Hank Roberts said...

Environmental Stressors and Violence: Lead and Polychlorinated Biphenyls

"definitive" is the word here$002freveh.2007.22.4$002freveh.2007.22.4.313$002freveh.2007.22.4.313.xml

Reviews on Environmental Health. Volume 22, Issue 4, Pages 313–328, ISSN (Online) 2191-0308, ISSN (Print) 0048-7554, DOI: 10.1515/REVEH.2007.22.4.313, June 2011

Ian said...

1. The fact that Myanmar et al still use leaded petrol is more a function than a cause of "how they are". I'd be interested in knowing what the levles of lead pollution in those countries are and what percentage of the population is exposed. for example, Iraq is highly urbanized and as a major oil producer heavily-subsidizes domestic petrol consumption whereas Myanmar is poorer, less urbanized and has far fewer motor vehicles.

2. SOMETHING is causing IQ scores to rise. This phenomenon is known as the Flynn Effect.

3. The number of psychopaths entering politics need not rise to explain an increased presence of psychopaths in politics if the electorate becomes more willing to re-elect psychopaths.

atomsmith said...

The reduction in murder in New York State is best explained by this graph from Bloomberg. (see fig. 6)

David Brin said...

Actually, Violent people are attracted to lead because it blocks x ray vision. The Greatest Generation had superman and Hitler. Fill in the blanks.

David Brin said...

Danger 5 is the most creative comedy I've seen since Coupling. (Sort of WW2 in the 1960's with cheesy special effects) Then go to and watch the 2 episodes they have up. New ones added every Sunday. "Team, your mission is to
stop the flow of weapons into France and above all, Go Kill Hitler!"

Tim H. said...

Some random thoughts about lead, there really is an issue with accelerated valve seat wear on some older cars, but usually that can be taken care of by fitting hardened seats, or using "72 or later heads, which have induction-hardened valve seats. And it gives me pause, thinking about hours spent behind a lawnmower running on leaded fuel. In any lead consideration, don't forget paint chips, still an issue when the lead was being taken out of gas.

Ian said...

A new metamaterial transmits light internally at more than 10 times the speed of light in a vacuum.

Maybe that's the answer to the Fermi Paradox, we just need to lay a cable to the nearest node.

Alex Tolley said...

@Tony Fisk - AFAICS the NBER analysis linking lead exposure and crime only uses data across the US.

David Brin said...

So, is the "maker movement" going to rescue American manufacturing independence... and civilization in general, as some tech-utopians not predict? (And as I depict in my graphic novel TINKERERS.) Have a look at a very thoughtful essay in Technology Review that considers some factors that the tech-transcendentalists - in their zeal to believe - may have missed.

matthew said...

I have played dungeons and dragons using little lead figurines for something like the last thirty years, all the while eating the requisite bags of doritos, etc. Guess all those evangelicals who said that D&D was the work of the devil were correct after all. They just had the mechanism of corruption wrong.

Tacitus2 said...

As has been mentioned earlier, some of the places still using leaded fuel are not reasonably linked with bad behaviour. Hardly anybody drives the streets of Pyongyang. And in Yemen they hardly have streets.

Many other factors plus and minus. Norkland apparently has an entire generation stunted by poor nutrition. It ought to influence brain development as well. Heck, you could link decreased rates of crime etc with roughly concurrent Western world increase in use of multivitamins in pregnancy just as easily as superimpose the lead curves.
(not that I have any issues with getting rid of lead)

Now, the real peril is from the toxoplasma studies. As this is a pathogen notorious for association with cats.....are you going to even tangentially imply that cat owners are potential psychopaths?



Ian said...

David, exactly what comparative advantage do you think the US has in 3D printing?

3D printing might actually destroy US manufacturing jobs by making it possible to print high-tech components anywhere in the world more cheaply than they cab be imported from the US.

locumranch said...

Both David & Alex are correct:

The availability of abortion, birth control and/or the decrease in unwanted children does correlate closely with the recent decrease in violent crime; and the correlation and/or association of one factor to another does not prove causality because many factors including lead, poor diet, stupidity, poverty & low educational attainment(etc) are also well-correlated to crime.

Similarly, the concept of 'sociopathy' -- which is a circular definition used to describe the arbitrarily 'not-social' -- does not necessarily correlate with ANYTHING of clinical significance.

We use the term 'social' to signify 'anything that people do together'. This places 'going to church' (or having 'a civilised conversation') into the same category as a (nice?)cooperative New Delhi-style gang rape (or the mass 'sociopathy' of organised warfare).

Strictly speaking, terms like "Social" and/or "Sociopathy" are essentially meaningless. They are merely buzz words that stupid people use to sound smarter.


Tim H. said...

"Sociopath" is how refined people say "Jerk" or "&$$hole".

Ian Gould said...

The actual non-circular definition of sociopathy (aka antisocial personality disorder)

"The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV-TR), defines antisocial personality disorder (in Axis II Cluster B) as:

A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:

failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead;
irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;

B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode. "

Ian Gould said...

Out of a 8-9 hour work day a freshman Congressman is expected to spend no more than 2 hours in committee meetings or in the house chamber for debates and votes - and 4 hours fund-raising.

Robert said...

Here is a second correlation. It has been shown that people suffering from mental insufficiencies are more likely to commit crimes. Lead exposure is more likely to result in diminished mental acuity, especially when growing up. Our elimination of particlized lead from the environment is resulting in a greater proportion of our youth being mentally sound and thus lessened crime incidents.

Of course, the increased exposure of synthetic estrogen in the environment from various vectors could also be "gelding" men increasingly and also be a factor... ;)

Rob H.

sociotard said...


David Brin said...

locumranch you are being facile and superficial. In fact there are statistical methods to tease out which correlations seem more responsible and which ones less so and leaded gas is the leader... tho some influence of abortion appears to be there.

Likewise, you ignore the fact that sociopathy has definite and objectively measurable symptoms and etiology. True sociopaths not only do not have empathy, they are unable to even believe that empathy exists and inwardly believe that those who claim to have it are lying. That is not a matter of "definition."

Robert said...

So here is a question: is there an opposite disorder to psychopathy where empathy becomes so over-encompassing that it renders the individual unable to function? I wonder sometimes, seeing my own growing inability to deal with the depiction of embarrassing and emotional situations in various forms of media (originally television and movies, and moving into books and comics).

Rob H.

adiffer said...

When you become too empathic, wouldn't you become gullible? Your own desire for your views to be true would overwhelm your internal simulations of the people with whom you interact.

I'm thinking of all the little old ladies who get scammed when they begin to lose their mental edge. I don't know what to call the condition, but I think I've seen it. The sociopaths are drawn to them as easy targets.

David Brin said...

Does anyone know the names of some iPhone apps that help you find the phone if lost or that text or phone you if stolen or that shut down if no once-a-mont password? Buying one for daughter. Egad

Jonathan S. said...

Robert, there are those who hold that one of the underlying issues with Asperger's syndrome is an excess of empathy (accompanied by difficulty in expressing said sympathy, due to deficiencies in mirror neurons); this would explain why so many aspies become highly concerned with social justice, and uncomfortable with so much in the way of popular humor (which seems largely based on the concept of someone being the Butt Monkey, to steal a term from And yes, we do tend to be a bit gullible...

Dr. Brin, there is a free app called Find My iPhone, available in the App Store. It does exactly what it says it does; register the phone, and any other iOS devices you wish to locate using the function (iPads, for instance), with iCloud, and you can then use the app to locate any device you have registered. A few months ago, that app cost an airline attendant her job - she had taken an iPad that a passenger had left aboard the plane. He used the app to find the iPad, which was located at the attendant's home, and which was apparently being used by the attendant and her husband. (She tried to claim that she intended to bring the iPad back to the lost-and-found department, but that was belied by the number of apps she had downloaded.)

David Caune said...

Great discussion! Thanks for your words over the years...
Re lost iphones, here are some options:

Rob Perkins said...

David, the feature is built-in to iCloud. Comes with the phone.

locumranch said...

Robert, sociotard & adiffer seem to grasp my point: "Sociopathy" is a moral value judgement based on certain social assumptions.

It is a term that equivocates social conformity with mental health, disparages the individual rights of the creative minority and assumes that group needs take precedence over those of the individual.

Referencing the DSM criteria for 'Sociopathy' as supplied by Ian, you'll see that individual self-involvement (aka 'narcissism'), recklessness (aka 'risk-taking'), a disregard for group interest (aka 'self-interest') and non-conformity (aka 'creativity') have been reclassified as mental illness.

But the DSM doesn't stop there. Psychiatrists estimate that up to 50% of all 'creative types' meet criteria for mental illness -- especially WRITERS, artists and many of our most critically-acclaimed scientific thinkers -- when we include the 'Personality Disorder' classification into the mix.

In other words:

Human society exists in dynamic equilibrium, balancing the needs of the individual with those of the group, yet it is the group (aka 'majority consensus') which defines what 'normality', 'mental health' and 'sanity' mean, creating a dangerous precedent.

I can also supply references from Star Trek.


Try googling

TheMadLibrarian said...

Locumranch, if you are going to trot out "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," I an going to *headdesk*. Yes, those criteria do describe a number of creative folk. What is not noted is that carrying those characteristics to a destructive extreme is what qualifies the pathology. Sherlock Holmes functions in his society; Hannibal Lecter doesn't.

sencitr: Offensensitivity

Robert said...

I suspect Dr. Brin would be amused slightly at my contrariness on a Facebook conversation. My initial arguments were against the pro-gun nuts who were railing against the gun legislation types. Well, now I've shifted tack and while continuing my argument for reasonable and intelligent gun legislation, started railing against the gun banning nuts who believe "a few bad eggs ruined it for everyone so we need to eliminate all guns." So yeah, Dr. Brin. The Loony Left still exists and is a threat. They're just not in a position of power like the Ruinous Right is. ^^;;

Rob H.

locumranch said...

Dear TheMadLibrarian,

"Pathology" is often defined as "any (medical) variant or deviant condition from normal".

Unfortunately, the term "normal" is poorly defined & I am unable to quantify what you mean when you say "destructive extreme".

Would you be willing to define these expressions in terms of 1, 2 or 3 standard deviations from an arbitrary mathematical mean?

Additionally, could you clarify your intended distinction between Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Lecter?

Both are fictional characters created for our entertainment. They are both portrayed as highly intelligent; they both use violence & deceit to achieve their goals; and they both serve as moral vectors. And, Sherlock Holmes abuses IV cocaine while Hannibal Lecter does not.

So sorry to hear about your offensensitivity. It is a crippling condition where the sufferer seeks to be offended by almost anything. I offer my condolences.


Ian said...

"Referencing the DSM criteria for 'Sociopathy' as supplied by Ian, you'll see that individual self-involvement (aka 'narcissism'), recklessness (aka 'risk-taking'), a disregard for group interest (aka 'self-interest') and non-conformity (aka 'creativity') have been reclassified as mental illness."

Only if they manifest themselves repeatedly in assaults, theft or other criminal activities.

Ian said...

Additionally, MOST people display evidence of "personality disorders" - which are not regarded as a form of mental illness unless they result in self-harm or apprehended or actual danger o others or their property.

You can think you're a tea-pot all you want. If you start eating kilograms of tea leaves washed down with several litres of hot water, you have a mental illness.

locumranch said...

Speaking of crime & criminal definitions, check out Australia's new 'Crime is in the eye of the beholder' Offensibility laws:

Good luck rounding up them there sociopathic desperadoes ;)

duncan cairncross said...

Re the suggested law change in Australia

I think Australia is like NZ in that proposed laws are published and commented on before being finally voted on
In which case Locumranch has pointed to an excellent example of your
- Improvement by Criticism

Paul451 said...

I can certainly think of genres that might be better suited to such scams than SF writers:

Paul451 said...

I don't know why, but I find it cooler that astronomers can detect comets in other star systems than that they can detect planets (already pretty cool). And can detect the equivalent of the late-heavy-bombardment in young star systems.

(Also we've got another "probably daytime visible comet this year possibly" comet inbound in our own system. A possible first-timer, probably, so could will develop a spectacularly bright tail. Maybe.)

(creamey: Unlikely, Mr Turing, unlikely.)

adiffer said...


I'm only agreeing with you up to a point. There is no doubt these definitions are subjective, but that doesn't make them arbitrary. The DSM might not be perfect (hence the version numbers), but it is a decent attempt to codify the subjective nature of diagnosing these issues. A well trained observer using the DSM properly has a decent chance of being less subjective or at least subjective in a coordinated way.

My experience with the DSM is from watching my son get diagnosed with autism. The person evaluating him understood that I had a science background and did not dumb things down for me. They showed me exactly what they were doing, what they were trying to observe, and pointed out where the possible flaws in the method were. The test result for him the first time said 'autistic with moderate mental retardation', but the possible error on the retardation component was large because my son didn't cooperate much. They advised me to get him retested in a few years and explain to the next tester why. We've done that twice now and had the 'pleasure' of seeing it done well (he is actually quite sharp) and done very poorly by someone who just checked boxes and decided my son's parents were idiots. Heh.

Yes there is subjectivity, but there are some ways to mitigate that. The DSM and training help to manage the arbitrariness risk.

David Brin said...

Last night Jon Stewart's riff on gun control touched most bases. Especially, he addressed the deep-underlying motivation of gun enthusiasts. This must happen, if we'll calm them enough so that moderates join us in conversation. That may demand some mental adjustments on OUR part. Watch... then see my nuanced and careful logic about this.

Here's Stewart's bit:

Robert said...

The irony is that the anti-gun fanatics have succeeded in altering my viewpoint on gun control. I now believe the NRA is correct. No negotiation. No new laws. The Loony Left has come out in force now and will not negotiate. There is even talk by some of them that the Supreme Court should be stacked with anti-gun Supremes who would "reinterpret" the Second Amendment to eliminate gun ownership by citizens. They didn't understand my view that this is as abhorrent as the Right's efforts to stack the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade.

So. Yeah, I'm in lockstep with the NRA now. No negotiation. Because we can't trust the Loony Left not to seize this moment to go too far. They won't go for reasonable and intelligent gun control legislation. They want it all.

The irony is I've also realized my other suggestion was a "Baby Step" measure that could lead to widescale gun control laws. I need to apologize to my friend Jo as she's right about women's rights and LGBT rights. Small steps aren't enough. You have to let them take big steps lest the radical wing of the Left realize they can sneak lots of stuff under the radar with tiny steps. (I'm all for women's rights and equality, and LGBT rights and equality. Fortunately, these movements haven't been overtaken by the Loons, so their steps are reasonable and intelligent.)

Rob H.

TheMadLibrarian said...

I think that many (but not all)problems could be solved by applying the dictum "Moderation in all things". Yes, you can have guns, but be sensible: licensing, testing, and keep the howitzers at a gun range, not under your bed. Although come to think of it, that might trouble one of my friends who enjoys black powder reenactment, and has a signal cannon... :D What new dictates have the Looney Left come out with recently?

Locumranch: Sherlock Holmes does occasionally abuse cocaine (when he is bored, and Dr. Watson deplores it), and can be an antisocial git, but he doesn't eat people's livers. Hopefully the distinction can be left as an exercise to the student. I deliberately used fictional characters who are probably well known to many, rather than specific real examples that might be unknown for their peccadilloes. Ian, I do appreciate your 'teapot' analogy.

One more thing to add to exoplanetology: the probable existence of asteroid belts in other solar systems, some huge:

ndsomr: More, please

Enigma said...

One of the things at the forefront of my mind as I was writing "The Blue Pimpernel" is the comparisons between the United States and Rome and other Totalitarian countries that so many other dystopian books make. I saw more parallels with modern China and latter-day Soviet Union than with Rome. Authoritarian countries, not Totalitarian countries, and I modeled the Party accordingly. Apparently, I was a bit hasty to totally dismiss the similarities, given how closely we dodged the same bullet that played a role in the downfall of Rome.

Of course, we haven't completely dodged it yet. There are still places where lead is used in the paint on houses, and where the soil is contaminated with lead. Lead is still there in our society; it's waiting, and we need to get rid of it. And of course, the odds of that happening are slim; after all, the United States is a country where one of the seats of our so-called "Congressional Intelligence Committee" began the new year by attempting to repeal Obamacare for something like the 33rd time (good on Michelle Bachman. Where would we be without some brave, martyred soul to shine the holy Jesus beams on the Islamofascist liberal Satanazi baby-eater communists, huh? Keeping our country safe from the demons that rattle in her own empty head of a night).

Jumper said...

It's interesting to follow the historical trail of liability in the case of lead in the U.S. Lots of mergers and bankruptcies obscure the trail. There is an Easter egg at the end for the curious.

I am not sure if this is a useful forum for anyone "coming out" in public as a sociopath. Find a neutral counselor. I suspect many modern psychology professionals have a far more informed and nuanced view of the "disease model" of psychiatry than might be apprehended from pop psy sources or perceived common knowledge.

dgaetano said...

With regards to the lead article, this is a blog post from the author, Kevin Drum. It includes a graph not in the article showing murders vs lead used in paint and gasoline. It's pretty damning.

TCB said...

Well, late to this party, but anyhow... I've had maybe half a dozen actual ideas in my life, and one of them is that we ought to test our leaders for sociopathy. It's not that sociopaths in power are a new thing; far from it, there were kings, emperors and pharaohs in antiquity who acted as remorselessly as any modern despot. It's just that now we know what to look for and we know we can't run a planet that way anymore. It's just too easy to blow everything up. If pilots and nurses have to pee in a cup, why do bank CEOs, Supreme Court judges, and Presidential candidates not have to prove they are neurologically normal and constrained by actual conscience?

If anyone's interested in the long version of this idea:

President of the Lambs, written sometime around 2005 if memory serves.

locumranch said...

It's still an iffy correlation to claim causality between violent crime & petroleum-based lead exposure.

Problem is:

(1) Most childhood lead exposure is/was due to lead-based household paint which was outlawed in the late 1970's;

(2) The toxic effects of lead-based paint exposure was regional in the USA, affecting mostly East Coast & Midwestern cities, sparing the newer urban developments on the West Coast; and

(3) Petroleum-based lead exposure from leaded gasoline has never been proven to cause significantly elevated serum lead levels in Humans.

The NHANES III lead study expresses the opinion that the ban on lead-based petrol may have contributed to a generalized decline in serum lead levels but cannot prove it. It acknowledges that "Other factors contributing to reduced lead exposure include" but are not limited to "the elimination of lead solder in food & soft drink cans", "the
ban on lead-containing solder in household plumbing" and "the ban on leaded paint for residential use".

In response to adiffer:

There is no way to mitigate subjectivity when humans interact with other humans. It just can't be done. We cannot remove our human selves and/or our human beliefs from the human equation.

Subjectivity is to humans as liver & a side of fava beans go with a nice Chianti.


reason said...

Robert @ 2:23PM
I take it the post is sarcasm. There is always a range of opinion. Slippery slope arguments amount to saying everything this side of the peak of a mountain flows inevitably into the sea. Yeah maybe, but it seems a lot of things stay in between for a long time, and it sure is unconfortable having to always stay right on the peak all the time.

Robert said...

No. I'm not being sarcastic. I went into that conversation stating that we need reasonable and intelligent gun legislation and after being bombarded by a constant stream of "guns have no purpose except putting holes in things," "you need a reason to own a gun besides personal pleasure," and "we should stack the Supreme Court and 'reinterpret' the Second Amendment" I've come to realize I was wrong and the NRA is right.

And I let the Loony Left on that discussion thread know that they changed my mind and that now I'm not for any legislation at all.

I do have one caveat. Any and all gun legislation should be one specific law at a time in straightforward language with absolutely no riders attached. That way nothing hidden gets snuck in to bite people afterward. (And maybe a national referendum on gun laws, seeing that it's legislating a Constitutional Right.)

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

Robert, if it makes you feel any better, essentially no liberal democracy enforces what both extremes of the US gun debate seem to mean when they talk about "gun conrol".

I.E. while the ownership of particular types of guns (such as semi-auto rifles) my be resericted virtually noboy is calling for all gus to be outlawed.

Paul451 said...

Rob H.
So to summarise: you allowed a group with absolutely no political power, who were essentially throwing a tantrum over their absolute lack of power, to convince you to throw in with an industry lobby group which has enormous political power (and funding) and a demonstrated history of using their power (and funding) to harm your country?

"virtually noboy is calling for all gus to be outlawed."

Nobody with any influence is calling for all guns to be outlawed.

Robert said...

No. I allowed a group that is pulling itself out of its doldrums and realizing they could capitalize on this horrific incident to force through legislation they would never have a chance with otherwise wake me up to the fact that there is no rational and intelligent gun legislation available. If you give them an inch, they'll take it all. So I'm agreeing with the NRA's approach.

Besides. There is an alternative: strict gun punishment laws such as in Florida where a gun's use in a crime results in mandatory sentencing (with life in jail if the gun harms someone). If this is federal policy then more mundane gun crimes will lessen because no one wants to go to jail for ten years because they mugged someone and had a gun in their pocket. And the NRA honestly can't gripe at laws that punish criminals harsher because it's not regulating guns.

Rob H.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Robert, that wouldn't be a bad thing to enforce. Use a gun in the commission of a crime, go to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. The hard part will be deciding does the gun need to be in hand for the crime, stuffed in a pocket, under the car seat, or ??? Hurt or kill someone with a gun in the commission of a crime, maybe not life, but no parole for you!

Iskedte: the proposed but thankfully never produced sequel to Ishtar

David Brin said...

locumranch, your claims about lead are diametrically opposite to fact, top to bottom. Please show us the peer-reviewed studies that you assert these "facts" to be based upon.

Re guns:
I reiterate. The Second Amendment is a frail sentence that WILL be re-interpreted by some future court. The "regulated militia" part will be all the excuse such a court needs. If Gun Folk had two neurons to scrape together, they would jump all over my proposal which would augment with a new amendment that is brutally clear, saying that it is nobody's damn business if you have a basic, bolt action rifle.

That amendment would pass! Gun zealots are in the driver's seat in America. If they asked for an amendment far more explicit than the inherently weak 2nd...

... and dangled the prize that all weapons OTHER than the protected rifle could then be regulated and licensed like cars... you honestly think the rest of the nation would not fall all over itself to pass the Jefferson Rifle Amendment?

The NRA guys are idiots if they think the 2nd will prevent a darned thing some future time when - amid panic - a court insists that you must be a member of the National Guard to own a gun.

Randy Winn said...

Strict punishment laws may be a good thing, but it's pretty doubtful that they would cut gun crime significantly. The utility curve of the average criminal is, obviously, not like yours or mine.

Call me cynical, but an unspoken decisive factor in this debate is that the health insurance industry is far more powerful than the gun industry. The NRA lost almost all of its contests in 2012; it's still noisy but politicians need no longer fear it ... even before its frankly insane ("video games did it!") response to Sandy Hook.

Randy Winn said...

On the lighter side ... How We Will Know Space Travel Has Become Mundane

Randy Winn said...

And (apologizing for multiple postings...) any fans of SF author John Lake and/or gene sequencing may wish to chip in to this effort to do one for the other.
Currently gene sequencing to fight cancer is uncommon and expensive, but the cost curve has seriously bent downwards lately. Most interesting!

Anonymous said...

Re David Brin's recent comment about the NRA, second amendment, and Jefferson Rifle, here is the entire text of a bit of propaganda I received recently. You know -- some of the stuff flying around all over the place after Sandy Hook.

I did not edit. This is cut-and-paste. Of the whole thing. Including the capital-T and the quotation marks.

-- ToddR


"The right of the the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

So...What word don't you understand?

Robert said...

Actually, you're incorrect about the capital T.

This is the entirety of the Second Amendment:

As passed by the Congress:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.


In short, it can be ruled that the people allowed to keep and bear arms are: the military. The security of the free state being the United States itself, not the people or democratic government within the United States.

Furthermore, define "arms" please? It does not specifically state firearms. That's what it means, but it doesn't state it. Thus if the Supreme Court were to rule that "arms" does not mean "firearms" then firearms could thus be banned and confiscated. In theory.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

I think ToddR was referring to the cut downedness of the quote he received. The omission of that pesky well-regulated bit that smells of big guvmint

Personally, I think everyone has the right to bare arms; especially on warm days when tee-shirts are much more comfortable (it's forecast to be 37 C in Melbourne today: just you try'n stop me!)

Ian Gould said...

Rising concentrations of Mercury threaten to undo some of the benefits from the reduction in lead exposure.

Mercury emissions are falling globally but there are two problems:

1. it's extremely persistent so environmental levels are going to continue to rise

2. while emissions are falling in he developed world, they're rising in parts of the developing world - which can least afford to deal with the resulting health problems.

(Of course, that persistence means that today's Mercury problem in Indonesia is next year's Mercury problem in Australia.)

The two principal sources of Mercury are coal-fired power plants and small-scale mining using Mercury leaching.

The latter source would be more easily fixed - if the affected countries had well-established property rights and effective environmental laws.

David Brin said...

The whole first half of the amendment, that the doofus conveniently left off... THAT's the part that the doofus ignores.

David Brin said...

... onward...

Rollory said...

Sailer takes this whole argument to pieces. For example

"Back in the late 1960s, densely populated Japan was notorious for automobile-induced air pollution. Yet crime didn’t rise in Japan. The country remained an orderly, intelligent, non-impulsive culture."

This theory amounts to wishful thinking handwaving and argument by vigorous assertion, not science.

Anonymous said...

Violent crime did rise in Japan. Sailer's an idiot. You have to look a little harder to spot the rise in crime in Japan due to *reporting bias* -- Japanese crime statistics are unreliable -- but evidence is that it did rise.

Anonymous said...

Amazing that the role of the catalytic converter is overlooked here. Those were added to reduce pollution - but mainly from unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, which created visible pollution that people could readily see and understand. NOT because of popular demand to "get the lead out". So they were mandated.

And it happened that they couldn't be used with leaded gas - they stopped being effective and gave off a rotten egg stench if you did. So they were made mandatory - again, not in order to eliminate lead, but to reduce visible pollution. Yes, of course, reduced lead was recognized as a side benefit, but was not the primary motivator for public acceptance.

Naturally many idiots of the day tried to disable the devices, so they could keep using cheaper leaded gas and getting better power/mileage. But as more and more cars used unleaded, leaded gas started to disappear, and eventually that particular brand of stupidity died out.

So no, public opinion against leaded gas did not drive the lead out.

MAYBE you could argue for a "conspiracy" by those who pushed cat-converters as a solution to smog. Certainly idiots of the day argued vaguely that it was a conspiracy of some sort!

In short, assuming this study is correct, we more or less accidentally dodged the lead bullet in the process of avoiding smoke from the gun...

Clever, weren't we?