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Invoking and banishing the dread demon “Lead”

Some researchers have fingered a surprising culprit for the crime wave that ended in the 1990s: lead, mainly from leaded fuel. We know that lead leads to development difficulties in children, and in country after country, lead emissions closely mirror the crime rate 23 years later – after those children have grown up into mature, irresponsible adults.

A nice story – only problem is, people aren’t very interested in it. We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.

So to combat this universal human tendency, that causes us to misdirect our efforts and our focus, I propose we should treat Lead as an human-like villain. In its oily lair, the demon Lead rubes its metallic hands together in glee, imagining the millions of children whose developments it is stunting, and the thousands of young men it tipped into criminality, and the wailing of their victims. It plots further increases of its empire of crime, and gnashes grey teeth in frustration as heroic regulator squeeze its powerbase out of the air, the fuel, and the water.

You should already feel your emotional priorities shifting. This alternative visions should enable us to give Lead the attention it deserves, in comparison with other lesser threats with more appealing stories. Use our story-biases in the service of good – we can feel the appropriate amount of joy when we triumph over Lead; emotions, not just reason, are needed to keep up our motivations in dealing wit these threats.

And then the demon can be joined in its dark imaginary lair by the vicious Vampire Malaria, the Zombie-Lord of the Road Traffic Accident, and the bloody Psychopathic Death Cult of Cardio-Vascular Diseases. To arms, good citizens of the world, against these sinister anthropomorphised and correctly prioritised threats!

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5 Comment on this post

  1. The biggest villain is a sort of all powerful meta-villain, called insufficient intelligence to solve our problems instantly. Imagine that an advanced extraterrestrial group of cyborgs, having evolved for millions of years with superintelligence, reached Earth and contacted our world leaders in order to help us solve our problems. Does anybody honestly think that they would follow the same inefficient strategies that we do to solve our problems, such as distributing nets to prevent malaria in Africa, or encouraging people to donate to it?

    Their solutions would be much faster, they might rapidly develop a gene therapy suited to our needs, that would spread in a highly contagious virus or some other method of delivery and turn us into more evolved and ethically efficient beings. Their solutions would be extremely different and more efficient.

    Why are we not as efficient as these aliens? The only thing preventing us from being like them is not being intelligent enough. Therefore, intelligence enhancement or defeating the villain of insufficient intelligence is very important, perhaps the most important thing.

    The effect of lead on crime was probably related to its lowering IQ by 7-10 points, given that there is a seven times higher crime rate in the IQ range of 75-90 than in the range of 110-125.

    Another important subordinate villain is that of iodine deficiency. Iodine deficiency affects 2 billion people, mostly in Africa and Eastern Europe, diminishing IQ by 12-13 points. This is a huge amount, with predicable effects on increasing crime and lowering economic development. Iodine deficiency can be solved for US$0.05 per person per year. I don’t know any existing charities that are doing this, though.

  2. Interesting.

    “We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.”

    Climate change, too. Carbon dioxide causes it, but people like to anthropomorphise it, using the form of their favourite villains. These can be millionaires, countries of which you’re suspicious, middle class people or, NGOs, depending on your preferences. Dale Jamieson wrote a great piece pointing out that the remoteness between cause and effect imply that it can be “it is difficult to identify the agents, victims, or causal nexus that obtains between them; thus, it is difficult to assign responsibility, blame, and so forth.” And that “Climate change is not a matter of a clearly identifiable individual acting intentionally so as to inflict an identifiable harm on another identifiable individual, closely related in time and space. Because we tend not to see climate change as a moral problem, it does not motivate us to act with the urgency characteristic of our responses to moral challenges.”*

    Some people critique this**, but to do so they need to introduce abstract aggregations (usually “the rich” rather than “the emitting”, which I think is telling) in which the aggregation does a lot of the work. [Other aggregations include the unrealistic partitioning of emissions into “luxury”(=bad, done by the (per capita) rich) and “subsistence”(=good, done by the (per capita) poor.]

    I think these abstractions are attempts to put a human face on the problem. Unsurprisingly, those whose faces are drawn in caricature on the damaging side of the problem to not accept the resemblence. This makes the problem harder to solve (which I’m reasonably sure s not the intentions of the moralists who peddle the abstractions).

    **See also

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