What proper air pollution used to be like - NT Stobbs, CC bu SA 2.0

We have a recent contention that air pollution is rotting our brains, making us all markedly dimmer. We also have observable reality which is that as populations become more urban and richer the average IQ rises- that Flynn Effect. In any collision between a claim and reality it is, of course, the universe which wins. So, how to explain this dichotomy, this clash?

Researchers from Beijing University and Yale School of Health published research last month showing that people who live in major cities – which is, today, most of us – are not only suffering from increases in respiratory illnesses and other chronic conditions due to air pollution, but are losing our cognitive functions. The study showed that high pollution levels lead to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the impact on some participants equivalent to losing several years of education. Other studies have shown that high air pollution is linked to premature birth, low birth weight, mental illness in children and dementia in the elderly.

Well, yes. But there’s this:

The rise in each successive generation’s average IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test scores, named for the intelligence researcher James Flynn.

It’s a real thing too:

The “Flynn effect” refers to the observed rise in IQ scores over time, resulting in norms obsolescence.

As we’re all getting more urban and more polluted then we should all be getting dimmer. We’re not. So, what’s the explanation?

One could be that we’re not all becoming more polluted. The Great Smog hasn’t recurred in London for many a decade now for example, even as such blanket Beijing and Dhaka. Pollution just being a stage places go through as they develop, the environmental Kuznets Curve. Sure, which pollutants changes – coal smoke to NOx, but the total effect is falling if pollution rots brains and brains are getting better.

Another possibility is that the process which produces pollution betters brains while pollution itself rots them. The overall effect being that getting richer – it is economic activity which produces pollution – makes us brighter a la Flynn.

The problem with both arguments is that they don’t support the Gotterdammerung demand. If it’s all getting cleaner then the complaints about ever more pollution just aren’t true. And if the net effect is positive then that means there’s an optimal level of pollution to be having, one that’s above none. Neither explanation being consistent with the demands for the entire overturning of the capitalist order, nor even with the truly great importance of a socialised and properly integrated public transport system.

The point being though that one of those two explanations is true, even possibly a little of both. Meaning that the demands being made, for no pollution and that public transport system are wrong, aren’t they?

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Hector Drummond

The Flynn effect has actually started to reverse.

Not that that’s anything to do with air pollution.


Urban mental fitness would be greatly influenced by the current affectation to recruit new citizens based not on utility but on pitiability.

Nigel Sedgwick

Might it be the case: (i) that different forms of pollution are not fungible; (ii) that, with time, some forms of pollution go down, others go up, and some stay around the same.

Try for example lead poisoning[1]: “Signs of chronic exposure include loss of short-term memory or concentration, depression, … loss of coordination, …”

Lead poisoning is much less prevalent than it was, at least partly due to discontinuation of lead as a petrol additive and for making water pipes.

Best regards

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning#Chronic_poisoning


As an economy will impoverish itself (and its babies, and its babies’ brains) spending the necessary capital to eliminate that last 1% of air pollution, there is clearly an optimal level.