March 15, 2006

Challenging SENS

Remember back in January 2005 when Technology Review editor-in-chief Jason Pontin slammed anti-aging expert Aubrey de Grey? Well, looks like Pontin is at it again, and this time he's putting his money where his mouth is.

Last July Pontin offered a challenge to anyone who could successfully discredit de Grey's theory of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). The contest winner would demonstrate that SENS "is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate."

Soon thereafter, de Grey's Methuselah Foundation pledged an additional $10,000 to anyone who could meet the requirements of the challenge.

Today, nine months later, Pontin has finally announced the five judges: Rodney Brooks, Anita Goel, Vikram Kumar, Nathan Myhrvold and J. Craig Venter. None of them are bonafide gerontologists, but Pontin did try to get more specialized biologists on board, including Cynthia Kenyon. For whatever reason (perhaps they didn't want to challenge a colleague, or their heart wasn't in it), it's not clear why Pontin couldn't get a more credible panel.

Regardless, I say bring it on.

This is what science is all about. Pontin's motives may be mean spirited, but if de Grey is right, he's going to have to hold up to this kind of scrutiny whatever the reasons.

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Anonymous said...

There is too much bickering going on. (It overwhelms our sentient developments:-)

Dale Carrico said...

Contestation and critique is the lifeblood of scientific progress and democratic culture.

SENS and Aubrey personally will only benefit from this debate -- which is no doubt why he has gone to such lengths to facilitate the challenge himself.

Far from actualizing Pontin's curious dream of demonstrating why the SENS research program "is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate" Pontin is producing the very public conditions in which a primary episode of learned debate about SENS will occur here and now in this key inaugural and formative phase of its development.

Of course it is unscientific and even rather scandalous that Pontin wants to rule out a whole emerging scientific discourse in advance just because it unsettles some of his parochial expectations and moral values. But whatever happens -- even, or perhaps especially, if a few interesting and useful critiques emerge from this episode to contribute to the overall robustness of the SENS research program -- Aubrey is absolutely sure to come out of this smelling like a rose.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what the panel comes up with, what other critics of SENS will likely propose once this gets more attention, and what Aubrey and his more sympathetic colleagues will come up with in consequence and in reponse. It's exciting and quite sure to advance science.

If there is no "bickering" going on, you should always feel nervous. It probably means that people who should be free, aren't -- and, hence, that you are in danger.