June 9, 2006

SENS scrutinized

A couple of weeks ago I was walking with Aubrey de Grey in picturesque Palo Alto when I asked him what the latest word was on Technology Review’s SENS challenge. He looked at me quite seriously and said, “The first three submissions will be presented in just two days.” I asked him if he was worried, and he responded by noting that he was pleased with the selection of judges – a panel that includes Rodney Brooks and Craig Venter, among others.

If I was to read into de Grey’s answer, he was suggesting a certain degree of confidence in not just the integrity of SENS, but also in the judges’ ability to satisfactorily assess the nature of the contest.

For those who are a) interested in radical life extension and are b) living in a cave, Technology Review editor Jason Pontin offered a challenge last year to anyone who can demonstrably show that de Grey’s Strategies for the Engineering of Negligible Senescence “is so wrong as to be unworthy of learned debate.” Should a winner be declared, they would be the recipient of a US$20,000 prize. A group of judges was recently assembled to assess the entries and the first 3 challenges are now up for review.

I’ve read through the arguments, rebuttals and counter responses and have a number of things to say.

First, regardless of the outcome, it is extremely important that both de Grey and SENS be put under this kind of scrutiny -- even if the contest is a tad sensationalistic. If de Grey is guilty of propagandizing pseudoscientific beliefs and establishing a cultish personality around himself – and I am not suggesting that he is – it is important that this be considered and brought to the public’s attention. More importantly, however, the ad hominem that has in no small way characterized this contest has similarly got to be fleshed out and exposed; as Reason aptly pointed out in his Fight Aging review, “SENS is not de Grey.” This heated debate has brought out the worst in all parties as far as I’m concerned.

Indeed, cutting through all the noise to get at the substance has been difficult. The submission by Estep et al, for example, was thin on content and never short on criticisms of de Grey. At one point the authors compared de Grey’s ‘delusions’ to those of Lysenko’s and Velikovsky’s.

But once the wheat is separated from the chafe, the various arguments against SENS are complex and provocative:

Can microbial hydrolases be used to degrade intracellular aggregates that accumulate with age? How viable is mitochondrial engineering? Is SENS a strategy against symptoms rather than cures? Are there informational limits to the brain? Can the brain be reprogrammed for extreme longevity? Will medical science be able to keep up with all the unforseen problems of aging?

Open issues such as these are not just the concern of de Grey and his detractors, but also of speculative biologists, gerontologists, neurologists, and other scientists. Today, it’s not uncommon to see conferences, dissertations, and experiments directly addressing these various biological and medical issues.

Which brings up a very interesting point. By virtue of Technology Review’s SENS Challenge, and in consideration of the various arguments and counter-arguments, is this not already “learned debate?” Isn’t this very contest a blatant demonstration that the experts are in fact already debating the inner aspects of SENS? What kind of farce is this?

Perhaps I’m being facetious; I do realize, after all, that the contest is an attempt to exorcise SENS from scientific credibility. But at what point is it acceptable for scientists to denigrate opposing viewpoints by banishing their opponents and their ideas outright? Just what, exactly, is the intention of the contest organizers? Do they want to see de Grey disappear from the scene? Do they want all this anti-aging mumbo-jumbo to stop?

I'm reminded how bitter rivalries are the stuff of science. A quick roll-call includes Darwin v. Owen, Gould v Mayr, Haldane v. Mayr, Dawkins v. Gould, and Margulis v Dawkins.

This whole contest, it would seem, appears to be a rather bizarre forum for the peer review of SENS – or a desperate attempt to prevent de Grey from actually getting the chance for more formal peer review and, by virtue, increased academic credibility.

Or, more simply, this contest is just a personal battle between Jason Pontin and Aubrey de Grey. Ah, but let’s face it – it’s likely just a silly publicity stunt that will ultimately benefit Technology Review, the panel of judges, and Aubrey de Grey himself regardless of the outcome.

So, what will the judges decide? Is SENS truly unworthy of learned debate (excluding the very exercise of debating it for the purpose of the contest :-P). Well, there’s a better than excellent chance that SENS in its current incarnation is absolutely wrong. It’s very possible that the judges will concur with this possibility and rule against de Grey. What would be absurd, however, would be a declaration that the war against aging itself is an idea unworthy of debate.

To all you de Grey groupies on the edge of your seats in anticipation of The Big Decision, it's time to take a chill pill and a deep breath. The outcome of this contest will have no bearing on the work to come against the ravages of aging. A ruling by the judges against de Grey would have no bearing on anti-aging research, and would at worst cause de Grey to have to revise his strategy (or his approach). But he needs to do this anyway as SENS should at no time be considered a static document. Twenty years from now we may laugh at the naiveté of SENS, but I highly doubt we’ll laugh at the maturation of real anti-aging interventions that will have sprung from this seed of an idea.

When all is said and done (whatever that means), it may be that de Grey will have had very little to contribute to bona fide anti-aging advances (although I doubt that). De Grey will not cure aging by himself and any assertion that he will is patently ridiculous. The war against aging will be a concerted and protracted effort that will in all likelihood take many decades, numerous researchers and vast resources. Further, the efforts to halt the aging process will be the result of converging therapeutic interventions that will address aging related pathologies on an individualized basis. While an all-reaching overview like SENS is laudable and even practical, it will still come down to the specialists working on their focused aging related problems.

While de Grey may not be in the trenches, what’s undeniable is his work as an anti-aging pioneer who’s blazing an inspirational trail for future gerontologists. And cancer researchers. And neurologists. And anyone else who considers an aging related problem to be potentially solvable. De Grey is an archetype in the making.

So, my pre-interpretation of the judge’s decision should they vote against SENS is that they will likely take issue with the inner working of SENS and de Grey’s methodology. And as I said, on this point they may be right – an outcome that may cause de Grey to go back to the drawing board to come up with SENS 2.0. If they declare, however, that speculations into anti-aging interventions per se are “beyond learned debate,” then they will have made a significant judgemental error.

If, on the other hand, the judges vote in favour of SENS, it would represent a clear victory for those who continually push the boundaries of science into uncharted and controversial areas. It’s artist as scientist, drawing outside the lines to conceive of new possibilities and charting all the terra incognita. Perhaps this is why de Grey is happy with the current set of judges; like himself, the panel is filled with visionaries and big thinkers.

But is this more philosophy than science? Indeed, a part of me thinks that de Grey is more philosopher than anything else, but I also realize that philosophers ain’t what they used to be. Take Daniel Dennett, for example – a new breed of thinker who is equal parts philosopher and scientist. It’s a fair question to ask, at what point does philosophy graduate to science? Is SENS already at the stage where it’s a testable, refutable strategy? How about Eric Drexler’s projections for molecular assembling nanotechnology? Is that also outside the boundaries of learned debate? What about theoretical physics and quantum mechanics? Do these questions even matter in the context of deciding whose ideas deserve 'learned debate' and those whose don’t?

There’s no question that de Grey’s strategy is out there. It's dependant on vapourware, broad extrapolations, and several leaps of faith. At the same time I can accept the fact that his timelines may be overly optimistic, his interventions incomplete, and that he may be underestimating the complexities of aging.

But longer timescales, incompleteness and complexity do not imply intractability – and this is what de Grey’s detractors have failed to comprehend.

I think it’s obvious that de Grey is on to something.

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Dale Carrico said...

Great post.

tyleremerson said...

George: Thoughtful writing. Thanks for this.

schoenj said...

The part of your post I agreed with most you said at the outset: that there was so little substance to the detractors essays, and lots of denigration.

You would think, reading the detractors essays, that no organism has had life extended through human intervention. This is quite plainly false, since worms, flies, and indeed mice have already had their lives significantly extended, here and now, early in this century. Given that's the case, isn't Aubrey's argument already 50% validated ?

Jose said...

I wouldn't despair about the prospects of the anti-aging mumbo jumbo to stop. There's too many baby boomers who want to live forever and plenty of people angling for their buck.