S. Jay Olshansky was kind enough to comment on one of my previous posts. After a short exchange of e-mails to clear up misconceptions on both sides, I sent this reply:
Let me start by saying that at no point and in no way am I criticizing the procedures or conclusions of this research, and I do appreciate you taking the time to address these issues. In the piece you singled out for comment, I was holding up your figures on obesity and cancer as a point well worth thinking about, while mentioning that I don't agree with other items - independent of your research - as discussed below.
In addition, I bemoaned the inability of media articles of this sort to responsibly discuss the technology curve associated with medical science. The NIH projects that cancer will be largely treatable by 2015, and responsible scientists in the field of regenerative medicine expect to be able to repair age-related damage to major organs by 2020 or thereabouts. This is what I mean by "fails, like most, to consider the effects of current technological development on historical and short term trends." I find it very frustrating that most science journalists limit themselves to joining the dots and extrapolating from there.
I can see where the language in that third paragraph on the page you commented on could be misleading if you are unfamiliar with my previous remarks on your views as they are presented in the media. I have put in an edit to make things a touch more clear.
But on to my chief criticism, unrelated to your research. This relates to your numerous representations in the media on the dim prospects for extending the healthy human life span through medical research. In particular, I think this following piece gets to the heart of my objections to the way in which you present your case to the mainstream media:
It is, I suppose, possible that you are consistantly being misrepresented and quoted out of context in the press. You are, however, one of the most quoted scientists in the mainstream media in the field of aging research at the moment, and it is your responsibility to ensure that your views are reproduced accurately. Most people in the world get their information about progress and prospects in healthy life extension through the mainstream media. They base their support and desire for further research on this information. This in turn drives the engines of public and private funding processes. By putting an unreasonably conservative position forward to the world in this fashion you greatly damage the long term prospects for funding in this field.
Based on media analysis and number of appearances, I'd say you are currently about as influential on the common view of the future of extending the healthy human life span as either Leon Kass or Ronald Klatz. Unfortunately, like both of these characters, your net influence on public support for serious healthy life extension research is negative. Now, this may or may not be independent of your actual views on the subject and supporting science you have worked on. However, I don't just speak for myself here - the wider community of which I am a part has come to place you on a par with Leon Kass (unfairly or not, based on your appearances in the media) in terms of your views and influence. I get fairly sharp e-mails whenever I mention you on my site.
I take activism for longevity research very seriously, and I am always greatly disappointed when scientists take it upon themselves to sabotage the rate of progress in this fashion. There are more than enough varieties of people out there already working hard to cut the legs out from underneath directed rejuvenation research.
If you sincerely believe that extending the healthy human life span is as difficult and remote as you represent to the world through the mainstream media, the responsible thing to do is - rather than continue to push your position in the press - to engage in debate with those scientists who hold the opposite view, such as Aubrey de Grey. After all, the worst that could happen is that you prove yourself to be right.
In his comments on my previous post, Olshansky mentioned that he does in fact sign on to the healthy life extension agenda:
"We enthusiastically support research in genetic engineering, stem cells, geriatric medicine and therapeutic pharmaceuticals, technologies that promise to revolutionize medicine as we know it. Most biogerontologists believe that our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge holds the promise that means may eventually be discovered to slow the rate of aging. If successful, these interventions are likely to postpone age-related diseases and disorders and extend the period of healthy life. Although the degree to which such interventions might extend length of life is uncertain, we believe this is the only way another quantum leap in life expectancy is even possible. Our concern is that when proponents of antiaging medicine claim that the fountain of youth has already been discovered, it negatively affects the credibility of serious scientific research efforts on aging. Because aging is the greatest risk factor for the leading causes of death and other age-related pathologies, more attention must be paid to the study of these universal underlying processes. Successful efforts to slow the rate of aging would have dramatic health benefits for the population by far exceeding the anticipated changes in health and length of life that would result from the complete elimination of heart disease, cancer, stroke and other age-associated diseases and disorders."
So I look forward to seeing this view reflected in his future appearances in the mainstream media...