Replying to S. Jay Olshansky

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...


I interact with Jay a great deal and can enthusiastically confirm that the quoted paragraph from the Position Statement reflects his sincere views. However, I have also repeatedly made to him the exact point that Reason makes, i.e. that discussions of what biology may achieve for postponement of aging in the next decade or two should be based on detailed analysis of present-day biology, as exemplified by the SENS roundtables and conferences and the papers that have arisen from them, rather than on extrapolation of 20th-century mortality trends. (During its preparation, I and a few others of the 51 endorsers of the Position Statement strongly urged the authors (Jay, Hayflick and Carnes) to delete from it all mention of the future rate of progress, but without success; two potential endorsers, the Gavrilovs, withdrew their names as a result.) Indeed, a debate of just the sort that Reason urges is in preparation for publication in a gerontology journal; I gave Jay my half (entitled "Extrapolaholics Anonymous") a few days ago and I imagine he is working on his response right now. As to whether he is misrepresented in the media, I would only repeat the old adage that if one person misunderstands you it's probably their fault but if everyone misunderstands you it's probably your fault.

The harm that Jay's highly visible remarks about the future of life extension (and those of his erstwhile coauthor, Len Hayflick) do to the rate of progress is indeed as great as that of Kass and his ilk, but for a reason that may not be evident. The general public's fatalistic view on the rate of future progress is entrenched anyway; Jay's remarks may entrench it a little further but that makes little odds. The community that is the real problem is the biogerontology community, within which Jay and Len have the marginal influence you would expect of someone specialising in demography and epidemiology rather than biology or of someone who bases his pessimism on logical absurdities such as were presented in Len's recent "oxymoron" piece in J. Gerontol. Rather, active biogerontologists listen to each other, and especially to the few of their number with the greatest influence over funding. The single most influential such person today is Rich Miller. Most people think Rich is on the side of progress in this area, which indeed he is in principle (as set out most eloquently in his piece in the Milbank Quarterly a couple of years ago). In practice, however, Rich is among the most dogmatic people I have ever met and considers only one approach, emulation of CR, to be a practical life extension technique for the next century at least. He is optimistic concerning the magnitude of CR's effects in humans, but bases his optimism on logic the quality of which he should be ashamed of, as I set out last week in a talk in Heidelberg. When it comes to other approaches, particularly the SENS program, I have repeatedly tried to engage him in either public or private debate but he steadfastly changes the subject -- and moreover he uses his influence within the community to suppress such debate in an attempt to deny the SENS "fringe movement" (as he has termed it, despite the calibre of my coauthors on the SENS papers) any more public exposure. I pointed all this out to Jay a few days ago and my impression is that it gave him considerable food for thought. I wonder if Rich will see this thread.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at November 11th, 2004 2:56 AM

Reason: Here is a copy of your posting from yesterday, and the link to it (which should appear in this new thread)...

"In the midst of a pessimistic article about future trends in life span (that fails, like most, to consider the effects of current technological development on historical and short term trends) we find this item for consideration:..."

There is no misunderstanding here on my part -- your language above refers specifically to the presentation I gave at the Institute of Medicine and the manuscript upon which it is based. Your parenthetical statement is unambiguous -- you argue that in our "pessimistic article" we fail to take into account the effects of technology. Well, neither you nor the author of the newspaper story have read the article, so in fact, you have no idea whether we took technology into account. I think it is appropriate that you admit that you did not read the article upon which you were commenting. In fact, I never did an interview with that reporter, nor do I have control over what they write, so to suggest that it is my responsibility to make sure they get it right is beyond ridiculous. The problem here is that you are relying upon reporters for your information rather than the actual work of the scientist -- that is lack of scholarship. My suggestion here is that when you wish to comment on my work, make sure it's on my work, and not someone else's presentation of it. The same should apply to responsible discussions of this sort when anyone's scientific research is the topic of debate.
Second, with regard to the issue at hand, let me say that it is a fairly simple matter to actually measure the rate of progress of medical technology (and lifestyle modification) on the extension of life in the past 2-3 decades -- especially at older ages where progress is going to have to be made in order to achieve the large increases in life expectancy that is the topic of interest. Perhaps it would be wise for you to examine these data before claiming that you already know the effects of technology on current and historical trends in life expectancy. I would also recommend you read our two Science articles on this topic -- both of which represent very powerful arguments on the limitations of the life table (and period life expectancy), which is the point of the manuscripts and this discussion. On a related note, exactly how would you project the effects of life-extending technologies that admittedly do not yet exist, on the future of human life expectancy? In response to this, I would be delighted to see a specific model and set of assumptions that you can defend, and which can realistically be adopted by actuaries responsible for making such forecasts at government agencies. If Aubrey has already done this in his latest manuscript that rests on my computer, then I do look forward to responding to the specific points made.
Finally, you both speak of harm that we have done to funding for aging research. Where is there evidence that our work has harmed funding for aging research? This is a very serious charge, so please provide your specific evidence to support these conclusions. Why is it that when Len and I spoke at length about increasing funding for aging research at the GSA last year, this was not reported or acknowledged? Why is it that Len Hayflick's consistent view that funding for basic biological research on aging should be dramatically increased, is not reported or acknowledged? We've been on a dozen panels together in the past two years -- his message is clear, consistent, and completely contrary to the way in which you seem to present both his views and mine about the future of funding for aging research.
I do look forward to reading and responding to Aubrey's manuscript -- this is the way in which the views of scientists should be presented -- in the open scientific literature. My recommendation to Reason and Aubrey is that while it is certainly fine to present a news story that appears on a topic of aging in which a researcher is quoted, you should not present such quotes or stories as representing the views of the scientists (even if there are quotes around the sentences). My goodness, you should both know by now these things work. I think the best idea would be to simultaneously provide a link to the manuscript itself so the readers can see the words of the scientists. Parenthetically, I would add at the meeting in Heidelberg during which I presented elements of our latest work on this topic, Aubrey stated that he agreed with virtually every point I had made. May I add, by the way, that I personally believe our energies are best spent focusing on the science, scientific questions and answers, and scientific assumptions, rather than disparaging remarks I now see appearing about the scientific qualifications of the scientists involved in published research -- that is a disheartening devolution that can and should be stopped.
S. Jay Olshansky

Posted by: S. Jay Olshansky at November 11th, 2004 4:41 AM

As usual, Aubrey makes points far more eloquently than I. Our chief difference is, I think, in the importance we ascribe to communication with the wider public versus communication within biogerontology. I'm prepared to accept that over the shorter term, Aubrey's view is correct - but funding mandates, private and public, derive from public opinion and desires over the long term. On this timescale, scientists are very much at the mercy of their ultimate customers, the average man and woman in the street.

Aubrey, I'm sure that Richard Miller will see this conversation should either yourself or Jay Olshansky take it upon yourselves to point it out...I'm looking forward to seeing the forthcoming debate between the two of you.

On to Jay Olshansky's comments. It is quite true that I report (and often comment) based on the mainstream media. This is a very deliberate policy on my part, reflecting my focus on activism, education and interaction with the broader community. It should have been clear in my previous communications with you that I am differentiating between your presentations within the scientific community and the presentations made in the mass media. They can be largely independent from one another - what you do and say in one forum does not necessarily percolate intact into the other.

However, to restate my case, it is your responsibility to ensure that your views are not misused or misquoted in ways that cause harm to scientific progress! You cannot wash your hands of the media when your voice is used as an authority to declare that radical life extension is largely impossible. It is this propagation of information in the mass media - not what happens within biogerontology - that largely determines funding prospects for this important field over the long term.

Can I prove that you are damaging funding prospects? Of course not - by the time anyone could do that, the results would be a moot point. The idea is to nip this sort of thing in the bud before the damage is done: Take a sober look at what is appearing in the mass media with your name attached to it. Do you agree that, ultimately, funding - and thus progress - is driven by the expectations and desires of the public? Do you think that your words and authority count for something or nothing in the public view? You are engaged, and have been for a while, in an admirable attempt to educate the public with respect to anti-aging fraud, so it seems clear to me that you understand the power of the media and your ability to make a difference using this medium.

I completely agree that it isn't hard in the grand scheme of things to account for progress in medical technology that has already happened. As you point out, you cannot account for technology yet to be introduced. Yet - as I hope I am making clear - the way that your extrapolations are being presented in the mainstream media will lead to lower funding for rejuvenation research that will render your extrapolations incorrect...

Once again, this is not a comment on the validity of your research or your qualifications. My points relate to presentations and representations made in the media. If you can run a media campaign to fight anti-aging fraud, then you can certainly attempt to ensure that the media responsibly represents your views on serious research, progress and the need for funding.

Posted by: Reason at November 11th, 2004 3:29 PM

A few words of clarification on various points:

1) I benefited greatly in my early years in biogerontology from the nearly total absence of any tendency among my colleagues to ignore or disparage my contributions on account of my (then) lack of formal biology qualifications, so I would be the last person to do this to anyone else. However, it is a fact that those who have not made any substantial contribution (theoretical or experimental) to the basic biology of aging or its postponement have less influence on active biogerontologists in general than those who have made such contributions do, and it is counterproductive to ignore that fact. A robust critique of other biogerontologists' views counts for this too, so long as it is firmly rooted in the biology underlying those views (so in this case, the methods that such biogerontologists propose for postponing aging). I conclude my new manuscript mentioned in previous posts by rejoicing that Jay and his colleagues have recently taken a step in exactly this direction with a paper entitled "Biological evidence for limits to the duration of life": PubMed 12652187 for those who wish to see it. Unfortunately it is only a nominal step, as the paper consists of a description of what aging is at present (in mice and humans), rather than a scrutiny of the biomedical feasibility of any approach to postponement of aging that has yet to be developed.

2) I believe that in Heidelberg I went so far as to say that Jay had said nothing at all in his talk with which I disagreed. However, Jay said not a word in that talk about the likelihood of major breakthroughs in the postponement of aging, which is the only topic on which we have disagreed in the past, so this is no surprise.

3) To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to be misrepresented once in a while in the media may be considered a misfortune, but to have it happen consistently looks like carelessness. This excuse can only be used convincingly if it is used rarely. Jay rightly points out that he and Len have said loudly that funding for aging research should be increased. It is not those in favour of life extension who have ignored these remarks in favour of Jay's and Len's predictions concerning future life expectancy, however: it is the media. I lied above when I said that future biomedical advances are the only topic on which Jay and I disagree: we also disagree concerning whether it is the responsibility of those in the public eye to do their best to be reported as they would wish to be reported. I think it is.

4) My specific accusation that Jay and Len do harm to anti-aging research was perhaps not spelled out fully in my earlier post. As I see it, they distract those who are interested in postponing aging from critiquing the views of the genuine opponents of a proper and energetic evaluation of all options for doing so, foremost among whom is Rich Miller. My evidence for this is that I am repeatedly made aware that most pro-longevists regard Jay and Len as the main problem and Rich as a friend of the pro-longevity cause, when in fact I believe he is doing untold harm.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at November 11th, 2004 3:44 PM

Well, the last word on this topic from S. Jay Olshansky was via private mail, unfortunately, so I can't reproduce it here.

My impression is that he feels his actions in support of longevity research are eminently reasonable across the board. (I can say the same about Ronald Klatz, of course). In Olshansky's defense, he is a supporter of aging research, does call for greater funding for this field, and is currently in the process of engaging Aubrey de Grey in written debate on the differences of scientific viewpoint between them. That's good.

Posted by: Reason at November 11th, 2004 10:23 PM

I interviewed Jay & Bruce, the dynamic duo, when they were star turns at the Sydney Longevity Conference earlier this year. I was at first, like Reason, tacitly antagonistic towards their somewhat dour appreciation of the prospects for prolonging individual vitality.
But after about five minutes they convinced me that their hearts were in the right place ie they were politically in favour of major pro-longevitist research, if not personally that much interested in pro-longevitist practice.
Their statistical criticisms of life expectancy extrapolations are counter-intuitive, but valid. Eliminating the major, oncologic and cardio-vasclar, causes of human mortality would only extend human life expectancy by a few years and would not extend the maxmum human life span by one minute. It would cause morbidity compression, not vitality extension.

Their physiological arguments against the claims of charlatans were obviously right. Applying snake oil to aging bodies will not lift the Hayflick limit. One does get to hand out the Silver Fleece without good cause.
The trouble with many pro-longevitists, and I include myself in that push, is they are overwhelmed with wishful thinking and, with some worthy exceptions, under-weighted in sci-tech achievements.
On Substance: Scientific American and Science only publish work that makes the scientific grade. If pro-longevitists are serious about extending life rather than building castles in the air then they have to make an appealing and convincing pitch to the typical sci-techhies. That means making a point-by-point engagement with the position statement of the Gang of 51.
On Style: Pro-longevitists also have a tendency to adopt slightly wierd styles. This is a harmless eccentricity but may not sit well with the typical hard-headed, cold-eyed, conservative member of the scientific Establishment.
Having said all that I welcome and applaud
"Reason" and Aubrey de Grey for their long overdue exercise in out-reach towards the sci-tech community.

Posted by: Jack Strocchi at November 15th, 2004 6:47 AM
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