Judge the SENS Challengers For Yourself

Three qualifying submissions for the $20,000 SENS Challenge have been posted at the MIT Technology Review, along with Aubrey de Grey's rebuttals and author counter responses - a lot of reading for those interested in healthy life extension science and the progression of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS):

Last year, Technology Review offered a $20,000 prize to any molecular biologist who could prove that SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), self-taught biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey's much publicized prescription for defeating aging, is so wrong as to be unworthy of learned debate. Here are the three submissions that qualified for consideration according to the terms of the Challenge. The results of the judges' deliberations (with their reasoning) will be announced on this website on July 11, 2006 and published in the July/August issue of Technology Review magazine.

It has indeed been nearly a year since the Challenge was launched; much of that time has been spent in gathering judges sufficiently noteworthy to make their judgement worth everyone's time and effort. I think that editor Jason Pontin succeeded in that respect:

Rodney Brooks, PhD, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and chief technical officer of iRobot Corp. IRobot is one of the most successful makers of robots in the world. Anita Goel, MD and PhD, founder and chief executive of Nanobiosym. Vikram Kumar, MD, cofounder and chief executive of Dimagi, and a pathologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Nathan Myhrvold, PhD, cofounder and chief executive of Intellectual Ventures, and former chief technologist at Microsoft. J. Craig Venter, PhD, founder of the Venter Institute. Venter developed the process called whole-genome shotgun sequencing, which sped up the human genome project.

The healthy life extension community will be kept in suspense for the next month while the judges come to their conclusion and issue a response, it seems - but that should be quite long enough for us to act as our own judges on the submissions. Worthy or not? Interesting new criticisms or same old, same old? There is a great deal of debate and interpretation to be done, I can see; the regulars at the Immortality Institute forums will be getting off to an early start on that front, as usual.

As I've said before, constant criticism, reexamination and debate on the merits is vital to the scientific method. You don't advance science by indulging in the all too human folly of building your castle for keeps, and refusing to accept shifts in paradigm and knowledge that render your ideas obsolete - science moves too fast for that. If you're not tearing down as much as you're creating, you're holding up the train.

Until very recently, all too many gerontologists and other scientists - and funding organizations, and people like you and I - have been holding up the train. They've been hanging on to the old paradigms, they've been refusing to open up to new ideas that might require work and thought; that aging is not actually a medical condition; that aging cannot be addressed; that we shouldn't repair aging because it is natural; that we do not know enough to get started; that intervening in the aging process is not worthy of scientific research; that extending life would extend frailty; that overpopulation would result; that more life would be boring. All wrong, all nonsense! But even obviously erroneous consensus views change painfully slowly, even with the hard work of advocates within and without the scientific community.

The $20,000 SENS Challenge is one of many efforts to bring on an era of large-scale, effective, scientific anti-aging research by raising awareness, educating scientists and the public, and widening the debate. With more support and more scientists engaged with the concepts of SENS, the prospects for funding and progress rise. With more funding, more work is accomplished and more attention gathered - the process will snowball into a research infrastructure and community to rival the size and dedication of cancer research. If we keep at it.

But back to the submissions; I'll do no more that give a summary of my impressions at this point. There will be plenty of time for more later, and de Grey's rebuttals comprise a far more effective point by point that I could muster in any case.

Firstly the longest, from Preston Estep and collaborators. He and de Grey have exchanged views in public before, but this group submission is more in the way of a personal attack than a scientific criticism, I think. A pity, because Estep is clearly capable of better. He has become quite virulantly opposed to SENS over the years; I suspect this has to do with the characteristic suspicion of any form of publicity within the scientific community. In any case, Estep attempts to cast SENS as pseudoscience, un-science, or a cult of personality, thereby setting himself a very high bar at the outset. SENS is not de Grey; as noted here at Fight Aging!, SENS science is taking place in an incidental fashion - in the service of seeking cures for specific age-related conditions - in laboratories around the world. The last SENS conference attracted intelligent, aware, A-list researchers in many related fields. I think it's clear that Estep can't make this case:

Estep et al.'s Challenge tactics centre on repeating the word "unscientific" as often as possible in the apparent hope that this will render the judges oblivious to the complete absence of substance in their submission. Particularly incongruous is their accusation that I use the media to skirt expert criticism, when the SENS Challenge itself is my most conspicuous effort to do just the reverse, exposing the public reticence of SENS's off-the-record detractors and thereby forcing them to make their supposed case in print. Their summary consists entirely of claims of their own scientific infallibility, aspersions on my methods and credentials, and blurrings of the distinctions between the methods of science and of technology.

Weinstein's submission is a much more constructive attempt, but varies between a reliance on niche theories to errors of logic and understanding, insofar as I understand it. Again, you will see the very characteristic suspicion of publicity - an engrained and time proven defense mechanism within the scientific community. In this case, as de Grey has made clear on numerous occasions, publicity is the tool by which the community can be convinced or compelled to debate new paradigms they are choosing to ignore. Irrespective of this, the errors of understanding rather doom the attempt, I think:

Weinstein's challenge to SENS rests on three main assumptions, each extremely speculative or simply inconsistent with current knowledge. Moreover, all he attempts to infer from those assumptions is that SENS will fail in its ultimate goal, namely to defeat aging completely. This conclusion clearly fails the test demanded by the SENS Challenge, which is to argue that SENS is so laughable that it should not even be discussed: if SENS could realistically confer, say, a few decades of additional healthy life on those already in middle age before treatment begins, then it would indisputably merit intense discussion and research, since that degree of postponement of aging far exceeds the efficacy of anything else currently in prospect.

The submission by Charles Mobbs is, I think, the most useful of the set, as it illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding that might be more widespread than I would have imagined. From early on:

treating symptoms, rather than causes, is about the most brain-dead therapeutic approach imaginable. Should a patient [develop] a web based campaign to promote treating symptoms rather than causes of disease, physicians would not likely take time away from treating patients to publish a detailed critique of the joke. Unless, of course, the patient develops a following large enough to land him in the pages of Technology Review. Then attention must be paid.

So it is with SENS. The SENS strategy to treat symptoms rather than causes of aging has obvious and numerous flaws, any one of which would doom the strategy to failure

I think we're all in agreement that intervening in causes is a good deal more efficient and effective than patching up the end results. But SENS is precisely a plan aimed at causes, is it not? From the rebuttal:

the symptoms of aging (age-related diseases and debility) are not targets of SENS: rather, SENS targets their accumulating and initially inert precursors ("damage"), including indigestible molecules, mutations and changes of cell number. Those are in turn caused by metabolism itself, but that does not mean metabolism should be our sole target: just like a car, the human body needs maintenance (repair of ongoing damage) as well as a robust design (to resist such damage), and improving the design after manufacture is far harder than maintenance.

It would never have occurred to me that folk would take SENS as a collection of approaches for symptoms; I suppose this might arise from the strong bias in the mainstream towards approaches to slow aging by manipulating metabolic processes and thereby reduce the rate at which cellular damage accumulates. Engineering a more robust design, in other words. But without the capability to repair damage, better designs for metabolism will be largely ineffective in the grand scheme of things - we'll still be suffering and dead all too soon - and certainly far more inefficient. A thought experiment: in the absence of a toolkit and repair shop, how long can you keep a Model T Ford running versus something right off the assembly line in Japan today? It's the repair capabilities that will determine our healthy life spans; repair is not treating symptoms, it's the more important form of prevention.

But enough for the moment; I've barely scratched the surface, and there will be other folk to weigh in with opinions and novel ideas. It think it's telling to see the scientific community building a fort for dearly-held but dramatically wrong ideas from the twin strategies of refusal to engage and personal attacks on those who try to draw them out. Human nature is human nature - some things never change.

Until they do, that is. We're changing the way in which the world looks at serious, scientific anti-aging research. You are too, by reading this and talking on the topic with your friends and colleagues. Here's to a better world, with better medicine and longer, healthier lives!

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None of the submission suceeds in shooting down SENS.

The third submission is an over-the-top attack on the personal style and methodology of Aubrey, which, evemn if there were some valid points, is not addressing SENS directly as such and clearly fails to shoot SENS down.

The first submission is based on a mis-understanding which Aubrey successfully rebuts so it too clearly fails to shoot SENS down.

The second submission is the most substantive and interesting. It presents some interesting reaons for being skeptical about life extension. But the arguments are rather weak. The arguments used are actually more speculative and less scientific than SENS! Therefore this submission too clealy fails to shoot SENS down.

Most objective judges would, I believe, rule in favor of SENS. None of the three submissions succeeds, but the second submission is the most substantive and interesting.

Posted by: Marc_Geddes at June 11th, 2006 1:27 AM

It's most interesting that watchers in the know are more or less evenly split as to what they consider to be the "best" of the submissions, and why. Lots of different motivations and interests going on under there - this is all proving to be very educational with respect to what the community thinks.

Posted by: Reason at June 11th, 2006 10:17 AM

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