Various folk have posted their opinions on the recent SENS Challenge results; a modest sampling follows.
I think this is a pretty good outcome. It should serve as a rebuke to those scientists who would rather name-call than think and test. On the other hand, it should also remind those of us who support de Grey that many of de Grey's proposals are beyond the ability of contemporary science to test. Not that de Grey and most of his supporters haven't already acknowledged that fact.
By necessity SENS leads contemporary science. But what great engineering projects have ever been started where the science was completely known ahead of time? Certainly not the Manhattan, Apollo, or Human Genome projects. The Human Genome Project was started knowing that it would take a century to complete with the computers and methods then available, but they went ahead with confidence that better computers and sequencing methods would develop during the project. They were right.
The details of Aubrey de Grey's SENS proposal are important - we have to start somewhere. But when (not if, but when) some detail of the present SENS proposal is proven incorrect, SENS will no more falter than any of those other projects when technical obstacles were encountered.
Nobody was able to claim the prize, although Technology Review's admission of that point is a bit mealy-mouthed:
LOL Translation: "nobody came close, but how BEAUTIFULLY written their failed arguments were!!!! And even if they lost, de Grey didn't win either, so nyah nyah nyah!!!"
I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in gerontology or life extension science to visit the lively debate at Technology Review concerning the "SENS Challenge", with a prize of US $20,000 at stake. The challenge was issued a year ago, with the $20,000 prize offered to anyone who could prove that SENS was "unworthy of learned debate."
No one is staking his life that SENS is correct in every detail. That level of perfection is not necessary for SENS to have a profound positive impact on anti-aging research. It is only necessary that the SENS theories help lead to positive results, either directly or indirectly, for the theories to have been worthwhile in the long run.
There are backwaters of science that need to be shaken up from time to time. Gerontology had certainly become one of those backwaters by the 1990s. The entry of SENS into the arena has been like a splash of cold water to the face, and like a breath of fresh air, simultaneously.
I'll try to read the three submissions and the back and forth between de Grey and their authors. I'd like to understand the best arguments for and against; I'm hopeful that I'll learn something more about the biology and the chances for SENS' success. I somehow suspect that as scientists criticizing an engineering proposal, they'll spend their time showing that his suggestions aren't proven. What matters is whether the proposals are close enough to right that they can be corrected as we learn more. That's much harder to justify in a new area, and also much harder to attack convincingly.
Back in August, Technology Review magazine issued another challenge - a prize of $20,000 for any molecular biologist working in the field of aging who could submit an intellectually serious argument that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate. Well this week an independent panel of judges decided that none of the three submissions received were worthy of the prize.
What does it all mean? I guess it means that, despite the derision aimed at Dr de Grey's theories from certain members of the scientific community, no-one has been able to provide a scientific rationale sufficient to convince the panel of judges that SENS is inherently flawed. Now, I'm no biogerontologist (hell, I can hardly spell it), but I'm all for backing any serious big brain (and, in Dr de Grey's case, a big beard as well) who thinks they might be able to delay, let alone cure, aging. Shouldn't this be the #1 field of scientific research?
The more people asking themselves that last question the better, I say.
SENS - the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence - is undoubtably flawed in detail in some presently unknown ways, as was pointed out in some of these posts. All present day science is just the same - suffused in a sea of flaws and unknowns, within which lie the seeds of progress and new discovery. You don't need perfection to achieve great works; "good enough" is good enough for the engineering of significantly better, longer lives - and ongoing science in parallel will make progress ever easier.
SENS is far more than just scientific and engineering details, however. Beyond this, it is a compelling and persuasive vision of the organization and mindset required for progress towards the most important goal of our time: marshalling biomedical science to defeat age-related degeneration and death.
UPDATE 07/16/2006: You should read this one from Anne C. as well:
In some ways, I think that the Estep et al. submission highlights an apparent tripwire in the terms of the challenge itself. After all, how can one prove something to be "unworthy of learned debate" by engaging in learned debate? Nevertheless, I would still say that this is an apparent tripwire since Estep et al. could have chosen to simply go directly to the ideas presented in SENS and attack them on their (lack of?) technical merit. I think that the outcome of this contest serves as an important admonition to scientists that when they are told to criticize an idea, they focus on the idea itself and not an attempted psychoanalysis of those who propose the idea.
I will consider it a lovely day indeed when we have two or three different scientific / engineering proposals at hand, all focused on addressing senescence, and all relentlessly criticizing the ideas and methodology of the others.