On Risk and Acting Appropriately

The rational actor looks at risks to life and health ahead and acts to minimize those risks. Since we all have limited time and resources, we have to prioritize: we make lists, in our heads if nowhere else, putting the most likely and terrible outcomes up at the top. Highly unlikely but terrible outcomes don't receive much attention: meteors, lightning strikes, that sort of thing. Likely but merely unpleasant events might just be suffered as a cost of getting on with life: catching the flu is an obnoxious happenstance, but not particularly threatening for most of us. There are more important things to worry about while buying insurance and otherwise taking care of essentials.

So you end up with a list involving fires, car accidents, sudden implosion of the company you work for, that sort of thing. In that, most of us are not being terribly rational, as aging isn't on the list. It is absolutely going to happen, and it leads to the most terrible personal consequence possible - death - via numerous other very nasty personal consequences. Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer, and all the rest. We all have a 100% chance of aging as things stand, and it's the worst thing that will happen to most of us. So why isn't it up near the top of that priority list?

On that subject, thoughts from a bioethicist I seem to be linking to a lot of late. Replace "we" with "I" and "society" with "an individual" and it works just fine:

the following four issues are vital:

1. The certainty of the harm (e.g. 0.1% vs 70% chance)
2. The severity of the harm (e.g. broken leg vs death)
3. The likelihood of mitigating the harm (e.g. 0.1% vs 70%)
4. The cost of mitigating the harm ($1 billion vs $1 trillion)


Aging increases one’s risk of disease and death. So the empirical evidence clearly shows that aging scores very high on (1) and (2). These facts alone show that aging is a BIG problem.

How about issues (3) and (4)? People are most likely to (mistakenly) assume aging research scores low on both these fronts. That is, people are skeptical that we can actually modify the biological processes of aging. But there are countless experiments in a variety of organisms that show aging is not immutable. And so the goal of retarding human aging scores reasonably well on (3). And once you add considerations (1) and (2) into the mix, it becomes evident that the current neglect of aging research is unjustified.

People will also falsely assume that (4) will require vast amounts of money. But here one must put things in their proper context. A lot of money compared to what? What we spend on national defence? National defense spending in the U.S. has reached approximately $1,600 per capita, compared to $97 per capita for federal spending on biomedical research (source)

Which I think is a fair summary of where things stand - aging is terrible, but those who would act to materially support longevity science don't believe that progress is possible, or that progress is cost-effective. Meanwhile, individuals pledge significant time and money for food, entertainment, and geopolitical machinations. You might want to refresh your memory as to the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) cost breakdown: a billion dollars over ten years to develop the medical technologies capable of rejuvenating aged mice in the laboratory, each of the seven branches of SENS requiring something like $15 million per year over that time.

Effective research is cheap compared to almost everything else connected with aging: the loss of wealth, deteriorating health, loss of contributing members of society, the elderly care infrastructure, and more. It's a great pity that support and fundraising lags so far behind the potential of longevity science.


These kinds of risk/reward assessements assume that people make rational decisions. Most people simply accept the inevitability of aging and death; if they even consider the possibility of ending aging, they typically down play the possibilities because it seems better to avoid getting one's hopes up rather than to expect some prize and be disappointed. If the prize doesn't exist, there can be no disappointment in failing to attain it.
The other issue here is that the idea of ending aging invovles such complexity that there can be no "fountain of youth." This means that for a long time to come any advances in fighting aging will be incrimental, which is not much different than how medicine has worked for most of our lives. The minute a mouse wins the Methusaleh Prize will be the moment that the financing takes off. It will not come from the government but from the venture capitalists once a "proof of concept" arrives.

Posted by: ShrinkWrapped at October 30th, 2008 6:17 AM
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