The Most Popular of Popular Media

A theory on popular media: the more popular it is, the less the information it provides bears any semblance to accuracy, truth, or scientific fact. As the audience size grows - meaning that any given topic is going to be far outside the specialty knowledge of nearly all of the audience members - any urge to accuracy is completely subsumed by the need for do and say things that will keep that audience's fleeting attention. I think this principle is fairly well illustrated by Oprah and company's present examination of calorie restriction and some related topics in medical research in the context of enhanced human longevity.

There's a style to this sort of thing, in which the presenters construct a framework for their article or show that ostensibly bears some semblance to the underlying reality under discussion, but within which a majority of the "facts" provided are simply wrong, chosen for their ability to grasp attention rather than any scientific backing they may have.

Hence for a discussion of longevity, wild and unsupported claims are fair game. At the present time, the scientific consensus is that human practice of calorie restriction will not greatly enhance maximum longevity, but does greatly improve health and greatly reduce risk of age-related disease. That isn't as exciting, however, as earlier speculation on attaining 120 year or more life spans, so the more exciting "fact" is what gets aired:

Dr. Oz says calorie restriction is the number one way doctors say we can extend longevity. "The data that we have in rodents and some larger animals now indicate you can probably extend your life expectancy by up to 50 percent potentially from doing this," he says.

Freedom of speech bears just as much of an implied caveat emptor for the listener as any other freedom. Expect people to lie to you (by omission, laziness, or more direct motives) when it serves their own self-interest more than telling you the truth - which is the case for almost all popular media serving large audiences.


Thanks. My patient community and I are frustrated with Oprah and Dr. Oz too, for similar reasons.

I'm reminded of something Eric Drexler wrote in Engines of Creation: that rumors don't evolve to be true, they evolve to "sound plausible and juicy" so as to increase their chances of infecting hosts and replicating.

Posted by: shegeek at March 26th, 2009 1:09 AM

"A theory on popular media: the more popular it is, the less the information it provides bears any semblance to accuracy, truth, or scientific fact."

This is substantiated by the fact that, during the 80s, the second-highest-circulation newspaper in the world was the National Enquirer. (Izvestiya was first.)

Anyone who takes shows like Oprah seriously as a source of hard information on medical science has no one but themselves to blame if they go to that great big studio audience in the sky before the Singularity gets here.

Posted by: Infidel753 at March 26th, 2009 9:38 AM

I didn't realize until today that some of the folks on Oprah were from the CR Society. CRS is plugging the interview on their web site, which is quite rich in implication (though not direct statement) that CR will significantly extend lifespan in humans.

Posted by: CP at March 27th, 2009 10:44 AM

The "facts" discussed by Oprah were patently wrong, but the "ideas" shared were valid. She has a huge audience and I believe exposure of this magnitude is worth the dumbing down and even the blatant lack of truth-to share the concept with so many people.

If even a small portion of her audience is inspired to look further, they will surely discover the falsehoods, but will also, hopefully, see the very real progress on many fronts.

Programs of this ilk are good for painting a broad, easy to digest picture for the masses, as noted above. Hopefully enough of them will be intrigued and learn more to help these ideas become mainstream. I was thrilled when I heard Oprah was going to do a show on this.

Posted by: LF at March 31st, 2009 8:06 AM

You wrote,
At the present time, the scientific consensus is that human practice of calorie restriction will not greatly enhance maximum longevity,

I don't think you'd get much scientific agreement on the existence of such a consensus, whether from boosters or skeptics. Phelan and Rose's paper certainly doesn't assert such:

"Caloric restriction (CR) extends maximum longevity and slows the aging process in mice and rodents and has been effective in extending longevity in a wide range of non-mammalian taxa ... Occam’s razor would suggest that, all things being equal, similar results should be obtainable with caloric restriction in long-lived primates. This logic has led to speculation on the implications of dietary variation for human aging."

Moreover, an issue devoted to this question in Biogerontology in 2006 demonstrated no such consensus: in the lead editorial, we read:

"Before contacting various experts, we had the feeling that they would be reluctant to express openly their opinion, because only a few data on the DR effects on humans have been collected so far. To our surprise, only one group of authors (Mockett et al.) declared that time was not ripe to imagine what could be the result of implementing DR in human beings. All the other authors who accepted to write for this special issue belong to one of the two camps: the "Pros" who think that DR, more or less, would be effective in humans, and the "Cons" who reach the opposite conclusion. The irony is that, all authors give very sound arguments and present their own opinion as if it were simply the statement of the obvious. The authors rely on different theoretical assumptions to foresee the possible effects of DR on longevity of human beings." (1)

Note that in fact, nearly all the "pros" are actual CR researchers, whereas nearly all the "cons" are theoreticians; their theoretical assumptions are an oversimplified attempt to squeeze the CR data into the disposable soma theory, in a way that makes no sense; Rose has of course done extremely important empirical research, but not on CR. And, the assumptions of the model that he and Phelan use in their model are fundamentally flawed: least subtly, they assume that the current Okinawan centenarians were severely CRed for their entire lives, whereas in fact they were only mildly CRed until their 60s, and have eaten obesity-avoiding non-CR diets ever since; moreover, they explicitly exclude questions of nutrient deficiency, even though there is dietary history and biochemical data to document a few frank and many borderline deficiencies (2,3).


1. Bourg EL, Rattan SI.
Can dietary restriction increase longevity in all species, particularly in
human beings? Introduction to a debate among experts.
Biogerontology. 2006 May 27; [Epub ahead of print]
PMID: 16732406 []

2. Willcox BJ, Willcox DC, Todoriki H, Fujiyoshi A, Yano K, He Q, Curb JD, Suzuki M.
Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet, and healthy aging: the diet of the world's longest-lived people and its potential impact on morbidity and life span[/url].
Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2007 Oct;1114:434-55.
PMID: 17986602 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE],183583,183606#msg-183606

3. Rae MJ.
You don't need a weatherman: famines, evolution, and intervention into aging.
AGE. 2006 March;28(1):93-109.

Posted by: Michael at April 6th, 2009 1:06 PM

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