People Are Not Good at Being Rational, and That Costs a Great Many Lives

This is an old story for regular readers, but I'll restate it anyway: people are dying of aging at a rate of something more than a hundred thousand lives a day. It is a mark of our inventive ongoing engagement with ways and means of death that despite this vast toll, aging still only manages to kill two thirds of us - and that in this era of comparatively advanced medicine, comparative peace, and comparative risk aversion.

Biotechnology is today's revolutionary industry in the making. Costs are falling, capabilities increasing just as dramatically as happened for computers two decades ago. We could be well on the way to removing aging as a cause of death at this point. A detailed plan is in hand, the way forward to achieve the goal of rejuvenation biotechnology is as clear as life science research ever gets, and the cost of an initial demonstration of rejuvenation in mice is ten years and a sum of money that's a rounding error in comparison what is spent on developing new and better ways to kill people.

Here's the thing, though, the point that's enough to make bitter old folk of us all: we're not actually well on the way to removing aging as a cause of death. We could be, but we're not - we're only just getting started at a time when we could be far further ahead, and we're moving slowly when we could be moving far faster. The hard-won funding and solid research programs for SENS and related initiatives are a trickle where a river is needed. You have to start at the start, of course, and every flood of effort started with a few drops back at the beginning. Nonetheless the flood does not yet exist, despite every reason for it to do so: a hundred thousand lives a day, the suffering of hundreds of millions more, and yet it's hard to get anyone to care enough to even think much about the topic, let alone do anything to help stop it from happening.

Where is rationality in all this? It's that the world is an asylum, run by the inmates, that makes people bitter before their time. To a first approximation those with resources build wars and circuses, and sometimes throw a crust to to the few who work on making the human condition better than it was yesterday. Those without resources heartily support this strategy, even while they owe pretty much every affordable comfort to work accomplished by a few centuries of researchers and developers - the tiny crust-fed minorities of their time.

Over at Edge, you'll find a commentary from Aubrey de Grey on the topic of human rationality and the high cost of its absence in matters relating to support of medical research aimed at human rejuvenation:

Visionary topics are of necessity long-term, hence high risk, and of almost equal necessity high gain. In the area of medical research, for example, the question must be raised: are we benefiting the most people, to the greatest extent, with the highest probability, by the current distribution of research funding? In all such areas that I can think of, the fundamental bias apparent in public opinion and public policy is in favour of approaches that might, arguably (often very arguably), deliver modest short-term benefits but which offer pretty much no prospect of leading to more effective, second-generation approaches down the road. The routes to those second-generation approaches that show the best chance of success are, by contrast, marginalised as a result of their lack of "intermediate results".

We should be very, very worried about this. I would go so far as to say that it is already costing masses - masses - of lives, by slowing down life-saving research. And how hard is it to address, really? How hard is Bayes' Theorem, really? I would assert that the single most significant thing that those who understand the issue I have highlighted here can do to benefit humanity is to agitate for better understanding of probabilistic reasoning among policy-makers, opinion-formers and thence the public.

Comments

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.