People Want the Better End of What Exists, But More Than That Isn't Within Their Horizons

For the species defined by the fact that we create change, humans are surprisingly conservative. Ask anyone what they want and in the vast majority of cases you'll hear a story involving the better end of what exists: they want to be as rich as their well-off neighbors, or live as long as the older folk who do so in good health. Ambition and vision, to see how to make new options that don't yet exist, and to want to put in the work to make it happen, are in desperately short supply.

Yet still there is enormously rapid progress in creating new technologies, new options, new bounds of wealth and choice and, yes, greater longevity. The people who today tell you that they only want to live a little beyond the present median human life span will almost certainly be lining up to take advantage of rejuvenation biotechnologies that enable a person to live for centuries, when such things are available, but they won't do anything to help the development of those technologies. Yet for rejuvenation of the old and the defeat of age-related disease to arrive within our lifetimes, many of these same people must decide to help, to understand the possibilities, to support the research. It's a challenge.

The survey, conducted from March 21 to April 8, 2013, among a nationally representative sample of 2,012 adults, examines public attitudes about aging, health care, personal life satisfaction, possible medical advances (including radical life extension) and other bioethical issues. The telephone survey was carried out on cell phones and landlines, in all 50 states, with an overall margin of error for the full sample of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Asked how long they would like to live, more than two-thirds (69%) cite an age between 79 and 100. The median ideal life span is 90 years - about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy, which is 78.7 years. The public also is optimistic that some scientific breakthroughs will occur in the next few decades. For example, about seven-in-ten Americans think that by the year 2050, there will be a cure for most forms of cancer (69%) and that artificial arms and legs will perform better than natural ones (71%). And, on balance, the public tends to view medical advances that prolong life as generally good (63%) rather than as interfering with the natural cycle of life (32%). About half (54%) agree with the statement that "medical treatments these days are worth the costs because they allow people to live longer and better-quality lives," but 41% disagree, saying medical treatments these days "often create as many problems as they solve."

Only 7% of respondents say they have heard or read a lot about the possibility that new medical treatments could in the future allow people to live much longer; 38% say they have heard a little about this possibility, and about half (54%) have heard nothing about radical life extension prior to taking the survey. At this early stage, public reaction to the idea of radical life extension is both ambivalent and skeptical. Asked about the consequences for society if new medical treatments could "slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old," about half of U.S. adults (51%) say the treatments would be a bad thing for society, while 41% say they would be a good thing.



From the perspective of evaluating public enthusiasm for life-extension, these survey results are heavily tainted by the Tithonous error. Asking how long people want to live is highly ambiguous, because it could be interpreted as involving rejuvenation or not. Even I wouldn't necessarily want to live for more than 100 years without being able to avail myself of rejuvenation biotechnologies.

They also prime the respondents opposition by putting the emphasis on "society" after introducing the concept of "radical life extension." Rather than continue with the personal scope of previous questions, they trigger people to put on their "armchair social commentator" hats and become more judgemental.

The survey of religious leaders (which seems to me the most interesting part of the Pew write-up for someone already well-versed in the scientific developments) tends to confirm what I have said on other occasions about the locus of opposition. Even in a survey of *religious leaders* the opposition that comes through seems to be soundly rooted in the political. The meaningful objections come from a socialist or environmentalist perspective, not a religious one. The theme of being careful not to infringe on God's domain of immortality is rooted in religion, but it's not a meaningful objection. Even if it were possible to live for 3↑↑↑3 years, after all, one would be no closer at that point to infringing the taboo than would be a newborn baby. It's an abstruse and irrelevant "angels on a pinhead"-type theological issue.

Posted by: José at August 7th, 2013 8:29 AM

This was a very interesting article. Although, I think that most of us realize that a lot of people are silly and lazy. It's cool. It's the job of those of us who are more motivated and more clever to help our slower brothers and sisters.

Posted by: Nathan Voodoo at August 8th, 2013 11:31 AM

Why was my comment on this story refused?

Posted by: José at August 8th, 2013 11:57 AM

@José: I fished it out of the spam bucket and published it. Your guess is as good as mine as to why it ended up there. The workings of the third party comment spam service I use (Akismet) are a black box. That's only the second false positive I've seen from it to date, and it's successfully catching a lot of spam, so a net benefit so far.

You might try using a fake email address that uses a real domain (or; that's one possibility that occurs to me, though that doesn't seem to have been hampering your comments so far.

Posted by: Reason at August 8th, 2013 5:33 PM

@Reason: Thanks for going to the trouble. I'll try something different (maybe a throwaway email account) if another of my comments gets filtered. I suspect, however, that it was the Unicode up-arrows. Some spam is profusely peppered with strange Unicode characters to confuse spam filters, so the heuristic may have latched onto that.

Posted by: José at August 8th, 2013 11:37 PM
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