The Most Dangerous Pessimists are Those Who Think Themselves Optimists

A little while back a mainstream media entity published a discussion on longevity between Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation, an organization working on the foundation for rejuvenation biotechnology, and Walter Bortz, a long-time advocate for a better approach to health and aging, but a skeptic on the development of new and radically more effective ways to intervene in the aging process. This is a later opinion piece in which Bortz comments on the discussion and de Grey replies in the comments:


We had never met each other, but knew ourselves by reputation. Our interface is similar to one that exists between two senior gerontologists Steve Austad and Jay Olshansky. They have bet $1 million that someone will live to be 150 within their lifetimes. Austad bets "yea," Olshansky, "nay." Jay in fact argues that if we don't get a handle soon on our obesity epidemic we will all live less long than our parents.

De Grey actually pushed back from the immortality label, much preferring the more modest "rejuvenation" tag. His, and Austad's, argument simply put is: Given the rapid progress in molecular biology of the past two decades then it is logical to extrapolate to the conclusion that soon several decades may be added to our current estimate of a 120-year max lifespan.

I follow these various suggestions closely, but find their excitement to be curtailed by realism. My take on all of this is based on my devotion to the Second Law of Thermodynamics that roughly states everything in an open system goes inevitably to greater disorder due to heat loss and entropy. No exceptions allowed. Time has only one direction.

An important codicil to this resides in the fitness advocacy that I favor. This asserts that aging may be slowed but not arrested. Fitness confers a 30 year delay in decay. A fit person of 80 is biologically the same as the unfit person of 50. So De Grey and I agreed to disagree. I am secure in my advocacy of 100 healthy years that I insist is currently within our biologic and political realms. De Grey hopes for more.

I like to see myself as an optimist. Norman Cousins said that "no one is smart enough to be a pessimist," but optimism must be tempered always by reality. To me this means that the Second Law of Thermodynamics rules. Even rejuvenation must obey that law. There is no, and won't be, a perpetual motion machine. We, and everything else, wear out. Sci-fi is sci-fi.

de Grey:

It was indeed an enjoyable conversation. It had a few gaps, though, which didn't make it into the printed piece. One was that I never quite learned how the validity of the second law of thermodynamics as a reason why rejuvenation is fantasy can be reconciled with the fact that babies are born young.

As for Walter being an optimist, yes, that's also how Jay Olshansky likes to label himself. The most dangerous pessimists, in my view, are the ones who think of themselves as optimists, because they infer that anyone more optimistic than themselves is a fantasist and their work unworthy of study detailed enough to deliver accurate evaluation. But I'm sure we will meet again!

The second law of thermodynamics is mentioned, but I think that this is often misunderstood - even by scientists - and has little importance in considerations of aging and rejuvenation. It is perfectly possible to take an open system and impose order so as to reduce its level of entropy. This happens all the time, and we are surrounded by examples of it in practice, both in the natural world and in our technology. Repair is only one form of entropy reduction, but we humans manage well enough in any number of system.



I commented on the misuse of thermodynamics in the FightAging story on the original exchange. Over at the Huffington Post, other people have pointed out essentially the same error. Since he claims his attitude toward radical life extension and rejuvenation biotechnology is "based on" his elementary misunderstanding of the Second Law of Thermodynmaics, does the correction of this mistake warrant a change in attitude? Absent this sort of belief revision, I have a hard time accepting that he is a "realist" as he claims.

Posted by: José at August 13th, 2013 2:41 PM

Bortz is physically completely wrong.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that everything in a CLOSED system increases entropy, not an OPEN one. (And there is also nothing about heat in 2d law).

A human body is of course an open system, so...

Using this kind of "physical truth" is one of the most ridiculous arguments ever.

Posted by: johann at August 17th, 2013 3:06 AM

Yes, the fallacy involved in the 2nd Law argument is glaring, and such an argument would rule out the possibility of ever repairing a bicycle, let alone a human. It is difficult to believe that intelligent scientists are genuinely persuaded by arguments of this caliber. The most probable conclusion is evident. These specious talking points are not the actual foundation of their convictions--they are rationalizations. One must avoid armchair psychologizing, but what other possibility is there? It is true that honest errors are possible. But for those who have made a career of thinking, writing, and debating these specific questions to cling to such fallacies in the face of all refutation surely must rise to the level of active evasion. There are clearly a great many who start with a rejection of life extension, for the usual host of philosophical, psychological, and cultural reasons, and only then construct a system of ostensibly scientific rationalizations to prop up their conclusion.

It is notable that the Huffington Post article contains a comment apparently from Jay Olshansky , expressing enthusiasm for Bortz's argument, trotting out the religious cult smear, and pointing to Olshansky's article on Zeno's Paradox, over which he and de Grey clashed in Gerontology. The idea that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics makes impossible the repair of any open system is no more plausible, or more logical, than Zeno's contention that it is impossible to cross a room.

Having just finished Olshansky and Carnes' "The Quest for Immortality," I will assert that such fallacies are nothing new for Olshansky. And what Olshansky derides as "faith" is known to scientists as induction, which is a form of reasoning allowing us to predict the future on the basis of causal connections.

Posted by: Adam Spong at August 25th, 2013 8:35 PM

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