The State of the Art in Misrepresenting Longevity Science

When you read about a topic you know a great deal of in the mainstream media, you'll likely notice many errors and misrepresentations. You won't see that in topics you know less of, but those errors and misrepresentations are still there. A decent writer can make anything sound plausible and look good to someone only casually familiar with a field, even while he is omitting vital information or propagating outright falsehoods - either due to insufficient research or underlying agendas. Accuracy in media is fairly low in the list of priorities as a general rule.

Here is a good long-form example of the state of the art in misrepresentation of longevity science. All sorts of strategic omissions and outright misrepresentations are made on the work of specific scientists and the state of specific lines of research in those areas where I know enough to identify them, so I have to assume they are present elsewhere as well. Yet the piece reads as though a well-researched and constructed popular science article, and there's enough truth in there to float the falsehoods.

This is a time when we can grow human ears on the backs of mice and implant culture-grown lungs into rats. In the near future, specialists say, whenever we need replacement body parts, from blood vessels to bladders, we'll use rejection-proof artificial organs grown in laboratories using our own cells. "By putting in the parts you need, you'll be able to extend life by several decades," explains Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "We may even push that up to 120, 130 years."

Bolstered by such promising discoveries, our understanding of aging is changing rapidly. Outside the field of organ regeneration, other genuine life-extending breakthroughs are being made in model test species. In 2011, Nature reported that dying worms yellow with a pigment called Thioflavin T (or Basic Yellow 1) makes them live 60 to 70 percent longer than the norm. There's more. Researchers are currently finding clues to longevity everywhere from Texan bat caves (where biochemists are investigating the role of misfolding proteins in long-lived bats) to the soil of Easter Island (where antifungal microbes known as rapamycin can raise the life expectancy of mice by 30 percent or more). Spermidine, a molecular compound found in human semen as well as grapefruit, has also been proven to significantly prolong the life span of worms, fruit flies, and yeast.

These strange-sounding experiments are yielding findings that could affect our lives. Will longevity research yield breakthroughs leading to immortality? Tinkering with the genes in yeast or roundworms has real effects on longevity in those species; that doesn't mean those genes will perform similarly in humans. And experiments on human cells in vitro do not guarantee similar functioning in vivo.



The mainstream media is largely incapable on reporting with any accuracy on anything it doesn't understand. Which is pretty much everything.

Posted by: Ian at August 19th, 2013 7:00 PM

LOL at "antifungal microbes known as rapamycin." The Salon article is an example of the use of science-y sounding language by someone who doesn't have a clue. It's not pedantic to note that someone who makes simple category errors like that can't be trusted to have the facts straight about the bigger picture either.

Posted by: José at August 19th, 2013 11:51 PM

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