Apply Common Sense and Caution When Reading About Aging, Longevity, and Rejuvenation Biotechnology

This is an era of near effortless communication, in which anyone with anything to say can publish to the world at next to no cost. As it turns out nearly everything that is said or written on any given topic is garbage. Back when the cost of communication was much higher, that cost served as a filter to block most casually created junk from widespread propagation, leaving only the earnest or well-backed junk to surround the small proportion of useful and accurate works. Truth is always a small selection at the back of the global library, dwarfed by the reams of propaganda, error, wishful thinking, and irrelevance.

Have you ever noticed that when the popular press publishes on a topic that you know well, such articles are near always easily identified as being misleading and wrong in a dozen ways in as many sentences? It is that way for everything that is published by professional journalists, and for every topic. Yet we go on believing what we read; it is an interesting phenomenon. Popular news of scientific research into human longevity is distorted in many ways between laboratory and press room, and then further degraded in the echo chambers of the media and the online world. This is especially true of anything that the "anti-aging" marketplace takes an interest in; that industry is a font of lies and misdirection, ranging from the blatant to the very subtle, all in service of liberating the gullible from their money. To sift all of this you have to first and foremost always seek out the primary materials, the original published works. Then apply common sense; be skeptical; be somewhat familiar with what researchers are up to in the field; know of a few reputable publications that cover medical progress and the life sciences. Try to fit what you read into the framework of what you know, and be ever ready to throw out whatever looks suspect.

Even within the specialist area of peer reviewed scientific publications and research papers there is a lot of earnest junk, things worth neither time nor attention, and theories hanging out there on the edge, entirely unsupported. Science is a messy process, generating just as much in the way of wildly wrong dead-ends as it does new truths and useful progress. There is a post way back in the Fight Aging! archives on how to read the out of the scientific method. It covers some of the basics, but in essence the advice boils down to a matter of following the numbers and the consensus - unless you happen to be one of those knowledgeable enough to contribute to the fray with papers of your own. The rest of us, as laypeople, should only believe a position to be likely plausible or defensible when many researchers agree.

In any case, here I'll point out an article with a click-bait title that nonetheless manages to say a few sensible things on the topic. At some point everyone investigating the science of human longevity and the prospects for the future has the realization that most of what is written on the topic isn't worth the time it will take to recognize it as junk:

When the science of living longer doesn't make sense

A lot of bizarre things get put on the internet these days. However, given that almost anyone can contribute practically anything they like to the worldwide web of information, it's getting increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. Due to the misinterpretation, misuse or misunderstanding of scientific evidence, many minor studies are often seized upon, and portrayed as concrete fact in spite of a lack of basis. One scientific area which is particularly affected by this issue is the field of healthy life extension. There are literally thousands of websites and articles out there which offer advice on how to overcome age-related diseases or radically increase lifespan, many of which are highly misleading. By following some simple rules however, it can be relatively easy to identify what is legitimate and what is not.

Rather than focusing solely on the results of a scientific study, journalists would do well to pay some attention to the methods which have been used to generate them, since this can provide a good indication of how valid and applicable such results might be for their readers. Too often, articles imply that the results of a scientific study are of far greater relevance to the reader than they actually are. When it comes to examining the association between an exposure and an outcome, the most widely trusted approach is the randomized controlled trial. However, it is not always possible to conduct randomized trials. Alternatively, researchers can turn to "nonexperimental" or "observational" database studies. These database studies make use of large sets of data collected from past surveys. Ultimately, no single study is perfect - be it a randomized trial or a non-experimental one. This is why it is better to wait until enough evidence to support a particular hypothesis has accumulated from multiple studies, which make use of a range of methods and have been applied to different populations.

In the absence of studies which test out a specific hypothesis, it can be tempting for journalists to make inferences from other studies, or worse still, attempt to conduct their own 'scientific' research. Be wary of claims which rely on anecdotes rather than scientific studies. Similarly, know that meanings can be distorted through the use of language. Sometimes, for the sake of artistic licence, non-experts reporting the outcomes of a scientific study choose to alter the wording of the phrases being used to describe the results. Whether it is intentional or not, such alterations can grossly distort the implied meaning.

Ultimately, providing a platform for the most unlikely and strange pieces of advice can damage the reputation of any scientific field. In the case of research into increasing healthy lifespan, the spreading of misinformation serves only to slow the rate of progress and acceptance of this relatively new branch of science.

Comments

"To sift all of this you have to first and foremost always seek out the primary materials, the original published works."

The problem is that most of it is closed access.

Posted by: Antonio at September 11th, 2015 2:16 AM

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