Setting oneself up as a spokesperson for "we will not achieve this goal", as the fellow noted here is choosing to do, is a bet against technological progress. A glance at any few decade period in the past two hundred years suggests that such a bet will almost certainly fail in time, sometimes quite rapidly. In highly regulated fields that move as slowly as is the case for medicine, however, one can profitably continue to be a skeptic for quite some time. While progress is rapid and impressive in the lab and in animal studies, a skeptic can continue to shrug and point to the lack of human therapies.
This is the result of an excessive burden of regulatory cost: rapid progress in the lab, in a revolutionary era of increasing capacity, improving tools, and falling costs, runs up against a wall of regulatory delay and vast expense. It takes twenty years to move from early research to mode of therapy to clinical approval, and few programs make it all the way, abandoned in the face of a cost that no-one is willing to pay. All skeptics setting themselves up in general opposition to technological progress will look silly at some point, it just takes longer when the state has decided that progress in a given field will be slow and burdened.
When selective and intelligent, skepticism serves a useful purpose, as every grand endeavor, every new field will attract a problematic minority of the fraudulent, the mistaken, the grandiose, and the rent-seekers. There certainly exist a handful of modern day alchemists and would-be demagogues who care little about scientific truth amidst the majority of earnest, scientifically-minded folk in the longevity community. But to set oneself up as a full-on skeptic of the ability to meaningfully extend human life span? That is just as bad, and for similar reasons.
At the Longevity Investors Conference last October in Switzerland, speakers described breakthrough therapies being developed to manipulate genes for longer lifespans. Swag bags bestowed pill bottles promising super longevity, stirring hopes for centuries of youth. Then Charles Brenner took the stage. The biochemist from City of Hope National Medical Center, in Los Angeles, addressed these ideas and treatments one by one, picking them apart, explaining that they're based on faulty research. We can't stop aging, he told the crowd. We can't use longevity genes to stay young because getting older is a fundamental property of life.
Over the past year, Brenner has been challenging life-extension theories on Twitter, YouTube, and the conference circuit, where he's been introduced as the "longevity skeptic." Brenner tells people the reasons for suspicion date back to Herodotus' made-up account of the Fountain of Youth in 425 B.C. Some things never change, he says, even as the field of aging research has picked up scientific momentum in recent years. Investments in longevity startups are predicted to jump from $40 billion to $600 billion in the next three years. Lured by funding from digital age tycoons such as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, top scientists are aligning with companies to advance their work.
Brenner is critical of several big promises emanating from these companies and researchers, such as claims that cellular reprogramming could halt aging. At best, Brenner says, scientists can develop therapies that maintain the health of older people and help keep them out of the hospital-an increasingly important goal as the average age in the United States and elsewhere keeps climbing. Brenner is tackling this problem as the chief scientific advisor of a bioscience company called ChromaDex, which markets supplements for "healthy aging." But believing we can rewrite the operating manual for lifespan itself, Brenner told me, is like "believing in the tooth fairy."