« Could Put Valets out of Business | Main | Next Stop Cooperstown »

SENS Survives

In 2005 Technology Review announced that it would award $20,000 to any geriatric researcher that could show that Aubrey de Grey's SENS project was "so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate."

Five attempts were made to win the prize. Three submissions were found to be acceptible for consideration. None of the three won. The judges decision was summarized at Technology Review:

"At issue is the conflict between the scientific process and the ambiguous status of ideas that have not yet been subjected to that process.

"The scientific process requires evidence through independent experimentation or observation in order to accord credibility to a hypothesis. SENS is a collection of hypotheses that have mostly not been subjected to that process and thus cannot rise to the level of being scientifically verified. However, by the same token, the ideas of SENS have not been conclusively disproved. SENS exists in a middle ground of yet-to-be-tested ideas that some people may find intriguing but which others are free to doubt.

"Some scientists react very negatively toward those who seek to claim the mantle of scientific authority for ideas that have not yet been proved. Estep et al. seem to have this philosophy. They raise many reasons to doubt SENS. Their submission does the best job in that regard. But at the same time, they are too quick to engage in name-calling, labeling ideas as 'pseudo-scientific' or 'unscientific' that they cannot really demonstrate are so.

"We need to remember that all hypotheses go through a stage where one or a small number of investigators believe something and others raise doubts. The conventional wisdom is usually correct. But while most radical ideas are in fact wrong, it is a hallmark of the scientific process that it is fair about considering new propositions; every now and then, radical ideas turn out to be true. Indeed, these exceptions are often the most momentous discoveries in science.

"SENS has many unsupported claims and is certainly not scientifically proven. I personally would be surprised if de Grey is correct in the majority of his claims. However, I don't think Estep et al. have proved that SENS is false; that would require more research. In some cases, SENS makes claims that run parallel to existing research (while being more sensational). Future investigation into those areas will almost certainly illuminate the controversy. Until that time, people like Estep et al. are free to doubt SENS. I share many of those doubts, but it would be overstating the case to assert that Estep et al. have proved their point."

Technology Review continued:

[Judge Craig Ventor] wrote, "Estep et al. in my view have not demonstrated that SENS is unworthy of discussion, but the proponents of SENS have not made a compelling case for it."

In short, SENS is highly speculative. Many of its proposals have not been reproduced, nor could they be reproduced with today's scientific knowledge and technology. Echoing Myhrvold, we might charitably say that de Grey's proposals exist in a kind of antechamber of science, where they wait (possibly in vain) for independent verification. SENS does not compel the assent of many knowledgeable scientists; but neither is it demonstrably wrong.

In an apparent effort to outclass each other, Technology Review has agreed to pay their half of the $20,000 to the writers of the best submission; and those "winners" (who have filed a dissent arguing that they should have won the full $20,000) are donating the proceeds to the American Federation for Aging Research.

I think this is a pretty good outcome. It should serve as a rebuke to those scientists who would rather name-call than think and test. On the other hand, it should also remind those of us who support de Grey that many of de Grey's proposals are beyond the ability of contemporary science to test. Not that de Grey and most of his supporters haven't already acknowledged that fact.

By necessity SENS leads contemporary science. But what great engineering projects have ever been started where the science was completely known ahead of time? Certainly not the Manhattan, Apollo, or Human Genome projects. The Human Genome Project was started knowing that it would take a century to complete with the computers and methods then available, but they went ahead with confidence that better computers and sequencing methods would develop during the project. They were right.

The details of Aubrey de Grey's SENS proposal are important - we have to start somewhere. But when (not if, but when) some detail of the present SENS proposal is proven incorrect, SENS will no more falter than any of those other projects when technical obstacles were encountered.

The eternal tension between engineers and scientists may be the fundamental problem here. Scientists want cold, hard proof. But engineers know that in order to do any great thing you got to have a little faith.

UPDATE: Reason at Fight Aging has much to say on this topic.


I read Estep and Co.'s response to the decision. They seem pretty bent out of shape over it.

Yeah, they're pretty invested in their position.

But Arthur C. Clarke's three laws come to mind.


I thought it was funny that one of the judges kept saying that the idea shouldn't be discredited just because it was "radical" because every so often a radical idea turns out to be right - even though they are usually wrong and convention is right. This is hogwash. Science is always opposed to convention. Most people don't seem to understand that science is by its very nature always in a process of paradigm stagnation or revolution. What conventional thinket ever brought on a paradigm revolution. These conventional thinkers are just researchers not thinkers. Just look back on the greatest men of science in history. Everyone of them was an iconoclast before their theories were excepted. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Feynman. All of these men were radicals outside of the realm of "excepted" theory. One more thing before I get off my soapbox. The whole premise of this challenge is misguided and even oxymoronic. Let's put this into perspective. Scientific specialists are having a scholarly debate about a theory to see if the theory is worthy of scholarly debate! Next thing you know MIT will be having a push prize to see how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Ridiculous.

I really think that the Estep et al. submission was seriously weakened by all that jabbering about cargo cults at the beginning -- that and their obvious lack of understanding with regard to the nature of an engineering proposal.

But at least they donated their "consolation prize" to aging research.

Post a comment