Wednesday, July 12, 2006

SENS not unworthy of debate

A year ago, I wrote about Jason Pontin (the editor of Techology Review) and his attack on Aubrey de Grey's SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) proposal. Pontin was so upset at de Grey's efforts to defeat aging, that he offered $10,000 as a prize to anyone who could come up with a convincing argument that the proposal was "so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate." (de Grey's foundation matched the money, making the prize $20,000.) They appointed a distinguished committee (Rodney Brooks; Nathan Myhrvold; Craig Venter; Anita Goel, a physicist and nanotech entrepreneur; and Vikram Kumar, an innovator and pathologist) which has issued its report. They received only three submissions that merited detailed evaluation, and decided that none of them constituted the convincing rebuttal that Pontin had asked for. (de Grey's response)

The Judges' statement emphasized that de Grey's proposals are closer to engineering than science, and none of the submissions had evaluated them on that ground. Brooks is quoted as having said "I have no confidence that they understand engineering, and some of their criticisms are poor criticisms of a legitimate engineering process." Since de Grey is talking about plausible approaches, fallback solutions, and costs versus benefits, it's not reasonable to attack him for not having proven experimentally all that he proposes, as you might a scientific paper or career. The committee even went so far as to describe some of the attacks as "name calling". That was also the reaction I had to Pontin's original article on SENS.

Pontin seems to have calmed down since he wrote the original diatribe. He salved his pride to some extent by giving MIT's half of the prize money to the entry the judges found to be the "most eloquent", even though that wasn't called for in the terms of the contest. I'll try to read the three submissions and the back and forth between de Grey and their authors. I'd like to understand the best arguments for and against; I'm hopeful that I'll learn something more about the biology and the chances for SENS' success. I somehow suspect that as scientists criticizing an engineering proposal, they'll spend their time showing that his suggestions aren't proven. What matters is whether the proposals are close enough to right that they can be corrected as we learn more. That's much harder to justify in a new area, and also much harder to attack convincingly.

I'm not sure where the burden of proof should be in that part of the argument. The parts of de Grey's proposal that I found most compelling the first time I heard him were that there are only seven interesting mechanisms underlying progressive metabolic deterioration, and that each of them can be defeated if you take an engineering approach. I hope there's at least some discussion of this point.

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Longevity Science said...
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