Serious Unconventional De Grey

Wednesday’s Washington Post:

Aubrey de Grey may be wrong but, evidence suggests, he’s not nuts. This is a no small assertion. De Grey argues that some people alive today will live in a robust and youthful fashion for 1,000 years. … [he] advocates not myth but "strategies for engineering negligible senescence," or SENS. It means curing aging.  With adequate funding, de Grey thinks scientists may, within a decade, triple the remaining life span of late-middle-age mice. …

By 2005 … De Grey was being pilloried as a full-blown heretic.  "The idea that a research programme organized around the SENS agenda will not only retard ageing, but also reverse it — creating young people from old ones and do so within our lifetime, is so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all within the informed scientific community," wrote 28 biogerontologists in the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization. 

I enthusiastically support de Grey’s goal of greatly extending life, and his engineering approach would be right, if his project were feasible.  And even a small chance of success could justify the effort he proposes.  I also feel some social pressure to support him, as many of my associates do.  Nevertheless, I feel my that declaring "support" for his project would reasonably be interpreted as my claiming some relevant expertise suggesting his project is feasible enough to have this chance.  Yet I simply cannot claim such expertise.  And given the expert opposition voiced I cannot uncritically accept de Grey’s judgment. 

I take particular exception to this line of reasoning: 

… De Grey’s original academic field is computer science and artificial intelligence. He has become the darling of some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who think changing the world is all in a day’s work. Peter Thiel, the co-founder and former CEO of PayPal — who sold it in 2002 for $1.5 billion, pocketing $55 million himself — has dropped $3.5 million on de Grey’s Methuselah Foundation.

"I thought he had this rare combination — a serious thinker who had enough courage to break with the crowd," Thiel says. "A lot of people who are not conventional are not serious. But the real breakthroughs in science are made by serious thinkers who are willing to work on research areas that people think are too controversial or too implausible."

[The article ends with a 1903 quote from the New York Times saying flying machines were a million years off.]

We cannot better promote science simply by better funding people who are "not conventional."   As I’ve said before:

Contrary to their self-image, undiscriminating freethinkers are our main obstacle to innovation

I don’t see how it helps if we focus on people who are "not conventional but serious."  Sure it works if "serious" just means "good."  But we should fund "good" people regardless of whether they are conventional.  If "serious" means "unplayful" or "using great effort," I don’t see evidence that unconventional people with these characteristics are much more productive than average unconventional folks.   

What I really want, of course, are betting markets telling the chance de Grey would achieve his goals, given the funding he requests. 

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