There are more urgent issues

The core of this objection is what is known as fallacy of relative privation, or appeal to worse problems. In a nutshell, this argument means that, unless a problem is the worst of all, we can cheerfully ignore it at least for as long as all other problems worse than the given one have been solved. Needless to say, this argument would easily with the Nobel Prize for Stupidity, because assuming for the sake of argument that it was possible to list all problems in order of magnitude and get everyone to agree on the list, a problem may well be less grave than another, and yet be tragically serious. Unless the hypothetical most grave problem at the top of the list was an asteroid on a crash course with Earth, I’d hardly recommend postponing solving all other problems—actually, even then, I probably wouldn’t.

The way I see it, ageing is humanity’s most serious problem, since it kills 100.000 people every day (and generally, after a decade or two of misery), but I would never dream of saying we should stop worrying about starving children in Africa because there’s a more serious problem to tackle. Those who fall pray of this mistake say exactly that: starving children, malaria, and the lot, are more serious problems than the health of elderly people is, so screw rejuvenation. Let me be absolutely clear on this: Malaria and starving children are very serious problems, but even if they were more important than the health of the elderly, nothing stops us from tackling more than one problem at the same time. We’ve got enough people on the planet to do that; while a lot of them already dedicate themselves to ‘traditional’ problems (climate, children, poverty, the lot), few or none of them are seriously tackling the problem of ageing, whose solution can’t boil down to simply watching old people over in a care home. Taking care of the ill isn’t just about helping them blow their nose; it’s about helping them get back on their feet, healthy as ever.

In my opinion, the reasons why the general public don’t think of the problem of ageing as a priority are the usual: They think defeating ageing is neither feasible, nor advisable. These misconceptions are abundantly discussed in the sections Ageing, Reasons for rejuvenation, and Answers to objections respectively, so I won’t do it again here. Rather, let us suppose for the sake of the argument that defeating ageing was not a priority, and let us see why postponing solving a low-priority problem is a terrible idea nonetheless.

The first reason is that research in field X can and generally does produce advancements in field Y. If you don’t believe me, you might want to have a look at this page, for example. It’s a list of things used in everyday life or anyway in fields very different from space exploration, and yet they all are products of research originally done for space exploration purposes. The list includes infrared thermometers, LEDs for medical applications, artificial limbs, solar cells, water purification technology, and so on. If we had listened to who said there were more urgent issues here on Earth and had given up on space exploration to dedicate time and resources to those other issues, now we wouldn’t have any of those things, or we would have got them only much later than we did. Do you want another example? When the U.S. Department of Defense funded ARPANET, they probably didn’t know it would open up the way for the Internet of today, whose existence is so extraordinarily important on so many levels that I would be insulting your intelligence by listing them here. Had they spent those money on something else, quite likely neither this blog nor any other website would exist today.

Similarly, researching to defeat ageing produces invaluable results for medicine and science in general; for example, to cure diseases that may strike you way before old age. A good example is this potential treatment for age-related macular degeneration, whose juvenile-onset form may be treated in the same way. As another example, fully rejuvenating the body would require a deeper understanding of our mitochondria; the results of such research can be extremely useful to treat mitochondriopathies that afflict young and old alike.

A second reason is that if we decided less urgent problems should be postponed in favour of the urgent ones alone, then it stands to reason that anything that was not even a problem should be removed from the agenda until all the problems were solved. Do we really want to spend money on making movies, for the mere sake of entertainment, while African children are starving? Obviously, if we acted on this premise and scratched leisure activities entirely, we’d turn our lives into a hell of preoccupations and misery, which in turn would make solving world problems far more difficult. Conversely, if we agree to keep carrying on leisure activities, then we can’t neglect any low-priority problem, however less important than the top priorities it may be.

A third reason is that if you neglect one issue in favour of the allegedly more important other ones, the issue you’re neglecting is likely to go downhill while your back is turned. Presently, one could argue that ageing is a problem ‘only’ in terms of people suffering and dying; however, if we don’t do anything about it, in fifty years’ time it may well be a problem in terms of too many elderly who can’t work, too many expenses for their pensions and essentially palliative treatments, and too few young people who need to work their arses off from dawn to dusk to support the whole world. (Ever heard the expression silver tsunami? I have.)

To recap: If ageing was a high-priority problem, we should focus on solving it. If it wasn’t, we would still have compelling reasons to solve it as soon as possible anyway. Therefore, in a way or another, ageing is a problem to be solved. As soon as possible.

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