Some concerns on US politics and rejuvenation

Sometimes, bad news are good news in disguise. Some other times, it might be the other way around. I’ve been concerned for a while about certain turns that the situation of anti-ageing research might take in the future, and perhaps is already taking right now.

So. Donald Trump is President of the US.

My personal opinion of Trump is that he’s an incompetent, self-absorbed buffoon with the mental capacity of a retarded 5-year-old and the scientific understanding of a dead ant. His lack of respect for basic human rights is appalling. He possesses no moral or intellectual integrity to be spoken of, has a despicable habit of providing ‘alternative facts‘, and his ego is far too large to fit in this universe. My understanding is that he’s also accused by some of certain crimes, but I don’t really know if it’s true, so I will suspend my judgement on that. Anyway, my opinion of Trump isn’t important. What is important is that a lot of people have a similar opinion of him. When you have such a low opinion of somebody, it’s very easy to have a similarly low opinion of anything they do or that is associated with them, regardless of the actual merits of what they do or are associated with. In other words, it’s very easy to reason like this: ‘Trump is an idiot, therefore anything he does or is associated with is idiotic,’ whence ‘If Trump did X, or is somehow associated with X, then X must be idiotic.’ Especially in the case of Trump, it’s tempting to think like this. However, this reasoning is incorrect, and I don’t think I need to explain why. Two important consequences of this reasoning might be the following:

  • The public opinion on measures, changes, or initiatives taken or implemented by Trump could become extremely negative. This could be especially true if people thought said measures were already controversial to begin with, whether taken by Trump or others.
  • Future administrations might wish to distance themselves from Trump’s administration as much as possible, particularly if he screws up really badly or if he falls before the end of his mandate. To this end, they might want to undo changes operated by Trump and do the opposite of what he did. Again, this might be especially true in case of controversial measures on which public opinion was divided or largely negative.

Okay. Maybe it is like that. Why should you care? Well, Peter Thiel is an advisor to Donald Trump. I’m not sure what the exact title of Thiel’s position is, or how official or permanent it is, but it is pretty clear that he has the ear of the President.

I don’t have an opinion on Peter Thiel. All I know is that he co-founded PayPal and that he’s pretty much in favour of all sorts of technological and scientific progress, including, but not limited to, the defeat of ageing. As a matter of fact, Thiel is notoriously a strong supporter of SENS and has donated tons of money to SENS—something like over 6 million dollars. So far, so good. One could argue that people like Thiel (and Elon Musk, who’s also on Trump’s advisory board) might be able prevent Trump from fucking everything up, and in the case of Thiel, even help give a little push to anti-ageing research. Indeed, Thiel may be able to have his associate Jim O’Neill appointed as head of the FDA. Do you know where Jim O’Neill sits? On the board of directors of SENS.

So? What’s my problem? A board member of SENS might become the head of the FDA. This is cause for celebration, right? He could speed up the development of rejuvenation biotechs like never before, right? Yes, in theory. I would be celebrating this news if it wasn’t for two lingering concerns bothering me ever since I heard about it.

My first concern should be pretty clear. As much as we wished otherwise, rejuvenation is still a controversial idea that most people welcome with extreme scepticism at best; associating it with Trump might be a bad thing in the long term. Imagine O’Neill really becomes head of the FDA and really pushes the idea forward. The political adversaries of Trump might well make use of this against him. They could accuse him of wasting taxpayers’ money on pipe dreams, of attempting to undermine the natural order of things, and could raise all the usual objections to rejuvenation we’re used to hear. As advocates of rejuvenation, we all know that even perfectly reasonable people tend to fall for these objections without even questioning them; if they’re blinded by political hatred, I fear they’ll be even more likely to buy into these arguments and become well persuaded that rejuvenation is an impossible goal that only a fool like Trump could ever try to pursue. Some of the least bright minds might even believe that he wants to achieve immortality to rule the world forever, or some other crazy nonsense like that.

A possible result is that the opposition against rejuvenation might increase. Trump’s successors might undo any pro-rejuvenation initiative he might have enacted and steer clear from the cause. Crowdfunding efforts might become more difficult, and the fear of bad publicity might drive private investors away. Remember how Aubrey de Grey always says there’s at least a 10% chance that we won’t get rejuvenation for another 100 years? This might be the most direct way to pump that percentage all the way up to 50%.

But wait—it gets worse. If you’ve read some of the articles I linked above, you might have got the same creeping feeling that authors are trying to present Thiel as more of a weirdo than an innovator. Maybe that isn’t their intention; still, a fervent opposer of Trump reading that one of his advisors is into building cities on the sea, has a ‘well-documented obsession with life-extension technologies, including extending his own lifespan with blood transfusions from young people’ (cit. from Vanity Fair above), and thinks the FDA is in the way of drug innovation, may easily conclude that these are the hallmarks of a nutcase. Jim O’Neill isn’t in a better position, really, because he’s into pretty much the same things, and more than one article present him as a dangerous radical who speaks at biotech meetings without being a physician. They’re not very upfront about it, but I do think they’re subtly implying he’s incompetent at best and crazy at worst. How much, if at all, is their opinion of Trump influencing their opinion of Thiel and O’Neill? How will this influence their opinion of rejuvenation?

Some papers may be deliberately misrepresenting Thiel and O’Neill, and I don’t necessarily share such extreme opinions on them. I don’t know enough about them to even have a clear opinion. To be honest, I have my doubts about their idea that drugs should be approved right after passing safety tests, even if efficacy isn’t proved; this is my second concern. This idea is quite controversial, yet it seems to be shared by many within SENS (including Aubrey de Grey—he’s pretty upfront about it in Ending Aging) and others within the movement (most notably FA!). I’m willing to bet this is another argument that Trump’s opposers could easily use against him—for example, they could argue that loosening drug approval criteria may end up flooding the market with placebos and potentially dangerous medicines. True or not, this argument’s appeal to fear could be very powerful, especially among Trump’s opposers, and could do an even better job at convincing them that supporters of rejuvenation are dangerously crazy. (As a side note, if something did go wrong as a consequence of a hastily approved anti-ageing drug, I fear the shockwave would be felt throughout the entire field for decades to come.) However, I haven’t made my mind up about this whole FDA thing. I need to do more research and ask for more opinions before I come to a conclusion; therefore, I’ll leave this matter for another post.

Under different circumstances, I’d be extremely happy to know that a SENS board member might be part of the US President’s entourage. Further research might make me less worried about O’Neill’s proposals for the FDA, but I’d really prefer the first President to endorse SENS to be someone else than a total moron with great chances to be remembered as the worst and most hated US President in history.

Maybe I’m blowing it out of proportions. I certainly hope so.

PS: It’s okay if you disagree with my opinions. It’s okay if you want to comment to say it. However, I’m not interested in debating if Hillary, or any other candidate, would have been better than Trump or anything like that. I don’t know, and I don’t even care.