The fountain of youth must meet some reasonable expectations

There are two interacting factors I expect of a good scientific explanation. One is empirical evidence, obviously — everyone knows that. You don’t get to sit back in your easy chair and make up ‘evidence’, and it’s unsatisfactory science if you don’t actually have any data to back it up.


But there’s another piece that’s hinted at in the cartoon: theory. Without theory, you can’t have evidence; you have a miscellany of disconnected observations that don’t get you anywhere. You need to be able to answer the question “what did you see?”, but you also need to answer “why did you go looking for it?” and “how do you interpret what you saw?” Having an expectation that all of those basic questions ought to be answerable before you accept an idea means, unfortunately, that I have to reject a lot of entirely desirable ideas.

I’d like a fountain of youth, for instance, or at least a pill that would slow down the effects of aging, but that doesn’t imply that I get to have one. There’s a hot new company, Elysium Health, selling a pill called Basis, which is supposed to keep you young longer.

I recently received in the mail a small cardboard box, solidly constructed and colored a subtle metallic gray, from the future. ELYSIUM HEALTH was printed on it in white sans-serif capital letters. Inside, a smaller crisp white box, banded in blue and imprinted with a letterpress E, described its contents as “a daily health product designed to optimize and support your most critical metabolic systems,” including “DNA repair,” “Cellular detoxification,” “Energy production,” and “Protein function.” Within was an elegant pillbox containing 60 capsules. The technical language obscured an arresting truth: Basis, which I had ordered online without a prescription, paying $60 for a month’s supply, was either the most sophisticated fountain-of-youth scam ever to come to market or the first fountain-of-youth pill ever to work.

That is such a hopelessly naive article. That last choice is silly: it’s a scam. The author has no reason to believe any of the claims on that box, except that they sound sciencey. Well, maybe they sound sciencey to a layperson: they all sound like crap to me. “DNA repair,” “Energy production,” and “Protein function” are all routine cellular functions, and I don’t even know how you can “optimize” stuff that has 4 billion years of evolution behind it with a pill, but maybe they have a theory to suggest a strategy? We’ll see. As for “Cellular detoxification,” good gob, that’s a pseudoscientific buzzword — haven’t you learned yet that when someone sells you a detox plan, they’re peddling the purest quackery?

That’s the opening paragraph. So when I read further, I’m going to be looking for two things: I want to see a plausible explanation for how this pill works, and I want to see evidence. It’s entirely possible to have a phenomenon that works that they don’t understand — data trumps theory — but I still will want to see a tentative explanation for what they see.

Sadly, though, the evidence for the effectiveness of the pill seems to be largely built around random anecdotes.

Others who’d taken Basis before me had described effects including fingernail growth, hair growth, skin smoothness, crazy dreams, increased stamina, better sleep, and more energy. Once I began taking it, I did feel an almost jittery uptick in mojo for a few days, and I slept more soundly as well. Then those effects seemed to recede, and there were also mornings where I felt a little out of it. If these were placebo effects, they were weird ones, because they didn’t make me feel better, only different.

There doesn’t seem to be any clinical evidence that this particular pill does anything. In fact, in another telling move, the company has skipped all that horrible FDA approval stuff by marketing it as a dietary supplement. Basically, they’re announcing that they can’t demonstrate any substantial effects, so they’ve chosen a marketing strategy that allows them to claim vaguely beneficial effects without the onus of actually providing any evidence for them.

So what about a theory? Here it is.

Scientists have recognized since the 1930s that calorie-restricted diets extend life in mammals (we evolved, the thinking goes, to withstand periods of famine, downshifting our metabolism in order to defer reproduction until we were again in a time of plenty). Guarente was one of the first to discover a single gene with a linchpin role in the process: in his case, a class of molecules called sirtuins. Now, aging science is in a growth spurt, with an accelerating race to develop compounds that target such master genes. The idea, and the premise of Basis, is that certain compounds might trick our bodies into thinking they’re starving (thereby extending our lives) without our having to feel hungry.

Uh-oh. There is a substantial literature on caloric restriction improving longevity; I haven’t been dazzled by any of it, since a lot of it is on model systems (and as someone who works on a model system, I can tell you that there is a lot of weirdness there), and the effects have been modest and variable. But caloric restriction has real physiological effects, unsurprisingly, and I’m seeing it touted as a treatment for everything from aging to Alzheimers to cancer. It all seems to be wobbling about in the world of straining for good p values, though, rather than the practical world of actually being robustly effective. But hey, we should keep studying it — maybe we’ll find some clear answers. We haven’t yet. We certainly haven’t found a recipe for reliable outcomes.

Sirtuins are also cool and interesting. These are proteins that regulate cellular pathways…a lot of different pathways. Saying that sirtuins play a role in aging-related metabolic pathways is literally true and wonderfully broad and ambiguous. They also seem to be an important mediator in the pathways stimulated by resveratrol, for instance, so hooray, there is a link between one vaguely beneficial pathway and another vaguely beneficial pathway! What do you mean, if you multiply weak statistical effects by other weak statistical effects, you don’t get stronger statistics?

So the theory behind this pill that has no evidence that holds up in clinical trials is that they are going to activate an enzyme that has multiple roles, but a few of those roles seem to be associated with weak effects on aging in some studies, so upregulating those pathways has to be good for you, right?

I don’t know. Here’s an old computer control panel with lots of switches.


Somewhere on that box is a switch that, if you flip it on, turns on the whole machine, which is good. Therefore, if there are a lot of switches, it’ll work better if you flip them all to the up position. I don’t even know why they bother with switches at all — wouldn’t it be more efficient to get rid of them all and put everything in a permanent ‘on’ state? Science!

Another bothersome phenomenon: the company’s advisory board is packed with 6 Nobelists. This is more marketing than science; there is no reason to think that having a Nobel prize makes one universally wise, but it does persuade the rubes. Then there’s the disturbing phenomenon of people getting committed to believe in something for the sake of that belief, and their reputation, while not actually being convinced intellectually.

Then again, all these people are financially and reputationally incentivized to believe in Basis. Even Nelsen acknowledged he could be experiencing a placebo effect. I asked other scientists, outside Elysium’s orbit, whether they take the pill. Olshansky told me he takes nothing: He tries to exercise daily and watch what he eats. Kennedy, likewise, takes nothing: “I said I’m going to wait till I’m 50 before I start taking anything. I run, I try to keep my caloric level down, I manage stress.” Kaeberlein takes nothing but says he’s “getting more and more tempted to take rapamycin in a low dose.” Sinclair, who now co-directs a Glenn-funded center at Harvard, still takes resveratrol every day and also takes an NAD booster (he has his own biotech company, currently in stealth mode, focused on that booster).

I have to say, though, these guys are actually saying smart things. Moderation, sensible diet, reasonable exercise, managing stress — these seem to be effective ways to limit the effects of aging. If you’re doing those, you don’t need a magic pill. And if you’re doing those things while taking the pill, the magic pill will look even better.

But if you’re not living healthily, you might want a magic pill that that gives the benefits of a healthy life style. Which means that Elysium Health, like all the quack nostrum peddlers, is going to make money. That’s all that matters, right?

Tom Wolfe’s magic combo move

Here’s a formula for seeming wise: take two complex, deep topics that are individually the domain of specialists, and that may be unfathomable to the general public. Combine them in some arcane way; you can trust that the set of experts who understand both topics will be minuscule, so you’ll be able to get away with a lot of nonsense, because experts in A will be impressed with your knowledge of B while thinking you don’t know squat about A, while experts in B will be vice versa. The classic example of this strategem is Velikovsky, who blended expertise in Middle Eastern mythology with astrophysics. Astrophysicists thought his flying, colliding planets that ignored conservation of energy were ludicrous nonsense, while gosh, there sure are a lot of provocative ancient texts talking about astrophysics, while classical scholars were shocked at all the liberties he was taking with history, but gee whiz, that physics stuff is impressively daunting. Meanwhile, the people who nothing about either were applauding him as a genius.

We have another example, and unfortunately, it’s the brilliant writer Tom Wolfe. He has taken his dilettante’s understanding of two subjects to attempt to fuse them: in this case, linguistics and evolution. One would think those two would complement each other nicely, but not when the author’s preconceptions are simply stuck in human exceptionalism, and his arguments are all about ‘proving’ his assumptions correct, no matter how false they are. And, most unfortunately, it leads him to conclude not that his understanding of linguistics is deficient, but that evolution must be false.

There’s absolutely nothing like it [speech], and I think it’s time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only, only to animals.

He’s also not worried that creationists will love this, because, he says, there’s there’s not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. Ah. So intelligent design creationism it is, then.

You might want to take a look at this wonderfully entertaining review of the book. It’s an ahistorical mess — Wolfe claims that Darwin was obsessed with proving that human speech was derived from animal sounds, for instance, and that the whole idea of examining the evolution of speech was discarded after Darwin, until Chomsky. He not only gets the history of evolution wrong, he mangles the history of linguistics.

Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution? Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his.​

It’s all very sad. Wolfe will use his considerable talents at writing to successfully peddle nonsense to the public, doing harm to public education, giving me yet another line of babble to refute which will be smugly thrown at me for the next several years, and the only gain will be that Mr Wolfe will be able to buy a few more white suits while his bullshit rises on the NY Times bestseller lists.

Man, maybe I ought to do some retirement planning. What two subjects do I know very little about (that part’s easy, most of the subjects), but can profitably merge to sound innovative and insightful? Everyone goes for the obvious one, quantum physics, so I think that’s played out. Hmm. Photonics and immunology? Gravity and time travel? Indian cooking and renewable energy? I’m sure all I have to do is find the right catchy combo, and then I’ll be on all the talk shows.

On the fritz

My lovely little PowerMac Pro is having conniptions — I suspect a bad connection to the display, because intermittently the screen will decide that white will be displayed as purple, and everything else as shades of green and yellow. It turns out that that color scheme is really hard to read, and writing is even harder. I’ve checked the obvious — like that it is one of the display options I can configure, and it isn’t — and will test it later today with an external display to see if it’s the logic board or the display board.

Writing today will depend on how long it can stay in a normal, healthy, readable mode — I don’t feel like blogging by doing the equivalent of fingerpainting in Fruit Loops tinted vomit.

Perhaps this will make an interesting plot twist in the next Jurassic Park movie

Jack Horner, the paleontologist who was the model for Dr Alan Grant in the Jurassic Park, has been ‘forced out’ of his position at the Museum of the Rockies, and is now working at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Good for the Burke, was my first thought, but the second was, “Why is the Museum of the Rockies kicking out their most famous scientist?” Then I read the story.

First reasonable reason — he’s 70. That’s a good age to step back from the grind…but ask me again in 10 years.

The second reason Horner gives is politics. The second reason is that museum director Shelley McKamey, the museum director, is married to Pat Leiggi, director of paleontology and exhibits. He says they’ve had it in for him, and criticizes the fact that their marriage creates an automatic alliance that overpowers other obligations. He’s basically objecting to the marital status of other people at the museum, claiming it gives them an unfair advantage. Which answered nothing — why would the fact that a couple of museum directors are married mean he’d be squeezed out?

And then Horner himself explains why they opposed him, and my sympathy evaporates.

The problem started in 2012, Horner said, when he married then 19-year-old undergraduate student Vanessa Weaver. He “adored” Weaver, but the marriage was their way of telling the university — she wasn’t one of his students — to butt out of their relationship after Horner was instructed to officially disclose the nature of their relationship and was told they would be scrutinized.

“And then they could check on it and they could decide on it. They could come say anything they want, so we got married so we could do anything,” Horner said. “And through the whole thing she had a boyfriend. There wasn’t like something nefarious going on. I adore her. She’s adorable, obviously we really like each other.” They’re divorced now, but still friends.

McKamey and Leiggi “went apoplectic” over the marriage, Horner said. “Before that happened they were my best friends. They basically haven’t talked to me since.”


OK, so he was fooling around with a student who was less than a third of his age, and thought he could legitimize it with the university by entering into a sham marriage? I don’t think university’s objection would be to sexual activity out of wedlock — this is the 21st century, and as we all know, universities are bastions of liberalism — but to sexual activity with a student. Trying to get around that problem with what he openly admits was a fake marriage makes the problem worse.

And now he’s divorced? Does that mean he’s going to be looking for another sweet young thing?

Now I’m wondering if the Burke Museum is keeping an eye on him.

I hear that most Canadians are not fans of Ezra Levant


While down here in the navel of the universe, the USA, most of us have never heard of him. He’s one of those right-wing media guys who yells a lot about immigrants and the purity of the Canadian essence (I understand the secret ingredient is maple syrup), and blusters about suing people who disagree with him. And now he’s threatening to sue an acquaintance of mine, the Canadian Cynic.

You cannot possibly imagine how much I despise people who fling lawyers at everyone who notices how big an asshat they are.

Anyway, CC is putting together a legal defense fund. If you also like the underdog in these kinds of fights, or if you’ve actually heard of puling dildork Ezra Levant and wouldn’t mind seeing him publicly embarrassed, go donate.

A match made in…

Milo Yiannopoulos is going to be speaking at Clemson University in South Carolina. I’m so sorry, South Carolina; you get to host a diffident dork who’ll be declaring that feminism is a cancer.

But at least he’ll be speaking in the right place, in Tillman Auditorium, which is named after Ben Tillman. This Ben Tillman.

Ben Tillman’s long and bloody public career began in 1876 at what would ultimately be called the Hamburg Massacre.

The then 29-year-old Tillman led the members of the Sweetwater Sabre Club, a.k.a. the Edgefield Redshits, against a local militia group, all black. Several African-American militia men were killed in a pitched battle with red-shirt-wearing white terrorists. After the militia surrendered, five of them were called out by name and executed. A few weeks later, when vigilantes captured a black state senator named Simon Coker, Tillman was present when two of his men executed the prisoner while he was on his knees praying.

Later, the terrorist leader Tillman explained his intentions on that fateful July 8 day: “It had been the settled purpose of the leading white men of Edgefield to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the negroes a lesson; as it was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from Negro and carpetbag rule.” In a 1909 speech at a Red Shirt reunion in Anderson, Tillman reiterated this point, noting that he believed in “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”

He added, “That we have good government now is due entirely to the fact that Red Shirt men of 1876 did all and dared all that was necessary to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”

Wait…why does Clemson honor Tillman in the first place? Maybe you deserve Yiannopoulos, after all.

Heresy in the funny pages!

Someone in the Bible belt is going to open up their Sunday paper to read Peanuts or Blondie or BC or one of those other bland, dull, tired, dead strips, and they’re going to get a shock:

That’s pretty much a standard atheist understanding of how religion works, and one of the characters is able to plainly say that he is an atheist. Progress in the mainstreaming of godlessness!

Callie Wright and Ari Stillman on Atheist Talk radio

If you’re at all interested in the latest kerfuffle in the atheosphere, you might want to tune in to Atheist Talk radio tomorrow morning at 9am Central. Callie Wright and Ari Stillman will be the guests.

Then, next week, they’ll have somebody else to talk about the same thing with a wildly, radically different perspective to share — I’ve heard rumors. Maybe it’ll be Milo Yiannopoulous. Maybe it’ll be Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Who knows? Or maybe it’ll be somebody who pretty much agrees with them. You’ll have to listen to find out.