February 20, 2004

A Disagreement Among Friends

Reason from the Longevity Meme and I have a back and forth exchange (starting in the comments to this post) over his assertion that:
"… the cost of delay in regenerative medicine is pretty much 55 million lives a year…

Nothing the Bush administration is doing is causing as much damage as their medical policies. These policies have already doomed many more people than Stalin and Hitler put together."
Reason is doing important work raising awareness of life extension over at the Longevity Meme. And if you don't regularly read his Fight Aging blog, you should. But I felt the need to respond to his comment:
Comparing purposeful genocide under Stalin and Hitler with potential deaths many years from now seems just a tad heavy-handed.
Heavy handed is all relative: it comes back to the point of whether preventing research is morally equivalent to preventing a sick man from buying an available cure.
Reason further elaborated in a blog post entitled, "The True Cost of Delay."
There's a tendency for people to throw large numbers of casualties out of the window as impossible to talk about. 250 million deaths cannot be discussed, they say. This is a terrible part of human nature, because those consequences are very real - you can't just magic them out of existence them because they are hard to talk about or discuss. Heavy handed or not, I am deliberately setting forth the position that Leon Kass, the Bioethics Council, President Bush and his administration, in their deliberate, successful attempts to block progress towards regenerative medicine, will have as their legacy more death and suffering than was caused by all the wars and dictators of the 20th century.
When I suggested that Reason was being "heavy-handed" with his Bush/Stalin/Hitler lives-lost comparison, I was not suggesting that he was factually incorrect.

Like Reason I'm beginning to believe that life extension will happen. It's just a matter of solving some complicated problems. Since I believe that it will happen I must admit that anything that actually delays necessary research will cost lives. Here's Reason's math on how many lives.

From the point of view of those dying (which could be most of us alive today), it matters little if the policies that bring about death are motivated by good or evil. I look at Bush and naturally like the guy. Others see him and seethe. But its really irrelevant to this debate how others see the current administration or the purity of administration motives.

So my question is: what can be accomplished by the Bush/Stalin/Hitler lives-lost comparison?

Whenever Hitler or the Nazis were brought up in Usenet discussions, it triggered Godwin's Law:
This states that if one participant in a discussion calls another a Nazi or compares them to Hitler, the thread has degenerated into personal abuse and there is no possibility of further rational discussion, the thread is therefore dead and no one should post any more messages in it. If anyone ignores this and does continue posting, they should not be replied to.
Useful debate ends when you compare your opponent to Nazis. The discussion becomes a flame war. This can be worse than not speaking at all.

Beyond the problem of ending civil discourse, I don't think that Bush's policies have thwarted science all that much. Life extension is bigger than a single government (as South Korea showed us). Embryo stem cell research is only one small part of the picture. Life extension will arrive bit by bit. Scientists who aren't even thinking about life extension will help solve the problem. If embryo stem cell research really is needed, it will be performed overseas or by private funding here in the U.S.

Luddites may still have an important role to play as our society navigates the singularity. Ultimately these people are on the wrong side of history. But if they have any success slowing progress, this may allow time for the rest of us to debate how these changes should be implemented.

During these debates it will be counter-productive to compare our opponents to Nazis.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at February 20, 2004 03:57 PM | TrackBack

Well let's be clear that I wasn't pulling up Nazis for the sake of referring to Nazism; Nazism is irrelevant to this discussion. I pulled up Stalin and Hitler as the prime and most recognizable examples of people who were in the figurehead position for policies and group actions that deliberately caused megadeaths.

Belated recognizing that the word "Hitler" makes rational discourse on any topic significantly harder, I replaced naming names with talking about "dictators and governments" in the Fight Aging expansion of the topic.

We can disagree on Bush policies - I'm falling on the side of the advocates and respected scientists who suggest that we (in the global sense - other scientific establishments are now catching up with where things could have been years ago) are now five years behind. US government opposition to regenerative medicine is obvious and palpable: from criminalizing research in the US through to attempting to do so at the UN, and various shenanigans aimed at blocking reseach through other means. The Bush administration, and its NIH appointees, have consistantly lied, outrageously and bald-facedly, about the effects of their policies on stem cell research.


To pick an particularly grating and immediate example of the cost of current policies, two thousand people die every day in the US from forms of heart disease. An 80% effective stem cell therapy for heart disease has been demonstrated in trials. All further trials have been blocked by the FDA.


1600 people a day is peanuts compared to the other costs I'm talking about, but it's happening right now - and all it would take is a flip of a legislative switch to make it stop.

I'm libertarian: I believe that in the long run, any likely US government is going to damage research prospects and drive the economic powerhouse driving that research into a hole in the ground. But we don't have to stand for deliberate, malicious, hostile attempts to prevent life-saving research from proceeding.

Whether or not we shrug our shoulders and say that it'll happen anyway, every day of delay will still result in 150,000 lives that will be lost at some point in the future.

Founder, Longevity Meme

Posted by: Reason at February 20, 2004 04:55 PM

I find this debate over the loss of future lives unreasonable because it doesn't discount future lives. Ie, if we're going to deal in a currency of "lives" we should at least admit that a future life is a potential one with less value than a current life.

Second, why should you think a day of a ban now means a day of delay in the future? China and other countries aren't embracing this ban. Research continues. Further, other technologies (like better computers, instruments, etc) are being developed that could hasten research once the ban is removed.

Having said that, Reason points out these short-sighted policies are harming human health now. Not in the ambiguous future.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at February 21, 2004 06:40 PM

Reason is such a good sport that he linked to this post at his blog:


We are in complete agreement about Bush's stem cell policy.


You raise an interesting point - discounting future deaths. In economics a payment in the future is discounted from the same payment today because time brings uncertainty and because of the time value of money.

Anyone who values their life appreciates the fact that they will probably not die today. But I presume that you mean that these deaths should be discounted because they are not certain to result from research delays. When you compare this uncertainty with the 100% certainty of historical atrocities, it would seem to indicate the appropriateness of discounting.

I believe that life extension will happen someday. It may not happen in the next 20 years, or even in the next 50. But provided you take it as a given that it will occur at some point, the certainty that today's delays will cause deaths approaches 100%.

The people Reason foresees perishing will die of "old age." Isn't this less tragic than dying in a gas chamber with your entire family at age 20? Certainly it is. If I were to discount future deaths by comparison to historical atrocities, this would be the reason.

On the other hand, because this tragedy hasn't occurred yet, it's more important to us today than historical losses that we can do nothing to prevent. This is a tragedy we may have to live through. More importantly, this is a tragedy that we can still change.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at February 21, 2004 07:41 PM

On discounting future lives. Yes, you have to discount the economic value of those lives, as you have to discount the economic value of all future things. Robert Freitas provides some suggested valuations in his "Death is an Outrage":


Which can be put alongside all the other attempts to value human life through the output that this life has.

However, valuing a life and losing a life are two separate things. We can't discount the effect on the X dead people just because those deaths are in the future. They're still all just as dead.

Founder, Longevity Meme

Posted by: Reason at February 22, 2004 02:40 AM

re: Net present value calculation on future vs current life.

The discount rate is the key variable in NPV. In a deflationary negative real interest rate environment which we are very nearly in at the moment, money becomes MORE valuable in the future.

But more to the point, *people* decide to save, spend, live. I would argue that absent hyperinflation, money in the future has very nearly the same emotional content as money today. For instance, 20 years ago I would have worked very very hard to spend $1,000 wisely. I would literally do no less today - even thought it is worth much less when buying what was available 20 years ago. However, today I can buy so many things that didn't exist 20 years ago. Thus, the same 1k is worth literally infinitely more in that it is able to purchase items that didn't exist. It has become a time machine.

My life has that same utility. I hope to grow in wisdom, knowledge, discernment, utility, curiosity, insight etc. It cannot at an individual level be discounted. It is the ultimate scarcity. Thus its value grows to infinity.

Those who would value someone ELSE's life in the moment use a different calculation.

Posted by: David Gobel at February 24, 2004 04:01 AM


One's own life has infinite value only when there is hope for the future. As you said, "I hope to grow in wisdom, knowledge, discernment, utility, curiosity, insight etc."

When people lose hope they often throw their life away. This can be an irrational loss of hope in the prime of life brought on by depression. Or it can be a associated with the decline of old age - which can be rational.

The elderly make decisions all the time to stay in their homes and perish rather than give up their property to go to an nursing facility. Sometimes this may just be a quantity for quality trade-off, but other times it seems that a life in late decline begins to have negative value for the person living it. They become happy to give it up.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not a fan of euthanasia. I bring this up only to emphasize why life extension study is so important. "Death sucks" and the long ride down ain't no picnic either.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at February 24, 2004 05:23 AM

However, valuing a life and losing a life are two separate things. We can't discount the effect on the X dead people just because those deaths are in the future. They're still all just as dead.

No they aren't. It is a probability (a good one) that there will be X (admittedly a very large number) live people who will die prematurely because we screwed up. Let me put forth a more coherent argument as to why this is flawed. You asking me to buy a "pig in a poke". I agree that there's probably a pig in there, but it's still something we can't observe (being in the future possibly well after our lives are over).

This argument also is a variation of Pascal's wager. Let's outline the relevant issues. First, you assume that the costs and benefits are straightforward. However, it's pretty obvious that luddites out there have a different opinion on the relative costs and benefits. I suspect that most opponents believe that allowing stem cell research will doom these future generations not save them.

You also assume that simply reversing the barrier to research will hasten research. What happens if in the future it instead worsens the luddite/reactionary problem to the point that all research is halted rather than just the more controversial parts?

Also, there's the question of what else we should be doing to save those 55 million people per year. How much should we sacrifice now for them? What guarantees will we have that these sacrifices will actually succeed? Similarly, why shouldn't they sacrifice for future generations as well? Eventually (if not right from the start) someone will figure a way to loot all that sacrifice for their personal gain. There comes a point when we need self-interest.

Ultimately, I think this argument is useful, but it needs to be coupled with other arguments not used as a standalone definitive argument.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at February 24, 2004 10:35 AM