LIST OF TOPICS COVERED IN OUR REVIEW OF GERONTOLOGY RESEARCH AND CURRENT EVENTS OVER THE LAST MONTH:
1.0 Administrative Matters: Handouts; Future Meetings; Announcements
2.0 Demographics of Aging (Centenarians)
3.0 Theoretical Foundations of Aging (Hormonal Clocks; Telomere Shortening; Basal Metabolic Rate)
4.0 Biomarkers of Physiological Age
5.1 Basic Science including Embryology
5.2 Clinical Diagnosis
5.3 Advances in Gene Therapy
6.0 Etiology and Treatment of Specific Diseases
7.0 Infectious Disease: Epidemiology
8.0 Pharmacology and New Drugs
9.0 Hormones, Vitamins, Nutrition, and Life-Style
10.1 DNA Sequencing
10.2 Electron Microscopy (STM, AFM)
10.3 Florescent Light Microscopy
11.0 New Books, Newsletters, CD-ROMs, VHS Tapes, Interesting Sites on the World Wide Web
12.0 Politics of Research (Funding, Ethics, NIA)
We regularly scan the following journals each month.
Compared to the time it takes, does it really help to scan current scientific and medial journals religiously every month? Will it really help us to acquire the sort of operational knowledge we need in order to do what we want to do? Answer: Maybe. Serendipity may lead us to find that for which we seek. Indeed, what we're searching for may appear unexpectedly in tomorrow's newspaper headline "out of the blue." But that's probably too much to hope for. Having a proper model of the knowledge that one needs will certainly help. But how do you get such a model? And what is a "knowledge model" anyway?
In that branch of philosophy known as epistemology (theory of knowledge), practitioners generally divide knowledge into intuitive and articulated forms:
1.0 Intuitive, common-sense knowledge like a child's knowledge of the physical world (Naive Physics: "Heavy objects don't fall upward except when you're in outer space"), how to ride a bicycle, how to play a musical instrument, or how to play grandmaster-level chess cannot be written down. It's sort of programmatic information compiled in our neurons after considerable rehearsal.
2.0 Articulated knowledge, on the other hand, is
something that can be learned from a book and is further categorized into at least four
2.1 Published Literature, including everything you can find in a standard well-stocked university library-- books (non-fiction, fiction [novels, short stories, plays, poetry], biography, essays, etc.), scientific journals, magazines, newspapers in all languages, and by extension all communications media, including radio, television, movies, video tapes, music CD's, or anything on the world wide web, and so forth;
2.2. Patent Literature, including the body of non-obvious, intellectual property whose commercial value their inventors deemed worthy of legal protection both in the U.S. and internationally;
2.3. What is sometimes called Grey Literature including the company-produced descriptions of products and marketing brochures that are typically found in trade shows but not otherwise indexed in the public domain. This may also include proprietary competitive analyses that are only available for an exorbitant price; and finally
2.4. Company Proprietary or Government Classified Information of the sort that one must sign a non-disclosure agreement to find out or for which one must be granted a type of security clearance following an investigation by one of the members of a government military or intelligence service.
Our Group has a special interest in characterizing knowledge that is knowable in principle, but is not known yet, and the above four classes of knowledge are equally important in this quest. We are particularly interested in knowledge that may be known soon (in our lifetimes) but won't break-our-collective-bank to find out. (For example, "Is there evidence for life on Mars?" falls in this category. The life-on-Mars challenge then naturally decomposes into (1) how to persuade someone to provide the money needed to go there and (2) what to do after one gets there. Clearly, the hardest subproblem for the Mars Pathfinder Mission was the former and not the latter, given the 18 years it took Americans to return to the surface of Mars after Viking and the hobby-shop construction of the Sojourner rover.)
We imagine that having a model will help us to characterize "unknown" knowledge. Models help to decompose problems into subtasks so that people will know what they need to accomplish. Thus, progress toward a goal can be measured. One can think of a model metaphorically as a very complicated "jigsaw puzzle" delivered without a picture on the cover, having potentially multiple individual puzzle solvers not necessarily cooperating with one another, working over several years, and whose edge pieces have already been nearly connected around the perimeter. This gives us a border for the picture, even if the interior of the picture is still largely vacant. One can then observe the cutting edge of accumulated knowledge move over the puzzle at a measurable velocity, as missing pieces slowly fall into place. It also shows us what original work still needs to be done that may not be underway by anybody else. There are even arguments among the cognoscenti about whether a given puzzle piece hypothetically fits in the current puzzle.
Where do new puzzle pieces come from? From international scientific conferences, trade publications, press conferences by companies and by government regulatory agencies. But also from investigative journalism and from the Business Sections of newspapers where owners of potential technology are really seeking capital from investors rather than out of any interest in telling the public or their peer technologists anything at all. The news wire services (AP, UPI, Reuters, CNN, etc.) are the primary disseminators of news announcements. These primary sources usually precede headlines in regular newspapers by 24 hours or so, assuming the stories are deemed worthy by local editors (or visually interesting by TV newsdesk editors) in the blizzard of "announcements" with a hidden agenda that must be filtered out, and also are stories compatible with the self-interest of the advertisers who exploit these same media for their own purposes, as well as contemporary standards of moral decency (the fit in "All the News that's Fit to Print.").
When does a prestigious scientific or medical journal with exclusive rights to publish an original scientific paper making an important announcement place prepublication restrictions on the rights of regular newspaper science editors and other journalists to summarize the results before the journal publication date? Always. The "little guy" might steal the thunder of the prestigious journal without allowing for contemporaneous peer review to take place. And are there news leaks? You better believe it. Such happens especially in the tabloid branch of the media. But a journal may break its own publication schedule, given the other articles that are in its publication pipeline, if it deems that doing so would be in the public interest. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine prereleased the results of a paper to be published in its own pages six weeks in the future about the Fen/Phen controversy when it believed that waiting would be a public disservice. This resembles the ethical dilemma faced by a Principal Investigator of clinical trial before it's scheduled to be over when an early breaking of the code reveals that the medicine being tested is so effective that the control group in a double-blind trial is being deprived of a truly revolutionary treatment.
The issue of the timing of an announcement is especially curious. If there is a race among competing teams for credit in a scientific discovery, one can be sure that the public will hear about it quickly. On the other hand, company managers with the advantage of controlling the timing of disclosure may chose to sit on new information until it suits their purpose. In this regard, it is useful to know whether the owner of the information (the announcing institution) profits in any way, either directly or indirectly, from the timing of the announcement. As just one example, many adverse business announcements are withheld until after the stock market closes to preserve stability in the price of a stock.
And it very rare that the announcer of a new discovery will choose to distract his of her audience with information about what is not-yet-known at the time of the announcement. Indeed, newspaper reports of a scientific discovery (and even less so for TV news reports) almost never ask why this announcement was being made today and not earlier. For example, they never ask why it wasn't announced a year ago, or even five years ago? Was it merely the lack of funding targeting a particular project that could have accelerated the outcome by a year or more? Was there a missing prerequisite technology on the critical path to discovery, like an electron microscope of a certain resolution, without which the results could not have been achieved at any price? Or was it simply a lack of imagination? Or a failure of nerve? Or maybe a hidden agenda constraining the free flow of scientific information? Answers to these questions are as likely to make the public angry as delighted with scientific progress. For example, what was the opportunity cost associated with not having this discovery at hand a few years earlier? Why are we shocked by some discoveries and not by others? For those working in the field, the rate of progress may seem to be a snail's pace, while those spending their time on other things may find a particular discovery truly amazing. For example, " Deep Blue beats Kasparov" at chess was completely predictable for those close to the field (modulo 18 months). Even professional analysts in a given field who are paid to expound on their predictions tend to overestimate the rate of progress in a two-year interval while underestimating the progress that will normally be achievable ten years into the future.
Therefore, what we try to do in our meetings is to filter the month's medical/scientific progress as it pertains to our model of missing knowledge. We put our own "spin," as it were, on all announcements that are potentially important to our Charter, but may not appear to have any a priori relationship to aging research, even to the originators or the interpretive sources of the news item itself! For example, we occasionally will observe "This reliable gender-selection methodology developed by veterinarians and other reproductive technology experts for the field of animal husbandry has immediate relevance to humans," even though the editors of the story scrupulously avoided noticing that fact. Maybe it was out of fear that their funding could be prematurely terminated by a public outcry that scientists stop dabbling in this or that technology for the sake of what are essentially non-scientific agendas.
We also hear things like "Life extension in mice is hardly of interest, since mice are not men." But we know otherwise. According to our model of aging, the number of differences between rodents and people is really negligible, and so one must ask the hidden-agenda question of those who would discredit a story about the applicability of mouse longevity to humans on the grounds that "it has not yet been proven for our own species and so inferences are unwarranted."
As we get closer to filling in the puzzle, a more complete picture emerges, and progress toward completion accelerates. Everyone knows that the last few puzzle pieces always fall into place rapidly, and arguments over ownership or control may arise among the "collaborating" puzzle solvers as they become more competitive. The social implications of a single company owning the technology that results from a completed picture is something the public will hopefully find intolerable.