Now that we are starting to see the arrival of actual therapies aimed at targeting the processes of aging directly in order to prevent age-related diseases, it has become easier to separate two very distinct groups.
The first group consists of the snake oil salesmen peddling unproven supplements and therapies to whoever is foolish enough to buy and take things on faith without using the scientific method. The hucksters have long been a plague on our field, preying on the gullible and tainting legitimate science with their charlatanry and nonsense. One example is the “biotech company” that makes bold claims yet never delivers on those claims in practice, offering data based on poorly designed experiments and tiny cohorts that are statistically irrelevant; another example is the supplement peddler selling expensive supplement blends with flashy names, which, on inspection, turn out to be commonly available herbs and minerals mixed and sold at a high markup. These sorts of people have plagued our community and given the field a reputation of snake oil.
The second group are the credible scientists, researchers, and companies who have been working on therapies for years and sometimes more than a decade. Many of these therapies are following the damage repair approach advocated by Dr. Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation over a decade ago. The basic idea is to take an engineering approach to the damage that aging does to the body and to periodically repair that damage in order to keep its level below that which causes pathology. These therapies are now starting to arrive, with some already in human trials right now, and this marks a milestone in our field: the credible science has finally outstripped the snake oil, and the focus can move from pseudoscience to real, evidence-based science.
While it will be some years yet before all therapies to end age-related diseases are here and available, and the hucksters are still peddling their wares, you can arm yourself with knowledge and protect yourself and our community from these people. Learn to evaluate science rather than taking things at face value, and avoid expensive scams and bad science. Here is a useful checklist to consider when reading an article, looking at claims made by supplement makers, or evaluating any science in general.
Was the claim first announced through mass media or through scientific channels?
Legitimate claims will undergo peer review first. Shady companies not backing up their claims with published data are a dime a dozen; do not be fooled by them. Also, pay attention to the source of the news; press releases, associated companies, and obscure websites are poor sources. The bottom line is that any company making claims about its product should be able to back those claims up with published research in a respected journal.
Are the claimants transparent about their testing, and is there sufficient published data for reproduction?
Credible research is generally published in credible, peer-reviewed journals with transparent and clear details of experiments so that others may attempt to replicate their results. When evaluating a claim, always see if it is published and if anyone else has successfully replicated the results independently. Also, check to ensure that any independent results are indeed independent and that there is no link between the original group and the study replicating the results.
A properly developed technology will take years of development to reach release; is there a clear paper trail of studies and clinical trials supporting it?
Again, this is similar to the above; a company or research team worth its salt will have a trail of evidence documenting research and development efforts that likely go back for years or even decades. If a company appeared from nowhere and has no historical record of its research, this is a huge red flag.
How good is the quality of data supporting the claim, and is it of statistical significance?
Learn to evaluate how statistically significant results are. Did a test involve a single mouse or a person, or did it involve hundreds or even thousands of test subjects to reach its conclusion? The smaller the study, the higher the statistical “noise” and the greater the effect that outliers can have on the average. Large test groups offer the most stable and accurate data, and small single-patient studies are, for the most part, not useful. Beware the company that tests on a single candidate and claims that a supplement or therapy works. A credible company may start with a small pilot study but, ultimately, would expand into larger-scale studies in order to prove safety and efficacy.
Are the claimants reputable, and are they published in credible journals?
Investigate and check their academic pedigrees. Having a Ph.D. is not required to conduct great science, but, in general, a researcher of any worth will have peer-reviewed publications with lots of citations and a good reputation in academia.
Where does the study funding come from?
Even when there is published data, make sure you find out where the funding comes from. Studies on a patented supplement that are funded by the patent holder are a serious red flag and should be viewed with extreme caution.
Do the claimants state that their claim is being suppressed by authorities? Big Pharma? The government?
Claims of being suppressed or somehow blocked by the government or other entities is a common tactic used by scammers. A scammer might claim to be a misunderstood researcher who just wants to help, or a supplement maker in trouble with the FDA for making false claims might say that it is simply being misinterpreted. This is base trickery; don’t fall for it.
Does the claim sound far-fetched?
If it sounds too good to be true, then the chances are that it probably is. Credible science is always appropriately cautious and never overly affirmative; if someone is way too positive, this is a red flag.
Is the claim said to be based on ancient knowledge?
The ‘appeal to the ancients’ logical fallacy is commonly used to convince and part people from their money. “The ancients used certain supplements, so they must work” is a common tactic used to sell things. The truth is that while our ancestors were indeed clever and creative in many ways, not all their ideas were wise; indeed, many of the things they believed were dead wrong and even dangerous. This is a commonly used tactic in the supplement and diet industries.
Is the claim said to be “natural” as a selling point?
This is the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy, another common sales tactic that takes advantage of the biases we as humans have and our inclination to think that everything natural is good. A quick review shows us that what is natural is not always a good thing: tidal waves, earthquakes, venomous snakes, diseases, and aging are all natural, but they are most certainly not desirable.
This is, of course, only a short checklist of things to watch out for; if a claim raises these flags, then it’s a good idea to be highly dubious about its credibility.
The snake oilers will be with us for a few years yet, but by working together as a community and thinking critically about claims, we can help filter these people out and ultimately clean up the field for the benefit of legitimate scientists working on the real solutions to aging that will benefit us all.