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Two Industries in One Field

Snake oil and real science are entirely different.

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We are at an interesting time for our field, and at long last, some rejuvenation therapies are entering clinical trials. The approach of directly targeting the processes of aging in humans can finally be put to the test.

While rejuvenation therapies that aim to prevent, stop, or even reverse aging and age-related diseases are gradually moving towards becoming a reality, the field has a problem. Our community has long had two distinctly different groups in its ranks.

Snake oil and charlatans

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. These hucksters have long been a plague on our field, preying on the gullible and tainting legitimate science with their charlatanry and nonsense.

This includes some “biotech companies” that flee the FDA to hide out in countries with few or no medical or ethical controls in order to conduct experiments of dubious scientific merit. These outfits try to convince us that they are the good guys, all the while offering nothing more than data based on poorly designed experiments and tiny cohorts that are statistically irrelevant.

Such companies kick the can down the road year after year, taking money from the gullible but never producing anything of worth. This is a stark contrast to the credible biotech companies who do set up outside the USA, but behave in a credible way. Setting up offshore outside of FDA (and similar bodies such as the EMA) juristriction is not an immediate red flag, but one should be cautious.

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This category also includes the so-called futurists who claim humans will be immortal in under a decade based on incorrect assumptions and flawed assessments of actual scientific progress.

These people are sometimes well-meaning but misguided, and sometimes they are interested in selling their latest book, regardless, they are causing harm to public perception. Overpromising and underdelivering is a significant problem for our field, and these people only add fuel to the fire of public skepticism.

The final 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.

While a good diet, the right vitamins and minerals, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle can doubtlessly increase your potential to live a longer life, it is unlikely that any supplement is going to radically increase your lifespan. These hucksters prey on consumers’ lack of knowledge to sell them overpriced tat that will be almost if not completely ineffective.

There may be merit in some supplements, but the sector is unregulated and filled with dishonest marketing, and quality control is often dubious. There are some notable exceptions of course, and there are many credible researchers studying supplements in the context of aging, but there is a world of difference between what they do and the misleading marketing hucksters engage in.

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The scientists are the true heroes

The second group are the credible scientists, researchers, and companies who have been working on therapies for years and sometimes more than a decade. You do not hear so much about these unsung heroes because they are busy doing the real scientific work to bring aging under medical control and not engaging in dishonesty.

Many of these therapies are following a damage repair approach towards aging. 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.

Some of these damage repair therapies are getting closer to potentially becoming a reality as we speak, with some already in human trials right now. This marks a milestone in our field: credible science has finally gotten near to outstripping the snake oil, and the focus can move from pseudoscience to real, evidence-based science.

How to spot snake oil

While it will be some years yet before 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 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 themselves. Also check to ensure that these 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. Therefore, there should be there a clear paper trail of studies and clinical trials supporting any marketed product.

Again, this is similar to the above; a company or research team worth its salt will have a trail of evidence that documents 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 of 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.

Good science will win the day

The snake oilers will be with us for a few years yet, but by thinking critically about claims, you filter these people out in favor of legitimate scientists working on the real solutions to aging and healthy longevity.

Ultimately, as more legit therapies enter human clinical trials, it should become harder and harder for hucksters to survive in the field. As working therapies become available, why would anyone choose snake oil instead?

All it will take is for some of these therapies in trials to pan out and demonstrate that it is possible to rejuvenate people, repairing the damage that aging causes. Here’s hoping we start to see such therapies arriving in the near future.

If you want to keep track of progress, check out our curated research database: the Rejuvenation Roadmap. This database tracks the status of many of the therapies being developed and gives a good overview of how things are progressing.

To do this, we need your support. Your charitable contribution tranforms into rejuvenation research, news, shows, and more. Will you help?
CategoryAdvocacy, News
About the author

Steve Hill

Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor in Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 600 articles on the topic, interviewed over 100 of the leading researchers in the field, hosted livestream events focused on aging, as well as attending various medical industry conferences. His work has been featured in H+ magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, Swiss Monthly, Keep me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve is one of three recipients of the 2020 H+ Innovator Award and shares this honour with Mirko Ranieri – Google AR and Dinorah Delfin – Immortalists Magazine. The H+ Innovator Award looks into our community and acknowledges ideas and projects that encourage social change, achieve scientific accomplishments, technological advances, philosophical and intellectual visions, author unique narratives, build fascinating artistic ventures, and develop products that bridge gaps and help us to achieve transhumanist goals. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project.
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