The growth and popularity of the anti-aging medicine social movement in recent years has provoked biogerontologists to distinguish themselves from it, in order to preserve their hard-won scientific and political legitimacy, as well as to maintain and enhance funding for their research. The efforts of biogerontologists to differentiate themselves from the anti-aging movement are a classic example of what Gieryn (1983)
termed “boundary work,” paralleling disputes in many other areas of science in which rhetorical demarcations are employed to maintain legitimacy and power. As Taylor (1996
, p. 5) observes, “Practicing scientists, consciously or otherwise, discursively construct working definitions of science that function, for example, to exclude various non- or pseudo-sciences so as to sustain their (perhaps well-earned) position of epistemic authority and to maintain a variety of professional resources.” Such is the case with individual biogerontologists, and with the discipline collectively.
The boundary work engaged in by biogerontologists has been highly evident in public documents in recent years. A notable example was a lengthy position statement endorsed by an international roster of 51 gerontological scientists in 2002, summarized in an article in a popular magazine, Scientific American
, under the title “No Truth to the Fountain of Youth.” The article declared that,
The hawking of anti-aging “therapies” has taken a particularly troubling turn of late. Disturbingly large numbers of entrepreneurs are luring gullible and frequently desperate customers of all ages to “longevity” clinics, claiming a scientific basis for the anti-aging products they recommend and, often, sell. At the same time, the Internet has enabled those who seek lucre from supposed anti-aging products to reach new consumers with ease. (Olshansky, Hayflick, & Carnes, 2002a, p. 92)
It went on to assert that “no currently marketed intervention — none — has yet been proved to slow, stop, or reverse human aging, and some can be downright dangerous” (pp. 92–93).
Shortly after the article appeared, the full position statement was also posted online at a website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the journal Science
. It was then reprinted in the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences
(Olshansky, Hayflick, & Carnes, 2002b) and arrangements were made to have it published (in translation) in Chinese, French, German, Korean, and Spanish journals. The scientists' message also reached a very large audience when the AARP Bulletin
, with a circulation of more than 35 million, made the Scientific American
article the lead story in its next issue (Pope, 2002
The internationally-endorsed position statement was the most publicized but not the only effort to distance the field of gerontological science from anti-aging medicine. Although different types of strategies have been employed in these efforts, one common goal has been to ensure that the hard hard-won respectability attained by the community of biogerontological researchers not be tainted by the anti-aging movement. As the position statement acknowledges, “Our concern is that when proponents of anti-aging medicine claim that the fountain of youth has already been discovered, it negatively affects the credibility of serious scientific research efforts on aging” (Olshansky et al., 2002b, p. B295).
One approach has been to discredit the anti-aging medicine movement by disparaging it for making a “quick profit” by fraudulently “exploiting the ignorance and gullibility of the public” (Hayflick 2001/2
, p. 25). To this end, the organizers of the position statement constituted themselves as a committee to designate annual “Silver Fleece Awards” (in the form of bottles of salad oil, labeled “Snake Oil”) in “a lighthearted attempt to make the public aware of the anti-aging quackery that has become so widespread here and abroad” (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2002
). The first Silver Fleece Award for an Anti-Aging Organization, in 2002, was presented in absentia to A4M, which was characterized “as responsible for leading the lay public and some in the medical and scientific community to the mistaken belief that technologies already exist that stop or reverse human aging.”
A second and more subtle rhetorical approach has been to mobilize the adjective “legitimate” to modify research on aging and thereby distinguish it from the anti-aging movement. As biogerontologist Richard Miller explains, “Scientists and their patrons — even those who have legitimate
research interests in interventional gerontology — do not wish to be seen hanging out with snake-oil vendors (Miller, 2002
, p. 167, emphasis added). Thus, the newsletter of the International Longevity Center, headed by the founding director of NIA, declares, “Legitimate
aging research is particularly important due to the prevalence of `anti-aging therapies' therapies' being peddled in the marketplace that are not based on any scientific evidence and could possibly be dangerous” (Nyberg, 2002
, p.1, emphasis added). The international position statement signed by the 51 scientists also presents this contrast: “The misleading marketing and the public acceptance of anti-aging medicine is not only a waste of health dollars; it has also made it far more difficult to inform the public about legitimate
scientific research on aging and disease” (Olshansky, et al., 2002b, p. B293, emphasis added).