SciAm's anti-medical rant at Dr Gunter + Was the oldest woman in the world a fraud?

Scientific American Publishes Conspiratorial, Anti-Medical Rant Aimed at Dr. Jennifer Gunter

EXCERPT: For Scientific American, the year 2019 will go down in history, but certainly not in the way the 174-year-old publication intended. In August, SciAm published an article [...about...] climate change ... turning vegetables into sugary snacks ... SciAm then published an article by a bona fide conspiracy theorist, Joel Moskowitz, claiming that 5G wireless technology is unsafe. ... Now, SciAm has really stepped in it. A few days ago, it published an article (now deleted but eternally accessible) criticizing the high-profile gynecologist Dr. Jennifer Gunter in a bizarre, anti-medical rant.

The author, Jennifer Block, seemed to take exception to Dr. Gunter's rejection of a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which Block applauded as, "A book written for women by women—and not by doctors." In Block's opinion, the book is truly excellent because it rejects medical expertise. Yes, that's what she really wrote. You have to read it to believe it...

[...] In other words, Block is saying that women don't need medical doctors because the lessons learned from staring at each others' vulvas while sharing anecdotes about herbal remedies is every bit as legitimate as the lessons doctors learn in medical school. This is not only insane but dangerous to women's health. Hucksters like Gwyneth Paltrow use precisely the same chicanery to sell snake oil ... Block goes on to denounce "authority" ... because it ignores "people's lived experiences." ... Block clearly believes that scientific research is just one opinion among many... (MORE - details)

Was the oldest woman in the world a fraud?

EXCERPT: . . . The pensioner [Jeanne Calment] appeared blessed with the stamina of Methuselah. Still cycling at 100, she only gave up smoking at 117; her doctors concluded that she had a mental capacity equivalent to most octogenarians. Enough, at any rate, to coin the odd zinger: “I wait for death… and journalists,” she once told a reporter. Aged 121, she recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. But even this “Michael Jordan of ageing”, as one geriatrician put it, had only so much road to run. By 1996, she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, largely blind and deaf, she finally succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest validated human lifespan in history.

Some, though, believe it’s not just time that makes fools of us all. Last year, a Russian mathematician called Nikolay Zak made an astonishing claim: that it was not Jeanne Calment who died in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne. Sceptical about the degree to which Calment had surpassed previous record-holders (the nearest verified claim at the time was 117), Zak had dug into her biography and uncovered a host of inconsistencies. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking site, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s paper claimed that Jeanne Calment had actually died in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this point, Zak alleged, her daughter had assumed her identity – they looked similar – and she kept up the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper went viral, the French press exploded. How dare someone slur a national treasure, the woman dubbed “la doyenne de l’humanité”? And who was this upstart Russian anyway? Zak wasn’t even a gerontologist, a specialist in ageing, but a 36-year-old mathematics graduate who worked as a glassblower at Moscow State University and hadn’t published a paper in 10 years.

Zak doubled down in response. He published an expanded paper in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It compiled a dossier of 17 pieces of biographical evidence supporting the “switch” theory, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old Jeanne (a change in eye colour from “dark” to green) and discrepancies in the verbal testimonies she gave while in the retirement home: she claimed to have met Van Gogh in her father’s shop, when Jeanne’s father had been a shipbuilder. He also claimed there had been no public celebration of Jeanne’s 100th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak admitted, there was no smoking gun; but together these pieces of circumstantial evidence did emit a fair amount of smoke. Crucially, he suggested a plausible motive: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s place in order to avoid punitive inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period ran as high as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological circles, becoming increasingly heated. Many dismissed Zak’s switch theory as Russian-sponsored “fake news”, as the newspaper Le Parisien put it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak expressed doubts about the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian insurance office manager who had died in 1999, aged 119, putting her in the silver-medal position behind Calment. Was the Russian trying to sow doubt, so that his countrymen could take the lead in the gerontology field?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of local pride. They quickly rallied behind Calment and formed a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to dismantle Zak’s claims.

[...] The evidence for a Russian disinformation campaign is thin, but Zak’s paper did have a second sponsor. The peer-reviewed version was published in Rejuvenation Research, the journal devoted to life-extension research edited by Aubrey de Grey, the controversial gerontologist and life-extension advocate who has claimed that, by 2100, the human lifespan could reach 5,000 years. Even if Zak doesn’t believe it, the possibility that Calment did reach 122 is tantalising for De Grey. “Anyone who is the world record holder of longevity is of interest to those of us studying the biology of ageing,” he tells me.

[...] analysis [of Calment's DNA] seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The Fondation Jean Dausset, a private genetic research centre in Paris, refuses even to confirm that it is keeping Jeanne Calment’s blood ... But François Schächter, the scientist who in the 1990s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic survey of centenarians in the world, has confirmed that her blood was taken and her DNA extracted.

[...] Several scientists I spoke to believe that Calment’s genome should be made available for study; but they don’t approve of the way Zak and De Grey have seemingly attempted to force the foundation’s hand. One consequence of promoting the switch theory, they point out, is that they have alienated family members whose own DNA might be crucial in understanding Calment’s.

Earlier this month, a Russian news agency announced that a woman who was purportedly 123 had died in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia. This is almost certainly impossible – even Novoselov thinks so; given her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50s. But the story underlines the need for gerontology to keep its house in order.

At the time of going to press, scientists from around the world were due to discuss the impact of the Calment affair on gerontology at a special meeting in Paris. As for her mortal remains, some think the Fondation Jean Dausset might be more open to collaboration as anti-ageing science evolves – but it is unlikely to be with De Grey. Despite telling me that Jeanne Calment does not figure high on his priorities, he plans to devote another issue of Rejuvenation Research to age validation and Calment next year.

In Arles, despite everything, the counter-investigation group are tickled by the idea that Jeanne Calment might have been a master fraudster. “I would really like the switch story to be true, like in the novels I love reading,” says Cécile Pellegrini. “I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true, she was really something!” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to teach the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what extra trouble would 5,000 years of existence bring, if we can’t get the record straight on a single ordinary lifetime? (MORE - details)

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