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I am reminded of https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/study-questions-ag... which lays out the case that the oldest woman on record, Jeanne Calment, was actually her daughter Yvonne who substituted herself for her mother in 1934 to avoid inheritance taxes.



Yes, there's an interesting philosophical question here about burdens of proof and Humean 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. Calment's claim is to be the oldest person out of billions of people, and she is the oldest by a truly extraordinary margin - no one has even come close to reaching her record before or since. So, which is more likely: that her claim however improbable (someone has to win the lottery) is completely correct (and she simply had some unique luck or mutation enabling her excess longevity), or that some highly unusual (but still more likely than '1 in tens of billions') circumstance (such as a complicated tax & insurance fraud) has led to a mistake? Indeed, how would one ever be sure of such a claim, short of the isotopic testing advocated in OP - which will, incidentally, stop working in the future?

(This is a general problem of priors and evidence and model uncertainty I think about occasionally: https://www.gwern.net/Modus https://www.gwern.net/Littlewood https://www.gwern.net/Mail-delivery#on-model-uncertainty https://www.gwern.net/Research-criticism https://www.gwern.net/Everything https://www.gwern.net/Turing-complete#on-seeing-through-and-... )


I really wouldn't say "nobody has come close" - she was 3 years older (122 vs 119) than the next oldest verified person, and around five years from most of the next top ten - most of them died at 117.

If she was, say, 132, I'd be more suspicious, but 122 sounds more reasonable for statistical outliers in an incredibly complex process.


The problem is, 3 years is a huge gap. If you look at all the other centenarians, they really do cluster within months of 117-119. And then you have Calment, who is the only outlier and who is like 30+ months past them all (and this is at a time of life where the annual mortality rate is like >50%). I plotted the age gap between the record holders once, and it looks basically like a flat line and then a single dot at the top of the graph corresponding to Calment. It may be a complex process, but at least for everyone else they die on schedule.


It's also worth pointing out that all the Abrahamic religions predict a 120-year limit, which prediction dates back thousands of years (Genesis 6:3). So regardless of your opinion of Abrahamic religions, there are a lot of people who would care a great deal about verifying those extra three years!


I can't speak for other religions, but in Judaism, the 120 is used in common practice to mean "long life". It's how long Moses lived.

The interpretation of the 120 years reference is more complicated. See https://www.aish.com/atr/120-Year-Lifespan.html


Why did Moses et al. take 40 years to move from Egypt to Canaan? (about 200 miles)



The other explanation is that God was saying he was going to bring the flood in 120 years.


>all the Abrahamic religions predict a 120-year limit

Do you have any more information on this? It sounds like interesting reading, but all I can find on Google is a link to this post.



There were exceptions after the flood. In the Book of Chronicles we have Jehoiada who died 130 years old. (2 Chr. 24:15)


According to Professor Gershwin:

Methus'lah lived nine hundred years Methus'lah lived nine hundred years But who calls dat livin' When no gal will give in To no man what's nine hundred years ?


Hinduism (Vedas) sets 120 years as human lifespan (provided it is lived according to dharma, transgressions reduce it a proportionally). That's where all other religions got it form.


That's very interesting if true. Can you give any reference? All I can find through search engines is some references to "about 100 years" and a single thread where someone mentions a 120 year prediction but then the rest of the thread is everyone else correcting that person.


You can see similar progression with world record mile runs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mile_run_world_record_progress...

Advancements in nutrition and health in combination with expectations about longevity might result in similar clustering followed by leaps.

Or not. Just saying that in the absence of a better fundamental understanding it's difficult to judge the strength of such circumstantial evidence. This recent paper should absolutely make us more skeptical of claims, but doesn't really shed much light on the heart of the matter--limits of longevity.


No, you don't. Look at the successive increments: they get tinier and tinier over time, exactly like one would expect from an increasingly professionalized global sport drawing from a talent pool of hundreds of millions of people. The only gaps or changes in the record which are remotely comparable to how much Calment exceeded and continues to exceed other oldest-people date back to the 1800s. Her record is in the completely wrong place.


Are you intimating that she learned a breakthrough technique in how to be old?


The history of advancements in the mile, the marathon, and other competitions seems to suggest that expectations about what's physically possible effect people's performance individually and generally--e.g. apparent endurance barriers.

A similar phenomenon might also exist in the context of longevity. If you get sick and weak at 70 but expect to live to the average age of 90 you might be more optimistic and committed to getting well. If you're sickly at 95 but expected to have already died you might give up the ghost sooner, so to speak.

Assuming that such a phenomenon exists in the context of longevity, I'm intimating that increased awareness about extreme longevity might have the effect of changing expectations and therefore advancing at the margins the extremes of longevity that some people attain. And if the phenomenon behaves like it does in sports, one would expect clustering followed by intermittent breaks to a new limit.

EDIT: To be clear, my main point isn't that this phenomenon exists but that given the possibility of its existence, and in tandem with the clear paucity of reliable, accurate data, the clustering we see might not be strong evidence of a hard barrier at ~117, and in particular not strong evidence that 122 is wildly improbable.


Given that anyone who has reached 117 has already dismissed their ailments with an "this would be the end for most people, but I'm not most people" stubbornness for a few decades, the argument implied by the original paper might be a better explanation for clustering rather than tapering at the high end (i.e. some people knowing that extremely old people live to 117-119 are willing to maintain the fraud of their relative's survival for that long, but are unwilling to risk or unable to succeed in taking it further...)


Could just be a breakthrough genetic mutation. The information posted here suggests that she also had unusually good health when young, and appeared younger than her daughter during the time period when both were alive.

Shame she had no surviving offspring, though it seems like her daughter didn't share her longevity anyway.


That was one of the many arguments in the original blog post IIRC - that if you look, at the rest of her family, they all died in their 50s/60s, making this hypothesis less likely than if they all tended to live in their 90s or some such.


I did some simulating of the Gompertz and it seems to support my intuition that Calment really is extreme: https://www.gwern.net/Order-statistics#sampling-gompertz-dis...


It ought to be possible to estimate the odds. We don’t know exactly how mortality changes with extreme age but there ought to be a pretty decent idea. How likely is it for a gap like this to appear?


It is possible even if unlikely. But if you are right that it is way too unlikely then the next alternative is that her age was exaggerated by 3 years. The theory that she "was her own daughter" I think is also possible but less likely than an (intended or unintended) error of 3 years somewhere.


No. 122 is not reasonable.


A suggestion that there may be a straightforward determination of facts via a blood test:

https://www.connexionfrance.com/French-news/DNA-blood-test-c...


A special case, though. Almost all centenarians wouldn't admit of such a solution - at least, until we start getting whole population pedigrees and then an inability to put a centenarian in the appropriate place becomes proof of error/fraud.


> that her claim however improbable (someone has to win the lottery) is completely correct

That line of reasoning does not apply here. Someone will win the lottery given enough time as the possibility space is bound - but there is no similar given guarantee that any human would ever live to age X if we have never observed a human living to age X before.


It does apply. Someone has to be the oldest. Someone has to be the oldest-person who has the largest gap. Regardless of how old that is, or how large the gap is, there will be at least one.


Ok, now I get the point you were trying to make.

The lottery parallel still doesn't feel the most apt; the definition you specify ensures that you will always have such a person (who lived to be the oldest, and who had the largest gap with the previous record holder) for n > 1 people. In that sense it is recurrent, unlike winning the lottery, which no one has until someone does (or winning in a raffle, where we know that there will aways be a winner due to the very definition of the game).

Regardless, none of that helps us determine any further how plausible Calment's statistically anomalous record is.


Someone has to be the oldest but the gap is an independent information. Mortality rate is constant at 0.5 per year for Supercentenarians. That gap is a massive outlier.


I just discovered this theory and I've been reading the sources, both in English and in French and frankly I'm not convinced. I don't find the photographic evidence presented in the paper particularly convincing. It really reads that the type of stuff you read on conspiracy theory forums, extrapolating wildly based on cherry-picked and very limited material. Besides I think the counter-argument that the people in Arles would've noticed if Fernand Calment suddenly started pretending that his daughter was his wife seems rather pertinent.

Apparently the theory gained traction thanks to this article summarizing the research: https://medium.com/@yurideigin/jaccuse-why-122-year-longevit... There are so many leaps of logic in there that it's hard for me to take seriously. I like in particular that they use this photo to argue that Yvonne was taller than Jeanne when their posture is completely different: https://miro.medium.com/max/1050/1*VBI9NRmZ58XcZXif_6cgzw.pn...

I think the best argument in favor of this theory is that apparently Jeanne asked for some family documents to be destroyed which does seem highly suspicious, although it's also quite plausible that there were some other family secrets she didn't want to be made public especially since at the time she was becoming famous worldwide.

Meanwhile Jeanne was apparently able to name old professors and maids of hers, things that her daughter would probably not have known or remembered.

I wouldn't rule the theory out entirely but it's rather flimsy at this point IMO.


I have no stake in this conspiracy either way. Just responding to a couple of things:

> Besides I think the counter-argument that the people in Arles would've noticed if Fernand Calment suddenly started pretending that his daughter was his wife seems rather pertinent.

This seems to assume a lot about the nature of their personal and social life. According to the Wikipedia article they didn't even live in the same apartment while they were married, so perhaps they weren't seen together in public.

> Meanwhile Jeanne was apparently able to name old professors and maids of hers, things that her daughter would probably not have known or remembered.

Really? If you're going to go assume someone else's identity with their cooperation and you're not stupid you're going to find out every little detail about their past life and remember it.


Arles is not a large city, there were about 30k people in the 30's. The Calments were a rich, notable family. I have a hard time imagining that nobody would've noticed the daughter becoming the wife, but I suppose it's not entirely implausible.

>Really? If you're going to go assume someone else's identity with their cooperation and you're not stupid you're going to find out every little detail about their past life and remember it.

The only motive they managed to dig up for the potential daughter/mother swap was to avoid inheritance taxes. Would they really go through all that effort for something like that? Would the administration really start asking such minute details about Jeanne's life to make sure that it was indeed her? How would they have even known to ask for something like that? It wasn't some young jew trying to evade the Gestapo during WW2, it was (presumably) a rich family trying to avoid taxes. It doesn't really add up to me. Actually it sounds like a world of troubles to avoid paying taxes to me, but who knows, rich people are weird.

More generally I agree that her age is extremely anomalous and as such it warrants some skepticism and there might be something hiding underneath all that. Still, at this point we have decades of researchers who have investigated her case and found nothing weird, and then these two Russian researchers who built this theory comparing old photographs and making Facebook polls asking their friends who they thought looked more like Jeanne on the pictures (it's literally in their paper, I'm not making it up).

It's possible that it's true but the evidence so far is extremely circumstantial and rather weak. The most compelling argument is effectively "people don't live to 122, so something fishy is going on". I suppose it's worth considering.


> It doesn't really add up to me. Actually it sounds like a world of troubles to avoid paying taxes to me, but who knows, rich people are weird.

I'm not commenting on the plausibility of this woman assuming her mother's identity in 1934 to avoid taxation.

I'm pointing out that the comment about her supposed daughter knowing the name of her mother's math teacher doesn't make any sense as a refutation of those events if we otherwise assume them to be plausible, which that part of the Smithsonian article does.

Yes she's not fleeing the Gestapo, she's allegedly trying to avoid paying taxes. Are we to think that someone who's otherwise keeping up such a ruse wouldn't have thought that it could unravel because she doesn't know the name of her high school's best friend's sister's boyfriend or whatever?

Even if she hadn't thought about that at the time this quote is based on an interview she had in 1990 when she was 115 years old. At that point she'd have had a lot of time to consider that maybe her tax fraud was going to destroy most of her assets and possibly land her in prison, so maybe doing some research on her mother's life was in order.


The husband of Jeanne Calment was a rich merchant, a very social job, highly exposed in a small city. That not a single person in the city would have noticed a switch between the 2 especially during the funeral of her daughter is very very unlikely.

The research of the 2 Russian guys who don’t speak a single word of french is full of very basic error and is rather of the level of the usual conspiracy theory (the city knew but everybody remained silent)


To give you an idea of the mindset of some people, and for how much they are ready to lie and deceive, I have this gem:

  https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/postcard-from-the-edge-of-reason-pb7rnswfc8b


To give you an idea of the mindset of some people, read about all the theories about who Shakespeare "really" was, particularly Mark Twain's.


> and then these two Russian researchers

Fix: and then these two researchers


I only included the nationality because I thought it was relevant here for purely geographical and possibly linguistical reasons: they appear to be working from quite far away and not using primary sources for a lot of their work.


then say that. it’s more clear. no need to use nationality as a roundabout shorthand.


tbf the "people would have noticed if Fernand Calment suddenly started pretending his daughter his was his wife" counter argument isn't that strong, since the average Arles resident had absolutely no reason to know which one was supposed to be dead on the census and they weren't exactly socialites (convincing relatives that would know the difference and might have stood to inherit might be trickier.). That's actually where the conspiracy theorists' arguments - at least superficially - make a lot of sense: censuses recorded Jeanne as living next door to Yvonne's husband and then moving in with him (probably not unusual for the time, but also not logistically difficult to maintain one family unit in the eyes of the census takers and officials and another in the eyes of close friends). And the census before Yvonne's recorded death somehow failed to record either of Yvonne or Jeanne but recorded two copies of Jeanne's mother-in-law - who then had a death certificate issued a few days later, another detail which apparently didn't raise any eyebrows in Arles...

Again, I find anecdotes about Jeanne apparently being able to name old professors Yvonne wouldn't have personally met but might have heard tales of whilst also getting some other events wrong and occasionally mixing up things her father owned with things her husband owned rather uncompelling (much like I find the conspiracy versions' photographic comparisons and weird obsession with "hunter's gait" uncompelling). I think the big hole in the conspiracy theory is "why not just pretend they were both still alive"?

Both sides' evidence is pretty flimsy considering the extraordinary claims standard we should be using for both: there's one way for anyone that cares enough to settle the question and that's DNA


I think the big hole in the conspiracy theory is "why not just pretend they were both still alive"?

One of them was definitely dead and inheritance taxes were very high at the time. There's a good motive for the daughter to claim to be her mother.

It also explains why the son-in-law happily lived with his departed wife's "mother" for the next several decades (she was actually his wife pretending to be the mother).

Quite frankly, there's a lot of silly logic required to justify a lot of bizarre things Jeanne did after this census, which all make sense if Jeanne was really Yvonne by then. Occam's razor: is it more likely that the mother kept calling her husband her father for a few decades in casual conversation and lived with her son-in-law but not her husband, or is it more likely the daughter kept slipping up while trying to maintain the facade and lived with her own husband?


I'm not sure one of them definitely being dead would necessarily have needed to be known to anybody not knowing which one anyway, unless there were separate financial motivations for not just concealing the fact of the death altogether and telling everyone that Jeanne was having a fantastic time convalescing in the countryside...


This is a better summary: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/rej.2018.2167

After the initial report was published a number of let's say "conspiracy theorists" made their own articles and tried to find new things sometimes with doubtful methods.

The original research doesn't claim that any particular piece of argument in itself is conclusive but that combined together, it creates a corpus of oddities that amount to a strong doubt.

> Meanwhile Jeanne was apparently able to name old professors and maids of hers, things that her daughter would probably not have known or remembered.

In particular she made several "mistakes" when relating the names of people living with them, including the maid as you mention, which would be consistent with a maid that accompanied Yvonne to school but not Jeanne. See "Whom did Marthe Fousson accompany to school?" from the link above. Similarly for the piano teacher.


How old was she when she made these mistakes? Is conflating two different maids she hired 80 years ago a reasonable mistake for her to make? I would say definitely.


Yes, she was already very old, this is acknowledged in the report that it can be a factor to the mistakes. It's not about a single mistake though but a combination of them, that are all consistent with the identity switch and not consistent with the single identity. For this particular item, it's not conflating two maids, she was asked who accompanied her to school and volunteered a name that Yvonne went to school with.




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