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Thoughts on Theranos

Posted by Jew from Jersey
23 January 2019

Critics of GWB used to say that he couldn’t even play the president on tv. During the eight years when BHO was president, I used to think: he may have no idea what he’s doing or saying, but he sure does know how to play the president on tv. Sometimes I think we should have two sets of leaders: one who actually make decisions and one who play act it on tv. And maybe the same goes for scientists and CEOs. Real science and business is too dreary and laborious and often leads to unpopular results. Theranos may have never had a working product, but Elizabeth Holmes sure knew how to play the brilliant scientist and CEO on tv. She claimed her company had made or was about to make a scientific breakthrough that would allow a full assay of blood tests from a single drop of blood. But they had made no such breakthrough and could provide no such service. They were using off-the-shelf blood analysis equipment made by other companies designed to conduct tests on larger quantities of blood. The only “breakthrough” Theranos ever had was to dilute their one-drop blood samples with saline solution so it would fill up the test tubes. It’s essentially the 21st century equivalent of turning lead into gold by taking a piece of lead and painting it with gold varnish. Yet her company grew to the market capitalization of a large cap corporation. And for the first ten years of her adult life, EH was treated as the second coming of Einstein reborn as the messiah.

The appeal of EH was of course that she was young, female, a college dropout, suave, and talked constantly of “changing the world.” She symbolized everything that was new, trendy, cutting edge, and hopeful. Her claimed scientific breakthrough was based on nothing more than the hope that it would one day materialize. But while she may have been a failure in the lab, she was not devoid of talent. The bulk of her early investors were some of the oldest, most conservative, most staid, and if nothing else, some of the shrewdest men in America: Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Rupert Murdoch. Men like this invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Theranos. I’m not saying any of these men were people I particularly admired or whose judgement I particularly trusted, but you would think at least they were not fools with their own money and in particular that that they were not easily taken in by fads. But they were. In fact, EH seems to have made a specialty out of targeting precisely this type of worldly-wise grey curmudgeon. And I don’t believe they did it for the money. Underneath their world-weary and too-wise facades, they had no faith in themselves or in any of the wisdom and truths they pretended to. Even those who completely disagreed with and disapproved of them would have assumed that they were at least level-headed, serious men, but EH could see right through them. They were like heroin addicts.

I don’t think they minded losing the money. They probably would have given her more, if only the hoax had not been revealed to the public. Like John Profumo before them, they needed to be associated with something that was young and blond and female and the opposite of their stately and unglamorous selves. And like Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies before her, EH saw that all their wealth and gravitas was nothing but a burden to them. They’d give it up in a heartbeat for what they really wanted. But of course it wasn’t sex in this case, but trendiness: scientific breakthrough, dropout genius female CEO, and above all “changing the world.” If EH had a dime now for every time she said “changing the world” in the last 15 years, she’d still be rich today.

If the titans of American business and statecraft have so little belief in themselves and the principles they have spent their lives espousing, I don’t know who can still believe them. They’re like outwardly pious priests who are not only secretly atheists but who are burning with the desire to participate in pagan rituals and violate every vow they’ve taken. Of course, this is a free country and they have every right to do so. But for young people today, seeing how the powerful and privileged regard their own institutions and traditions, would you be willing to invest in and emulate them? Would you risk your life in the armed forces to protect this way of life?

Politicized trendiness is the most powerful force in America. It can turn an off-the-shelf blood analyzer filled with salt water into a magic world-change machine that raises billions of dollars. It is a more expensive version of the reassembled clock radio brought to school by young Ahmed Mohamed in 2015. His teacher thought it was a bomb, and called the police. This instance of racial profiling inspired powerful American individuals and institutions, including the president of the United States, Google, and NASA to meet with him personally and declare him a genius... all on the basis of an off-the-shelf clock radio with some exposed wires hanging out the back. Like, EH, his efforts in the technical field were trivial and useless, but he knew how to deal the political equivalent of heroin to those in a position to boost his status. Like heroin addicts running to throw their money at dealers who give them packets of nothing but baking soda, these once credible entities flushed their own judgment down the toilet in a desperate bid to associate themselves with something hipper, trending, politically victimized, and younger. For young and unprivileged people today, would you look to your elders and betters for guidance and example when they’re looking back enviously at you with the eyes of self-destroying addicts? Would you work hard, save, invest, study, accumulate skill, build a future, follow in their footsteps... when they’re telling you they would throw it all away for a chance to have their picture taken with you while you have done nothing?

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