June 13, 2018

Elizabeth Holmes

Elizabeth Holmes

Source: Max Morse for TechCrunch

Yet, as far as I can tell from Bad Blood—and it’s such a good read that I didn’t skim—Holmes’ pitches instead tended to wander off into her fear of needles. Her phobic-yet-Nietzschean motto was: “I am not afraid of anything—except needles.”

Nobody seems to have pointed out to her that an aversion to the sight of blood might be the wrong trait in a CEO planning on revolutionizing blood testing.

Personally, I’m not crazy about seeing my blood either. So when I’m getting my blood drawn, I tend to look away. But that squeamishness also makes me hesitant to believe that I know enough about blood to deserve to make billions by replacing all the phlebotomists in the world with a compact robot device that will prick fingers to remove just a tiny drop of blood.

Further, the difference in my blood volume drained seems immaterial compared with both systems needing to punch a hole in my skin. If they must take a blood sample, then they ought to take enough blood to make sure they can do all their various tests properly.

I’ve also never understood Holmes’ sales pitch about why getting stabbed in a finger, which I use constantly (such as, at this moment, for typing), is better than in an inner elbow, a part of my anatomy for which I don’t find much use.

Unfortunately, her personality seemed to dissuade skeptical questioning. The senior statesmen she recruited to Theranos’ board apparently viewed her as both a tough cookie who could build a huge company and as a soft flower too delicate to be doubted.

Nor does Bad Blood coherently explain what Ms. Holmes’ august facilitators thought she was going to accomplish.

So here’s my guess: Scanning a complete genome cost billions as recently as the Human Genome Project at the turn of the century. But putting DNA analysis on silicon chips set off a radical drop in prices a decade ago.

So if you know as much about science or industry as, say, a secretary of state, it wouldn’t seem ridiculous to assume that if they can analyze DNA with computer chips, why can’t Our Elizabeth analyze blood? After all, the nonagenarian board members could remember when they had never even heard of DNA, but blood has been around forever, so how complicated could it be?

Unexpectedly for people who don’t know much about blood, such as Henry Kissinger, myself, and Elizabeth Holmes, building a blood lab-on-a-chip turns out to be considerably more complex than building a DNA lab-on-a-chip.

Some other lessons from the Theranos debacle involve the plausibility of conspiracy theorizing. After all, the cast of famous operators who played supporting roles in the Elizabeth Holmes saga makes it sound like this, if anything, ought to be a conspiracy of some sort, right?

And yet the tale turned out to be one couple hoodwinking the Bohemian Grove members.

Now, we are often told that conspiracy theories couldn’t possibly be true because no organization could keep a secret for very long (although Britain’s vast Bletchley Park code-breaking project during WWII was kept confidential until the 1970s.)

And yet Theranos had been in business for twelve years and had fired hundreds of disillusioned employees before anybody published a debunking article.

No, the real weakness in most conspiracy theories is the sheer quantity of elite ineptitude. It turns out that, unlike in 1984 or Brave New World, there is no Inner Party of Machiavellian but informed insiders who actually know what’s going on. Hence, even the guys who won the Cold War were made fools of by a megalomaniacal young lady with the winds of the zeitgeist at her back.

Perhaps there’s mostly just the Peter Principle—everyone rises to his or her level of incompetence and stays there—all the way down.

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