How America's "Culture of Experts" Results In Dangerous Phonies Like Elizabeth Holmes and Dennis Ross

Politics Features Theranos
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How America's "Culture of Experts" Results In Dangerous Phonies Like Elizabeth Holmes and Dennis Ross

We love experts. But it keeps getting us into trouble. Our world decided at some point, long before Twitter ever existed, to give some people the blue checkmark of True Expert. But like True Detective, the True Expert could not live up to his or her promise, and this explains much about our culture.

Case in point: earlier this month, a feature ran in Vanity Fair about the 2015 downfall of the Silicon Valley company Theranos and its CEO/founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos—whose name in no way reminds me of Thanatos, the Greek personification of death—is a health-tech corporation from Palo Alto, and is currently under investigation by the feds for the alleged crime of gigantic lies. The company claimed it was building a machine that could do deep diagnosis on finger-prick worth of blood. No needles needed. Of course, this turned out to be impossible.

Despite that, the startup was a tech darling, which tells you a lot about tech and its darlings. In his article, Nick Bilton weaves together three separate yet equally important narratives. First, the disturbing credulity of the Valley and business press. Second, the cult world of Theranos. Third, and most memorably, Bilton recounts the backstory of the perpetually unblinking Holmes, who had her security detail call her “Eagle 1,” and whose entire life and persona seems to have been constructed to deliberately imitate Steve Jobs, including high-functioning narcissism and taking advantage of a genial bearded man. The most striking aspect of the comedy of errors is how much credit Holmes was given on a wing, a prayer, and a patter. When asked how the blood-test device worked, she responded:

… a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.

“Change the world” was a favorite phrase of hers, even as she struggled publicly with a “limited ability to explain how it all worked.” What Homes did have, according to Bilton, was “a preternaturally good story … Holmes had indeed mastered the Silicon Valley game.” She scored a net worth of four billion dollars.

Two days after the Bilton piece, the Washington Post published a breathtaking article about Saudi Arabia’s recent, not-at-all-superficial changes. The piece, by noted Beltway ornament Dennis Ross, was a long, laudatory hymn to the glory and power of the fundamentalist regime and its quirky habit of beheading its own citizens. Not everyone was pleased with Ross’ imagination, although it was universally admitted to be a powerful instrument, especially when paid adequately.

The Ross piece quickly became famous on the web for its nausea-inducing properties, particularly with sentences like:

When we asked how those in the bureaucracy were reacting to the new demands, we heard that not everyone is happy but that younger, junior officials now feel they are part of something important and have embraced the new reality.

Reader, imagine the corrupt editor of your local newspaper writing a long defensive editorial about the mayor’s jackass son, and you have the essence of the piece. What are Ross’ qualifications for writing this bit ad copy?

Why, President Obama brought him onboard as a special assistant, and before that he served under Bush I and Clinton I, and before that Ross cycled through any number of dreadful think tanks, clamoring for the invasion of various parts of the Middle East.

In other words, Ross is an important American, just like Elizabeth Holmes. Ross is an expert in the Middle East, just as Holmes is an expert in tech, particularly the parts of tech where you “change the world” with other people’s money. Even given Ross’ track record and longer experience, to me he is still second fiddle next to Eagle 1.

How did these people have jobs? How did they keep them for so long? What Holmes wanted was simply undoable. Ross, who co-signed two Project for a New American Century letters supporting the invasion of Iraq, has been wrong about most everything he’s ever touched. And this is just from two weeks in a particularly manic period in our national life. We could pick any week at random and see similar results.

Why is this allowed?

THAT’S NOT MY DEPARTMENT, SAYS WERNHER VON BRAUN

The case of Holmes and of Ross is not their story alone, but the story of politics, and the story of science, and their role in our society. Both of these roles were altered in response to trauma. This cleared a path for the Holmes and Rosses to reign supreme. To see where the Age of the Resume really dawned, we have to go back to the Sixties.

The British documentarian Adam Curtis argues that we changed our view of science after the war. “There were only about a thousand physicists in the world in 1895,” wrote Richard Rhodes, in Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb. “Work in the new scientific discipline was centered in Western Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.” The Manhattan Project changed that. After Los Alamos and the G.I. Bill, science went from being the pursuit of weird wealthy gentlemen to a government-funded project. The whitecoats gave us the bomb, but aside from that slender buzzkill, science was widely seen as a progressive force in the world. We were on an unstoppable march to the future.

Science lives in two worlds, Curtis argues. The first is the distant, professional one where actual research is done, away from the public eye. This is the domain of people such as David Baltimore, a biologist and publisher of 680 peer-reviewed articles, who won the Nobel at age thirty-eight for discoveries relating to the interaction between tumor viruses and cell genetic materials.

The second is the immediate, day-to-day world, where science has a role in the popular imagination. It is the job of mathemagicians such as Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson to mind the gap and assure the rest of us science isn’t breeding manimals for rowdy gladiatorial combat.

However, this role, as Curtis has pointed out, has changed. Where once science was an enterprise which seemed to point at a boundless future driven by rational investigation, we have moved ever-so-smoothly into public science as an enterprise which primarily deals in risk calculation. This happened in response to certain changes in our national life.

Science differs from other kinds of human endeavor in that its knowledge is always improving, being perfected. It’s a pyramid that’s still being built. And so discovery is tied up in the problems of human society. Yet science became one of these problems when we discovered DDT was killing wildlife, and after our bad breakup with nuclear power at Three Mile Island. “What emerged instead,” Curtis writes, “was a powerful distrust of the idea that science and technocratic experts could make a better world.”

It happened in politics too. Nineteenth-century progressivism wanted to take politics away from Tammany Hall and have a government run by smart guys — experts. This led to an alliance of the technocrats, politicians, and business class in this country.

But the coalition fell apart in the Sixties and Seventies. Long-term shared prosperity meant mass education, and an increase in democracy across all walks of American life. This threatened the ruling order, to put it mildly. On the cultural front, this meant African-Americans, Latinos, women, and the LGBT community fighting for their place in the sun. On the economic side, this meant unions and the poor wanting an equitable slice of the pie, precisely at the time when U.S. businesses decided to shaft the American worker and move shop overseas.

The alliance fractured. Public service had been once been a career path for doughy urban operators, smooth-tongued hillbillies, bored lawyers, Eastern old money, and bland college boys. After the Seventies, with both parties funded by soft money, the landscape tipped upside down. Politics became the realm of sleek political professionals in a revolving door of corporate-backed think tanks. Wall Street and Washington got over their mutual animosity. The career path of any long-term Washington insider is a pretty standard litany of think tank to public position back to think tank, depending on whose party is in power. When Obama appointed the walking resume of Merrick Garland, he showed his faith in this system. Garland and Ross are on the same spectrum; Ross is just the more loathsome end.

Curtis also mentions Ulrich Beck, a political scientist who wrote a book, Risk Society, right before Chernobyl cut loose. Science, Beck said, had manufactured risks. No longer would our bad news come from fire, flood, and quake. Now humans were the source of existential danger to civilization. In the past, politicians had tried to create a more equitable order, and science had dreamed of alien skies, but this would all change. The society Beck foresaw was negative and defensive, less concerned with doing good than preventing bad. He wrote:

The dream of the old society is that everyone wants and ought to have a share of the pie. The utopia of the risk society is that everyone should be spared from poisoning.

And business in the risk society is very, very profitable. Calming anxiety is a growing business. Behind the most innocuous “25 Ways to Please Your Man” feature lurks the sneaking anxiety that there are hundreds of ways your man will not be pleased.

SAFE IN HARBOR

We still have experts today. They didn’t go away. But their role has changed. We used to give limited power to experts to do the things we couldn’t, like trusting lawyers to advocate for cases on our behalf, or believing Maury to tell us who the father is. This is still practiced on the smaller scale, for doctors, lawyers, and the like.

But at a more influential level, at the level where all of society can be affected, our experts have become more like our jailers than our guides. If the expert hero of the Sixties was the astronaut, then the expert icon of the Nineties was the dot-com millionaire, who peddled hermetically-sealed consumer comfort in a black turtleneck.

The expert was no longer a voyager following knowledge like a sinking star. Rather, the expert became a kind of a paranoid uncle or aunt who wanted to keep you from rough edges. For this is exactly the kind of expert opinion we treasure nowadays, in every walk of life, from politics to our Facebook feed.

Mars stopped being a place I thought America would go to, and became a set of photographs I could see in TIME Magazine, in between full-page ads for Cialis and Roth IRAs. It was all consumable, in other words, and consumption takes the edge off anxiety. This all happened at the same time America began its slow shift from a flawed democracy to a fake meritocracy.

That these two events coincided was a happy circumstance: if nowadays the business of the expert in politics or science or finance is not to do special things, but to provide special consumption, then what is required is the illusion, not the reality, of competence. And a fake meritocracy is well-suited to provide that illusion, in great numbers, across every field. For though actual, real competence is difficult and rare, illusory competence can be manufactured: it is simple as the word “resume.”

Thus we arrive at Holmes. We must not view her as a mistake; she is exactly what this system is designed to create. Theranos’ blood-testing machine was not a failure at all. A fake meritocracy produces a fake resume with a fake Steve Jobs presenting a fake device doing a fake job. Expecting otherwise is like complaining the actor playing Hamlet doesn’t really stab the actor playing Polonius: what do you expect? We built the set ourselves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Did this apple really fall far from the tree?

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