When Elizabeth Holmes was convicted for conspiring to commit fraud against investors earlier this year, the reactions of many constituted nothing short of glee – she ‘got what she deserved’.
Her fall from grace was met with such unambiguous vitriol, because demonising Holmes helps avoid accepting uncomfortable conclusions about industries that have long been upheld as the flagship achievements of Western rationality. Documentaries, reports, even scientific journals have obsessed over allegations that Holmes styled her image, including her distinctive voice, on Steve Jobs, and recruited high-profile board members like Henry Kissinger to ‘dupe’ investors. Elsewhere, her former teacher, Phyliss Gardner, and other self-appointed grand sceptics have poured scorn over Holmes’s character and mocked her ‘adolescent’ ambition.
In reality, there is nothing exceptional about Holmes – there will always be dramatic failures in an environment as single-minded as Silicon Valley. But the wrong conclusion would be that science and venture capitalism make for a dangerously self-confident cocktail that requires moderation; their combination has been responsible for some of the greatest achievements in technological history: from the microchip to the iPhone. Indeed, there is no reason why shareholders should be discouraged from supporting ventures propelling modern innovation. The lesson of the Theranos case is not that we cannot accept the risks in this structure – there was always going to be a ‘Theranos-style’ case in Silicon Valley, it’s just a shame for everyone involved that it was, in fact, Theranos.
In reality, instead of drawing up simplistic morality tales for scientists, there are two things we should really learn from the ‘con’. Firstly, as was made particularly evident from the response to the Holmes’s case, just how rife sexism remains in science. The comparisons of Holmes to Jobs from the very beginning of her journey only served to demean her, immediately suggesting anything she achieved could only be understood as derivative of a male forerunner. Similarly, the caricatures of her ‘deceptive’ qualities (perhaps subconsciously) drew on negative ‘feminine’ stereotypes to conceal other attributes like her extraordinary vision, complements generally reserved for men. Not that this should surprise us in an environment where leading practitioners have been documented to grade the same job application significantly lower purely because they believe it to be written by a woman.
In a more specific example, a shocking 2019 study even revealed that male principal investigators were granted on average $41,000 more for projects than their female counterparts by the NIH. Yet, even if Holmes’s treatment is unsurprising, it still serves as another timely reminder that the discipline that supposedly epitomises disinterested objectivity remains tainted by a current of flagrant sexism.
Perhaps controversially, the other lesson I would take from the Theranos case is, that the structure of Silicon Valley, for better and worse, remains essential if the technology industry is to continue to thrive. What Holmes hoped to realise was actually not only possible but also necessary and potentially revolutionary. As some of the earliest critics of the company inside the industry have insightfully pointed out, her conflation of optimism with reality was far from unusual for a tech start-up – otherwise her business would never have been propped up by investors as long as it was. If technological progress is to be achieved quickly, it is crucial investors continue to bankroll projects, even those they do not fully understand.
Though these ventures will often end in failure, the public will benefit from the rapid pace of breakthroughs it will enable. Theranos is ultimately a case highlighting the grey areas of the industry – an unfortunate by-product of the invariably driven environment that Silicon Valley produces.
In many respects, those who led the project can, in many respects, be viewed as essentially unfortunate, and cases like it are simply something we must come to accept. I’m certainly not arguing that Holmes is a good person: though I doubt her intentions were as malicious as has been suggested, she did commit wire fraud and put patients at risk. But the rest of Silicon Valley is at the best of times a necessary evil – and that perhaps is the uncomfortable truth so many commentators have preferred not to confront in viewing Theranos as nothing more than a ‘bad apple’ driven by a megalomaniac. After all, had the press focussed on learning from Holmes, rather than instinctively vilifying her, she may well have become the scientific anti-hero we needed to come to terms with our awkward realities.
Image: Lars Kienle via Unsplash