]\Today’s topic is “lies”. We will start with the cases of Elizabeth Holmes and Ramesh (“Sunny”) Balwani, of Theranos. As the world knows, Theranos was not what it was represented to be – John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal and his extraordinary demolition job on them showed that beyond doubt. But remember, those articles were devastating because they told the truth about what was happening. In these times, it’s important to remember that truth exists, that it exists outside our opinions, and that no amount of spin, hype, and sheer bull keeps it from being the truth.
That’s worth remembering as you see the clip below. This is Holmes on CNBC, after the accusations against Theranos had already started to come out. And what you’re seeing is a firehose of falsehoods, knowingly delivered straight into the camera:
Compare what’s being said with what’s in the SEC’s recently released complaint against Holmes. She would bring in potential investors and at one point in the pitch have a drop of their blood taken for analysis in a Theranos machine – but that’s not what was used to analyze it. Because it couldn’t. As Carreyrou reported, the company was reliant on existing third-party instruments, because its own hardware never, ever became capable enough to live up to the company’s public statements about it. Holmes stated, over and over, that Theranos was able to run tests covering over 1,000 Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes: they could actually run twelve. Holmes and the company explicitly stated that they bought no technology from third parties.
Investors would also get a binder of slides, documents, and endorsements, featuring (among other things) letters with the logos of various prominent pharmaceutical companies about their clinical work with Theranos. Those companies did not write the letters – Theranos employees did, pasting in the corporate logos. Investors were told that Theranos had worked extensively with the Department of Defense, and that their machines had been deployed on medevac helicopters in Afghanistan, which was a total fabrication. Financial projections showed them rolling out their machines to hundreds of Walgreens stores, when Holmes knew, in detail, that Walgreens was already having serious doubts about dealing with Theranos at all.
It goes on. But it’s worth keeping all this in mind as you watch that interview – skip through it, and you’ll see Elizabeth Holmes clearly and confidently lying, utterly misrepresenting the facts of the situation, smiling, and then utterly misrepresenting them some more. With no apparent qualm and no particular affect other than that of a person making her righteous case with the facts on her side. It’s worth thinking about. Theranos raised more than $700 million from private investors through this sort of behavior. Most of us do not have anywhere near the level of nerve (among other qualities) needed to pull something like this off, nor would it occur to us to do so in the first place. But there are people among us who do it cheerful, as a character in H. G. Wells says about a similar opportunity for human predation.
Update: I forgot to mention another point that I was thinking about. As the SEC complaint notes, Holmes (but not Balwani) has already agreed to penalties for their behavior – financial and operational ones. I have no desire to defend Martin Shkreli at all, but the fact that he is starting a seven-year prison sentence while Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani are walking around freely seems like an injustice. And no, I’m not suggesting letting Shkreli out. The other solution.
That may still be an option, though: the SEC has civil enforcement authority, but criminal prosecution is another matter. . .
Now to another set of lies, and that will be enough for one morning. As many will have seen, the British government has expelled a list of Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning case. (I am no particular admirer of Theresa May, but her statement about this incident did her and the UK credit). The nerve agent identified is a known Russian-developed “Novichok” compound, a newer variety of organophosphorus poison. While it is certainly possible that such a compound could have been produced by a third party, it would require a very dedicated one indeed, since no details of the structures or synthesis have ever appeared in the scientific literature. The chemistry of the organophosphorus nerve agents is not particularly difficult (as was remarked in that earlier post), but that’s if you already know the optimized reactions and conditions. Doing route discovery on latest-generation nerve agents is not a casual undertaking, and anyone trying it outside of a very well-equipped lab setting is likely to die in the attempt.
Stuart Cantrill’s Twitter feed this morning put me on to this exchange about the identification of the compound. Apparently there are a number of people saying that there’s no way that this compound could have been identified without a reference sample, there’s no proof that these are associated with Russian chemical warfare research, etc. Needless to say, I side with Clyde Davies in that Twitter exchange linked above. The evidence is extremely strong that this was a Russian operation, and the often-flippant response of the Russian authorities to the entire case does nothing to dispel that.
I have already had comments on the earlier post throwing doubt and uncertainly about this case (and the earlier Litvinenko assassination, even). More of these may accrue to this post as well. Some of these may in fact be honest doubts from extremely skeptical onlookers – but others are surely lies. Smiling, straight-into-the-camera-lens lies.