Sunday, December 20, 2015


This New York Times article about Theranos is interesting in a couple ways. For one thing, it's an example of how to write journalism that is scrupulously neutral in sentence-by-sentence wording and yet obviously slanted in total effect. The narrative has turned against Theranos, so even "objective" outlets will have their thumb on the scale. But the fact that the narrative was ever in favor of Theranos says a lot about our fascination with the idea of the wunderkind, and about how someone can be seen as an innovative genius while reaping the benefits of a life of privilege. The wealthy are evidently so eager to get behind the next Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg that they'll back any bright kid with an eye-catching idea... and the connections to get their attention in the first place.

There's no denying that Elizabeth Holmes is intelligent (although the markers of intelligence in our society are not entirely separate from social and financial privilege either). But there's something very contemporary about the idea that a person with a bright scientific idea should immediately become the CEO of a company built around that idea. It suggests the extent to which high finance has little connection to reality. Money isn't real to begin with, and amounts in the millions and billions are especially unreal; for those with the right connections, they're self-generating, feeding on air as chameleons were once thought to. It's taken over a decade for it to be noticed that Theranos doesn't actually do much of anything.

Holmes might yet surprise us all and produce results to match the image. Or she might turn out to be in over her turtleneck. Either way, the idea that because she had a sharp scientific mind she should run a major business reflects the common delusion that intelligence is infinitely transmutable. It's the same notion that puts Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker in the public eye, pontificating on subjects about which they know nothing because they happen to be very good in certain highly-specialized areas. But scientific specialists don't automatically make good public intellectuals, and it seems that they don't make good CEOs either.

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