Don’t Get Theranosed: Detecting Bioscience BS
Originally published 4/30/2019
The biggest lesson I took away from the Theranos scandal was the shocking lack of due diligence from multiple quarters. It’s easy to see why the company’s celebrity Board of Directors didn’t see the scam unfolding. One wouldn’t expect non-scientists like George Schultz and Henry Kissinger to be asking technical questions at quarterly board meetings. But the representatives of Walgreens and Safeway, who entered into multi-million dollar deals with the company, should have exercised more caution. Were they, too, mesmerized by Elizabeth Holmes’s comely blonde hair, black turtleneck, and deeply resonant voice, or did an overzealous “fear of missing out” lead them astray?
Put another way, how come these folks didn’t have their BS detectors engaged? Could they not readily tell that they were being lied to when the core technology, the Edison blood analyzer, could never be demonstrated to work? As a public service, I offer below a new version of an old game called “BS Bingo.” Not familiar with this? Legend has it that the game was designed decades ago to keep audience members awake during boring meetings and conference calls. It consists of a 5 x 5 Bingo grid of current industry buzzwords. The ‘90s version included “synergy,” “win-win,” “think outside of the box,” “value added,” and “proactive.” Every time a presenter uses one of these terms, you check it off on your grid. If you successfully checked off a full row of terms, you were supposed to yell out “Bullsh*t” and bring the meeting to a thankfully foreshortened conclusion.
Below is my 2019 version. Finding new examples of pharma/business jargon to populate the playing grid was not a challenging exercise. These words and phrases litter my daily emails via an unending series of company press releases and PowerPoints. Some organizations are particularly addicted to this bloated vocabulary, bringing to mind E.B White’s observation that “A good many of the special words of business seem designed more to express the user’s dreams than to express a precise meaning.”
Feel free to adapt this version of BS Bingo for your own industry and replace the expressions here with more appropriate terms. Let me know if there are any particularly egregious “hot” terms that I may have missed. Playing BS Bingo may help you withstand those tiresome presentations that threaten to drain the lifeblood from your soul and the money from your wallet.
Imagine attending a business pitch in the Tenth Circle of Hell, a phantasmagorical place just outside of Silicon Valley where suspect corporations dwell. It’s there that spokespeople learn to convincingly spew trendy terms, such as those in the matrix above, like so much volcanic ash. Listening to their nonsense would crush my spirit, but I imagine some ignorant souls trapped in the Tenth Circle might respond enthusiastically to the following remarks:
“Today I’d like to describe the highly disruptive, value-based approach our organization is bringing to the fields of precision medicine and digital health. We’re robotically mining the dataverse using custom designed AI nanobots. Our goal is to establish 3rd and 4th generation engineered antibodies and siRNA molecules that can be directed to reprogram dormant cancer stem cells as well as targeting superbugs. This approach takes full advantage of our three key organizational silos: the tumor microenvironment, epigenetic manipulation, and our world-class collection of individual microbiomes. We’ll scour our newly identified neo-antigens using the T-regs that already exist within our targeted protein degradation platforms to create unique and useful CAR-T cells. Gene editing using CRISPR/cas9 will then enable us to engineer the proper bi-specific antibodies, which will allow our patients to achieve durably complete responses. Our sophisticated blockchain approach employs real-world evidence to develop our products. This will no doubt contribute to their affordability. We believe our game-changing approach will eliminate the middleman and thereby end the unsustainable drug-pricing excesses we’ve all witnessed in recent years.”
To amuse yourself, try reading the above paragraph to your co-workers (or Board of Directors) the next time it’s your turn to chair a meeting, then gauge their responses. Hopefully at least a few people will ask what the heck you’re talking about. Eyes ought to glaze over, and quizzical looks should abound. If not, assume that your audience members have either already been Theranosed, or they’ve succumbed to The Peter Principle and achieved their highest level of corporate incompetence. Either way, it’s a clear sign from Hell that it’s time for you to look for a new job. With facts no longer mattering in our modern day world, you’re free to take on any new challenge your heart desires. I’m planning on genetically engineering a new line of rapidly growing vines to cover the political ugliness of Trump’s Wall on our Southern border. Architects do this to cover their monstrosities, so it should work well here. Anyone ready to invest in my project? Keep an eye out for me at your next venture fund investment event. I’ll be the only person not wearing a black turtleneck.
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