Posted: October 1st, 2023
Accepting Elizabeth Holmes’ bullshit to becoming a whistleblower
Writing Assignment #1
In our unit on charisma, we’ve learned about how bullshit works: it relies upon
theatrical performances, falsified data, and other strategies that a person can use in
order to impress and influence others. We’ve also started to consider how to object to
bullshit— how to become skeptical and how to call out bullshit.
The lesson for Week three has introduced us to Descartes’s approach to knowledge—
and it’s a famous, influential, and actually very radical approach. Descartes wants each
of us to find a way to question everything (from our senses all the way to “evil geniuses”
who are misleading us) in order to rebuild all knowledge, from the ground up.
It’s important to know that there is another way to understand knowledge, called
empiricism; it’s an approach that wants to rely on the senses (on observation, on
experimental methods) in order to figure out what’s true, correct, and valid.
This writing assignment is your chance to think more about the film and about your own
relationship to epistemology (by now you should be quite clear what this key term
refers to). The task is simple: read over this prompt and write a minimum-500-word
response in which you address the following main questions.
Here’s the prompt. It begins with a quotation from the film, The Inventor. This quotation
is from one of the whistleblowers, Tyler. He explained:
“When I think of Theranos, I really think there were two entirely different worlds.
There was the carpeted world, and there was the tiled world. And the carpeted
world was where Elizabeth was a goddess. Everyone almost worshipped the
ground she walked on. She could do no wrong, she was the next Steve Jobs.
Theranos was changing the world. And then you go into the tiled world, and
nothing works. We’re on a sinking ship. Everything’s a lie. Reconciling the
differences between those two worlds was really hard for me to do. I knew
Elizabeth personally from all of these interactions through my family, so I really
trusted her, I believed in her. I would leave the tiled world thinking oh man,
sinking ship. And I would have one conversation with Elizabeth, and I would be
so motivated to go back and work, and I felt like I was changing the world again.
I would go back into the tiled world and think what just happened? I wanted it
to be true so badly. I was working with these devices every single day, and she
could still somehow convince me…. You start to think that you’re the one who’s
crazy, since everyone else thinks she’s great…. At the time, she was this iconic
figure… this Steve Jobs imitation. Sometimes you have to think, maybe
It’s the final line that I’d like you to focus on in your writing assignment. Tyler’s
describing one of those moments that I asked you to think about and reflect upon in the
lesson on Descartes— a moment in which knowledge itself starts to appear suspect,
uncertain, in need of questioning. “Sometimes, you have to think, maybe you’re wrong.”
This is such a great Cartesian statement. It gets right to the essence of why doubting
can be such an important activity.
The question for you to write about is: according to your own interpretation of the
film, what do you think made it possible for Tyler to transform from someone who
accepted the bullshit of Elizabeth Holmes into someone who was so willing to call
out the bullshit that he became a whistleblower? After all, most of his co-workers
simply went along with the bullshit, never turning themselves into Cartesian skeptics.
What was it, in the case of Tyler (you could also think about Erica, the other
whistleblower, here), that led him to doubt and also to actually articulate his doubts
It might feel like 500 words is a lot, and so as a way to do this assignment, it might be
useful (and also interesting) to include some of your own thinking about doubt,
knowledge, bullshit, and charisma. t would be fantastic, for example, if you explain in
this assignment whether you are more of a Cartesian thinker or more of an empiricist.
There’s no need to answer that, however, if you’re not quite sure, yourself and you have
enough to say about Tyler and his capacity for skepticism. You can focus just on the film
itself, and really explicate what you think is going on in this long quotation from Tyler.
It’s the transformation from a gullible person (capable of being deceived) into a skeptic
(courageous enough to be a whistleblower) that I’d like you to think through, describe,
and explain in this assignment.
According to the film, what enabled Tyler to transform from accepting Elizabeth Holmes’ bullshit to becoming a whistleblower who openly called it out, was his experience of working directly with the Theranos technology on a daily basis in what he referred to as the “tiled world.” While in the “carpeted world” dominated by Elizabeth’s charismatic presentations, Tyler and others bought into her vision of changing healthcare through revolutionary blood testing using just a small sample. However, in the “tiled world” of the actual laboratories and technology, Tyler witnessed firsthand that “nothing works” and they were “on a sinking ship” (The Inventor, 2019).
The dissonance between the two worlds Tyler inhabited created cognitive dissonance, which led him to begin doubting what he was seeing in the “carpeted world.” As Festinger (1957) explains, cognitive dissonance theory posits that individuals strive for internal consistency and become psychologically uncomfortable when faced with inconsistent cognitions, such as believing the company was succeeding while directly experiencing failures. This discomfort drives them to resolve the inconsistency, either by rationalizing away the disconfirming evidence or changing their original cognition.
Initially, Tyler rationalized away the problems by continuing to believe in Elizabeth’s vision and motivation during conversations with her. However, the recurring experiences of technological failures in the “tiled world” accumulated to the point that Tyler could no longer ignore the contradicting evidence. This echoes Descartes’ method of systematic doubt, where nothing can be assumed as certain and must be methodically questioned (Descartes, 1637/1996). While most of his co-workers may have continued rationalizing, Tyler reached a tipping point where he was willing to acknowledge that maybe he was wrong in his original belief and acceptance of the company’s narrative.
Tyler’s personal relationship with Elizabeth also likely contributed to his transformation. Knowing her through his family gave him deeper insight into her character beyond her public persona, allowing him to separate the person from the image (The Inventor, 2019). Additionally, whistleblowers often have a strong sense of moral conviction and responsibility to truth, despite risks to themselves (Near and Miceli, 1985). For Tyler, directly witnessing the misrepresentations while patients’ health could be at stake may have strengthened his resolve to report the issues despite pressure to remain silent.
In the end, Tyler’s willingness to systematically doubt what he was seeing, rather than continue rationalizing disconfirming evidence, aligned with Descartes’ philosophy that nothing should be assumed as certain without due inquiry and skepticism (Descartes, 1637/1996). By openly acknowledging he may have been wrong, Tyler found the courage to become a whistleblower articulating the technological and business issues he had witnessed firsthand.
Descartes, R. (1637/1996). Discourse on method and meditations on first philosophy (D. A. Cress, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Near, J. P., & Miceli, M. P. (1985). Organizational dissidence: The case of whistle-blowing. Journal of Business Ethics, 4(1), 1-16.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley [Documentary]. (2019). Directed by Alex Gibney. HBO Documentary Films.