Friday, July 29, 2016

Lessons from Theranos: Why We Need Scientists and Skepticism

If you've been following the story of Theranos (as I have) you might find this "Viewpoint" piece by Dr. John Ioannidis interesting. It's published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association and it's revealing. Here is my take: 


  • There were scientists and journalists who were wisely skeptical. They did their due diligence instead of leaping onto the runaway Theranos bandwagon. They raised red flags early on. However, few people picked up that part of the story.
  • Scientists are the ones who should be doing the science. Everybody loves a good "college dropout gets rich with big idea" story. But these folks are often entrepreneurs - like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and of course, Elizabeth Holmes. Sadly, in Holmes' case, she and many of the people who flocked to her were not scientists. Her big idea of using a finger prick's worth of blood on which to run big bunches of lab tests needed scientists to develop and test the technology. Scientists need to go to school to learn to be scientists. And scientific data needs to be published in established medical journals and tested to see if it can be repeated. The process is slow and deliberate - not exactly the stuff of flashy, attention-grabbing headlines.
  • This is classic cart-before-the horse, sensationalized health reporting. It happens way too much and it needs to stop. The only people who can really stop it are good health and medical journalists who are able to combine healthy skepticism, the right sleuthing skills, and an understanding of how science works.
  • Dr. Ioannidis is an unsung hero in this story. His skeptical, sciency brain was able to quell the pull of the Silicon valley spotlight that hijacked so many journalists, politicians, and businessmen. He questions whether we even need more available testing when the bigger problem in medicine right now may be unnecessary testing.
But read the piece yourself - because it teaches us all something about how to think. 

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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