Theranos, Fyre Festival, ‘STAP’ stem cells – intriguing, horrifying, outrageous scandals in business, entertainment, and academia. So outrageous with so many complicit individuals that we can’t help but wonder how they could have happened at all. How did they dupe us? It’s too easy to mark these incidents as the workings of particularly nefarious people. Perhaps, though, the roots of these – the belief in our infallibility or belief in our employer’s – are a human flaw and a vice society rewards until someone pushes the boundary slightly too far. These incidents aren’t overly shocking in this context; rather, they are simply extremes of overselling a claim and being unable or unwilling to differentiate reality from myth.
Growing up, I was a science fair aficionado. Annual science fairs are an obsession for teens attending them, a place where young science-loving students parade projects with sensational goals, addressing climate change, cancer, and the origin of the universe (not exaggerating) with impressive conviction. The key to success was to show passion, original thinking, and an understanding of the research process. In many ways, though, your ability to sell your research determined your success. The outcome of an outstanding sales pitch? Media glorification as a new science ‘prodigy’ accompanied by large sums of cash and university scholarships. We knew the game. Overselling carries no penalty in a forum with no quality assurance or real peer review. Most of us remained detached enough to recognise that, although our pitch expressed a sunny optimism, our projects were merely the first step in practising the scientific process, often with the support of capable graduate students or families. Our flaw-filled projects were not intended to solve society’s greatest challenges – we were honing interests and preparing to build them into tangible research skills through undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. But, especially at an impressionable young age, it can be difficult not to accept the outsized validation that you are *special*, to latch onto the idea that your 16 year-old work is groundbreaking, a product of your brilliance. Some do. Flirting with that dangerous edge and watching some succumb to it, I grew irritated with the reward for over-selling claims. It was my first cautionary tale on the dangers of believing in your own myth and on society’s (and our own vain) love of sensationalism. Too much ego and pride can derail you. It’s difficult to improve if you believe your cup is already full.
Buying too much into an overstated claim, what I’ll call ‘the myth,’ is a risk that manifests itself throughout our careers. Our sense of reality can be skewed by a sales pitch, either to ourselves or by the companies we work for. To ourselves: the critical importance of our day-to-day work (pairing nicely with the millennial affinity for long hours), the slightly oversold resumes and dating profiles, the rabbit hole of seeing and believing nonexistent patterns in your academic research, and the media attention that can obscure reality for Rhodes Scholars. For academics, the poking and prodding by other academics can demand an unrealistic level of assurance in your research direction and theories. Paired with accolades and grants, the same myth of infallibility afflicting young science fair prodigies can define us in advanced scientific careers.
Believing some of the myth is a necessity. It commands confidence and optimism that drives promotions, publications, your desire to work a 9-to-7 job, and the morale of teams we manage. This overstated optimism may be the foundation propping up our society. Still, at an individual level, your ability to detach your self-worth and identify from your unrepresentative social media profile, the success of your experimental data, or the impact of your company, might be what saves you from falling down the slippery slope of integrity. It allows you to do your best work while admitting when something does not meet expectations. Perhaps, at their core, Elizabeth Holmes and Billy McFarland bought into their own claims, the myth of being the next Steve Jobs or entertainment superstar.
Lately, I’ve questioned the role of this myth in research integrity. The scientific method involves building a hypothesis, often from rigorous theorising or a suggestion from previous experimental data, followed by testing and a conclusion of whether the hypothesis is right or wrong. In modern research, correct hypotheses (and interesting wrong ones) join the annals of scientific literature. But what if the hypothesis can’t be wrong? What if the final story is set before the data is collected? The pressure to publish demands scientists to produce frequent, high-impact papers. Decades of research cultivate a myth of infallibility I described above. Certain of their lifelong theory, your PI lays out the perfect story for a high-impact paper. As a student, it’s your job to design the experiments and find the data to support it. Failure is less likely to be seen as discrediting the hypothesis and more likely to be viewed as a failure of your competency. At your PI’s encouragement, you might repeat and tweak your experiment twenty times. This may be where research integrity unconsciously slips into murky regions. Is this uncommon? No. As a student, we buy into the myth of our PI’s theories by tying our self-worth to the success of our projects. Doing so hampers our ability to think critically, accept negative results, and raise concerns on the theory underlying our work – in short, good science.
Although the scientific context resonates with me best, this challenge is universal. Following and exploring a boss’s vision with the ability to recognise and raise concerns requires both detachment of your self-worth from your work and a supportive environment. Theranos, Fyre Festival, and the STAP cell labs made two critical errors in succession. They infused their employees with the critical importance of their mission and harshly chastised those who voiced concerns or questioned the realism underlying exaggerated claims. We can dupe ourselves, but we are also easily manipulated by groupthink and appeals to emotion. Far from claiming to understand these motivators, I pose a few questions for thought. If your boss makes claims to the public, PIs, or a VC and turns to you to engineer the promised device (i.e. Theranos), build the promised stage (i.e. Fyre Festival), or design the dream cell (i.e. STAP cell lab), do you have the independent self-worth and ability to push back when the claims are impossible? How do we find the balance between confidence and buying too much into myths of self-importance? How much control do we really have?
Stephanie Gaglione (Ontario & Balliol 2017) is currently studying for her MSC Res in Molecular Cell Biology in Health and Disease and has completed her MSc in Integrated Immunology.