Who can we trust? Who can we trust to tell us the truth? Especially, when the truth really matters?
This is not a new concern. And, the sense that more and more people seem to be so untrustworthy may be a false sense. I suspect that if we picked any decade, from any century, thoughtful people would be writing that there seems to be an alarming and society-threatening erosion of ethical standards evident to all.
So, now it is our turn. And, really, what do we do?
This blog post is prompted by the very disturbing exposé on 60 Minutes last night, Deception at Duke.
The story focused on the fraud perpetrated by Dr. Anil Potti at Duke University. This fraud was pulled off right under the nose of “the renowned lab of Dr. Joseph Nevins,” and Dr. Nevins had selected Dr. Potti to mentor.
Dr. Nevins believed in Dr. Potti. He clearly should not have been so trusting.
The story centered on a breakthrough discovery by Dr. Potti that would certainly bring healing to cancer patients. “80%” was the promised rate of cure. But it was all built on a house of lies; outright fraud. From the report;
Pelley: Is it a close call? Or is it abundantly clear that the data were fabricated?
Nevins: Abundantly clear.
But this brief blog post is about the deeper implications: “Are they telling us the truth?” From Enron, to BP, to mortgage lenders to borrowers to Wall Street Banks to big banks to politicians to… we face an era in which the ability to discover whether or not they “are telling us the truth” is the most important skill to develop.
How can we tell if someone is lying to us?
And, there is something of a spectrum to this. There is the outright lie, as in the case of Dr. Potti at the Duke lab. And then there is the overabundance of sloppy reporting, sloppy research, inadequate diagnosis of problems and solutions that is rampant. And some (most) of this is from well-meaning, “honest people” who simply think that know more than they actually do know or can know. And, yet, they announce their findings with such certianty.
I could give a long ist of business studies and books to add to this, like: Jim Collins and his pronouncements in Good to Great. Good to Great came out in 2001. That is eleven short years ago. Of the eleven “great’ exemplar companies, notice these three:
• Circuit City – now bankrupt
• Fannie Mae – now… we’ll, you know their many failures
• Wells Fargo – which just settled as one of the big banks with illegal practices in the foreclosure aftermath of the great 2008 financial crisis
Please do not misunderstand. I am not accusing Jim Collins of being in the same category of Dr. Potti. Dr. Potti lied. Jim Collins was wrong. That is a big difference.
Mr. Collins would argue that, at the time, these were in fact “great” companies. And his follow-up book, How the Mighty Fall, was an attempt to describe how companies can fall from greatness. I like Jim Collins’ books. But when a writer writes with his kind of certainty, and then has to explain where he missed it, maybe there should be a red flag waving saying “don’t trust what this guy says so quickly.”
(In Great by Choice, Apple is an example of a “failed company”; but, as he explains, he was describing the Apple in the years before their greatest triumphs. Here’s the flaw in his reason – their “bad years” may have been so very important to set them up for their insanely great years. So, were they truly a failure? I suspect not).
Back to the Duke story. There is no indication that Dr. Nevins in any way participated in, condoned, or ultimately excused the lies of Dr. Potti. Dr. Nevins was as astonished as the rest of us. In fact, he looked just a little shell-shocked to me in the interview. But, if the man overseeing the work did not catch the fraud, because he wanted to believe the good news, then what chance do the rest of us have in catching the fraud?
This blog post is simply an “I’m thinking about all this” post. Here is one of my thoughts; we live in a data-rich era. Every book, every study, has to have data. Jim Collins is data driven. But there is some indication that one can carefully select data to “agree with” an already reached conclusion. And, when one presents “findings” in such a “this is right, and it can be trusted” format, then when things do not turn out that way… well, trust becomes one of the casualties.
60 Minutes seemed to be asking” “Who can we ask to find out if the data really is trustworthy?” I would like to know the answer to that question.
A friend of mine, a good teacher in a very fine local MBA program, reminds me that this is not a new problem. It has always been with us, it will not go away, and…though he does not say these words, he implies that there is not much we can do about it. Ethical failure almost seems to be the human condition.
“There is not much we can do about it.” Now, that is an observation that can lead to genuine despair.