What science tells us about whistleblowers like Edward Snowden

Research shows whistleblowers can expect long-lasting health and career consequences for speaking up

AP Photo/The Guardian

Edward Snowden is remarkable in many ways. At 29, the Maryland native has already been hailed “one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers.” A community-college graduate, Snowden rose from National Security Agency (NSA) security guard to a computer whiz, with the world’s most private information at his fingertips. He left his home in heavenly Hawaii, and a $200,000-a-year job, all to leak classified documents about America’s Orwellian surveillance project in the name of democracy.

But Edward Snowden is unremarkable in many ways, too. According to the scientific literature on whistleblowers (yes, this is an area of study), Snowden is a rather archetypal deep throat, tidily representing the portrait of the whistleblower that has been painted by researchers.

Like Snowden, who has been described as quiet and shy, whistleblowers tend to be introverted types. They are typically male, and rather ordinary men at that, who find themselves in extraordinary situations.

Research on whistleblowers suggests they are responding to a higher calling, a sense of duty and justice. Similarly, Snowden has said he did not speak up about the NSA’s systematic spying on citizens for fame or retaliation. As he put it: “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Looking ahead, research can tell us what Snowden may face in the coming months and years. In particular, this study from 1993 is telling. The author looked at 35 Australian men and women from various occupational backgrounds who had uncovered harms to the public. “Although whistleblowing is important in protecting society,” the report reads, “the typical organisational response causes severe and long-lasting health, financial, and personal problems for whistleblowers and their families.”

All but one study participant had been victimized for speaking out, and most took a financial hit. An American report on whistleblowers found that a majority experienced retaliation—harassment from their bosses and peers, verbal abuse—and, like Snowden, lost their jobs as a result of their decision to go public.

That’s not to mention the awful health consequences they suffered. The whistleblowers in the Australian study had “difficulty in sleeping, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of guilt and worthlessness.” Two subjects had actually attempted suicide, and 15 ended up on prescription drugs they weren’t taking before to alleviate these symptoms. “Fifteen subjects thought that they had been damaged as a person by the experience, 13 felt strengthened, and six felt both damaged and strengthened.” Another American study found that many sought psychiatric help after whistleblowing.

The negative effects were not confined only to the whistleblower; spouses and kids suffered, too. Some marriages split up and children “had been adversely affected by divorce and forced separation of their parents, disrupted education, anxiety, insecurity, and stress; poverty public attacks on the parent’s image; anger and loss of faith…” The list goes on.

There’s some debate in the literature about whether these small case studies truly represent the realities of the whistle-blowing experience. But there’s one area where the research seems to be unequivocal: informants generally do not regret their actions and say they would whistleblow again if they were given the chance.

Part of the reason for this is rationalization. “It would be difficult to acknowledge a mistake in judgment,” one study reads, “given the extraordinary hardships that they (and their families) have endured.”

Plus, it helps that their work often results in much-needed systems change, which brings us to our last lesson: as much as the health sciences can tell us about whistleblowers, whistleblowers can also tell us about what’s going on in the health sciences. Simply put: We need more Snowdens in health. Think of the brave doctors and researchers who exposed Big Tobacco’s lies about smoking, the health impact of the oil sands or hidden side-effects of drugs. Their actions saved thousands, if not millions, of lives.

And yet, for every one of them, there are probably thousands of doctors who will not speak out against incompetent colleagues and probably as many researchers who see corruption and abuses of science in their work every day, but choose to stay silent. If there are physicians who are concerned enough to speak to media, many hospitals now routinely gag doctors in Canada. If there are reporters intrepid enough to seek out hidden information through access-to-information requests, many of our national health agencies (such as Canadian Blood Services and the Canadian Institute for Health Information) cannot be subject to them. Those that can (Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada) are notoriously difficult to extract information from.

So we are left to rely mostly on whistleblowers, people like Snowden, to come forward for a healthier society, at no small cost to themselves. The problem is, whistleblowers are few and far between, while corruption in the health system, professionals who harm patients and rotten research may not be as rare as we’d like to think.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the senior editor at the Medical Post. She will be on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Check back for periodic updates here or reach her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto




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What science tells us about whistleblowers like Edward Snowden

  1. “…. professionals who harm patients and rotten research may not be as rare as we’d like to think.”

    Washington Post – March 2013

    Last year, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud had increased tenfold since 1975.

    The same analysis reviewed more than 2,000 retracted biomedical papers and found that 67 percent of the retractions were attributable to misconduct, mainly fraud or suspected fraud.

    “You have a lot of people who want to do the right thing, but they get in a position where their job is on the line or their funding will get cut, and they need to get a paper published,” said Ferric C. Fang, one of the authors of the analysis and a medical professor at the University of Washington. “Then they have this tempting thought: If only the data points would line up . . . ”

    Fang said retractions may be rising because it is simply easier to cheat in an era of digital images, which can be easily manipulated. But he said the increase is caused at least in part by the growing competition for publication and for NIH grant money.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/doubts-about-johns-hopkins-research-have-gone-unanswered-scientist-says/2013/03/11/52822cba-7c84-11e2-82e8-61a46c2cde3d_story_1.html

    • Sad indeed, but no surprise considering the lack of support for careers in this dog-eat-dog world. It may not work perfectly to provide tenure so that workers can concentrate on working, but I predict that if there is no job security and no guarantee that extra work will get you somewhere, it’s going to be worse for society in general.

  2. Wealth is not a serious religion as people think it is. But when you take away immediate monetary gain by “blowing the whistle” for the common good: The wolves and sheep will turn on you. No person or groups ever want or express the need to be exposed as silly. People who damage others for immediate gain are silly people. That is why there is never a reason for the damage that makes sense. When you have powerful nations standing their ground, you find silly people being silly “for the good of the nation” and their own pocketbook. Here’s a little test! Find silly people who are in charge and who are consistently silly. Write a note to their bosses, if they have one, explaining why that silly person is silly. Clowns in a circus are probably exempt from this test.

  3. It’s rather ironic that even in the light of this massive infringement of the current privacy laws, certain politicians such as John McCain and John Boenner have condemned Edward Snowden as a traitor for having exposed the US government, under the leadership of Barack Obama, for spying on the email and phone communications of their citizenry. Let’s see just how long this particular whistleblower can go before he feels the full force of the FBI tasked to bring charges against him in a federal court of prosecution.

    Bradley Manning, who was foolish enough to have trusted Julian Assange and Wikileaks to not reveal his identity, probably won’t ever see the light of day because of that for the rest of his natural life. Unless, of course, it’s to have a mandatory hour long exercise session outside of his cell as is required by law.

    • Both Manning an Snowden clearly broke laws, and contracts that they’d voluntarily signed. Manning, in my view, was far more reckless with his release and I don’t really feel sorry for him. Snowden on the other hand was very responsible in the way that he leaked his documents, which is why I do feel some sorrow for his current predicament. That said, he knew what the consequences would be.

      Also, Manning wasn’t outed by Assange. He let his identity slip in a private IRC conversation with someone he, erroneously, thought he could trust. I’m not Assange fan, but he didn’t rat on Manning. I doubt he would have known who Manning was before it became public knowledge.

      • Yes. You’re right. But then I deliberately worded my comment just to see who would correct it. Yes, Manning got screwed, and whoever outed him should be paid in kind. As for Mr. Snowden, someone, under threat of prosecution, might ‘be compelled’ to reveal his whereabouts. It’ll only be a matter of time before he makes an appearance before a magistrate.

  4. Oh, pleez – I was one in healthcare – simply doing my job, and not only did no one in-the-know support me, they all ran as fast as they could in the other direction. C Fred Alford wrote the seminal work on the narratives of whistleblowers, and he cannot identify a single person who has had a satisfactory outcome from doing it. I ended up giving my primary source data to a third party for safekeeping, but nary a single health reporter even returned my contact inquiries. What you neglected to mention is that many media advertisers are the very organizations that target whistleblowers in their ranks (well, former ranks, since they terminate and blacklist them at warp speed). Better off dead, we are, than enduring an ostracized, destroyed existence.

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