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 or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto