The Titan Disaster Showcased a New Kind of Con Artist

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On June 18, the Titan submersible lost contact with its mother ship, the Polar Prince on its way to tour the Titanic shipwreck.  Four days later, on June 22, the U.S. Coast Guard began finding pieces of the submersible floating near the Titanic, and they knew that all passengers had died. Was this a mere unavoidable accident or the work of a new kind of con artist?

OceanGate was the exploration company behind the failed trip, and its CEO, Stockton Rush, was aboard the submersible when it imploded.  Four passengers, each of whom had paid $250,000 for their tickets, also died instantaneously during the implosion.  

You might be thinking, so what?  I’m never going to be able to blow $250,000 on something like that, so why should I pay attention?

Here’s why you should pay attention to the Titan implosion.

I think it’s worth our attention because Stockton Rush represents a new kind of tech-savvy con artist that we should all have on our radar.  Let’s look at the background of OceanGate and the Titan submersible and see if this disaster is part of a broader pattern.  

OceanGate’s homepage now tells you that they’ve suspended all operations.  Looking up their team members just gives you a 404 “Page Not Found” message.  However, plenty of information is still out there about Stockton Rush, the founder of OceanGate and one of its victims in Titan’s final trip.

Stockton Rush founded OceanGate in the hopes of both providing a valuable tool for researchers and also making money on high-end tourism expeditions.  He believed he could make a cheaper submersible than the ones traditionally used in deep-sea expeditions, therefore making extreme high-adventure tourism more accessible and ultimately more profitable.

However, there were concerns with his submersible design from the outset.  Deep-sea submersibles have always been spherical, not cylindrical in form, because spherical shapes best withstand the immense water pressure at the bottom of the ocean.  Also, deep-sea submersibles have typically been made with steel or titanium. Rush, however, thought he could cut costs by using carbon fibers.

Carbon fibers are widely used in spacecraft, and Rush, originally an aerospace engineer, thought they could be used for submersibles, too.  The problem is that materials in space only need to withstand pressure between 0 and 1 atmospheric pressure units (atm).  To explore the Titanic as Rush was so keen on, a submersible would have had to withstand pressures of 396 atm. 

This is something destruction testing would have discovered beforehand, but Stockton Rush was notoriously averse to anything that might slow him down.  Rush’s carbon fiber hull was never tested to its breaking point.  When a former coworker complained to him about the potential safety problems with his new type of submersible, Rush said in an email, “I have grown tired of industry players who try to use a safety argument to stop innovation and new entrants from entering their small existing market. . We have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone’ way too often.” 

Apparently, it wasn’t often enough.  The critics were right, the cries were not baseless, and Stockton Rush has eaten his words.  

Many people tried to warn OceanGate.

Multiple experts in deep-sea expeditions expressed concern about Rush’s design beforehand.  The Marine Technology Society issued a letter to Rush expressing their concern and strongly recommending more thorough testing.  A former employee, David Lochridge, filed a whistleblower complaint in 2018 regarding the need for OceanGate to perform more thorough testing for its submersible.

Even personal friends tried warning Rush but to no avail.  He stuck to his arguments about the pace of innovation and was ultimately able to convince many investors to see things his way before the Titan’s implosion.

And part of me understands it.  Regulation does get in the way a lot, particularly in the U.S.  Daisy just wrote a fascinating article about traditional food in the Balkans.  I had a similar experience a few years ago in Japan.  Americans wonder why it’s so much easier to get fresh, locally grown, inexpensive food in other countries, and a lot of it has to do with our regulatory system.  

I can’t speak with authority about the Balkans, but I have had enough close friends who lived long enough in rural Japan to understand a little more about their food distribution system.  Japan doesn’t have an equivalent of the USDA.  If you have a garden and you have an excess of something, you can just go to the ramen shop down the street and sell them whatever you have, and that’s what they toss in the soup that day.  It’s a great way for gardeners to earn side cash and for shop owners to obtain wonderfully fresh ingredients.

But you can’t really do that in the States.  People try, but if they get caught, the fines are pretty hefty.  I had a friend get fined $1000 for having non-USDA-inspected eggs in his bakery.  

Enough people have similar horror stories about the government getting in the way of various business ventures, so when they hear the anti-regulation rhetoric of someone like Stockton Rush, they agree more quickly than perhaps they should.

There’s a new breed of scammer in town: the tech-savvy con artist

Modern society is so highly specialized that each of us has to rely on experts every day just to function.  Unfortunately, this makes it easy for intelligent, credentialed, tech-savvy people, to take advantage of anyone that does not specialize in their area of expertise.  Stockton Rush is the most dramatic example of that, but he’s not alone.

Look at what happened with Sam Bankman-Fried.  His crypto exchange, FTX, was valued at $8 billion, and yet when the company was liquidated, they found he had nothing.  Investors had thought FTX was merely holding their cryptocurrency; instead, SBF blew it all on a combination of poor investments, houses for his coworkers in the Bahamas, and nerd orgies.  

People wondered how SBF got away with it, but the truth is many people don’t understand crypto particularly well.  I don’t, which is why I haven’t chosen to invest in it.  But SBF looked the part of a tech genius; he gave all the right platitudes about wanting to do something good for the world and donate most of his money to charity; he hired a lot of high-profile celebrities to endorse FTX; people took him at his word.    

Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, offer yet another example of a tech-savvy egomaniac willing to gamble wildly with investor money and (even worse) with the health of others.  She convinced investors that she had developed a type of diagnostic blood test that could cheaply scan for 200 diseases at a time and ultimately raised more than $400 million from investors.  

However, karma began catching up with Holmes when multiple whistleblowers came forward, saying that Theranos routinely covered up errors.  Testimonies from these whistleblowers led to the closing of Theranos in 2018 and, ultimately Holmes’ conviction. 

In an interview with 60 Minutes Australia, retired biotech executive Anne Kopf-Sill said that she was instantly skeptical of Holmes’ claims simply because the technology behind the kind of testing Holmes advertised was such a long way off. 

But most of us aren’t biotech executives with PhDs in chemical engineering; the average citizen doesn’t understand medical diagnostic testing that well.  If some person that carries herself like a genius (Holmes made a point of imitating Steve Jobs) tells them she’s made a breakthrough and then throws a lot of technological-sounding words at them, they’ll believe the supposed genius. 

Same con, different kind of con artist.

The world has always been full of con artists.

Human nature doesn’t change.  What has changed is how easy it’s become for people who can mimic the rhetoric of true experts to hoodwink otherwise sensible individuals due to the increased complexity of modern living. It’s a new breed of the same old con artist.

Having said that, we can’t live in constant fear of anything new.  Doing our best to understand the tools we do use will help.  It is always best to talk to and read from multiple experts before making any big expenditures.  Watching smart people argue can be one of the best ways to learn.  Likewise, when people refuse to answer questions or engage in debate, it should be a red flag.  

Stockton Rush, SBF, and Elizabeth Holmes all engaged in the same kind of behavior.  When their technologies or business models were questioned, they became easily offended.  SBF and Holmes were notoriously secretive about how they actually made money.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant; if you are being asked to put money toward something that you don’t particularly understand, and the salesperson doesn’t want to answer questions, look elsewhere.  If it’s at all possible, try to shop your values.  People have lost a lot of money by listening to con artists masquerading as forward-thinking entrepreneurs.  And in the case of the Titan, trusting the wrong expert cost four people their lives.

What are your thoughts?

Do you think Stockton Rush was a con artist? Do you have other examples of high-tech cons besides the ones mentioned here? What are your thoughts on the Titan situation?

Let’s discuss it in the comments section.

About Marie Hawthorne

A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.

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