05/21/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

Humility and Hubris in Science and Technology

Americans seem to love people with a swagger in their step, a self-assuredness that shouts confidence and success. We like people who dominate in their professions and get the job done. That is, for sure, much of what is right about America.

We also admire those who sacrifice for others, who see a goal larger than themselves, who know that, in the end, their life ought to mean something more than just focusing on "me." This is also much of what is right about America.

The question worth asking is one of balance. Have we put too much emphasis on one or the other? A society without enough self-confidence loses its innovation and direction. A society with too much can be driven to disaster through hubris. A society with too much humility can find itself lost in the agendas of others. A society without enough can forget its values and virtues.

We seem more alert to this question of balance in areas of our national life that are the most public -- politics, religion, sports, entertainment, and, to some degree, business. Much of the work -- and works -- of people in these areas is visible. We have a sense about whether a politician has deserted his principles for private pleasure (John Edwards). We can tell if an athlete sees something in life more than the size of his contract (Tim Tebow). We also have some experience -- even if as spectators -- with how the work is done and what its moral boundaries ought to be.

But in science and technology, the balance between humility and hubris is harder to judge. Much of the work goes on out of view -- in laboratories, manufacturing plants, and literally, at the molecular or atomic scale. The workers do not have star quality and most are not covered by popular media. Most of us lack the knowledge to evaluate -- or even understand -- the work itself. It is only when that work hits us commercially or via disaster, that we seem to notice. Our lives do not lend us an easy way to evaluate the moral dimensions of science and technology, and sometimes it is only its downstream effects (e.g. asbestos-induced disease or oil spills) that allow us, quite late, to raise questions.

This is a dangerous place for us to be. Those who work at the frontiers of science and technology are subject to huge financial and commercial pressures. The "space race" followed the race to build the bomb, and both have now been replaced by the race to commercialize genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, and robotics. Those whose lives are driven by discovery, whose reason and imagination are the fuel for progress, can too easily overlook the moral dangers of what they do, as Icarus seemed oblivious to the fate that his desire to fly held in store.

In April, researchers discovered that the dysbindin-1 gene may be linked to general cognitive ability. This was reported in scientific journals but its potential impacts were not seriously discussed. Bill McKibben, in Enough, a breathtaking rumination on the dangers of technology without humility and moral reflection, would have us contemplate the implications of being able to insert genes for intelligence in embryos. The prospects are initially exciting (who would not want to help ensure their child could be smarter?) but ultimately frightening (smarter than the parents? than the older siblings who have only version 1.0 of the gene? wondering if her achievements were the result of her own hard work or just germline engineering?).

Scientists may be humble as they face the unknown and the majesty of their ignorance, but this is easy to overcome when mechanics and money push morality lower in the prioritization of their values. The antidote may need to be a citizenry whose education in science and engineering is much better, a profession whose focus on ethics is much greater, and a government that insists on much more funding for exploring the moral and societal implications -- and controls -- of what the race for discovery and commercialization makes possible.