Risk, Policy and Ethics

January 22, 2008 • Speeches

Presentation, as prepared, for the C-PET Meeting: “Risk, Policy and Ethics,” London, 22 January 2008.

Nigel asked me to give you a sense of the American / libertarian approach to emerging technologies. Let me being by sharing with you some dialogue from a movie that I first learned about from students at a U.S. high school for children gifted in science and technology. The movie is called Serenity and it (as well as the T.V. show Firefly on which it was based) has almost a cult following among American students interested in science and technology.

Background: The Earth becomes too crowded and dozens of other planets are terraformed to support human life. The central planets form an Alliance rule by an interplanetary parliament. The narrator tells us at the beginning of the film that “the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control.” In a war to “ensure a safer universe” the Alliance defeated the Independents. “And, now everyone,” the narrator continues, “can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization.”

First scene: A school classroom: a student asks “Why were the Independents even fighting us? Why wouldn’t they want to be more civilized?” The heroin answers out of turn, “We meddle. People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” The teacher responds, “We’re not telling people what to think … we’re just trying to show them how.”

Scene near the middle of the movie: [show clip if possible, starting at 1:17] – The heroin and her friends find an outer‐​planet where everyone is dead. A beacon leads them to a laboratory where they find a recording left behind by an Alliance scientist.

Dialogue: These are just a few of the images we’ve recorded. And you can see…it isn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here…and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-[exclamation] Paxilon Hydroclorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work…they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s a million people here, and they all just let themselves die. [Crashing] [Gasps] I have to be quick. About a tenth of a percent of…the population had the opposite reaction to the Pax. Their aggressor response increased beyond madness. They have become… [crashing] Well, they’ve killed most of us. And not just killed…they’ve done things.

Reavers [monsters that have been attacking settlers] They made them.

I won’t live to report this, but people have to know. We meant it for the best… to make people safer. [Reavers growling] God! [Woman screaming][Reaver growling]

This movie, so loved by science oriented teenagers all over the U.S., doesn’t reflect a new mistrust in government. One of America’s founding principles is a mistrust of government. Our constitution contains numerous safeguards to protect individuals against tyranny of the majority and the abuse of power by government officials.

For all of us, emerging technologies conjure up images of both a new enlightenment and the possible destruction of what is most valuable in human nature. Of course, there are also a range of possibilities in between. Talking and thinking about the necessary and sufficient conditions for what it means to be human, as we have done here today, is important, and we should share our insights with the public.

The role Governments should play in the development of emerging technology is to protect academic freedom, encourage the sharing of information, and enforce informed consent for research subjects. Governments should not try to assess what types of research are most beneficial to society. There is no shared conception of humanity and not even the wisest men and women could possibly judge for anyone other than themselves whether the use of a particular technology would constitute an affront to their humanity.

The Nobel economist F. A. Hayek in his last book Fatal Conceit argued that human beings are daunted by unintended consequences and that governments that try to regulate human interaction based on broad scale economic and social predictions are destined to make large mistakes. Applying Hayek’s reasoning to emerging technologies means that the best way to ensure caution is to keep government out of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. When governments, which are run by individuals no less fallible than the rest of humanity, make mistakes, those mistakes loom larger than life, affecting not only the lives of the individuals who willingly participated in private experiments, but the lives of whole populations.

I have time for only one example, but it is a poignant one. At the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics was touted as the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell and Carl Campbell Brigham (inventor of the SAT test used to test American students for university admissions) at first supported eugenics, as did numerous Nobel Laureates, most European governments, and every U.S. president between 1901 and 1933. (See handout.) Many people all over the world worked hard both in their private lives and through government policy to implement the principles of eugenics.

Both individuals and governments had their own ideas about how to improve the human gene pool. Individuals tried marrying only people they considered superior specimens of humanity. Governments, on the other hand, imposed laws against interracial marriage, sterilized those they believed to be of low intelligence or mentally ill, and even exterminated whole groups of people who because of their race, sexual orientation or religion were thought inferior specimens of humanity. If the eugenics movement had remained in the private sphere, resulting in nothing more than discriminatory marriage practices by some private individuals, the word “eugenics” would be remembered as little more than a silly fad. Instead, governments got involved and now the word “eugenics” is almost synonymous with mass sterilizations and genocide.

Emerging technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, mechanical implants, artificial intelligence, and all the others we’ve discussed today may be the answer to many of humanity’s problems. Or, they may be the next eugenics. Government intervention turns potential mishaps into disastrous tragedies. Let’s keep government out of science and let the advances and mistakes take place in the private sector where humanity can learn from scientific successes and failures on a manageable scale.


  • Theodor Roosevelt (1906 – Peace prize. U.S. President 1901–1908)
  • Elihu Root (1912 — U.S. Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt )
  • Alexis Carrel (1912 –Experimented with tissue and organ transplantation)
  • Woodrow Wilson (1919 – Peace prize – U.S. President 1912–1919)
  • George Bernard Shaw (1925 – Literature)
  • Thomas Hunt Morgan (1933 – Role of chromosomes in heredity)
  • Jane Addams (1933 – Peace prize for her social work)
  • H.J. Muller (1946 – Discovered that x‐​rays cause mutations)
  • Winston Churchill (1953 – Prize in literature. Prime Minister of England 1940–45)
  • Linus Pauling (1954 – Nature of certain chemical bonds)
  • William Shockley (1956 – Semiconductor research)
  • Joshua Lederberg (1958 – Recombination of genetic material in bacteria)
  • Francis Crick (1962 – Discovery of the structure of DNA)
  • Konrad Lorenz (1973 — Organization elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns)
  • Gunnar Myrdal (1974 – Interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena)


  • All U.S. Presidents between 1900 and 1933. In addition to Roosevelt and Wilson, there were Taft, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.
  • Helen Keller – “some ‘defective’ children should not be saved from a premature death because of their propensity to criminality.”
  • Alexander Graham Bell — Wanted to discourage deaf people from marrying each other.
  • William Welch – the first dean of the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. (Father of American Medicine)
  • Margaret Sanger – Founder of American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood of American
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – Civil War hero and Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902–1932. Considered one of the most influential justices in U.S. history.
About the Author