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Time Essay: A New Distrust of the Experts

8 minute read
Frank Trippett

“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Thomas Jefferson’s axiom remains an indispensable premise of democracy. Yet the possibility of a sage and knowing public seems to be growing ever more elusive. Since the rise of science and technology as the commanding force in both government and social change, it has become harder and harder for most Americans to become really well informed on the problems they face as individuals or citizens. Such a trend is bound to raise questions about the future of popular rule.

Nowadays the very vocabulary of public discourse can be bewildering. Even to be half informed, the American-on-the-street must grasp terms like deoxyribonucleic acid, fantastic prospects like genetic engineering, and bizarre phenomena like nuclear meltdown. The technical face of things has driven some people into a bored sort of cop-out—”science anxiety,” it is called by Physics Professor Jeffry Mallow of Loyola University in Chicago. The predicament has made most Americans hostage to the superior knowledge of the expert: the scientist, the technician, the engineer, the specialist.

Society has grown so complicated that there is renewed interest in the possibility of a “science court” that might deal impartially with arcane controversy. It has grown so technical that some lawyers wonder whether ordinary electors can still adequately function as jurors. Says Attorney Gary Ahrens, a professor at the University of Iowa: “Practically nothing is commonsensical any more.” Surely the spectacle of the public making decisions in semidarkness is an affront to common sense.

Dependency on the experts seemed tenable in the more innocent era when science was viewed as a virtually infallible cornucopia of social goodies. Americans long clung to Virgil’s ancient advice: “Believe an expert.” Today, however, Americans are no longer willing to acquiesce gratefully in either the discoveries of science or their application. The citizen has rediscovered that the best of experts will now and then launch an unsinkable Titanic.

The public has needed no expertise to read about DDT, thalidomide and cyclamates, nor to learn that the DES that seemed a nifty preventive of miscarriage in the 1950s was being linked to cancer a generation later. The citizen’s problem, at bottom, is how to assess the things that so often come forth in the beguiling guise of blessings. What to believe? Whom to trust? This is a recipe for public frustration.

The shadow of science falls across decisions common to daily existence. Is this medication safe? Is forgoing sugar worth the hazards of saccharin? Are the conveniences of the Pill worth raising the risk of circulatory disease? The uncertain answers come from product analysts, dietitians, pharmacists, lawyers, physicians. American society, as Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk puts it, has become “dominated by professionals who call us ‘clients’ and tell us of our ‘needs.’ ”

The biggest problem, however, is that the faith of the American people in the experts has been badly shaken. People have learned, for one thing, that certified technical gospel is far from immortal. Medicine changes its mind about tonsillectomies that used to be routinely performed. Those dazzling phosphate detergents turn out to be anathema to the environment. Scarcely a week goes by without the credibility of one expert or another falling afoul of some spike of fresh news. (Just last week an array of nonprescription sedatives used by millions was linked, through the ingredient methapyrilene, to cancer.) Moreover, experts are constantly challenging experts, debating the benefits and hazards of virtually every technical thrust. Who knows anything for sure? Could supersonic aircraft truly damage the ozone? The technical sages disagree.

Thus the problems that the individual copes with as a private person are knotty enough; public issues have grown immeasurably more complex. Government has long since subsumed science and technology into its realm, both as the fountainhead of its projects and as an object of its regulation. The calculations that measure national military strength are as impenetrable to the civilian-on-the-street as the formulas of the ancient alchemists. The surreal arithmetic of SALT might as well be the music of the spheres, for all the help it gives ordinary folks trying to get a clear picture of the country’s real and relative strengths. The nervous strategist is not the only one to covet verification; the common citizen could also use some.

Then, too, much information crucial to the personal and social decisions of citizens is methodically hidden or withheld. The scientific world has always tended to hoard lore on work in progress, and the Government’s customary secrecy in military matters, intelligence and foreign affairs has spread to many parts of the bureaucratic and corporate spheres. The clandestine spirit that properly cloaked the devising of atomic weapons inevitably carried over to veil the development of nuclear power for civilian purposes.

The result of secrecy compounded by confusion and some startling ignorance was dramatized by the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant crisis. While the event made plain that Government and corporate experts had not quite leveled with the public about the hazards of nuclear power, it also proved, frighteningly enough, that the experts sometimes did not tell the whole story simply because they did not know it. Joseph M. Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said of himself and other officials, as they tried to cope with an incipient meltdown: “We are operating . . . like a couple of blind men staggering around making decisions.”

Intentional deception sometimes leaves the citizenry in a plight as awkward as Hendrie’s. Last month a former ranking employee charged that the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp. of Niagara Falls, N. Y., had kept workers in the dark about the hazards of toxic chemicals they dealt with. Federal atomic authorities, it was disclosed last month, were encouraged by President Dwight Eisenhower to confuse the public about the risks of radiation fallout during the atomic bomb tests in Nevada in the 1950s; Government officials refused to warn inhabitants of nearby regions that they were absorbing possibly lethal doses of radiation.

The citizenry’s essential interest is not in knowledge per se but the social uses to which it is put. What is often kept from the citizen, in the form of knowledge, is social and political power. When demonstrations and controversies break out over seemingly esoteric technical questions, the underlying question, as Cornell University’s Dorothy Nelkin puts it in a paper on “Science as a Source of Political Conflict,” is always the same: “Who should control crucial policy choices?” Such choices, she adds, tend to stay in the hands of those who control “the context of facts and values in which policies are shaped.”

On its face, the situation may help explain the mood of public disenchantment that has persisted long after the events—Viet Nam and Watergate—that were supposed to have caused it. Surely neither of those national traumas caused the drop of popular confidence in almost all key U.S. institutions that Pollster Louis Harris recently recorded. It also seems doubtful that either deprived the Administration’s energy crusade of both popular support and belief. Could it be that many citizens simply feel foreclosed not only from knowledge but also from the power that knowledge would give them?

The public itself, it must be admitted, bears a fair share of responsibility for its dilemma. It has usually welcomed the advances and conveniences—swift travel, cheap energy, life-prolonging medication, magical cosmetics—and left itself no choice but to live with the inherent risks it does not so cheerfully accept. A completely risk-free society would be a dead society. In today’s increasingly risk-shy atmosphere, the public may tend to exaggerate some of the dangers at hand. Indeed, it may be swinging from too much awe of the “miracles” of science and technology to excessive skepticism about them. In reality, the public has always wanted to lean on the experts— until they have failed, or seemed to.

It is fair to suppose that even if the public had access to all knowledge about everything, there would still be a good deal of befuddlement and groping. Not many have the ability, energy and will to bone up on every issue. If it is reasonable for Americans to demand more candor, prudence—and humility—from the experts, it is also reasonable that the citizenry demand of itself ever greater diligence in using all available information, including journalism’s increasingly technical harvest.

Plainly the citizen’s plight is not subject to quickie remedy. Yet any solution would have to entail a shift in the relationship between the priests of knowledge and the lay public. The expert will have to play a more conscious role as citizen, just as the ordinary American will have to become ever more a student of technical lore. The learned elite will doubtless remain indispensable. Still, the fact that they are exalted over the public should not mean that they are excused from responsibility to it—not unless the Jeffersonian notion of popular self-rule is to be lost by default.

—Frank Trippett

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