Time Essay: A New Distrust of the Experts

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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.

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