Time Essay: A New Distrust of the Experts

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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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