Toward An Adversary
The recommendation of a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear electricity plants is directed toward elimination of a serious hazard to the human species. Of course, it is wise to avert any disaster once it is apparent. But it is relevant to ask why we must approach the brink of disaster so often, in the applications of technology. Nuclear electricity is only one case in point, though a profoundly important and dangerous one.
The public has every reason to ask why the nuclear electricity industry developed this far before there was a widespread appreciation of the hazards. Why, the public wants to know, was it not warned much earlier that the Insurance Industry has no confidence in nuclear electricity generation? How did it escape public notice that nuclear electricity plants represent a gigantic experiment being conducted at the peril of life and property of citizens of the U.S.? How does it happen that "standards" for radioactivity exposure (both for routine operations and in the event of accidents) are such as to lead to the expectation of massive injury in the form of cancer, leukemia, and genetic diseases?
The answers lie in the very nature of large-scale technology. One of its major characteristics is the careful exclusion of the public from all the considerations and decisions. Technologies, such as nuclear electricity generation, espouse the principle that, "In such complex problems we must put all of our faith in the experts." The experts, for several obvious reasons, will surely bring society to its doom, unless certain corrective measures are urgently introduced. We shall consider such corrective measures in two areas:
Technologies such as nuclear electricity generation are highly financed enterprises, usually involving hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars. Biological scientists, physical scientists, and engineers are necessarily attracted to such technologies, because the research and development job opportunities are excellent.
The "experts" ultimately chosen to participate in decisions concerning safety, or lack of it, come from these same groups. They decide on "standards" for exposure of the public to such by-product poisons as radioactivity.
It is axiomatic: scientists chosen in this way are not likely to make decisions that embarrass their technology. And adverse decisions concerning its hazards can compromise the technology. A "standard-setting" decision that can make the technology itself appear economically unattractive might wipe out a scientist's financial support. Consciously and subconsciously, the scientist has a strong motivation to make the technology look good. The result, in general, is that the public bears the burden of any hazards, actual or potential.
Such scientists and engineers are not evil in their intentions. However, they are often so thoroughly compromised in outlook that their search for hazards can best be characterized by minimum, sincere diligence. At every step in their deliberations, where they must choose, the choice is that which minimizes the hazard estimate. Precisely the opposite choice should be the case if public health and safety were truly of paramount concern.
One product of such scientific deliberations is the concept of an "allowable," or "tolerable," or "permissible" dose of a poison such as radioactivity. Never has anyone proved that any dose of radioactive poison is safe. Yet bodies of scientific "experts" are duly appointed to "standard-setting" boards or committees. Under the auspicious title of "Radiation Protection," such committees proceed to ordain how much radioactive poison the public must accept in order to allow for "the orderly development of the technology (atomic or other)."
In the course of their deliberations these committees repeatedly recite the benefits of the new technology and state that society can ill-afford to forego them. Next they estimate the hazards, with all uncertainties weighted for the technology, not the public health, stating all the time that they are proceeding cautiously and conservatively.
As an early constructive step, the public could insist upon the abolition of all "standard-setting" bodies. Major decisions concerning exposure of the public to poisons such as radioactivity or other poisonous technological by-products belong in the public forum. Such decisions, often dealing with effects upon the heredity of the human species, are what we choose to call decisions for all men for all time. A very broad representation of society as a whole must assume active participation in such decisions.
How could such a broad segment of society make sound decisions concerning exposure to a poison such as radioactivity? There are several prerequisites:
Clearly, the major inputs are (2) and (3), the honest presentations of hazards and benefits. It is to be expected that enthusiastic supporters of the technology will be abundant, simply because dollars are associated with the technology. These proponents will describe the benefits glowingly; they will discover the hazards to be minimal or zero. Further, they will find alternatives to their technology to be non-existent or hopelessly difficult.
This all describes the nuclear electricity industry perfectly. It is what we can expect for just about any hazardous technology. And this can hardly be described as the kind of balanced presentation required for open-forum decision-making by the public or its representatives.
The obvious requirement is an assessment of benefits and hazards by competent scientists and engineers who do NOT derive their income and support from the technological entrepreneurs, private or governmental. What is needed, therefore, is an adversary system of technology evaluation. Such adversaries must provide the information the technological proponents might fail to provide. The public may be surprised to realize that this essential adversary evaluation of technology is totally lacking in our society.
The heavy hand of economic and job reprisal is so well appreciated by scientists and engineers that few actually involved in the technology will speak out against it. We must create a reprisal-free system of adversary assessment. We must learn how to fund such a system so that it cannot be silenced or inhibited by the entrepreneurs or their bedfellows in government.
Strangely enough, such an adversary system would cost very little. If it were mandatory that a few percent of the dollars that go into a new technology go into the funding of technology assessment, the resultant development of sound criticism of technology should be phenomenal. This would give the public a chance for a reasonable, open-forum debate concerning vital new technological directions.
Of course, the sponsors of up and coming technologies will, at first, regard it as a thwart. However, with more sober consideration, they may very well become major supporters of adversary assessment early in the development of a new enterprise. Unpleasant facts about a technology have a way of ultimately becoming obvious to everyone. The economic costs of realizing them too late can be extremely high.
Some may say that even in a reprisal-free atmosphere, scientists expected to do adversary assessment of technology might still be co-opted. This is a hazard, of course. On the other hand, there is a growing group of humans who do truly care about preservation of the human species and a livable environment. Such individuals could make a unique, effective contribution in the role of adversaries in the evaluation of new technologies. The dollar cost of establishing such technology assessment is trivial. The potential benefit for the survival of humans is incalculable.
Industry has long understood the danger of "yes-men" in high places. A technology, under current circumstances, is practically guaranteed to find itself burdened with a group of "think-alikes" throughout its technical staff, for the simple reason that those who speak out are shortly weeded out. This dangerous situation operates against solutions of major problems both for industry and for society. All facetious quips aside, it is unquestionably true that industry and society must breathe the same air, drink the same water, and share the same earth. Over the long pull, industry cannot possibly survive and prosper by conducting anti-human activities.
The problems presented by technology may be difficult, but they must be solved. A real dialogue, with opposing views placed in the open forum, represents the most constructive approach in working toward solutions.
we have only a monologue, in the absence
of adequately supported adversary technological assessment.
The early establishment of reprisal-free, fully
funded centers for adversary criticism of technology
can correct this serious situation, to the advantage both
of enterprise and society as a whole.