Since January, world oil prices have dropped about 25 percent, confounding the "experts" who again were predicting that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries would rise from the ashes and push prices sky-high as it did in 1973 and again in 1979.

A new analysis by Prof. Eliyahu Kanovsky -- the American-Israeli oil expert who correctly scoffed at OPEC's ability to sustain inflated prices in earlier periods -- predicts "stable or declining prices," in real terms.

In a paper to be published shortly by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Kanovsky recalls that the conventional forecasts of the 1970s and early 1980s foresaw a situation in which the treasuries of OPEC countries would bulge with ever-growing financial surpluses. Then they would use their riches to "buy up" Western corporations and modern weaponry.

"These views were accepted in toto by the United States and other governments, by the press and by academic specialists," Kanovsky says. "I do not recall any other case in recent history where so few misled so many for so long."

Kanovsky is too polite to name names or organizations. But the U.S. departments of state and energy, the World Bank and the Central Intelligence Agency all missed the boat. For example, Alfred Atherton, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, told a House foreign affairs subcommittee in 1974 that, "A small group of countries in the {Persian} Gulf are well on their way to becoming financial giants, since the world must continue to depend on the oil resources of the region."

The basis for this view was that oil was a finite resource that was fast being depleted and, therefore, that prices would go up. OPEC nations, notably the Arab group, held most of the reserves, hence would exert the most power.

Yet, as Prof. S. Fred Singer, then at the University of Virginia, said in a perceptive analysis in 1984, "The same statement could have been made at any time during the last century."

The gloom-and- doomers paid little attention to the reality that soaring oil prices set by OPEC would trigger efficiency, conservation and discovery of new sources of oil.

By itself, perhaps it is not so extraordinary that presumed experts misjudged events.

The more serious part of the equation is that these forecasts and forecasters had an enormous influence on the shaping of foreign and economic policy in the United States, Europe and Japan.

As the Reagan administration completed its first year in office in 1981, the oil boom looked to be unabated.

Forecasts of rising prices poured forth from Wall Street and the booming Southwest, which was riding the crest like the California gold rush in the mid-19th century. Bankers and savings and loans bet on $85 to $100 per barrel of oil -- and lost.

Oil prices today hover around $17 and $18 per barrel, compared with the $40 peak in 1981. In real terms, today's oil prices are lower than they were 16 years ago.

But it's hard to put down the seductive theory that the world is running short of oil again and, therefore, the price must rise. It's equally hard to discourage some of the nation's leading publications from giving credence to the very same experts who misled them before.

Since 1985, conventional forecasters have become more cautious, "steadily postponing the arrival of doomsday," as Kanovsky says.

Many of the post-1985 guesstimates anticipated rising real oil prices beginning in the 1990s. But the most recent among them suggest the turnaround will begin in the mid-1990s or later.

And always, their argument is that the OPEC producers, led by Saudi Arabia, will finally realize that all they have to do is to restrict production and the price will go up.

What the discredited forecasters continue to forget is that the oil producers must keep pumping oil to pay for huge budgetary costs, including military expenditures.

In his new study, Kanovsky cites four major factors that will tend to hold down OPEC price increases:

The "vital self-interest" of the oil-exporting nations, especially in the Persian Gulf, that are dependent on their "single crop" for revenue to run their governments.

The rising environmental movement, which boosts pressure all over the world for use of cleaner fuels.

A reduction in the cost for oil and gas exploration, credited to new technology.

Rising non-OPEC output in the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the Third World, which are now more open to joint development with Western oil companies.

Wars and other major upheavals, Kanovsky acknowledges, could affect the oil supply-demand equation.

But for the long run, the world won't face a "third" oil shock, so long as it pursues conservation and ignores oil mavens selling a panic scenario.