Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

“It’s obvious from the bloated stomach and the advanced state of decomposition, that this body has been dead for between 16 and 18 days.” That kind of pronouncement is exactly what “H” might say on a typical CSI episode, with overly dramatic pauses thrown in for effect and the all-important removal of the sunglasses just before the last word. But did you ever wonder how medical examiners actually discovered that type of information? Or about the kind of scientists who spent their lives researching such a gruesome subject?

Death’s Acre, a wonderful book that I just finished reading, is the memoir of Dr. Bill Blass, founder of the world’s first workshop to study in detail what happens to bodies after death. Blass established “The Anthropology Research Facility,” better known as “The Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, an outdoor laboratory to observe and document what happens to corpses over time under various conditions and in different environments. He and his students basically invented entire fields of study such as forensic entomology (the progression of insect activity in a corpse) and forensic anthropology (what can be deduced from skeletal remains). The book was a great read – if you have the stomach for it.

One particular episode, where Blass explained what motivated him to create his macabre farm in the first place, made a special impression on me. As a young anthropologist/archeologist, Blass had been called in by the local police to help investigate what appeared to be a simple case of grave robbing in a family cemetery. Digging around the grave, he unearthed what looked to Blass like a fresh corpse. A high-profile manhunt ensued to find the killer, presumably still at large, armed and dangerous. As the investigation progressed, however, Blass came to realize that the murder might not have been as recent as he had originally thought. The victim turned out to be a soldier from the Civil War who had met his untimely death on the battlefield. The estimated TOD (time of death) was off by approximately 150 years! But Blass turned his grave error into an opportunity. Realizing how precious little science knew about decomposition processes, he decided to undertake the important mission of expanding and deepening our understanding of death and decay, and to unearth buried truths.

Vilfredo Pareto, a sociologist, mathematician and founder of the field of microeconomics, once said, “Give me a fruitful error anytime, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections.” While reflecting on Blass’ experience and Pareto’s maxim, my thoughts turned (how could they not these days) to politics. When was the last time anyone ever heard politicians say that they had been wrong? I know that when I look back on my own life, I can’t even count the number of things that I would like to change, words I’d like to take back, ideas that I realize now were completely misguided, actions that I should or shouldn’t have taken. Extrapolating from a statistic of one would lead to the expectation that of all the politicians in the Knesset, at least one should have made at least one mistake over his career. Yet you never hear an admission along those lines, let alone an apology – even for a well-meant position – that in hindsight turned out to be mistaken.

This apparent infallibility seems to be present everywhere – not just among politicians. Many others, in diverse fields, are also permanently error-free. Rabbis, pundits on both the left and right, journalists, academics –even some scientists – seem to be incapable of making a mistake, or at least of admitting that they have made one. Perhaps they fear that such an admission would diminish their influence or allow room for detractors to attack their credibility. Perhaps the fixation on a specific worldview and the absolute faith in a particular path can blind one to any indication that sights need to be readjusted, that an internal GPS requires serious recalibration.

Dr. Blass’s turning of an embarrassing mistake into a “fruitful error” reminded me of a story in the Talmud about Rabbi Simon of Amasia, who had spent his career promoting his unique method of reading the Biblical text. One specific passage, however, made him realize that his entire approach had been incorrect all along. Immediately Rabbi Simon acknowledged his error and abandoned his teaching. When asked by his students how he could renounce a lifetime of work, he responded, “Just as I received reward for interpreting, so I will receive reward for retracting.” It was not his reputation that concerned him, but only what was true and correct.

The readiness of such extraordinary truth-seekers to admit mistakes, to realign their understanding, and to move forward in quite different directions should serve as inspiration. Old ideas, habits, and views should if necessary be allowed to die and decompose, providing the nutrients for fresh opinions, more appropriate conceptions, and more productive courses of action to spring to life.

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