Double Cross: Dr. Bill Bass, Missing In Action
November 9, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Bones. Bones. Bones. Today’s Cross was to be Dr. Bill Bass, the anthropologist who created the Body Farm, the source for much of our knowledge and understanding of forensic anthropology today. Pretty darn cool, even if you’ve never watched any flavor of CSI.
Informed that Dr. Bass wasn’t big on computers, we were told to work through his flack, Susan Adams Seals. Our request for Dr. Bass to do Cross was over a month ago, and through Seals, Dr. Bass agreed, providing us with his curriculum vitae and his photograph to go with Cross. As the image shows, Dr. Bass can be quite the showman when he has something to sell, and he takes his time very seriously, with a “non-refundable $200 deposit” to hold the date if you want him to put on a show.
Knowing that Dr. Bass wasn’t computer-savvy, we sent out his questions a week earlier than usual to give him some extra time to respond. At each turn, our time frame and deadline were made clear. Deadlines are deadlines, even though they seem to be a challenge to some folks on occasion. Rather than test people’s level of responsibility, it’s our way to do everything possible to make it easy for the people being interviewed and to remind them of the time frame involved.
The deadline for today’s Cross came. And went. A nice reminder went out to Seals on Monday, November 7th, the day Dr. Bass’ responses were due. On November 8th, yesterday, we heard back from Seals.
Dr Bass looked over the questions and has declined the interview. Thank you for your interest in “The Body Farm” and Dr Bass.
Best wishes in the future-
It’s unclear whether Dr. Bass ever saw the questions. For that matter, it’s unclear whether Dr. Bass even knew about his commitment to do Cross. After all, we worked through his flack, and experience is that there is no source less reliable or untrustworthy than a flack. But regardless, despite having made a firm commitment to do Cross, having acted upon it, having received the questions early and having had ample opportunity to raise any question, change his mind, alert us to any problem, neither Dr. Bass nor his flack, Seals, did any of the foregoing. Instead, they just failed to keep their commitment. They burned me. They burned you.
The questions, posted below, raised no issue that could conceivably justify any “problem,” other than having do the actual work required to fulfill the commitment. Assuming that Seals didn’t make a commitment for Dr. Bass without his knowledge, and thereafter just neglect to deal with it (which is often the case with flacks, who lack the same grasp of obligation that guides responsible folks), then what could have been a great Cross is instead non-existent. Indeed, because her email came the day before, it left us without time to find a replacement, as has been the case in the past when someone committed to doing Cross than failed to honor their commitment.
So today, there will be no Cross. Dr. William M. Bass decided that he need not honor his commitment to me, and that he doesn’t care enough about you to fulfill his promise. For some people, keeping promises matters. Responsibility matters. Sadly, others lack the honor and integrity to do so. Meet Dr. Bass and his flack, Susan. They can be found in the empty spaces between the questions below.
Q1. You were born in 1928, the son of a Virginia lawyer and a schoolteacher, and grew up during the Great Depression. One year after the end of the Second World War, you started college at the University of Virginia, where you majored in psychology. Given your later fame as a life scientist, it seems a little odd that you started off in what (with the possible exception of sociology) may the squishiest of the social sciences. What attracted you to psychology? Did you have a career in mind? And was it rough, going to school with all those hardy, well-traveled GIs?
Q2. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, where you served at the Medical Research Laboratory in Knoxville studying the effect of noise on the human body, you decided to go to Kentucky and pursue a master’s in anthropology. What prompted the change? Were you dissatisfied with psychology, in pursuit of harder answers than the social sciences could offer? Or was it a latent awakening, a realization that this was where you were going to make your mark? Who was the first person to ask if you wanted to see a dead body? Was there a notable first case?
Q3. After you got your master’s, you left for Pennsylvania, where you studied for your doctorate under the supervision of Dr. Wilton Krogman, an internationally renowned scholar and pioneer of physical anthropology. In 1961, you wrote your dissertation on the skeletal variation of the Plains Indians, on the strength of four summers spent digging up prehistoric bones in South Dakota and analyzing your finds at the Smithsonian.
How’d you end up at the Smithsonian? And once you had the job, what made you want to leave your cozy laboratory for the harshness of a plains summer, excavating burials? Isn’t that an archaeologists’ job? Were you able to help them get over their cluelessness? And did you get any hassle from South Dakota’s living Native Americans over what you were doing? Was that a concern at the time about the morality of excavating burial sites? Would your work be possible today?
Q4. You spent eleven years teaching at the University of Kansas; by the time you went back to Knoxville, in 1971, you were a full-blown professor. When you signed on to head the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department, your mission was to turn their undergraduate program into a proper grad school. So where did the forensic stuff come from? How did you get your start? Did the police come to you or did you go to the police? Back then, what did the cops do when they found a dead body or a pile of bones? How shocking were the “best practices” of the day? What did you do to professionalize things?
Q5. In the early 70s, the field of forensic anthropology was still in its infancy. Why was it needed at all, given that pathology was already a well-established discipline? To what extent were you duplicating their work? Conversely, what things did you know that they didn’t? What made medical examiners want to call you in, cooperate with you? How much knowledge of medicine or law did forensic anthropologists need in the early years? Has that changed today?
Q6. You created the world-famous Body Farm in 1971. Where’d the impetus for an open-air research facility to watch dead bodies decay come from? Was there a standout case, something that made you realize how under-researched decomposition really was? Or did you just need a place to store smelly cadavers? How did you get the land, persuade various official-types to cooperate? Where did the bodies from? What did other Tennesseans think about the project? Your fellow academics? Did you anticipate that you and your Farm would become a sensation? Expect to featured in crime novels?
Q7. You and your students made the study of decomposition what it is today. In the process, you built forensic anthropology into one of the most powerful and reliable tool law enforcement has to get evidence from dead bodies. What kind of utility do you bring to the table? What do you help cops to see that, previously, went unseen? Can you give us some examples of cases you were able to crack with the methods you developed? How about cold cases? Has popular awareness of what you do led to a kind of “CSI Effect,” where criminals adjust their M.O.s to compensate for law enforcement’s enhanced capabilities?
Q8. The forensic “sciences” are in something of an existential crisis. Thanks to the efforts of journalists like Radley Balko to unmask fraudulent practitioners, faulty methods and, in some cases, entirely fake disciplines, things like bite-mark analysis or hair-matching that pretend to the level of science (and were marketed to juries by prosecutors) have fallen into disrepute. As a result, a large number of convictions that relied on junk analysis are being thrown out; the FBI, among others, has had to admit that the procedures at its labs were systemically flawed; and the future of the industry is in doubt.
What makes forensic anthropology different, a real science? Where’s the line between dressing up in a lab coat to tell cops, prosecutors and juries what they want to hear and being a real scientist? Is it just about the reliability of the results you produce, or is there a deeper difference? Are you worried about an undeserved backlash against your profession, given that charlatans have been dressing up as your scientific equals? How can we keep the government from relying on junk science going forward? Do you, for that matter, ever feel the pressure to tell your partners in law enforcement what they want to hear?
Q9. In addition to your chops as an analyst and scholar, you’re a lifelong educator who’s taught countless students. Over the years, have students’ expectations of the field changed? For instance, it’s possible to identify the race of a deceased person from skeletal remains because of physiological differences; has that proven controversial, in an age where academia is influenced by the belief that racial distinctions are unacceptable? Are there serious ethical or religious objections to allowing the dead to molder on the Body Farm, sticking their bones in a box and leaving them unburied? Forensic anthropology has had its share of controversy; how do you deal with it?
Q10. You claim, unconvincingly, to be retired, but between your ongoing work at the Body Farm, mentoring of students, the novels you publish with long-time collaborator Jon Jefferson, the talks you hold and the lengthy interviews you give, it’s a dubious claim. What’s in your future? Do you plan to work with law enforcement for as long as you possibly can? What remains to be done in the field you established and made happen? Or will you sit home and watch CSI on the tube?