“Truly, though our element is time,” said the English poet Philip Larkin, “we are not suited to the long perspectives/ Open at each instant of our lives./ They link us to our losses.”
Funny about those long perspectives. We are addicted to them and yet, as Larkin suggested, we don’t handle them very well. Anyone doubting that must not have been reading the papers lately. Two news stories last week gave evidence of our simultaneous longing to know where we came from (and where we might be going) and our ability to botch the answers. Sometimes it’s hard not to suspect that the intensity of the longing contributes to the magnitude of the mistakes.
First came the stunning confession by one of Japan’s leading archaeologists that he had faked an internationally significant find in Miyagi Prefecture last month. A team to which Mr. Shinichi Fujimura belonged claimed to have unearthed at the Kamitakamori site stone tools dating back as much as 700,000 years — a claim that, if substantiated, would have helped boost arguments for an earlier, rather than later, date for the start of the Japanese Paleolithic Period. At the time, team members were quoted as saying that the tools belonged to roughly the same period as China’s Peking Man and would serve as “precious materials in the search for the roots of the Japanese people.”
As we have since learned, most of these precious materials came from Mr. Fujimura’s personal collection and are of rather more recent origin. This is a major blow. Although some of the Japanese sites associated with very early Paleolithic finds were already controversial — which may be what prompted newspaper photographers to mount their incriminating stakeout of Mr. Fujimura in the first place — this scandal has cast the findings of the entire local Paleolithic research effort into doubt, as Mr. Fujimura’s own professional institute admits. The sad thing is the loss of much doubtless unimpeachable work along with the bad. It could now be years, decades even, before the truth about Japan’s human origins is credibly established.
Yet the fiasco may prove salutary, too, if it makes us wonder about the motives driving all such supposedly objective scientific research. Mr. Fujimura says he can’t explain what he did, though his colleagues say they doubt it could have been for personal aggrandizement; his reputation was already distinguished. Whatever his reason, however, there is no question that much archaeological research is colored by a subliminally nationalist (or regionalist) competitiveness more appropriate to the football field than the excavation site. The push to clarify the long perspective of human existence should not be compromised by the slightest hint of a contest, personal or national. No present-day glory accrues to the bits of the planet that are home to the oldest or earliest relics, nor does racial longevity confer any special distinction on a people. Last week’s revelation should only have confirmed the wisdom of international cooperation on research of this kind — and of public skepticism about all sensational scientific claims.
The second “perspective corrective” last week came from scientists whose job is to peer forward in time, not backward. Astronomers in the United States who have been talking up the possibility of an object from outer space colliding with Earth in 2030 have issued a retraction in the wake of new observations. Maybe, they say, it will strike in 2071, but don’t count on it. And by the way, it may not even be an asteroid — the kind of terrifying “grimace” of the universe envisaged by H.G. Wells in his famous 1897 story “The Star.” It might just be an errant rocket booster that will burn up in the atmosphere. Oops.
This is the second time in two years that U.S. scientists have had to scramble to revise predictions of disastrous collisions. These are not ethical botches, like Mr. Fujimura’s, but they are botches nonetheless, if only of verification and timing. And they are perhaps similarly attributable to the fascination with long-term possibilities and the understandable urge to paint those possibilities in the most vivid colors imaginable. The prospect of headlines, it seems, can be more than irresistible, it can be determinative, even if it operates subconsciously.
The urge to look behind and ahead to make sense of the present is part of being human. But it’s as well to remember that a good bit of the view in both directions reflects guesswork and wishful thinking as much as what’s really out there. Science, no less than religion, sometimes sees only what it wants to see, as Mr. Fujimura pointed up with his creative, but indefensible “reductio ad absurdum”: When he didn’t see what he wanted to see, he put it there.
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