A lot of what we learned as children has turned out to be misinformation. Not only have the facts changed, many standard right and wrong ways of doing things have also evolved over time. Both science and language are examples of how right and wrong have changed over time.My grandparents were taught in school (probably around 1910) that there are eight planets. However, in 1930, Pluto was discovered and added as the ninth planet. But what my grandparents learned in school turned out to be correct after all (at least for now), since scientists agreed in 2006 after years of debate that Pluto really did not meet the criteria for a planet. It was reclassified as a dwarf planet and plutoid (also called an ice dwarf).
Another scientific fact we learned in high school is that the atomic weights of elements on the periodic table of elements are constant numbers that do not vary. In 2010 scientists discovered that some of the elements’ atomic weights actually do vary in nature, and should be expressed as a range. For example, the atomic weight of oxygen is slightly more in the air than it is in seawater.
Perhaps it’s not a good idea to categorize scientific theories as right or wrong, since there are grey areas in between. Science is obviously a work in progress. Scientists offer theories, and other scientists offer revisions of the theories. Theories that are proven wrong may just be proven right after all in the future.
Our use of language is another area where right and wrong shifts over time. Most of us were taught that it’s incorrect grammar to end a sentence with a preposition. Most grammarians now disagree with this old rule because using a preposition at the end of a sentence reflects the way people actually speak. For example, it’s uncommon to hear people say, “With what did you open that wine bottle?” It sounds pretentious. The normal way of expressing this is, “What did you open that wine bottle with?”
One language issue now being widely discussed is the spacing between sentences on a typed page. We were taught that sentences should be separated with two spaces, a rule that goes back to the time when typewriters were first used. The spacing on a typewriter was the same for all characters, whether a narrow “I” or wide “M.” As a result, typewriting looked uneven, making it harder for the eye to see the end of one sentence and beginning of the next. Two spaces were used between sentences on typewriters to mimic the spacing by traditional typesetters. Now, however, the computer has provided proportional spacing. The readability problem that existed with typewriters has disappeared. The rule has evolved and now one space between sentences on word-processed material is considered proper.
Human beings tend to feel comfortable with absolutes – right or wrong, black or white, true or false, good or bad. But most things are neither right or wrong, black or white, they are shades of grey. This is as true for moral absolutes as it is for scientific theories and language use. When we’re young, we’re taught moral absolutes of right and wrong, often based on the 10 Commandments. As we get older, we learn to live with the vast grey areas, based on circumstances and human frailties.
In the public relations profession, we are frequently faced with a need to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s truth and what’s not, and sometimes are at odds with our employers or clients over this. We can’t live with the grey areas if it’s obvious that something is actually black or white.
Senior PR professionals surveyed in a recent study by a Baylor University researcher and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin believe they have a responsibility to be independent voices in their organizations not weighed down by politics or the perspectives of their organizations, and to criticize the decisions of people in senior management when they believe them to be wrong. The participants in the survey noted that it takes courage to disagree with the boss or the client on ethical issues. Some who did this were demoted or fired for refusing to do something that was blatantly unethical, and some resigned when their advice was rejected, including one who refused to include false information in a press release.
One thing is for certain: popular opinion is not the judge of right and wrong. The majority can be and have been wrong, time and again.