Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Don't Mess With History 

This story is a wonderful example of human behavior and belief systems that PR practitioners run into regularly. A scientist has derived a new theory for the mass extinction of natives in Mexico at the time of the Spanish Explorers. The theory appears to be a better fit for the disease that swept through Indian tribes than smallpox brought by the Spanish. So what has happened? It has touched off a huge debate among academics who have based their views of history on everything evil coming with the conquistadors.

In the US, there has been a long history of belief that big corporations are too powerful and self-interested and the CEOs who run them too greedy. Critics point to the Enrons and Worldcoms and Tycos to make their case while ignoring hundreds of other companies that behave honorably. Try to make this point and one is ignored or shouted down. Facts are not allowed to get in the way of belief, as was noted yesterday

PR practitioners should be bound by facts, even when facts go against conventional wisdom. That's why we can find ourselves in minority positions. The hard part is making sure we do not pick facts to advantage and ignore others, which is easy enough to do. Many positions we are asked to promote lie in gray areas among conflicting facts, because evidence is not yet clear. This was the case, for example, in the early days of smoking studies, the early research into man-made global warming, and early pollution studies. When this happens, it is easy to be on the wrong side of an issue, but one should be willing to change in the face of new evidence. That's hard to do, as the academics of Mexico are learning.


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