Dec 18 2017

CDC Word “Ban”

I received a flood of e-mails over the weekend pointing me to reports that the CDC is banned from using seven words or phrases in their upcoming budget proposals. They are not George Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” you can never say on television.  Rather they are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” according to the Washington Post, who broke the story.

First let’s discuss the status of these reports – they are not official public statements from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the HHS (department of Health and Human Services) or the Trump Administration. They are anonymous reports from CDC officials who were present during a meeting in which the seven unwanted terms were discussed. Apparently this report was confirmed with several people who were present.

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald has pushed back against these reports without straight-up denying them.

“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs,” CDC  said in a Facebook post. “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Meanwhile the HHS stated the reports were a “mischaracterization.”

What I can best infer from the various reports and statements is that there is no official ban of any words or phrases. Rather, at a meaning where CDC officials were discussing their upcoming budget requests, it was recommended that certain phrases be avoided in order to have the best chance of approval from the Trump Administration. The seven dirty terms were a strategy, not a directive or outright ban. That is the “mischaracterization.”

It is telling, in my opinion, that no one is saying the reports are a lie, a fabrication, or completely wrong – just a “mischaracterization.”

The Post also reports:

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or “evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

This fits the “strategy” interpretation – how to phrase things in the budget requests so as not to trigger any pushback from the conservatives who currently hold the purse strings.

What All This Means

While it seems clear there is no official “ban,” the implications of these reports remain disturbing. This is a manifestation of excessive politicization of science at government institutions. I say “excessive” because any scientific effort funded by the government with public money is by definition politicized. Politics is the mechanism by which public priorities are established.

But the government should not micromanage the scientific process itself. They should maintain a “light touch” on scientific organizations and let the experts do their job, and let the free market of scientific ideas and evidence sort out what works from what doesn’t.

My choice of terms here is very deliberate. If you have been reading anything about the net neutrality debate you will likely have heard these terms countless times from the FCC director, Ajit Pai. I don’t want to get distracted by this separate controversy – I just want to make the point that conservatives seem to understand the limits of government micromanagement when they want to, but then are free to micromanage science over social issues they care about.

Also, while an outright ban would be more egregious, the passive inhibition of free thought at government funded scientific and health organizations is perhaps more pernicious. You don’t have to “ban” ideas if you have made it clear they are unwanted and you should avoid them if you want funding.

And of course, avoiding the term “science-based” caught my attention, given that I coined the term “science-based medicine.” In a way I am oddly flattered that they thought to include it and not just “evidence-based.” The alternate phrase, “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” I read as meaning that science won’t get in the way of ideology. If the community feels uncomfortable with a vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus, well their discomfort can take precedence over public health, no matter what the science says.

In case anyone is tempted to interpret all of this as benign and reports as an overreaction, we do have history to provide context. In 1997 congress added an amendment to an operations bill stating that the CDC is barred from research that “advocate or promote gun control.” The CDC was even threatened with having it’s budget cut. Since then the CDC has conducted no research into the health effects of gun ownership, gun control laws, or gun safety.   The congressional statement did not ban gun research itself, just advocacy, but the message was clear, and the CDC has listened. No gun research.

The bottom line is that the CDC has been properly cowed. They have to keep the powers that be happy by avoiding anything deemed controversial. Science and health are secondary to the prevailing ideology.

This is simply incompatible with the mission of a science-based organization. Science needs to be free, even a little rebellious. I don’t think that being horrified by these reports from the CDC is an overreaction. We need to be vigilant of even a whiff of ideology constraining science in our public institutions.

It is in everyone’s best interest that some agencies operate within a framework of professional standards, and that they are specifically cut off from political, ideological, or tribal agendas. A scientific organization charged with protecting the public health certainly qualifies.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “CDC Word “Ban””

  1. Ivan Grozny says:

    “This is a manifestation of excessive politicization of science at government institutions. I say “excessive” because any scientific effort funded by the government with public money is by definition politicized. Politics is the mechanism by which public priorities are established.”

    Except, of course, in the case of “climate change”. There, a 100 times increase in funding for building models to demonstrate its dangers and devise strategies for fighting it, were prompted only by a genuine scientific concern and a wish to dis-interestingly explore this important scientific issue.

  2. PunctureKit says:

    “…conservatives seem to understand the limits of government micromanagement when they want to, but then are free to micromanage science over social issues they care about.”
    Nicely put. Thank you.

  3. Waydude says:

    “”My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks,” Trump said. “As we do so, we should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.”

    So. Much. Bullshit. Honest inquiry, but if you use a big word I don’t like, then no funding for you. Robust debate, but only if you agree with me. Committed to research but only fro things we approve of. Golf course design, penis pills, spray tans.

    This is horrifying. This is not just a ban, which essentially it is, it is a constriction of thought. You can control people with words. Once you control them with how they have to present themselves just to get attention, you can control how they start to think, how they start to perceive their own ideas. This is the orwellian, this is the subtle jackboot standing on your back. I can only hope that not only do they continue to use these phases and words but they absolutely flood their correspondences with them.

  4. icabod says:

    Please check this report.
    What I read was that the “ban” applied to the budget process. That the words aren’t qualifiable. Take “entitlement” the definition that first appeared in a search was ” the fact of having a right to something, the amount to which a person has a right, the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment”
    Take the “special treatment.” In the context of science and the budget process, what is it?
    Work in government, the correct definition of a term is very important. Consider this from a municipal code:
    “Adult hotel” means a hotel or motel wherein a substantial or significant portion of the material presented over image-producing devices within individual rooms that are occupied by guests are distinguished or characterized by an emphasis on matters depicting or describing “specified sexual activities” or “specified anatomical areas” (as defined below)”
    The definition of “specified sexual activities” or “specified anatomical areas” is clinical and graphic. See: https://library.municode.com/ks/iola/codes/code_of_ordinances?
    nodeId=IOCO_CH18BU_ARTIXADENESADHO
    This brings to mind Justice Portter Stewart’s quote in 1964:
    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
    Words that do not have a qualifiable, scientific definition can cause confusion.

  5. petrossa says:

    Such ‘strategies’ are not something of recent times. It would take credulity to extreme heights to believe that politicized science didn’t exist under any administration. The ‘war on coal’ comes to mind which used government agencies to produce extreme regulations based on ‘scientific research’ later proven to be completely false.

  6. RickK says:

    I can’t go look up the details now, but wasn’t there an example of this earlier in the year? There was a story about someone in government recommended not using certain words in research grant applications if they wanted approval. The official wasn’t banning words, but was actually trying to be helpful by guidjping applicants through our new reality. But the media treated it as a “ban”.

    This looks like a similar case.

    Also, re your statement: “We need to be vigilant of even a whiff of ideology constraining science in our public institutions.” Cue hardnose/Egnor screaming “materialism!”

  7. MosBen says:

    Ivan, did you not understand the meaning of the very section that you quoted? Any decision about allocation of funds involves some amount of politics because politics is the work of setting the priorities of a society, mainly through the allocation of funds. So yes, funding climate change research is to some degree a political decision, but that does not mean that the underlying data is unreliable or in some other respect incorrect or corrupted by politics. Everyone, everywhere, has their own set of biases and political inclinations. Doing good scientific studies, replicating those studies, exploring scientific issues from different fields of study and investigating different aspects of the issue is how we try to control for the biases and political proclivities of individuals. An individual climate scientist may have publishes a study that involved unreliable data that was distorted by the bias and political inclination of the researcher, but the body of knowledge about climate science is nevertheless reliable. There is no evidence of broad-based, systemic bias in the research, with opponents invariably relying on conspiracy theorizing (“Academic researchers receive some of their income from grants, therefore there is an incentive to lie, therefore they are definitely lying.”).

  8. NotAMarsupial says:

    RickK,
    If we are thinking of the same thing then it is the restrictions against CDC research that is meant to “advocate or promote gun control” that Steve mentions in the article.

  9. Robney says:

    I attended a conference recently on the impacts of climate change on coral bleaching.

    In the taxi on the way home, the taxi driver asked me about my day and when I mentioned climate change he expressed incredulity and asked me whether I believed in it. I answered that I did.

    Then he started spewing all the common denialist talking points, in particular he distrusted climate science because he believed it had become corrupted by government funding grants and has become a gravy train for scientists.

    I asked him if he accepted other areas of science, such as cancer research, which are equally well-funded and therefore equally liable to being corrupted by funding grant incentives.

    His answer was yes because cancer research ‘saves lives’. I pointed out that his conclusion that cancer research is legitimate because it saves lives is a conclusion which assumes the legitimacy of cancer research (because if it wasn’t legitimate research it wouldn’t save lives), and was inconsistent with his scepticism regarding climate science.

    He was selecting arguments to support his preconceived conclusions and assumptions (cancer research is legitimate, climate science is unreliable).

    I don’t think I persuaded him.

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