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Report that CDC analysts can't use certain words in budget documents raises alarm in scientific community

REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Last Friday, the Washington Post reported that policy analysts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were told in a recent meeting not to use seven words when preparing documents for the next presidential budget that will be sent to Congress.

The seven words are “diversity,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

The Associated Press subsequently reported that some CDC employees have also been told not to use the term “health equity.”

These reports immediately raised alarm and outrage in the scientific, medical and public health communities.

“This action is an obvious attempt to politicize the most fundamental tenets of medicine and research, which will have a chilling effect on the CDC’s ability to rely on science to justify the work it does to protect public health,” said Dr. Michael Munger, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, in a released statement

“Actions that divert the agency from its grounding in science could compromise the progress they are making in tracking opioid overdoses, reducing teen pregnancy, protecting the elderly from the flu, and slowing HIV transmission among transgender Americans,” wrote Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, in a blog.

Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was equally blunt. “Among the words forbidden to be used in CDC budget documents are ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based.’ I suppose one must not think those things either,” he said in a released statement.

“Here’s a word that’s still allowed: ridiculous,” he added.

In response to the strong backlash, Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesman Matt Lloyd quickly issued a statement to various media outlets in which he did not deny that the CDC analysts were told to avoid the seven (or eight) words. Instead, he took umbrage with the idea that the words had been “banned.”

“The assertion that HHS has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process,” Lloyd said. “HHS will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. HHS also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.”

As the Associated Press pointed out after that statement was issued, “HHS officials did not clarify or answer any other questions.”

Serious consequences

These Orwellian efforts at language modification may sound absurd, or even humorous, but they represent something quite serious.

“Such censorship is a direct blow at the essence of science: accurately describing the physical world around us,” explained science historian Gleb Tsipursky on Scientific American’s website. “Science is the best method that we as human beings have of figuring out the truth of reality, and wishing away the facts by trying to substitute them with “alternative facts” will greatly impede scientific progress.”

Tsipursky is particularly concerned with the report that the Trump administration wants the terms "science-based" and "evidence-based" to be replaced with "CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes." He explains why:

Apparently it wants doctors to shift away from treating people based on the best scientific research, and instead use the fuzzy standard of “community wishes.” Unfortunately, non-specialists —“community members” — are too easily fooled by false but emotionally appealing claims. For instance, the homeopathy industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Homeopathy is based on the false claim of the benefit of super-diluted substances and the principle of “like cures like.” While it has been debunked by hundreds of studies, people still want to believe in magic-like cures. Homeopathy is not harmless, yet despite the fact that it kills people every day, only recently has the federal government taken steps to address this problem. But under the new guidelines, these steps could be rolled back, and the CDC might have to take homeopathy “under consideration.”

For another example, consider the false claim that vaccines cause autism. This belief is spread widely across the US, and leads to many people failing to vaccinate their children against diseases like measles. While measles was practically eliminated in the US by 2000, in recent years outbreaks of measles have been on the rise in the US, driven by parents failing to vaccinate their children in a number of communities. Donald Trump has frequently expressed the false view that vaccines cause autism, and we should be very concerned about this being one of the “community wishes” taken under consideration. 

“The Trump administration has already taken very many steps that will result in thousands more people dying from pollution every year by rolling back government protections on pollution,” Tsipursky adds. “Its steps in censoring the science on public health will result in many, many more children, babies, and adults getting sick and dying. Yet because it will be incredibly difficult to trace a specific baby’s death to the Trump administration’s censorship, it will also get off scot-free.”

Not just words

In an email to CDC employees over the weekend (and later on Twitter), CDC director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald tried to calm the waters by saying that the 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.”

Some CDC officials are also now arguing that “the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans,” according to the New York Times.

But scientists and public health officials are not placated.

“If only word choice was the worst action this administration has taken to undermine the use of science in policy-making,” writes Halperin. “They’re not just trying to downplay the phrase ‘evidence-based.’ They’re trying to ditch the whole idea of basing policy on evidence.”

“The White House has no science advisor, and the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is a ghost town,” he explains. “Numerous political appointees—including the CDC director and the nominee for NOAA administrator — have financial conflicts of interest that lead many to question their ability to do the jobs. The administration has shut down studies where it expects it won’t like the outcome: on climate change in the tropics, on teen pregnancy prevention, and on the health risks of surface coal mining in West Virginia. Science agencies are targeted across the board for severe budget cuts.” 

“An exhaustive list is, quite frankly, impossible,” Halperin adds. “President Trump’s attacks on science harm our environment and make all of us sicker and less safe. If the Trump administration won’t allow federal agencies to do their job, it’s time to ask Congress to step up its game, engage in meaningful oversight, and do its job.”

FMI: You’ll find the original Washington Post article on the paper’s website. For more details about how the Trump Administration has been sidelining science, you can read a report released last summer by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It covers only the first six months of the administration, however.

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Comments (19)

Sad

Republican thought police. Orwellian to the max.

Amen to Rodney Loper

In a year of neofascist outrages, this is among the most blatant.

Absolutely stupid!!

Banning words or ideas is simply being ignorant! Talking about the effectiveness of the CDC is a good conversation, banning certain words is not. When is this nonsense going to stop? Liberals banning speakers and different ideas on college campuses, Govt agencies banning words and worse of all, people on different sides of an issue, banning discussion.
If I don’t buy into global warming at a level that satisfies those who do, I am a denier and can’t have that opinion. There is no discussion, only claims of ignorance on my part. Sadly discussion is being replaced by an absolute truth by both sides of the political isle.

Replacing Discussion

"If I don’t buy into global warming at a level that satisfies those who do, I am a denier and can’t have that opinion. There is no discussion, only claims of ignorance on my part." Sounds like you have a personal ax to grind here. Tell me, are official government sources calling you a denier and not letting you have that opinion? Or is it just mean, out of touch liberal elitists? If it's the latter, I don't really see how that is the same thing as the Minitrue proscribing the vocabulary used by the CDC.

The place of opinion in science is a topic for another day.

Nope

There is a big difference between scientists being prohibited from engaging in and talking about science, and universities not wanting racists and liars to cause disruption on campuses. Not that the latter doesn't raise free speech concerns, but there really is no comparison between the two issues.

The "discussion" on climate change is between science and facts on one side, and lies on the other. There is no legitimate discussion to be had from a scientific standpoint. You are welcome to your opinion on that, or on anything you want. You are welcome to have an opinion that the moon is made of cheese. But you are not entitled to have your opinion taken seriously by people who formed their opinions using science and facts.

No science can predict what

No science can predict what will happen in a hundred years unless it knows practically all parameters. That is not the case with climate.

Don't

Think anyone is predicting the snowfall on December 21, 2117, seems more like folks are saying this is a trend line, based on this existing data, and if these trends continue this is approximately what things will look like. For science and fact based guys like me this is extremely easy to comprehend and understand. With these variables and these parameters its a very sophisticated calculus problem, but if you got the math reasonably right its like a hand grenade, close enough. Very seldom if ever do we have "All parameters" especially in a complex environment. If I remember correctly you are the one that wanted the discussion on Quantum Physics! Meaning that one must use some theory in order to generate a potential result. Don't think that you are suggesting, that these guys don't use any "theory" to forecast potential results. Most of us know that Theorems: a theorem is a statement that has been proved on the basis of previously established statements, such as other theorems, and generally accepted statements, such as axioms. A theorem is a logical consequence of the axioms.
Meaning, that if these folks can't use, logic, and "generally accepted statements" as their basis to generate a theory, is there a suggestion that our entire mathematical system is baseless!

“Very seldom if ever do we

“Very seldom if ever do we have "All parameters" especially in a complex environment.” This is correct so the fewer parameters we have, the less precise the result is and it is even less precise the further into the future we try to predict. We can predict almost to a day when a comet will come next time in a hundred years but we cannot predict weather for a few days ahead. Predicting climate a hundred years ahead is useless exercise in math: the math is correct so it may seem reasonable but we have no clue about volcanoes, Sun activity, new inventions, etc.

We disagree

You need a different weatherman. Our guy is usually right to within a degree or 2, (over a 100 degree spectrum that's 2%), and many times within minutes of rain and or snow fall. He is also accurate 100% to when the sun comes up and goes down every day, pretty decent on cloud cover, when the moon shows up. Seems they pretty much nail snowstorms and are pretty dialed in to the hurricanes. Seems that these folks were also pretty good about forecasting clean air and clean water etc. by changing rules on pollution. Seems you have little faith in this kind of science, and faith in these folks, that they will get better as they get more knowledgeable. Your position seems to be these guys are all basically witch doctors and are fundamentally 100% clueless, word is the Arctic has a severe lack of Ice Cap this year, my contention is they din't get that data/information from reading Polar Bear poo, or seal entrails, nor is it something they didn't forecast as a potential issue. Useless exercise in math? Then you need to explain why Miami is trying to adjust for rising water levels, suspect they are paying a lot of money to these "witch doctor" types for any insights into what they might be looking at in 100 years!

Based on my experience,

Based on my experience, checking weather forecast for precipitation for more than one or two days ahead (and I use weather web site) is useless – reliability is practically zero. Yes, they get big snowstorms correctly in the middle but at the peripheries it’s anyone’s guess. They are not witchdoctors but they are limited by the current science and, while it can explain practically every weather phenomenon, it can’t predict what will happen in a few days because there are so many parameters, even in weather, that affect it and that cannot be taken into account. Of course, with climate, this is much more so… As for Miami, if the water level is rising, they have to deal with that but it doesn’t mean that someone can tell them what it will be in a hundred years.

Here comes fascism

Blatant, dictatorial, take full power and control acts like this should cause great alarm across the land, regardless of anyone's political sway. It is despicable and disgraceful and disgusting. It is the beginning of the end of democracy:(

Ironic

Isn't it ironic that the president who is always crying "fake news" doesn't like evidence or science -- ways to the truth.

Um, excuse me, but have you heard of the first amendment?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

No doubt they would argue that the first amendment doesn't apply because they are NOT Congress, they haven't made any law (only recommendations to help secure funding) and, "furthermore," they work for the executive branch and the first amendment doesn't say ANYthing about what the executive branch may or may not do regarding religion, freedom of speech or people's right to assemble or petition the government for any kind of redress whatsoever.

"censoring the science on public health will result in many, many more children, babies, and adults getting sick and dying . . . attacks on science harm our environment and make all of us sicker and less safe."

In regards to one of the most important Constitutional rights we (still) have, the next time you vote, try to remember that this is just the latest example of the kind of thing we get when we vote for today's Republicans.

Leftists, in general, have

Leftists, in general, have been re-definining the language for years, and still are. "Science!" is now a catch-all quote to explain all manner of expressly non-scientific, mind numbing mummery.

Case in point:
"They’re trying to ditch the whole idea of basing policy on evidence.”

There is exactly zero proof of that. Its nothing more than the hysterical cackling of a leftist blogger that doesn't like having his agenda disturbed. And yet it was included in this piece.

Obama in particular made a hobby of scrubbing language he found politically awkward from the fed bureaucracy. Funny how short some people's memory is.

Um…

“…Obama in particular made a hobby of scrubbing language he found politically awkward from the fed bureaucracy…”

Examples, please… Otherwise you, too, are providing "…zero proof of that.”

Science is not what you think it is, Mr. Senker.

Science is a method.

Science is a process of Observation, followed by the formulation of a question (a working hypothesis), testing of that formulation with an analysis of its truth or falsity, and finally a solution that can be replicated (sometimes a simple yes or no.)

Science is used to solve risk problems for those who sell insurance. It is called Actuarial Science.

Science is used to objectify a commercial enterprise with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, debits and credits that measure asserts and liabilities.

Science is used to examine weather patterns by Climatology, producing predictions of weather and mitigation of weather events.

Science is used to assess climate change through ice cores, measurement of glaciers, analysis of ocean temperatures and trend analysis. Planning for future events and assessing risk and trends are used by actuaries, engineers, military planners and biologists.

These examples might help you understand why Congress cannot seem to solve any of the major problems constituents face. They do not use science, and science is required to solve every one of these problems facing humankind.

I suspect your complaint would better be addressed tho those who have all the power and can't seem to employ any of the factual and trusted results science has already solved. They prefer spin and propaganda to results.

Your complaint is with those who call themselves (incorrectly) "conservative", not "leftists".
"Conservative" is an actual principle of all serious scientific measurement and disciplined inquiry.

What you are complaining about demonstrates what is better named "reactionary".

Obama was careful, thoughtful, measured

Obama was careful, thoughtful, measured and extremely patient.
He was a great orator and had a commanding grasp of the English language.
He offered hope and worked tirelessly to bring people together, around the world.
He knew the Constitution well, and taught it at the university level.

Contrast that to Trump now, who opens his mouth and lies, garbage and nonsense spew out.
He has a demonstrably poor grasp of English now, and leaves a trail of chaos and drama in his wake.
He is vicious and petty and punitive, reveling in eviscerating others and alienating them.
He either doesn't know the Constitution, or more likely: feels he is above the law.
He has spent years 'working with' the mob (as they control concrete in NY.)
He has publicly admired various world 'dictators' and would clearly love to be one himself!

He and Bannon publicly stated their shared goal, during the 2016 presidential election, of:
'obliterating the federal government". And they have been hard at it since Jan 20th. 2017

Apparently, this is kind of

Apparently, this is kind of fake news: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/cdc-director-says-there-are-no-ban.... And all grant writers know which words to use and which ones to avoid. The real problem is that no matter what Trump does, it will be condemned and the most nefarious motive will be attributed to his actions. And, no denial will ever be accepted… And everyone will believe it right away… It’s especially sad to see this coming from the scientific community who are supposed to wait until all facts are known before jumping to any conclusions…

Depends?

If your boss looks badly at your yearly budget (yes I worked for a CEO) if it has certain words, ideas in it, even if they are 100% true and factual, any reasonable business person is not going to promote those words, ideas. The CDC director didn't say the words were banned, also didn't say that you could use them in your budget, and not get whacked!
As noted in an earlier post, "T" is vindictive, and we know he will go after anyone, he doesn't agree with. "until all the facts are known" , that statement should apply to more than the scientific community, as earlier posters have noted, there are plenty of "T" administration behavioral points that show a clear trend, and truth and honesty are not in that trend.