COMMENTARY

Censoring the CDC Is Scary and Crazy, Says Ethicist

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

December 18, 2017

In This Article

What Kind of Government Bans Legitimate Words?

On Friday, December 15, the Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had been banned from using the words "vulnerable," "science-based," "fetus," "transgender," "diversity," "entitlement," and, my particular favorite, "evidence-based."

Never mind that these words appear all the time in peer-reviewed science journals, textbooks, professional guidelines, and even government regulations. The message from on high was to not have any of these terms show up in CDC budget documents and communications with Congress.

By the next day, the administration was furiously backpedaling. Spokesman Matt Lloyd, from the CDC's bureaucratic organizational home, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told the media, "The assertion that HHS has 'banned words' is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process. 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."

This is what is known by journalism pros as a non-denial denial. Lloyd did not say that the arbitrary comment to the CDC prohibiting the words had not been issued. Rather, he said that the whole thing had been "mischaracterized"—whatever the heck that means. I think you can hear his comments as "message successfully delivered, so prove us wrong."

Once the government tells a key agency like the CDC not to use utterly legitimate words, does anyone really think that any more needs to be said? The chilling effect on all scientific agencies of the federal government is cold enough to make polar bears dying in the Arctic due to human-fueled climate change rejoice.

The Trump Administration can deny or reverse itself all it wants, but the Washington Post's reporting had enough eyewitnesses testify to the effort at censorship to give anti-totalitarianism 1984 author George Orwell hives.

And this administration has already shown its censorious hand. The seven-forbidden-words ban echoes earlier attempts to deny scientific facts by getting rid of the words "climate change" and "climate change adaptation" in favor of "weather extremes" and "resilience to weather extremes" in documents from the administration's Department of Agriculture.

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