Science

A Seven-Word Mystery at the CDC

That viral story of censorship at a public health agency may have been too good -- or outrageous -- to be true.

Evidence-based?

Photographer: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It now appears the rumor that the government was banning the term “evidence-based” from the Centers for Disease Control was itself not entirely evidence-based. The very thought of the U.S. government banning words -- any words -- is shocking. Over the weekend, outrage spread through the media like wildfire through California. Many people judged this alleged threat to the concept of evidence to be far too serious to warrant waiting for evidence. 

It all apparently started with The Washington Post reporting on Friday that an unnamed “analyst” had said that, at a meeting last Thursday, unnamed officials told CDC workers that they were “banned” from the use of seven words: entitlement, diversity, vulnerable, transgender, science-based, evidence-based and fetus. The story and others that cribbed from it were short on the who, what, when, where and (especially) why, but tried to make up for it comments from important people expressing their thoughts on the matter.

More stories followed, offering no additional information but stronger outrage. There were, of course, references to George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.

It’s good to speak out for the cause of reason and evidence, but times like this might require that people go further -- personally exercising reason and demanding evidence. Who actually chose the banned words? Who reported the list to CDC? Did it really originate with Trump or one of Trump’s appointees? The stories didn’t say. What would be the punishment if some hapless CDC epidemiologist uttered one of the seven words in the cafeteria? The stories didn’t say. And why “fetus”? Don’t conservatives want to protect fetuses? Isn’t that what the pro-life movement is all about? Something didn’t quite make sense.

It’s unrealistic to expect that the Trump government will stand up and admit that they hate science, evidence or fetuses. There’s no reason to think they hate fetuses, and science has proven too powerful to easily disavow openly. For politicians and business leaders, it’s much easier to slap the label “junk science” on any science with inconvenient conclusions, and “evidence-based” on anything that benefits them. History has shown that it’s not that hard to dig up scientists willing to back up just about anything.

When Trump backed out of the Paris climate treaty earlier this year, he didn’t say that he was going to ignore evidence. Far from it. Yes, there’s an overwhelming scientific case that cutting down on fossil fuel emissions will make climate change much less severe. But people fighting against climate action keep saying they love evidence so much that they want even more before they do anything. Unfortunately, they are winning that war.

Immediacy and novelty hold great sway in the social media world, and so it’s not surprising that people are more outraged by a rumor that’s been circulating for all of five minutes than by the problems of climate change and biodiversity loss that have been known for decades.

Later in the weekend, The New York Times reported that, while they’d corroborated the list of words, they’d reached another anonymous source who said it might not have been a government order to crack down on language, evidence, science and fetuses, but something from within the organization. The rationale, according to the unnamed source reached by the Times, was that someone was trying to help CDC scientists avoid words that might upset conservatives now in charge of the purse strings.

That at least made some sense. People within CDC who want to protect fetuses from the Zika virus as well as other threats to prenatal health might think it’s easier to convince a Republican Congress to help by using the term “unborn baby.” At least that’s a pragmatic justification.

The most informative story I read so far ran in the medical news site STAT, which still used unnamed sources but corroborated the Times’s alternative version that the word-policing came from within the CDC ranks, and that its purpose was to second-guess the preferences of conservatives in charge of government funding. According to that story:

A Health and Human Services official who asked not to be named told STAT it was not accurate to say that CDC had been ordered not to use the seven words. Instead, he said, agency budget analysts were told that some words and phrasing might be more likely to win support for the CDC’s budget in the current Congress.

That would suggest that the seven words are not those the Republican government has said it won’t tolerate, but words that scientists and administrators at CDC are assuming the Republican government won’t like. There’s a world of difference between those two stories.

Unfortunately, nobody who was present at the meeting has yet come forward openly, naming names, to reveal which story, if either, is true. I sent a request for the truth to the organization that oversees CDC -- the Department of Health and Human Services. I have yet to get a reply. The lack of transparency is an outrage.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net

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