CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity, science-based, evidence-based

I read “CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity,” in yesterday’s Washington Post. While the story is no doubt true I thought at first I was reading The Onion or hearing a new George Carlin skit. According to the report:

The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases … in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

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.

Now I’m not surprised that the assault by the Republicans on reason, evidence, and science continues unabated, but it is still shocking to see your country go down this road.

First off, the substituted phrase  “science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” is revealing. You still use the word science but you change its meaning to “what people want or wish to be true.” The problem? That’s not science! So if the scientific evidence shows that humans evolved, that the climate is changing, or that there are such things as fetuses, you simply deny such truths because they aren’t compatible with community standards. Wow.

(I wrote previously about these anti-scientific trends in “The Chair of The U.S. House of “Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is a Christian Scientist!” After writing the post, I received an email from Zachary Kurz, the Communications Director for the Committee objecting to parts of my post and advising me to alter it. Really.)

All of this has striking parallels with Lysenkoism which

was a political campaign against genetics and science-based agriculture conducted by Trofim Lysenko, his followers and Soviet authorities. Lysenko served as the director of the Soviet Union’s Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

The pseudo-scientific ideas of Lysenkoism rejected Mendel’s laws of inheritance, as well as the concept of the gene and Darwinian natural selection. The result:

More than 3,000 mainstream biologists were sent to prison, fired, and numerous scientists were executed as part of a campaign instigated by Lysenko to suppress his scientific opponents. The president of the Agriculture Academy, Nikolai Vavilov, was sent to prison and died there, while scientific research in the field of genetics was effectively destroyed until the death of Stalin in 1953. Research and teaching in the fields of neurophysiology, cell biology, and many other biological disciplines was also negatively affected or banned.

The strategy for using ideology to undermine scientific truth exemplifies today’s American Republican Party. Their opposition to evolutionary biology and climate science are two striking examples. (Just a few days ago I read that “US-based climate scientists to take research to France.”) All of this makes me truly weep for my country as it continues to denigrate science, reason, and evidence while it elevates pseudo-science, conspiracy theory, and superstition. If we continue to accept nonsense, we will all be worse off. The sleep of reason has always produced monsters.

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Bonus – Here is the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in action. (The relevant segment begins about 3 minutes into the video.) Watch the scientifically illiterate Republican members of Congress juvenile attempts to critique a real climate scientist. I fear that our future will be like the Dark Ages of our past.

5 thoughts on “CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity, science-based, evidence-based

  1. My reaction to this story is laughter. I am absolutely certain that this order will be retracted. First, the scientists of CDC will simply refuse to conform to this order. Indeed, some of them CANNOT conform to the order. How can a scientist do research on the fetus without using the word “fetus”?

    Moreover, the entire scientific community will respond with outrage and fury. Scientists expend a lot of energy hammering out the precise meanings of the words they use. All scientific textbooks use these carefully defined terms. To simply declare some of them off-limits would be ruinous to science.

    Lastly, let us not forget the role of derision in this situation. I have already seen references to “1984” and “Newspeak”. The authoritarian tone of this order is so far beyond the pale of political discourse.

    The Trump Administration is led by incompetent people who don’t know what they’re doing. They refuse to take advice from professionals. Hence they make idiotic mistakes, some of which they must rescind. Consider, for example, the order permitting Americans to bring home elephant trophies. It never occurred to them that so many people would object so vociferously.

    Or consider Mr. Trump’s famous travel bans, which were overturned in courts repeatedly until his lawyers scaled it back to something vaguely within the bounds of US law.

    Or his amputation of large parts of two national monuments (and there are more amputations coming). Most jurists agree that these actions will be overturned in court.

    Remember that wisest of sages, Dr. Pangloss: “This is the best of all possible worlds!”

    Pollyanna Crawford

  2. I hope you are right on this one. I laughed too. Seems like it must come from the Onion or a George Carlin skit!

  3. I’m surprised that “scientist” was not on the forbidden list, since Republican fundamentalists have basically made that a dirty word. In describing myself, I now have to say that I’m a “person who engages in the the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment” (thank you, Google). It takes a lot longer, but maybe that’s good, since most people don’t really know what a scientist is anyway. Oh wait…I’m really an “engineer” (that’s even worse…).

  4. It appears that HHS is already walking back the story after an explosion of outrage. They say that these orders were presented verbally, not in writing, that they weren’t authorized, and they were meant to be advice for scientists who really wanted to avoid political entanglements, not orders from above.

    This does raise an interesting question regarding ethics. Suppose that you’re a middle manager at CDC. The research proposals from scientists go through you. You’re the highest level of approval at CDC, and you are a scientist by training. After you’ve helped tidy up a research proposal, you send it on to Washington where it will be vetted by political appointees who really don’t know jack about science. Do you advise your scientists to be political and word their proposals in ways more likely to be acceptable to your political masters? Or do you instead stoutly defend them and fight hard when political masters reject a proposal because it violates their political prejudices?

    What are the ethics of standing between truth and power?

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