Bunk, says the Centers for Disease Control. Its staff was NOT, repeat NOT, forbidden to use certain terms—“diversity,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “science-based” and “evidence-based”—in budget documents.
These were merely, um, suggestions from the Health and Human Services Department mother ship to avoid, uh, let’s see, “over-used” terminology that might confuse or set off alarms with members of Congress and the Trump administration as they review the budget. No ban here, move along please.
The whole mishegoss is yet another fascinating study in how carefully controlled language can be used to try to shape beliefs. Donald Trump and his administration excel at this, epitomized by “fake news.”
And while this HHS advice may not have been intended as a total ban on using the words, the discussion was instructive. For example, CDC staffers were advised they could replace “science-based” with something like: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
“Doctor, I seem to have lost the use of my right arm. What does the community think should be done?”
Community standards and wishes are anathema to scientific method, which sets out to prove or disprove theories from a neutral perspective. But political philosophy does affect scientific research very directly in one way: whether or not to pursue it.
At one time, research on AIDS was controversial because many Christians thought it was God’s punishment for homosexuals. President Reagan’s press secretary made homosexual jokes about it. We can only imagine how a Trump administration would have approached AIDS if it had appeared today. (One of the inadvisable words, remember, is “transgender.”)
Now the Trump administration is pulling back funding for all kinds of research. The next time an Ebola or Zika threat surfaces, the CDC will be far less prepared to deal with it.
But back to those Health and Human Services guidelines. The website of the magazine Science analyzed several years of CDC budget requests and found that the troublesome words (“vulnerable”? Really?) didn’t appear often anyway. For example, “entitlement” appeared only in reference to a program that had “Entitlement” in its title.
If HHS was thinking of an actual ban, it at least had the good sense not to write it down. Reports of the instructions emerged from horrified CDC staffers after a briefing that may have been less than clear in the breadth of its intent.
Still, perhaps we should take it to heart.
When George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” comedy routine inspired a Supreme Court majority to ban certain words from public discourse, Gore Vidal accepted the challenge in his novel “Myron” by substituting names of justices for bad words. For example, the vulgar term for a male reproductive organ was a “rehnquist.” The pair of roughly circular appendages below it were “powells”.
The CDC should update this practice with its budget report. If it has the “trumps” to do it.
—The Mercury News (San Jose, California)