The Washington Post reported several days ago that the Trump administration had issued a list of words that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention couldn’t use in documents pertaining to the 2018 budget. The list included words like “fetus,” “transgender,” and “evidence-based.”
While it certainly fit the narrative of an anti-science administration censoring words they didn’t like, some of the words didn’t really make much sense. What was so wrong with the words “entitlement,” “vulnerable,” and “diversity”?
There’s finally a better explanation for what’s going on, and Slate‘s Daniel Engber does a nice job of laying it out. He notes that the CDC’s Director Brenda Fitzgerald said very bluntly, “there are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC — period.” Other officials said the “ban” wasn’t even coming from the political appointees.
So what gives?
The explanation that fits all the available evidence still suggests the Trump administration has a problem with science. But that list of words you shouldn’t use isn’t a political attack on science but rather a strategic way to get around Trump officials.
Consider this: You’re a CDC worker who may want to study a problem affecting transgender people. If that’s listed on the budget, it may raise red flags when the numbers have to be approved by the Republicans in charge. Better to avoid the “T” word and use a substitute than have your request rejected because it triggers conservative beliefs. (Similarly, scientists studying climate change have proposed studying “climate resiliency” at the EPA to avoid conservative backlash.)
What we’re seeing from the CDC is not an effort to suppress unwelcome research, but rather an effort to conceal it under euphemism. If there is a secret plot at work in any of these lexical decisions, it’s aimed at simple-minded White House hacks and ideologues in Congress. Staffers have been advised to swap out the phrase science-based, for instance, for a more elaborate and confusing sentence: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
It’s still frustrating that professionals at the CDC have to play such idiotic political games to trick Republicans into accepting their requests, but the reality of the situation is somewhat less nefarious than Trump officials declaring that certain words are forbidden.
It’s not that Republicans are evil (in this case); it’s that they’re dumb enough not to realize they’re being tricked. And CDC officials want to use that ignorance to their advantage.
So there. That should totally restore your faith in this government.
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