Some readers cried foul at last week's editorial about a list of seven words that cannot be used in budgetary documents at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The editorial, based in part on a story from The Washington Post, reported that the forbidden words and phrases include "fetus," "evidence-based" and "science-based."
Critics of the editorial said the Post story was fake news and that it had been denied by officials at the CDC.
A couple of followup points are worth making here:
• First, it's worth noting that the Post has not seen fit to retract or correct the story in any significant way. (The original story did misidentify the CDC's Office of Financial Resources, and the Post corrected that.)
• Second, it is true that CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald denied the story, sort of. She tweeted: "I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs." But this doesn't really deny the Post story, which reported not so much that the words were banned but that they were not to be used in the preparation of CDC budget documents.
Post columnist Kathleen Parker, in a piece about the brouhaha that ran after the original story appeared, cited another explanation that was floated by Yuval Levin of the National Review. Levin reported that the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, had issued a style guide for departments to use as they prepared their budget documents. Included were three of the words on the "banned" list — "vulnerable," "diversity" and "entitlement" — along with the suggestion that they be used as little as possible because they were used too often and frequently misused. (We actually have some sympathy with that point.)
Levin's sources said the remaining words (the seventh word, by the way, is "transgender") were mentioned in a meeting as possible "trigger" words that might upset congressional Republicans who control the purse strings for funding research. Put another way, researchers seeking funding for their projects are being told to avoid phrases such as "evidence-based" or "science-based" because that's the sort of explosive language that could jeopardize federal funding. We can't speak for you, but we don't find this "alternative" explanation particularly comforting.
The whole point of bringing up this matter in the first place was to reflect yet again on the ignorance of and contempt for science that the Trump administration has demonstrated. Nothing in any of the "alternative" explanations does anything to change that — in fact, it expands that concern to Congress. It's certainly true that Congress has allowed politics to get in the way of funding legitimate research in the past — consider, for example, its successful moves to block funding for research into gun violence.
And we've seen other indications of what the Trump administration thinks about science. Last week's editorial also mentioned the "red team-blue team" idea floated by Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to test the scientific premise of human-caused climate change. Here's the idea: Assemble a so-called "red team" of dissenting scientists that would work to critique major scientific reports on climate change. The "blue team" then would rebut those criticisms, and so on.
The problem with that, of course, is that's how science works now. As one scientist told The New York Times: “Scientists are already spending most of their time trying to poke holes in what other scientists are saying. The whole red team-blue team concept misunderstands what science is all about.”
Whatever you make of the language flap at the CDC, here's the end result: Our attitude toward science and scientists puts at real risk the nation's position as a world scientific leader. And that's not fake news. (mm)