Here's What Actually Happened With That List of "Banned Words" at the CDC

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Here's What Actually Happened With That List of "Banned Words" at the CDC

On Dec. 15, The Washington Post published a report detailing a list of words they said the Trump administration had forbidden the Center for Disease Control from using in briefings. But while the existence of this list has been confirmed by multiple CDC sources, the nature of the so-called “ban” and who ordered it are still not entirely clear.

Naturally, upon reports of the list, scientists and those who believe in the scientific process were up in arms across the country. The list, which was comprised of the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” obviously presented a direct threat to scientific advancement, inclusion and transparency in the United States. But then other reports began to trickle in.

The New York Times quickly got in on the story, publishing their own article that didn’t implicate the Trump administration directly. After interviewing several former and current officials from both the CDC and Health and Human Services (which is more involved with the budgeting process), NYT came away with a different story. Here they are quoting a spokesman for HHS—the cabinet-level department overseeing the CDC:

“The assertion that H.H.S. has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process,” an agency spokesman, Matt Lloyd, said in an email. “H.H.S. will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. H.H.S. also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.”

The list of words does exist, but if they aren’t banned words, what are they? Well, the list was first unveiled at meeting of senior CDC officials to discuss budgeting with HHS officials. Here’s what a former CDC official had to say about the list as it pertained to the CDC’s budget:

“It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian, but they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the C.D.C. does,” the former official said. “They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what C.D.C. can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.”

By that account, the ban list is less government censorship and more scientists trying to coax science-averse Republicans into funding their proposals. That would mean the list is an internal strategy, designed to diplomatically navigate a conservative group which holds the reins to the funding the CDC needs. This jibes with WaPo’s claim that the CDC had suggested alternative words or phrases to use instead of the seven words. If the “ban” list came from within the CDC and HHS, it would make sense for them to suggest alternative ways to say the same thing.

Still, PBS notes that some scientists say a list of discouraged words, even if they’re not outright banned, will direct policy at the CDC, and will be seen as an indirect order to give those issues short shrift.

Finally, the CDC director Brenna Fitzgerald took to social media to try to clear the air. And while she did make it very clear that the CDC would certainly not be outright banning specific words in their reports, she didn’t mention who actually came up with the ban or what was actually said at the meeting:

With the director asserting there are no banned words, the likelihood of the list being an internal document rises. It means that the list of seven words was most likely a budget strategy floated by the CDC in an effort to get as much money as possible from a government controlled by conservatives. So while we probably can’t directly blame the Trump administration for cut-and-dried censorship, we can still blame Republicans in Congress and in Trump’s administration for being so notoriously, idiotically anti-science that senior CDC officials are trying to avoid using the word itself when asking for money.