On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had banned certain scientific words from use at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to an unnamed, outraged CDC source, higher-ups instructed staffers to avoid seven phrases in budget documents: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. In the days since, editorials have likened this to censorship in China, Cuba, and Belarus; to Polish laws prohibiting certain language to describe the Holocaust; and to the totalitarian regime described in 1984.* Follow-up reports said the “irrational and very dangerous” policy on budget language might put “millions of lives in danger” with its “an astonishing attack on reality-based medical treatment.”
But if reality is indeed in danger here, it’s not because of Donald Trump. The story of the language rules at CDC has quickly broken free of underlying facts. Despite what you may have heard, the alleged “ban” of seven words does not reveal a secret “War on Science” carried out by thought police in Washington; nor is it some evil plot to “enforce a political and ideological agenda,” as the Washington Post editorial board suggested. A more sober measure of this soggy crumb of news—one that’s, well, evidence-based rather than reflexive—suggests it should be understood as a byproduct of the Trump administration’s much-less-secret war on science funding. It appears that the ban is an attempt by bureaucrats to save their favorite projects from unforgiving budget cuts.
That explanation would be consistent with what’s been reported to this point. According to CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, “There are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC—period.” Meanwhile, anonymous sources at the Department of Health and Human Services told the National Review’s Yuval Levin this week that any language changes did not originate with political appointees, but instead came from career CDC officials who were strategizing how best to frame their upcoming budget request to Congress. What we’re seeing, his interviews suggest, is not a top-down effort to stamp out certain public-health initiatives, like those that aim to help the LGTBQ community, but, in fact, the opposite: a bottom-up attempt by lifers in the agency to reframe (and thus preserve) the very work they suspect may be in the greatest danger.
Reports about the seven dirty words at CDC should be understood in light of that budgetary process. Right now, the Trump administration is in the middle of preparing its fiscal 2019 request, to be submitted to Congress this coming February. It’s likely that the staffers at each agency at HHS have already submitted their proposals for how much money they think they need, for which specific projects, along with “budget narratives” explaining why. These, in turn, have probably been passed up to the budget team for the whole department, aggregated and sent on to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. Now the OMB is trying to combine proposals from across the federal government into one colossal document to be reviewed by lawmakers.
There are internal negotiations at each step, says Stuart Shapiro, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and a former OMB employee. The OMB may demand steeper cuts from budget staffers at HHS, for example; HHS may send specific feedback down to CDC with suggestions for where and how to trim. This scrutiny is likely to be extra intense this year, given the Trump administration’s extraordinary steps to reduce government spending. In its first budget request delivered last May, the White House called for cuts of $1.2 billion from the CDC, $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health, and $2.5 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency. (For comparison, the last Republican president, George W. Bush, proposed increasing NIH funding by $2.8 billion in his first budget request and cutting funds for the EPA by $500 million.)
HHS staffers have been telling those at CDC and other agencies that it would be better to avoid any phrases that might attract extra notice from the budget-slashers higher up the chain. This is tactical advice: They want to bolster the CDC’s position during these negotiations. Levin suggests that words like vulnerable, entitlement, or diversity might annoy Republicans in Congress and make them less inclined to grant requested funds. But it seems more likely that the same advice is meant to ward off cuts from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and his team of budget hawks; after all, they’ve been more tight-fisted than even congressional Republicans. (The latter rejected the Trump administration’s most dramatic cuts to science spending earlier this year.)
While back-and-forth discussions about budget documents may be normal, Shapiro says current staffers’ wariness of potential trigger words such as entitlement seems like something new. It’s also indicative of where we are today: Given this administration’s zeal for shrinking government and the radical polarization of political debate, it makes sense that bureaucrats would be doing whatever they can think of to protect their work from scrutiny. That is to say, their censorship is both strategic and self-imposed.
That may help explain why the list of forbidden phrases is so peculiar. Its haphazard composition hints at something other than a secretive attempt to stifle free expression in the government; to me, it reads more like some left-leaning functionary’s best guess about the words that might be banned by the White House, if the White House were to bother banning words. A few entries on the list make sense: It’s easy to imagine the Trump administration pushing back on uses of transgender, for example. But what about a word like fetus? That would seem to be a pretty useful term to have at your disposal, whatever your position on the ethics of abortion. And what of science-based and evidence-based? Those phrases don’t support any one political agenda; if anything, they’re maddeningly generic and easily abused by either side. (According to the Post, one senior CDC official told the staff that science-based and evidence-based should be abandoned because they’ve been overused.)
Some will argue that censorship can still be dangerous, even when it’s not imposed. That’s clearly not the case in this scenario. 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.” Similarly, we’ve learned in recent months that staffers at the EPA have been rebranding satellites that help keep track of climate change as those that study “weather,” and that they’ve elected to replace the phrase “climate change” with “climate resiliency” in documents. We’ve heard that a director at the Department of Agriculture advised her team that carbon-sequestration and greenhouse-gas reduction should instead be described as “building soil organic matter” and “increasing nutrient use efficiency.” “We won’t change the modeling,” the director told them, “just how we talk about it.”
It matters that this bullshit has been bubbling up from within the rank-and-file instead of raining down upon them. That is to say, it’s the scientists who have been using doublespeak to manipulate their bosses, not vice-versa.
Yet journalists have reported on these middle-management directives as if they were new and shocking evidence of the Trump administration’s sneaky plan to interfere with scientific research. In a follow-up story published Thursday, the Post puts the ban on words at CDC in the context of “a linguistic battle [waged] across official Washington, seeking to shift public perception of key policies by changing the way the federal government talks about climate change, scientific evidence and disadvantaged communities.”
The invocation of a secret war on science, or “1984-ish thought control,” doesn’t fit the fact that many of the language changes are coming from the lifelong bureaucrats and not their political overlords. Even when these changes are delivered from on high, it’s not clear how far the practice strays from that of prior administrations. Thursday’s story in the Post points out that directed euphemisms are the norm in Washington: Barack Obama’s budget team, for example, swapped out the “global war on terror” for what it called “overseas contingency operations.” It may be that the Trump team’s efforts in this area have been more aggressive (or cartoonish) than those that came before—but they’re all related.
In any case, it’s not like no one knows what our current president has been up to in the broader sense. You don’t have to search for secret anti-science signals in agency proceedings when he’s putting climate-change skeptics in control at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior, and leaving one-third of the most important science posts vacant. And there’s not much point to parsing adjectives in budgetary language when the most recent budget calls for cuts to science by the billions.
For all the blatancy of this administration, we’re still obsessing over red-alarm reports about its use of scientific language—which words are in and which are out. In October, for example, the Nation reported on the DOI’s new strategic plan. Surely it would have been jarring simply to describe that plan’s instrumental view of nature, with its firm avowal of “American energy dominance” and suggestion that millions of acres of public lands and waters may soon be auctioned off for oil and gas development. Yet in keeping with the trend for extraneous lexicographical analysis, the Nation story notes right up near the top that the new document makes no mention whatsoever of climate change, while the phrase turned up 46 times in a version put out under Obama; and also that it mentions conservation 25 times, compared to 74 in the Obama plan.
I agree it’s telling, in some way, that the department tasked with protecting America’s natural resources won’t even mention global warming once in its strategic plan, but does this information really add anything to what we knew already? Same goes for all that news—so much news—about the Trump administration’s efforts to excise every use of “climate change” or “global warming” from its official websites. We’ve heard these words have been “purged” from WhiteHouse.gov; that they’ve been “deleted” from NIH.gov; that they’ve been “scrubbed” from EPA.gov. If we claim those purges and deletions are informative, then what should we make of the fact that one can still find those phrases, climate change and global warming, on several of the sites from which they’ve supposedly been erased? Would we then conclude that the Trump administration is not perhaps as hostile toward the science of the climate as we’d thought?
Rather than endlessly track these proxy measures of corruption, we’d be better off closely watching things that happen in plain sight: the drastic paring back of environmental regulations; major cuts to public-health and science funding; rampant conflicts of interest in science leadership; and a blatant disregard for scientific expertise. These actions should freak you far more than any list of seven words self-censored by the CDC.
Correction, Dec. 22, 2017: This story originally stated that Polish laws that enforce Holocaust denial. The laws dictate that specific language be avoided in discussing the Holocaust. (Return.)