The words we use matter and can influence what we think and how we act
Over the past few weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been making headlines over reports that the agency had advised its officials not to use seven words in budget documents.
As with all language, the words scientists and doctors use can fall out of favour—sometimes even as the result of deliberate crackdowns and concerted efforts. This can even be a good thing when it is done with the intention of improving the communication of ideas and knowledge. For example, medical journals and public health and safety officials had long sought to ban the word “accident” since it implies a random event, an act of God, or the inevitable. The CDC helped by developing a framework (based on intent and mechanism of injury) to standardise the grouping of injury data.
Yet this latest edict on language does not seem to have been done in that spirit. In contrast, the CDC has reportedly banned or advised against using the words “evidence based,” “science based,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “fetus,” “transgender,” and “vulnerable” in its preparations of presidential budget proposals. All seven would be objectionable, yet the injunction against using either “science based” or “evidence based” is particularly worrisome since this is the basis for informed decision making and effective public policy—the glue that staves off chaos in liberal democracies. Instead of these essential terms, it has been reported that the CDC might use the watered down phrase “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
The head of the CDC has responded to these reports by saying (in a way that leaves some wiggle room) that “there are no banned words at CDC,” while other officials have said that this list is about offering guidance on the language that will be most effective with conservatives in Congress. Although the tone, wording, and source of the restriction on these words are unclear, the placement of politics over science is evident and part of a larger pattern.
Over the past 12 months, government employees in a multitude of US departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Energy, have experienced similar pressures. Scientists at these organisations have had their research, conferences, and media contact subjected to monitoring and surveillance; with the help of an external agency, even their emails are subjected to scrutiny. The EPA has also witnessed the removal from official websites of so called “outdated language”: the words “global warming” and “climate change.” While a spate of emails between scientists (published by the Guardian) shows staff at the US Department of Agriculture have been told to replace references to climate change with weather extremes in their work (along with other terms).
Words and words as metaphors matter; they can influence what we think and how we act. Words mattered to a US judge who a decade ago banned cigarettes being described as “light” and “low tar” because this description could mislead the public about this product’s potential to harm. They mattered to the Associated Press when it banned its writers from using the phrase “illegal immigrants” since it could create a biased picture, which compromises the wellbeing and safety of immigrants. Similarly and yet in contrast, when Trump called global warming a “hoax” his words carried a meaning that later became manifest in his actions, such as turning away from the Paris Agreement and making wholesale cuts to environmental regulations.
The British government has intermittently attempted to muzzle health scientists and their research findings. For example, in 1988 it sought to have scientists sign a contract agreeing not to publish their findings if they went against government policy—the aim of which, said some commentators, was to control information and centralise power. Again, last year a British Cabinet initiative tried to ban researchers (who received government grants) from using their results to lobby for changes to laws or regulations. However, the actual banning of words themselves is more likely to be associated with authoritarian regimes. Former President Barack Obama, normally out of public view, recently evoked totalitarian Europe of the 1930s and warned of complacency in the midst of threats to democratic institutions.
Indeed, the words listed in the CDC’s “word ban” are similar to those cited by Putin’s authoritarian regime, which bans the promotion of LGBT culture, while giving Putin final say over the leadership of the Russian Academies of Science and Medical Sciences.
The year 2017 began with the banning of people from seven Muslim majority countries and ended with reports of the banning of seven words; both will affect the free flow of ideas and knowledge and, ultimately, the overall wellbeing of the nation.
Dr Chris Simms teaches at Dalhousie University, School of Health Administration, Halifax, Canada; he spent many years living and working in Africa’s health sector.
Competing interests: None declared.