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POV: How Censorship Can Harm Public Health

Directive to CDC “in line with the Trump administration’s previous moves to stifle science”


Last Friday, a Washington Post story reported that a directive was issued to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by the Trump administration that bars the agency from using seven words and phrases in CDC budget materials and official documents. According to the report, the censored terminology was “fetus,” “transgender,” “diversity,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” In a somewhat Orwellian twist, the CDC has apparently been told that an acceptable option for describing evidence or science-based information could read as follows: “The CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” It may be worth remembering that at times in world history community standards and wishes shared the consensus that the Earth was flat.

Hearteningly, pushback in the wake of the report has been swift, with broad outcry across scientific fields, including a letter from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health to Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, objecting to censorship at the CDC. The Department of Health and Human Services has since downplayed the report, the day after its release, and Brenda Fitzgerald, CDC director, has tweeted her assurance that there are no banned words at the CDC. However, it speaks volumes about the Trump administration’s attitude towards science that even the possibility of censoring words, however “unofficial” it may have been, may ever have been raised at all.

Sadly, this action would be in line with the Trump administration’s previous moves to stifle science. Over the last year, federal agencies have repeatedly taken action to restrict scientific communication. For example, President Trump’s appointees have removed information on climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency website and stripped gender identity categories from public health surveys and other Department of Health and Human Services documents. This latest attempt by the Trump administration to erase language that can shape the ideas of public health is one further attempt at creating alternate realities that may limit our ability to improve health.

It feels redundant to even have to point out that the country will face a slippery and dangerous slope if we allow the value of science, data, and evidence to be diminished and instead focus on creating a “consensus” approach to facts. While science and human understanding may start from intuition, rigorous observation and testing are required to arrive at meaningful, accurate information. Public health organizations throughout the world rely on evidence-based data to prevent and treat disease, in areas ranging from maternal and child health to cardiovascular disease to infectious diseases.

By banning the words “transgender” or “vulnerable” from CDC materials, health officials lose the ability to accurately understand and assess the status of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or to prevent the contagion of sexually transmissible diseases or hepatitis. Tracking the Zika virus, which largely affects pregnant women, will be impossible if we cannot use the word “fetus.” Those who aim to harm minorities will also get a pass, if the hands of the CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services are tied by having to exclude certain words in their official surveys that provide the evidence we need to eliminate these scourges.

Public health matters. The work of public health is based on science that points the way toward evidence-based efforts that can improve our collective health. If we base our public health practice on opinion or conjecture, we risk investing in wrong-headed approaches that will ultimately cause harm. Surely, our collective well-being deserves the best possible science, based on the best possible evidence, to guide what we do and how we do it.

Words matter. The words we use frame our ideas, our hypotheses, and eventually our actions. The administration’s attempt to limit the words that public health can use is a backhanded way to hobble our science and our work to create healthy populations, restricting the CDC’s scope of action without targeting the actions themselves.

The specific words that were forbidden by this administration reflect a clear agenda to limit the core purpose of public health. Public health is fundamentally concerned with the conditions that create a healthier world. This means that public health must be about science and evidence, focusing on vulnerable populations and health disparities. It must be about safeguarding health throughout the life course, starting, yes, from the fetus, and on through old age and death.

The crafters of this language ban may think they are immune from the potential consequences of their actions. They are wrong. If public health cannot do its work, we all suffer, even if we do not consider ourselves “vulnerable.” Without effective public health, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat is at risk. Without effective public health, the next infectious disease outbreak can affect all of us, rich and poor. Without public health, we face a much more vulnerable world.

It would be a pity if this happened because the Trump administration chose to censor what we say and how we think.

Elizabeth Sommers (SPH’89,’10) is a governing councilor of the American Public Health Association and a member of the School of Public Health Alumni Leadership Council. She can be reached at Elizabeth.Sommers@bmc.org.

Sandro Galea, School of Public Health dean and Robert A. Knox Professor, can be reached at sgalea@bu.edu.

This op-ed was originally published in the Boston Globe on December 18, 2017.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


7 Comments on POV: How Censorship Can Harm Public Health

  • Nancy Clover on 12.20.2017 at 8:12 am

    Thank you for a well written article. Words do matter and so does public health.

  • LarryO on 12.20.2017 at 9:13 am

    How is it even legal, or allowed that any administration can direct any agency to not use the best “evidence-based” or “science-based” words to ensure their publications and communications are as accurate as possible?
    What’s next?
    “War is peace.
    Freedom is slavery.
    Ignorance is strength.” ― George Orwell, 1984

    “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
    ― George Orwell, 1984

  • Mike MacSween on 12.20.2017 at 9:20 am

    Language policing again. Happens all over the place. Though what are they going to do if they do use any of the banned words? Though some of those should be easy enough to side-step. Maybe the POTUS hasn’t heard of Roget’s Thesaurus.

    In the meantime:


  • Andrew Wolfe on 12.20.2017 at 9:37 am

    So the Washington Post published a false story with unnamed sources with a unequivocal denial by the director of the agency, and these writers still blame Trump because the policy that never was implemented “was ever considered at all.”

  • Logic Rules on 12.20.2017 at 10:05 am

    Ever hear of synonyms! Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.

  • Gary Lawson on 12.20.2017 at 1:48 pm

    Umm, this so-called “ban” — proposed by career staffers in the CDC, not by policymakers — was simply internal guidelines about how to present material most effectively in budget requests to Congress. Not really the stuff of which hyperbolic op-eds are made.

    • Andrew Wolfe on 12.29.2017 at 8:17 pm

      Well, the “career staffers” succeeded in getting Trump castigated across the country. That’s teamwork for sure…

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