Downsizing vocabulary by the CDC shows a desire to manipulate messages

Downsizing vocabulary by the CDC shows a desire to manipulate messages
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In 1972, George Carlin introduced us to "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" in a monologue. These words weren't officially banned, but Carlin was testing the boundaries of free speech in a comedic way.

On Dec. 15 a Washington Post story reported that the Trump administration prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC )to use seven words, including, "vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” Unfortunately, a comedian wasn't behind this news report.

According to the same Washington Post article, the Health and Human Services (HHS) eliminated questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in two surveys.


Other reports suggest the Trump administration deems it necessary to substitute acceptable phrases for the banned words. For instance, as a Forbes article suggests, you can swap out the phrase "CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes” for the banned terms "evidence-based" or "science-based." At best, “community standards and wishes” is a parochial set of beliefs that may not have anything to do with science or evidence.

The problem with word substitutions is that, as Forbes says, words have "specific meanings in medicine and science." If you're mandated to use the wrong words to frame your questions, that may lead to getting erroneous or unhelpful answers. 

CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, apparently feeling the pressure, tweeted on Dec. 17, "I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs."

Instead, Fitzgerald explains, "the language changes were merely suggestions to help make the agency’s budget more palatable to some Republicans and ease its passage" during the budget formulation process. HHS spokesperson Matt Lloyd agrees with Dr. Fitzgerald's explanation.

This type of word manipulation suggests that some government officials, intentionally or not, are beginning to bemuse the public. The CDC director has commented that these words haven’t really been banned, but that their use is discouraged. That, in conjunction with the HHS spokesperson agreement, minimally seems to acknowledge that these government agencies want to be careful about using specific words.

The suggested banning of words is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 futuristic novel, Fahrenheit 451, wherein reading was outlawed and firemen were ordered to burn all the books.

Another author, George Orwell, illustrated how state-based censorship could be used to influence societies' thoughts and behaviors in his novel, 1984. Bradbury and Orwell both projected how governments could force conformity and minimize diverse thinking by limiting access to words.

Science magazine points out that agency denials notwithstanding, the ban may have already been implemented. The seven banned words, it reports, "appeared two-thirds less frequently in Trump’s 2018 budget request to Congress than in former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden ahead of pace Trump set for days away from White House: CNN The Senate is setting a dangerous precedent with Iron Dome funding Obama says change may be coming 'too rapidly' for many MORE’s final budget submission for 2017." 

Whether the CDC has actually banned seven words is probably less important than its intent to frame arguments in a manner that appeases politicians.

Downsizing vocabulary by the CDC and other governmental agencies clearly illustrates a desire to manipulate messages. Whether the goal is to help secure funding, prosthelytize, or garner favor with a subset of voters, censoring words narrows our thinking and our world.

When a government's actions become reminiscent of a Bradbury or Orwell dystopian novel, it's headed in a dangerous direction.

Lynn R. Webster, M.D. is the vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences. He is the forer president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Webster is also the author of, "The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us. You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.