Monday, December 18, 2017

"Banned" Words at the CDC

Mark Tushnet

Lord knows there's enough to be outraged at in the Trump administration's world. But the so-called "ban" on seven words at the CDC doesn't seem to me to be one of them -- or, at least, the thing to focus on is not the "ban" but the reason for it.

As far as I can tell from the reporting, the story is this: It's time to work on budget documents for next year. Some of those documents have been prepared and sent up the chain for review. When the higher ups saw several of the words in those documents, they sent them back down for revision (and added several other words to the list). The reason is that the higher-ups either thought that using those words was inappropriate or -- I think more likely -- were concerned that political appointees dealing with the budget would see the words and down-grade the budget requests. So: to preserve the possibility that the requests would be funded appropriately, those working on budget documents were told to avoid the words. (The give-away, I think, is the suggestion that "science-based" or "evidence-based" be replaced with the phrase "CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes" -- meaningless bureaucrat-ese that no one would use in any other setting.)

Now, this isn't a terribly attractive picture, because it shows that the political appointees in charge of the budget are yahoos. It also shows that the lower-down people at the CDC know how to play bureaucratic games once they know the rules. But, again as far as I can tell, it's not a story about telling CDC employees that they can't use the "banned" words in their scientific work or even in their communications to the public -- or, indeed, anywhere else (besides budget documents).

I based this post on reporting about the episode, but the headlines and ledes have been quite misleading (as far as I can tell).

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