Editor’s Note: Nicole Alexander Fisher is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia with a BA in English and journalism. She previously worked on the campaign for Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, D-New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter at @_nalexander. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
On Thursday, according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were told by others in the Trump administration that the use of seven specific words and phrases would be prohibited. On the list are the words “vulnerable,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” The decision has not only been deemed as reckless and dangerous, but an offense to the scientific community.
This goes far beyond an attack on lexicon or word-choice. A ban on words not only creates barriers for scientists who need to communicate, but also breaks public trust in the areas they are meant to investigate and research.
Banning the word “fetus” will embolden the pro-life communities who oppose abortion, while at the same time jeopardizing some of critical studies from the CDC that study the effects of disease, such as Zika, on the fetus specifically. Similarly, banning “transgender” and “diversity” energizes the ideals of white nationalism and attacks on already vulnerable communities. It also ignores or diminishes the health regimens that are specific to transgender individuals – and may only create further complications for them.
The current director of the CDC, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who was appointed by the Trump administration in July, has since responded on Twitter, claiming that there are “no banned words at the CDC”, and that “the CDC has a long standing history of making public health and budget decisions that are based on the best available science and data for the benefit of all people.”
A spokesman of the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent department of the CDC, responded similarly, saying that a ‘word ban’ was a “complete mischaracterization.”
Despite these denials, it’s not hard to believe the Washington Post story. After all, this would not be the Trump administration’s first attack on scientists or their abilities to communicate to the public. Since his days on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has denied, belittled or argued against the impacts of climate change. And ever since he assumed the office of the presidency, he has not only surrounded himself and his cabinet with climate change skeptics, but has taken action to suppress scientific action and thought.
In January, the Trump administration issued a gag order on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees, making it much harder for them to communicate with the public. Memos were issued that forbid any officials from making social media posts or speaking with journalists. While it is standard for a new administration to make changes to websites to reflect policy positions, nearly all mentions of climate change policy were scrubbed from the websites and replaced with statements regarding the roll back of climate change regulation.
In March, the Department of Energy (DOE) banned staff members from using the phrases “climate change” or “Paris Agreement” within any of their communications. The DOE and the Department of Interior further scrubbed information about renewable energy and climate change from their websites.
The Trump administration has also been notoriously aggressive on environmental regulations, repeatedly rolling back, rejecting or delaying environmentally related protections or funding. Climate change language has been removed from reports, such as a United States Geological Survey report that linked sea level rise and climate change. And, in June, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, making the US one of the only countries not a signatory to the accord.
The attack on science plays into this administration’s assault on facts. By bolstering conspiracy theories, riling up white nationalists and declaring war on various news outlets, Trump has created an environment where science can be politicized, where environmental regulations are simply more burdensome governmental overreach and where any disagreement or dissatisfaction with facts and figures can be decried as “fake news.”
As long as the Trump administration is willing to cater to fear and bigotry, religious zealots, and a hatred or distrust of government, Trump’s base will continue to vote for elected officials who actively work against the safety and well-being of our environment. And, in turn, this will leave elected officials free to act in the interests of any corporations or individuals who may have contributed to their campaigns.
As Americans, we must hold strong to the ideals of education, research, science and innovation – and not backpedal any further to appease the potential financial gains of wealthy individuals or the narrow-minded conscience of an uninformed electorate. Censoring language, hampering research and suppressing scientific endeavors will only cripple our country and harm the planet. We cannot erase the already-fatal impacts of climate change by simply removing the words from a governmental website.
“To distribute a list of banned words to a scientific agency is simply not what we do in the United States of America,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “Every American has to stand up against this. Republicans too, and maybe especially.”