This is a literary website and normally I write about whatever bookish topic has been selected for the week. This week, however, with the blessing of the four other writers for the site, I’m scuttling the piece I had written on staying motivated to write during the dreary days of winter. I’m going rogue.
This week I’m writing about censorship.
The reason: I sat down the other day, pulled out my cell phone, and was almost instantly flattened by a weird buzzing noise, which I eventually identified as a precursor to the imminent explosion of my head. This is it, y’all. It’s too much for me. Things have finally gone too far.
I am referring, of course, to the news stories that flooded out last week about the list of “banned” words at the CDC. (That’s the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for those of you not up on your government acronyms.) In case you are ignoring the news in a misguided attempt at preserving your sanity, I’ll fill you in: an unidentified bureaucrat somewhere in the bowels of government came up with the idea that there are some words you just shouldn’t use if you are trying to get your scientific project funded over at the scientific agency whose mission is the employment of the scientific method to protect public health and safety.
Did I mention the word ‘science’? Yep. You guessed it. The word science-based is on the list (along with the equally offensive term evidence-based.) Obviously it would be inappropriate for disease control to be based on evidence. Geez. Instead, scientific recommendations on disease and injury should be described as based “in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
Wishes?!? Sarcasm aside, I’d rather medical policy be based on evidence. This transcends politics. And yes, I know there was some sort of feeble rebuttal from someone in the government who said the words on the list weren’t intended so much as an outright ban as they were an attempt at being helpful, given that employing one of these words in a report was likely to torpedo funding under the current administration. (The other verboten words: fetus, entitlement, diversity, transgender, and vulnerable.)
Three things: first, we are on a very freaking slippery slope towards totalitarianism when the party with political power is issuing a fatwa against words. When you start trying to control what people can and cannot say, especially in scientific reports, you are as un-American as it is possible to be.
Second, whether the words were banned outright or not, this suggests we are being governed by catastrophically stupid people. If science and evidence are so threatening to a particular ideology that simply acknowledging the use of them during research is enough to decrease your funding, we have a problem. In fact, there have been many documented cases of our government (both current and former) actively distorting, changing, and suppressing research that contradicts their political message. The Trump administration has already canceled or threatened to cancel funding for a number of studies that seem to illustrate facts they find politically inconvenient: you can read about some of them here and here and here. Upon taking office in January, one of the first actions by the administration was to muzzle certain scientific agencies, including the EPA and the USDA, telling their staffs that press releases and external communications about taxpayer-funded work would stop until further notice. That’s right; you and I were not allowed to hear about research funded by our tax dollars because it might embarrass people advocating for policies contradicted by the research. You know who also alters or suppresses research they don’t like? Russia and other authoritarian regimes. This is not okay in America. Science needs to be free of government manipulation.
Third, just about every advancement the human race has ever accomplished is achieved through the evaluation of scientific evidence. Is the scientific method perfect? No. Do scientists, as human beings, have political opinions that could potentially cause bias to creep into their studies? Yes. Is it debatable how to apply research to real-world policies? Of course. But there is no better way to make decisions than a system whose entire purpose is the objective evaluation of information. In science, there are at least systematic safeguards against bias and error. Politics, by contrast, is fueled by bias.
There is such a thing as objective truth. (Don’t get philosophical on me here, please.) We all know it: some things are true and some things are not true. If the best and overwhelming majority of available research points to a thing being true and you don’t like it, you may be able to change the terminology, you may be able to cancel the funding, you may be able to alter the report, you may be able to attack the reporter, you may be able to hide the information, you may be able to do everything in your power to deny it—but you cannot change the truth. I—and millions of others like me—will fight to bring it to light.
*Full disclosure: In addition to being a novelist, Kimmery Martin is also a physician.