Tag Archives: climate change

7 words you can’t say at CDC

According to its mission statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency of the U.S. government, “increases the health security of our nation.”

CDC logoIt does so primarily in two ways: researching diseases and their cures, and informing the public about its findings. For example, you might remember CDC’s role in warning citizens about the zika virus in 2015.

A few words might be missing

Soon, however, when you get information from CDC, a few words might be missing. Reportedly, senior officials within the Department of Health and Human Services recently decreed that CDC and other HHS agencies are forbidden from using 7 words in their official budget documents.

(This is a developing story. On Sunday, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald called the report about the 7 words “a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.” The word mischaracterization leaves wiggle room: it’s reasonable to assume that there was discussion about avoiding certain words — even if it wasn’t an all-out ban.)

George Carlin with the 7 words superimposed on his photo

Credit: Scott Smith (@stampergr) on Twitter

Here are the 7 forbidden words:

  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • fetus
  • evidence-based
  • science-based

What does it mean when words become non-words? As anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, it’s an attempt by those in power to impose control.

They know something I’ve known throughout my writing career: words matter. A lot.

By changing the words in the conversation, do the people in charge at HHS think they can change reality? No. I don’t believe they’re that foolish. Not all of them anyway.

They can’t change reality, but they can change the way in which reality is discussed. If they change the terms of the discussion, they can influence the way people think.

When nothing can be described as evidence-based or science-based, there’s no longer a need to question a finding that’s unsupported by evidence.

When transgender is stripped from the vocabulary, they can more easily dismiss the health needs of thousands of our fellow ci.tizens.

When they stop saying vulnerable, it’s easier for them to overlook human beings who are vulnerable and who need help.

The Florida tides

It brings to mind what happened in Florida a few years ago. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered its staff not to use the terms climate change and global warming in any official communications, emails, or reports.

This despite the fact that, according to a New York Times article, “when many cities in Florida flood, which can occur even without rainfall during the highest tides, fish swim in the streets and people wade to their cars.”

But the nabobs in the Department of Environmental Protection, even as the bottoms of their trousers get soaked, need not trouble themselves with the thought that this is anything more than a random natural phenomenon.

What can we do?

There’s a lot at stake here. Although it’s tempting to smirk and roll our eyes, we mustn’t dismiss this as mere bureaucratic foolery. Instead, we need to call it out for what it is: an attempt by those in power to impose control.

Be wary of gaslighting — of any attempt to change the way reality is perceived. Don’t let Why don’t we talk about x any more? turn into X never happenedAll of us share a duty to know the truth and hold fast to it.

Finally, even if HHS won’t use those words, by golly we can use them. And we should. Question what this government tells you — and don’t be afraid to answer back, What about the vulnerable ones? What scientific evidence do you have for this?

Never let them forget that words matter.

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Honoring scientists, honoring science

Statue of Jöns Jacob Berzelius in Stockholm, SwedenOn a recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden, I encountered this fellow presiding over a pleasant city park that bears his name.

I’m ashamed to say that I had to look him up in the encyclopedia. Jöns Jacob Berzelius is considered a pioneer in chemistry, having developed the modern notation for chemical formulas in the early nineteenth century. In Sweden he’s so highly regarded that he not only has a park named after him, but his birthday (August 20) is observed as Berzelius Day.

What is it about the Swedes – who also created the Nobel Prize – that they so gladly celebrate the great scientists in their midst? More to the point, what is it about us Americans that we don’t? Oh, we love our inventors, because we love their technology and we love the economic benefits that come from their technology. But we rarely celebrate pure science. Where are the statues of great researchers and great theoreticians?

Sad to say, many Americans are skeptical of science. They’d rather mock science — for example, by throwing a snowball in the U.S. Senate chamber — than take it seriously. They don’t want to know the earth is getting warmer, because that might mean they can’t drive their beloved SUVs.

We love our freedom and we always have. But lately that freedom has turned into a license to live whatever lifestyle we like — with no ivory-tower, pointy-headed scientist telling us what to do.

It’s a damn shame. It’s an attitude that will hurt our country severely in the long run. And because our country is so big and so influential, it’s going to hurt the whole world. Already is hurting it.

We should take a lesson from Sweden – a country that knows how to honor its great scientists and a country that, not coincidentally, earns high marks for sustainability and for its use of renewable energy sources.

Climate change: Will technical communicators answer the call?

They put brine on the roads on Monday, but Tuesday’s rain washed most of it away. So when it started snowing — hard — around noon on Wednesday, traffic quickly ground to a standstill. A photo showing a car that caught fire when its driver tried desperately to get unstuck (a photo taken about 3 miles from my home) became an Internet sensation.

And sure enough, like icicles on the eaves, the climate skeptics started cropping up. Continue reading