In 1972, the comedian George Carlin performed a monologue called the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The routine was a humorous reflection of how we in America give power to words and can be put off by certain words. The truth is there are words that can be hurtful and divisive. But censuring or striking words from the scientific lexicon can be just as hurtful and even deadly.
On Dec. 15, the Washington Post reported that employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been given their own list of forbidden words. According to the report, the words diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender and vulnerable are no longer allowed at the nation’s leading public health agency. And, like we did when we heard Carlin’s monologue, many Americans laughed at the lunacy — initially. Then, we worried. These words describe the human experience and methods of arriving at best practices in public health and health-care delivery. Censoring our country’s leading scientists and public health professionals has no place in a democracy and could have deadly health consequences.
In Florida, official organizations such as the Department of Environmental Protection are not permitted to use the term climate change in official statements and reports, yet this fall Hurricane Irma hit Florida as one of three severe hurricanes to hit the southern Atlantic region of the United States. Additionally, as a result of rising sea levels, the streets of Miami frequently flood during king tides.
Not addressing an issue does not make it go away. It makes it worse. In the case of not addressing groups of people, the evidence has demonstrated that those in the group that is not addressed recognizes the discrimination and typically does not participate within the health system until they are very ill. This leads to greater illness, loss of life, and rising health care costs for that group.
When we allow words describing our fellow citizens to be stricken from the lexicon, we strike from the record their American experience; we strike from the record the factors that influence their health; we strike from the record our ability to learn the unique needs of specific groups of Americans; we strike from the record our ability to study groups of people – yes, groups of vulnerable Americans.
All this in turn, has the ability to make our public health system weaker, which by the way, impacts the vulnerable, the entitled, and us all. Words by themselves are not dangerous and cannot harm public health, but denial and not acknowledging groups of people and the science most certainly will.
Ruth McDermott-Levy is an associate professor and director of the Center for Global and Public Health at Villanova University’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing. Robert Leggiadro is an adjunct professor of biology and geography and the environment at Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.