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Friday, 22 December 2017 07:09

The Dangers of Censoring Science

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Censor 1222wrp opt(Photo: Cory Doctorow / Flickr)Do you want your medical treatment to be based on science? The Trump administration disagrees. It banned the top US public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from using seven words, including "evidence-based" and "science-based." 

Prominent public health advocates have expressed outrage about these measures. For example, Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, tweeted "This is astonishing. It would be a parody of a flailing effort to limit the effectiveness of #publichealth if it did not suggest a real problem. #7words." 

Such censorship is a direct blow at the essence of science: accurately describing the physical world around us. Science is the best method that we as human beings have of figuring out the truth of reality, and wishing away the facts by trying to substitute them with "alternative facts" will greatly impede scientific progress.

Moreover, these measures will cause many more people to get sick and die. After all, how can the CDC implement effective public health interventions if it cannot use terms like "evidence-based" and "science-based" in its official documents? 

To be clear, the CDC cannot get around this censorship by using terminology like "based on scientific studies." In fact, the Trump administration directed the CDC to replace "science-based" and "evidence-based" with "CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes." So apparently it wants doctors to shift away from treating people based on the best scientific research, and instead move toward the fuzzy standard of "community wishes." 

Unfortunately, "community members" are too easily fooled by false but emotionally appealing claims. For instance, the homeopathy industry is a multibillion dollar business. Homeopathy is based on the false claim of the benefit of super-diluted substances and the principle of "like cures like." While it has been debunked by hundreds of studies, people still want to believe in magical cures. Homeopathy is not harmless, yet despite the fact that it kills people every day, only recently has the federal government taken steps to address this problem. Unfortunately, under the new guidelines, these steps may be rolled back, and the CDC may have to take homeopathy "under consideration." 

For another example, consider the false claim that vaccines cause autism. This belief is spread widely across the US, and leads to many people failing to vaccinate their children against diseases like measles. While measles was practically eliminated in the US by 2000, in recent years outbreaks of measles have been on the rise in the US, driven by parents failing to vaccinate their children in a number of communities. Donald Trump has frequently expressed the false view that vaccines cause autism, and we should be very concerned about this being one of the "community wishes" taken under consideration.

So what would happen if the CDC is unable to make accurate recommendations and implement effective public health policy? Simple: People will get sick and die. The diseases and deaths will come from among the most vulnerable. Hundreds of babies have already died due to taking homeopathic medications that were not vetted by the Food and Drug Administration. This year has seen the largest measles outbreak in the US, which mainly impacts children and babies. 

Many more children and babies will get sick and die as a direct result of the Trump administration's censorship of science. However, these deaths will not be visible, just like the hundreds of thousands of deaths from pollution every year in the US are not visible. Because it is very, very difficult to trace an individual's death to a specific polluter, the polluters get off scot-free with killing thousands of people every year. 

The Trump administration has already taken many steps that will result in thousands more people dying from pollution every year by rolling back government protections on pollution. Its steps in censoring the science on public health will result in many, many more children, babies and adults getting sick and dying. Yet because it will be incredibly difficult to trace a specific baby's death to the Trump administration's censorship, it will also get off scot-free. 

However, we can take steps to reverse this and other attacks on science that will cost many people their lives. You can make a difference by tweeting your thoughts using the hashtag #CDC7words and emailing, writing and calling your federal elected officials to express your concerns over this deadly censorship.


Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is the author of The Truth-Seeker's Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. He is an assistant professor at Ohio State University, president of the nonprofit Intentional Insights and cofounder of the Pro-Truth Pledge.