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A letter to the CDC’s CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD regarding banned words, censorship and scientific integrity

The Post is reporting on a list of seven “banned” words at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including: “vulnerable” “entitlement” “diversity” “transgender” “fetus” “evidence-based” “science-based”
The CDC has one of the stronger scientific integrity policies among federal agencies, so I wrote the following letter to CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD, the acting director for science at the agency. His office can be reached at (404) 639-7570 or
ATTN: Acting Associate Director for Science
CAPT William R. Mac Kenzie, MD
From: Aaron Huertas, founder and principal, Science Communication Media
Re: scientific integrity violation at CDC
Captain Mac Kenzie:
Thank you for your service to the public. The CDC is a life-saving science agency and its scientists and employees embody the public service mission of federal science. As you know, performing that mission requires communicating clearly and freely with the public and policymakers, whether in the midst of an outbreak or when describing the need for scientific research into deadly diseases.
I’ve been working in science, policy and politics for more than 10 years, with a focus on helping researchers grapple with politicized scrutiny of their work. As you might imagine, I was distributed to read in the Washington Post today the following:

The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
It’s not clear to me if this list is an attempt by political appointees to censor career staff or if it represents a form of self-censorship designed to avoid political scrutiny. In either case, it is wrong. And I think this ban on phrases constitutes a violation of the CDC’s own scientific integrity policy, which I understand your office implements.
Several relevant bullet points from that policy stand out, including the following:
  • CDC embraces intellectual honesty and transparency in its release of information to fully empower public decision making.
  • CDC considers diverse cultural and societal values and beliefs when developing messages.
  • CDC does not use trickery or deceptive communication techniques to advance public health recommendations or its reputation.
  • CDC’s good reputation is not sacrificed for the sake of any past, current, or future employee or partner.
  • CDC embraces the idea that plain language works best to eliminate ambiguity in its research results and health recommendations for the public.
  • CDC does not withhold information only to avoid embarrassment.
It’s clear to me that scientific censorship is not only wrong because it hides the truth from the public, but it’s wrong because it perpetuates injustice.
If public employees are banned from using the very words “science-based,” “diversity” or “transgender” how can people trust science agencies to tell them the truth about science or about about public health outcomes for groups of people who are marginalized in society? Further how can scientists who work at the agency or members of the public take the agency’s commitment to diversity at face value if agency employees are banned from using the very word “diversity”?
I strongly urge you and your colleagues to address this issue head on, publicly, and to use the banned phrases today and every day, as loudly as fulfilling your mission requires doing so. The CDC has always been one of our most independent and trusted science agencies. Please do not let the Trump administration or a Republican Congress or fears about budget cuts perpetuate censorship and injustice. Please know that the scientific community and the public will support scientists who speak out. Now’s the time to stand up for truth and stand up for science justice.
Aaron Huertas
Washington, DC

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Here’s What the New America Foundation Should Have Said About the Google Story

The New America Foundation, a prominent think tank in DC, is facing scrutiny over its decision to sever ties with a program that was critical of a major funder, in this case Google.

Libby Watson, writing for SplinterNews, notes that the exposure and fallout is all too typical of how corporate money influences think tank research in Washington. As someone who has followed the fossil fuel lobby’s funding of climate denial think tanks, in particular, I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, when public interest think tanks (and advocacy groups) have undisclosed conflicts of interest exposed, they tend to react defensively rather than constructively. In New America’s case, the organization compared the New York Times’s initial report to “fake news” and questioned the behavior and motivations of Barry Lynn, the head of the team of scholars who were fired.

New America Foundation’s press room. (Source: New America Foundation)

New America’s president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter doubled down on some of these assertions on Friday. Interestingly, Slaughter shared more details about a process of pre-screening and advanced notice for Google that she sought to impose on Lynn, in this case for a public statement he issued praising an EU anti-monopoly ruling against Google. Slaughter says she had no intention to censor Lynn, but pre-screening and advance notice policies are often used to censor researchers, including at federal science agencies. Similarly, such advance notice processes have come under scrutiny when fossil fuel companies have funded research, too. Even under the best circumstances, including when the people involved have good intentions and feel they’re working in the public interest, such reviews encourage researchers to self-censor.

So instead of responding defensively, public interest think tanks should realize they have a problem and try to solve it. They surely can’t stop the influence corporate money has on politics. Many also feel they can’t afford to do their work at the scale they’d like to without taking corporate money. But for think tanks that do take corporate money, what they can do is make those funding relationships more transparent and free of conflict.

So here’s an idea for how the New America Foundation should have responded:

“The New York Times has raised serious questions about our organization’s funding from Google and how we treated scholars who are critical of the company’s actions. As a public interest institution that influences policymaking, we understand that responding to this scrutiny is part of our job.

“Think tanks and other groups that seek to influence policy haven’t done enough to examine the implications that corporate sponsorship has for our work. This is an increasingly fraught area and we need to do more. As public funding for independent scholarship has shrunk, companies have stepped in to fill the gap. In many cases, this has led to companies exerting undue influence on research and public communication from scholars. While we stand by our work and our decisions, we have to recognize that organizations that take corporate money to sponsor scholarship, including think tanks, advocacy groups and universities, risk losing public trust. We need to do better.

“In the coming months, the New America Foundation will create a set of conflict of interest and transparency policies that will govern all of our funding relationships. We’ll publish those policies in draft form online and solicit feedback and comments all along the way from subject matter experts, journalists, our peers, and the public. We hope that in doing so, we can begin to identify and implement a new set of best practices in our field. Our ability to serve the public and to continue to do good work demands it.”

Maybe the New America Foundation will get there. Maybe another think tank or advocacy group will first. But this definitely won’t be the last story I read about a corporate conflict of interest at a DC think tank.

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When Integrity-checking is More Important than Fact-checking: More Bad Faith from Bret Stephens

Yesterday, I posted a quick series of Tweets in response to Bret Stephens’s latest climate column for the New York Times. I was surprised to see my musings get so much traction, including shares from journalists, editors, scholars and thoughtful, passionate people who are fed up with our society’s inability to address climate change.

So, why did my little rant resonate? I think it’s because I don’t make the mistake of treating Stephens’s arguments seriously. After all, he doesn’t treat the topic I’ve worked on for more than a decade seriously. For instance, when he was at the Wall Street Journal, he published conspiracy theories about climate scientists. His move to the Times simply means that he’s had to clean up his arguments a bit, justifying climate inaction for other reasons.

Anyone who’s worked on climate policy for more than a few years has heard every iteration of Stephens’s arguments. But he doesn’t seem to care. For instance, instead of responding to substantive criticisms of his track record from climate experts, Stephens complained about the tone of a Tweet from someone named Jay with a dog and cat avatar and 289 followers. Later, after scientists thoroughly and sometimes hilariously factchecked his first climate column, he left Twitter. Not exactly the paragon of #NeverTrump conservative intellectual courage he bills himself as.

Tellingly, Stephens only responded to his climate critics obliquely when fellow columnist Gail Collins asked him about what kind of climate policy he actually supports. He made a hand-waving call for more research, something policy experts would be happy to tell him is wholly insufficient for reducing the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Stephens also plays the refs, trying to appeal to journalists, think tankers and other columnists, eagerly pointing to incivility in response to his bad ideas as evidence that his ideas aren’t bad. But this sort of discourse-policing doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t slow the rise of the seas, help a community recover from a storm or put an electron of clean energy on the grid. All it does is make people with bad ideas feel better about themselves.

As law professor David Kaye put it in response to this point:

So it’s helpful to ask what someone with the same conservative ideology but more integrity would do in Stephens’s situation. A conservative columnist who actually cared about addressing climate change would use their column to advance conservative ideas on adaptation and energy markets. For instance reforming our broken flood insurance system is one of the rare areas where libertarians and greens have been able to work together on climate policy and it’s obviously relevant to storm recovery. A conservative columnist who cared would see the conspiratorial parallels between birtherism and climate denial and try to cure the rot in their own movement.

Alas, that’s not Bret Stephens. He cares more about people being polite to him online than he does about addressing climate change. But Stephens’s writings are an object lesson for other issues. When we run into people like this in public debates, yes, science advocates and policy wonks should factcheck their claims. But we should also integrity-check their actions. When we ask ourselves what a constructive person with integrity would do in their shoes, it makes their lack of intellectual honesty all the more clear.


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Katharine Hayhoe, Master Science Communicator, Talks Shop with America Adapts

Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist who’s one of the best science communicators out there, just did an excellent interview with the America Adapts podcast. I’m a long-time fan of Dr. Hayhoe’s work and hearing her talk shop with an adaptation professional like host Doug Parsons was excellent.

Some key takeaways:

  • Climate researchers are like physicians for the planet and she feels a moral duty to speak out when research has public impact.
  • It’s important to stay positive, especially on bummer issues like climate change.
  • If we just argue about facts, we can unintentionally deepen divides on polarized issues.
  • Regarding “preaching to the choir:” When she gets invites (and she gets LOTS of high-profile invites) she asks herself if someone else would get invited to it if she declined. If not, she’s a lot more likely to take it up so she can represent climate research to new audiences.
  • She constantly experiments and iterates with her presentations and is even doing some social science research to figure out what works best with different audiences.

Give it a listen – I always come away from Dr. Hayhoe’s work feeling inspired, grounded and yes – optimistic.

Parsons’ podcast is also a rich resource of people talking about the climate realities we’re dealing with right now. Those conversations are so important for understanding the stakes of the choices we face when it comes to future climate change.

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Science as Service: The Role of Researchers as Public Advocates

I wrote a post-Science March opinion piece for The bottom line? We need to do more to help people see the public service role science plays and the tangible benefits it provides in our lives. Scientists also need to take on new advocacy tasks that they’ve previously figured might be someone else’s job, like making sure people get out and vote. Enjoy!

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Responding to Science News Coverage: From Corrections to Celebration

This was originally written as part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. You can check out all the installments in a pay-what-you-can ebook. And, of course, there’s more to learn at the online course.

This installment covers what to do after an interview. Science coverage is no longer a series of news clips. It’s an ongoing conversations in which journalists, scientists, audiences and editors are participating. In this chapter, I share best practices for asking for corrections, amplifying good coverage and understanding the distinctions journalists make between factual accuracy and the angles and context they use to shape a story.


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Nuclear Power Used to Be a Science Issue, Now Its Economic

Nuclear power was a science issue until is wasn’t. In the 1950s, policymakers agreed that nuclear energy could harness the destructive power the American military and scientific establishment unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to produce electricity instead. We would tame the atom and use it for peace. Ford even toyed around with the Nucleon, a nuclear-powered concept car.


Feel free to bring this up any time someone says electric vehicles are impractical.

But nuclear power policy shifted in the 1960s and 70s. Citizens wanted more of a say in how nuclear power plants were sited and operated. The environmental and peace movements questioned the utility of nuclear technology itself, especially as the Soviet Union and United States adopted positions of mutually assured destruction. Eventually, Congress sundered the duties of the Atomic Energy Commission – which promoted and regulated nuclear power and made nuclear weapons, too – and created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After the Three Mile Island accident, U.S. nuclear power plant construction ground to a halt.

Two political scientists argue in a seminal work on policy change in the United States that this change-over is one of many examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution playing out in U.S. politics, rather than in the Galapagos Islands. As more people found they had a stake in the nuclear power debate, the more diverse and chaotic the debate became, until a new order was established. Along with that shift, the influence of science reporting on the topic diminished as political debates intensified and as more people focused on the running and regulation of nuclear power rather than the promise of nuclear technology.

That history has long informed my skepticism when I talk to advocates and scientists who are enthusiastic about nuclear power. I sympathize with them, though: I grew up in a nuke plant town; the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station was part of the landscape along Highway 9. We paid little mind to the sporadic evacuation drills at school in the event of a nuclear accident. And while a few parents pulled their children out of our high school on September 11th because they had heard false reports that nuclear power plants would be targeted next, I remember shrugging it off with a few of my buddies – why would anyone attack South Jersey when they were that close to Philly and New York?

have classmates who’ve worked as security guards at the plant – obviously security stepped up after the attacks. Years after graduating high school, when reviewing an NRC safety incidence report from the plant, I recognized the name of another classmate’s father. In nuke plants towns, it’s our neighbors who are in charge of keeping the plants safe. 

My home town seal even features an atom:

Yeah. yeah, I know the atom doesn’t have enough dots! Also pictured: sailboat, pheasant.

So my problems with nuclear power plants that exist today are narrow: let’s make sure the safety engineers and inspectors at the plants can do their jobs, by all means. And let’s figure out the waste problem, at some point, please.

But as far as climate change goes, there is something kind of nice about nuclear power plants that are operating today: they’re producing low-carbon electricity and they’re already paid for. But when we talk about the future of nuclear power, it’s not science or even safety that dominates the debate – it’s economics.

To no one’s surprise, it’s remains stupendously expensive to create a facility that uses controlled fission reactions to boil water and make electricity. And, in an essay for, I argue that that’s where opeds in favor of nuclear power should focus. It’s too easy to assume that green skepticism about nukes is what’s holding the technology back – that’s the sort of simplistic “but you’re a hypocrite” rhetoric that plagues our politics.

When it comes to curing energy production of its carbon blues, we need cogent arguments on economics and, indeed, economies of scale. Such arguments are becoming easier to make for wind, solar and renewables. And in a world with many energy options, the renewable success story makes the argument for nuclear power worse.

You can read the essay here. Enjoy!

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Nerd Nite DC on Saturday

Nerd Nite DC’s line up is looking real strong. Check it out!

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