Prepare for in-depth commentary as we take you through the many twists and turns of the biggest non-news story of the year, the 2009 UN Copenhagen Climate Conference.

For two weeks, a staggering variety of pundits, scientists, journalists and policy wonks predicted that, despite the growing urgency of the situation, chances were that no meaningful change would come out of the summit.

Then, leaders, political leaders, activists and endless legions of lawyers descended upon Denmark at the expense of taxpayers worldwide and talked for twelve days days, producing a toothless, non-binding document that represents no meaningful change.

Then, for several nights afterward, every news outlet in the country weighed in on just how meaningless the Copenhagen Accord is, what made it so meaningless and, in a triumph of existentialism in mass media, what the meaninglessness of the document means.

Then everybody realized they still had Christmas shopping to do and decided to forget about climate change for the next few years, because surely, someone will have done something about it by then, right?

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There’s an excellent article this week in the open access biology journal of the Public Library of Science that deals with the astonishing persistence ofthe  mythical link between vaccination and autism. It eloquently traces the most prevalent medical urban legend of our time from it’s inception to the current day – do yourself a favor and check it out here.

In spite of multiple studies by the Center for Disease Control and independent health policy organization the Institute for Medicine which all failed to find any connection between vaccinations and autism, the notion that of a link continues to gain traction even today, when as many as 1 in 4 adults believe that some sort of link exists. The situation is a troubling look at the dark side of the democratization of information – with so much information available, concerned citizens are often unable to separate fact from fiction, research from anecdote.

Once it hits the Internet, every opinion tends to look much the same, whether it’s issued by a respected scientist or an understandably distraught parent. Coupled with testimony from celebrities who are more willing and able to be booked on talk shows than most vaccine researchers and a burgeoning cottage industry of books promoting vaccine alternatives, vaccination fears aren’t going away, and that’s alarming. What’s more alarming is the fact that whole towns of parents who don’t believe in vaccinations continue to crop up, creating a health risk not just to their residents but to the general public.

Beyond a history of the current situation, the article deftly underscores the pressing need for better public relations efforts from the scientific community. Researchers and doctors seem stumped at how to effectively communicate the facts of the matter, letting more media savvy anti-vaccination pundits dominate the narrative. No one is denying it’s a hot button topic for concerned parents, and the fact that researchers who attempt to publicly debunk these claims are regularly met with death threats doesn’t make things any easier. Nor does a media environment that thrives on conflict, presenting two sides of every story even when only one is borne out by facts. Or the burden of proof placed on vaccine researchers, who are admonished for being unable to disprove the theory of a link. Granted, the latter point is really someone taking issue with the scientific method rather than any specific findings, but it remains a surprisingly effective tool for keeping alive a debate that should be long since settled.

All of these factors make putting to bed the notion of a link between autism and vaccinations more difficult. But that fact only makes it more important that some group do just that. At some point, a line has to be drawn between facts  and opinions. When Jenny McCarthy can appear on Larry King Live and claims that “parents’ anecdotal information is science-based information,” someone from the scientific community needs to step up and tell the truth –  ‘No, it’s not.’ It needs to be done carefully, and it needs to be done with the utmost respect for the many families struggling with autism, but it needs to be done. Because the longer the myth of a link between vaccinations and autism goes largely unchallenged by the medical community, at least in the public eye, the harder it will be to undo the damage. And beyond distracting attention and resources from promising autism research, that damage has the potential to undermine public confidence in childhood vaccinations, leaving more and more children vulnerable to preventable diseases like whooping cough or  measles, which is more prevalent in the United States now than at any time in the last ten years. 

Needless to say, that’s not good news for anyone.

In the ballsiest act of political gamesmanship in recent memory, (outside of Illinois, anyway) the Tennessee State House elected junior state rep Kent Williams as their new Speaker of the House. Which wouldn’t be news, except that the chamber, which Republicans won in November when they gained a 50-49 seat majority, was expected to name state GOP vet Jason Mumpower to the office. Instead, the Democratic caucus, which voted first, cast all 49 of it’s votes for Williams. The state GOP than cast 49 votes for Mumpower, up until Williams final vote -which he cast for himself, becoming Speaker. And what did Williams say when asked about the perception that he was a turncoat, a Judas, and almost certainly a plethora of other unpleasant names for not voting for Mumpower?

“Things change.”
Some people are going to tell you that shenanigans like these are what’s wrong with politics, and by extension, the U.S. Don’t you believe ’em. This is America at it’s finest – backroom deals, mad grabs for power, and procedural hijacking of entire state governments, and with everyone involved wearing the sincerest smiles they’ve got. It simply doesn’t get any better than this.

And on the topic of game faces, a friend of mine recently mentioned this – a series of picture of kids playing video games, taken by British photographer Robbie Cooper using a ‘head on’ camera inspired by Errol Morris’ Interrotron. Once I knew it existed, I had to find it. And I had to find it. Once I did, I thought it was worth sharing. I think this is just what I look like playing Lego Star Wars, and that worries me terribly.

Glaring Health Code Violations is back! We’ve got a new site on a new hosting service to go with the new year. And keep reading for new features and columns that are in the pipe right now.

Meanwhile, 2008 is sticking around in those places you’d least hope. For instance, Joe the Plumber just refuses to go away. Once merely a balding, misinformed plumber from Ohio, you’ll recall that the Presidential debates transformed knuckledragger Samuel Wurzelbacher into an avatar for the ‘Average Joe’ across the United States. Fast forward three months and Joe, who once saw wisdom in the notion that a vote for Barack Obama is a vote for the death of Israel, is now an expert on media bias, whose thoughtful analytical insights are finally being put to good use covering the conflict in Gaza for Pajamas TV. Among his notable insights so far? That he misses World War I and II (?) and that “the media should be abolished from reporting.” 

Only time will tell if this jaunt to the Holy Land constitutes a new career path for Wurzelbacher, or just a handy way of keeping his name in the media in preparation for a run for the United States Senate. I wish to God I was making that last sentence up.