Can Art Overcome Confirmation Bias and Encourage Vaccinations? The Gates Foundation Will Find Out


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation‘s new initiative, The Art of Saving a Life, debuted on Wednesday, January 7, with a splashy website full of art — film, literature, music, photography, visual art — that was commissioned in order to promote and to spread the idea that vaccines, from America to Africa, are important to human civilization. Is it too easy to say that they want this campaign to go viral? To infect the average person on Facebook or other political battlefields?

The battle against vaccines is being fought on two fronts. The first is in third world countries where they simply don’t have the access or resources. The second is in America, where an anti-vaccine movement has led to horrifying statistics that say that vaccinations are as frequent in posh LA neighborhoods as they are in South Sudan. There have been twelve cases of measles connected to visits to Disneyland, and six of those cases occurred in unvaccinated people.

In America, the anti-vaccination movement has been spurred on by the now-proven false link to vaccination as a cause of autism, with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy acting as the most outspoken representatives. As a result of this “conversation,” more like misinformation, diseases once thought eradicated like Whooping Cough and Rubella, are creeping up again statistically.

As writer Eula Biss argues persuasively in last year’s book On Immunity: An Inoculation, vaccinations are part of the social contract, and when we apply the herd mentality to getting shots, we can eradicate disease. But it takes one person to opt out for the whole community to be put at risk. Biss’ book was in a slew of best-of lists for 2014, including my own, and it had the honor of being named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year according to the New York Times Book Review. It’s had the opportunity to maybe change people’s minds — and judging by its Amazon rank (in the 5,000s) and the amount of reviews it’s garnered, it’s doing strongly for an essay collection.

It’s unclear, however, whether any attempt to reason with anti-vaxxers is going to help. Studies have shown that reason — actual facts that echoed what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention actually spreads as information — doesn’t work with anti-vaxxers, and that’s due to confirmation bias. Truth suffers from the fact that we believe what we want to believe; and the idea that a vaccination, involving a literal virus, could change the baby that you love forever is a powerful one for some mothers. This doesn’t make the whole thing any less senseless, but it is an emotional minefield of feeling, where one’s baby usurps the social contract.

Can art, which works on an emotional rather than rational level, succeed where persuasive argument fails? The art in question, which is rendered in a variety of mediums, will premiere on the official Art of Saving a Life website throughout the month of January. Whether it will have the Internet reach to hit both Park Slope Co-op members and anti-vaxxers in Minnesota will be another story. But it’s an interesting tack on a battle that’s having current, chilling effects in America and around the world. It will be quite the achievement if the artists involved are able to create art that moves someone beyond just a Facebook newsfeed drive-by.

One artist participating in The Art of Saving a Life, Vik Muniz, has taken a floral pink print that, when you look closely, is made up “liver cells infected with the Vaccinia virus, which is used to make the smallpox vaccine,” according to The New York Times. It makes “drama” out of the mundane. It’s an image that spins your head around a bit, demanding that you look closer. It’s of a piece with Muniz”s other work — in the Oscar-nominated documentary Wasteland, Muniz created art from the world’s largest garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro. Muniz’s is the most striking work so far, along with Mary Ellen Mark’s intimate black-and-white photos of people living with Rubella, where you see the impact of this disease on the outcomes of their lives, their eyes white, rolling heavenward.

This art is powerful, to be sure. I admire the attempt by The Gates Foundation to make the personal (vaccines and your mewling child) universal, and so far, in the cases of Muniz and Mark, it’s convincing. It may not be the harbinger of direct change, but as a start to shake up people’s minds and attitudes, it has potential. There’s moving work here, and hopefully there may be more that shows the human cost and the human work behind vaccines. As Muniz puts it in a related video: “Changing an idea or an attitude towards some kind of behavior makes a really big difference.” There’s proof that reason doesn’t work in the case of anti-vaxxers. But if you can use art to appeal to human emotions, you may just change people’s attitudes.