Last Thursday night, 30 prominent New York writers, many of them young parents, gathered at the Brooklyn bookstore and event space PowerHouse Arena to take gentle aim at the anti-vaccine movement. Their weapon of choice: all 163 pages of On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss, read aloud without interruption, a kind of incantation against misinformation and pseudoscience.
Four rows of wooden pews were set up to seat readers and visitors, who also scattered along the high concrete steps lining the back of the store. On the bottom step sat a giant golden teddy bear. At 6PM, after some brief opening remarks, organizer Maris Kreizman launched into the first lines of the book, which recall the myth of Achilles, "whose mother tried to make him immortal." (She missed a crucial spot on his heel.) Over the next four and a half hours, fiction writers, journalists, comic artists, poets, and essayists took turns at the microphone, each reading a single short chapter from the book.
A kind of incantation against misinformation and pseudoscience
Kreizman, who is the creator of literary and pop culture blog Slaughterhouse 90210, first proposed the On Immunity marathon reading idea on Twitter back in early February to raise awareness about the importance of vaccination. In January, an outbreak of the measles linked to Disneyland had spread to 84 cases in 14 states, and in 2014 the US reported 600 cases of the once-eradicated disease, the highest number in 20 years. The Disneyland outbreak resulted in a backlash against an increasingly vocal anti-vaccination fringe: one scientist was quoted calling parents of unvaccinated children "selfish" and "dumb," while Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik labeled antivaxxers "public enemies." When California legislators proposed legislation to kill vaccination exemptions based upon personal belief, the pendulum quickly swung in the other direction, with anti-vaccine leader Robert F. Kennedy calling vaccines a Holocaust.
"A few months ago, when things were really heating up and the anti-vax movement got a whole bunch of new spokesmen...I tweeted that I wished I could do a marathon reading of On Immunity, and the response was overwhelming," explained Kreizman, in an email. She quickly won the support of the book’s indie publisher Graywolf Press, gathered volunteer readers on Twitter, and called on writers she admired. Kreizman says she was inspired by Biss’ artful and relatable approach to a polarizing topic and came away from the book feeling smarter and more compassionate for those who oppose vaccination.
A clear-eyed empathy for the fearful that has become rare in the hyperbolic vaccination "debates"
Published at the end of September, On Immunity is the third book of nonfiction for Biss, who is known for her thorough research and lyrical style. The book takes us on a tour of the science, philosophy, myth, and literature that influence our thinking about immunity, inoculation, and disease, with stops along the way for Dracula, Susan Sontag, smallpox, H1N1, and witches. It asks readers to side with the science, even as it expresses a clear-eyed empathy for the fearful that has become rare in the hyperbolic vaccination "debates."
Unfortunately, the vitriol typical of vaccination fights actually makes perfect sense, say some scientists and researchers. "There is a whole domain within the field of social psychology re: 'attitude polarization' that describes how, in some cases, information contrary to our attitudes and opinions can make those attitudes more extreme and compel us to hold onto them even more strongly and confidently," wrote Kristin Hendrix, Psychology PhD and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, in an email.
Attempts to convince anti-vaxxers often backfire
According to recent research in the journal Pediatrics by Brendan Nyhan, political blogger and assistant professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College, almost any direct challenge to anti-vaccination beliefs may cause parents to become even less willing to vaccinate. Nhyan found that whether you used dramatic narratives or horrible images of children suffering from vaccine-preventable disease, or offered scientific information that either emphasized the risks of going unvaccinated or debunked the dangers of vaccination, the result was a backfire effect. So far no one has figured out what does work to change minds intent on ignoring overwhelming and unanimous scientific consensus, but Hendrix is betting it needs start with empathy and respect.
"I think all of us who do research in this area advocate for respectful conversations and avoiding adversarial or confrontational communications," wrote Hendrix. "When we’re talking about parents vaccinating their children, at the end of the day, everyone is just trying to do right by his/her child and do what they feel is in the best interest of their family. I think communication strategies that are predicated on empathy and respect are the ones that are, ultimately, the most successful."
If Hendrix is right, Kreizman’s low-key, understated event may have hit the mark. The audience was almost uniformly hushed and attentive, hovering around 20 as people came and went. Though some readers were more animated than others, the most dramatic moments occurred when someone stumbled over a difficult scientific term. By the time the readers finished, it was late and the store had closed. Given that there were almost no off-the-cuff speeches or deviations from the text, it did little to excite tempers in a way that could have generated a social media firestorm.
Kreizman’s understated event may have hit the mark
On the other hand, perhaps because of the lack of sensation (no food or alcohol was served, no loud celebrities attended, no gigantic sums of money were raised), news of the marathon is unlikely to reach the minority in the anti-vaccination camp, or even many pro-vaccine groups outside of the literary community. That’s too bad, because the message the event offered is one anti-vaxxers might actually be able to hear and pro-vaccine campaigners might want to heed. It’s impossible to know, of course, how things might have turned out if anti-vaxxers had gotten wind of the event and shown up. Would tempers have flared? Everyone there was pretty much in agreement that you should vaccinate your kids.
The good news is, even if they didn’t hear about the event, maybe anti-vaxxers and pro-vaccine groups will hear about On Immunity itself. Though there are only 30,000 copies in circulation, the book recently got a little bump when it was chosen by Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook’s book club. (It landed on The New York Times Book Review’s list of best nonfiction books of 2014.) At least one of the marathon readers said the book made her rethink her own formerly aggressive approach to the subject. "When I was asked to be part of the marathon reading of On Immunity, I said yes instantly, because that was the book that made me tone it down, for crying out loud," wrote Amy Brill, author of the novel The Movement of Stars and a mother of two girls, in an email. "It remains the only book I've read that contextualized the (still wrong) positions some parents take on vaccination in a way that didn't dehumanize, infantilize, or make fun of them. I felt humbled by it, and schooled."