And why might that be worth doing?
The Vaccinated.US team is on a mission to disseminate a million pieces of spike protein art as subtle, poetic symbols of vaccine reason and gratitude — because we believe that can improve the spirit and power of public health cooperation during a global pandemic. The project grew out of a concern that vaccine disinformation and hostility are becoming so prevalent, loud, and evangelistic that their gravity threatens to pull (more) millions of reasonable people into a dysfunctional orbit. We worry that continuously more smart kids will fall into the anti-vaccine rabbit hole by virtue of its sheer size and presence. That if some critical mass of humanity falls into the spin of scientific cynicism then our ability to navigate, govern and pull together erodes. This seems particularly urgent as infodemic gravity grows stronger with well organized (and self-funding) disinformation machines like the “Died Suddenly” documentary, Epoch News, and the “disinformation dozen.” In a world of complex scientific arguments that go over too many heads, where psychology reminds us that facts alone will not convince all cynics (example 1, example 2), those forces of disinformation are hard to counterbalance entirely with scientific communication. We propose that a certain kind of art can play a critical role to establish an ambient sense of reason and solidarity that might open more ears to the science. To pursue some sort of equipoise with the vaccine disinformation machine.
In the spring of 2020 my team was whimsically making visual art based on 3D molecular structures (long story), and we started riffing on the structure of the SARS-CoV2 spike protein — before there were any commercial vaccines (because it’s just cool looking, see below). Months later, when the vaccine conversation went vitriolic, we noticed that the art we had sitting around suddenly seemed to symbolize something important. We thought about Eric Topol’s tweet opining that CoViD vaccines might be one of the most impressive scientific achievements in history, we watched brave souls volunteering for vaccine clinical trials, noticed doctors and nurses coming out of retirement and working around the clock to help the sick, and we asked… when do you ever hear anyone say “thank you” for the protection that these vaccines have given us? For these medical miracles that gave us a bit of safety to come out of pandemic isolation? To gather with families for the holidays? How can we let that sentiment be drowned out by the cynicism? Worse still, what risks do we assume going forward if that cloud of antagonism comes to define and distort the broader climate of civic connection? In the context of all that human generosity, the mostly forgotten molecular art we had tossed in the corner just seemed to say “thank you” in a way that was elegant, powerful, and cool to look at. So we printed it up on t-shirts and invited the world to join us in a slow-moving global flashmob. To express those sentiments at scale. To elevate the sheer presence of vaccine reason and gratitude wherever there might be doubt about its persistence. Or prevalence.
In the first couple months of the project we’ve gifted and/or sold and sent thousands of spike protein “pieces” to 24 countries and 48 US states (and counting!). Quixotic though it may be, people respond to the fusion of art and science. The message of reason and gratitude. The global flash of support in the first couple months. All profits from the project are going directly toward distributing more spike protein art around the world, science education and R&D on a critical missing link informatics technology that has been constraining cancer research for decades.
Numerous studies (example 1, example 2) have found evidence that vaccine hostility results more from distrust of scientists/journalists than it does from any actual vaccine information — and that those institutional grievances drive contorted motivated reasoning. Distrust and division are the levers that move disinformation forward, and it is unfortunately easy to manufacture distrust. The result is that motivated angst peddlers fill our airwaves with vaccine bunk. In response our impulse is usually to re-re-represent the science (reasonably), but we propose that it is equally important to establish an ambient, visible presence of reason first. Trust. To put a visible flag in the ground to remind people that science supporters are everywhere. Nearby. Present. Where institutional distrust is in the air, we just want to disinfect with light. This molecular art is the best formula we’ve conjured to make that light portable. Shippable by post. To the spots where anyone is willing to give it a lightpost.
The Vaccinated.US art project is (accidentally) engineered to touch people at scale, drive its own virality, plant the flag of vaccine reason, and make that present in the streets. We’re working to accelerate the speed and scale of the art project to rebalance that ratio of vaccine reason/resistance. Would you join us? All you have to do to join the vaccine gratitude anti-disinformation massacree is to sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar (with feeling). Or buy a bit of spike protein art and wear it around your neighborhood. Let there be light.
Matt Rain is a molecular geneticist who works on novel data analysis technologies to unstick persistent bottlenecks in biomedical research. He recently did a short guest spot on the This Week in Virology podcast (on YouTube here), which offers a little more background.
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