March 2006


This may not be the best children’s picture book ever written, but it is certainly one of the most enduring. It is widely-known and fondly-remembered even by old crones like me. In fact, it is the only one I remember reading and enjoying from my own childhood.

It’s got everything – endearing pictures, different-shaped pages, pages with holes in and a lovely “surprise” ending. For those who like something educational, it even does numbers and days of the week… So, although not quite as fabulous as I remember, it is still pretty good – yes, it has withstood the test of time.

I noticed, while reminding myself how good this book is, a range of caterpillar-turns-butterfly (oops, sorry, just gave away the ending) stories in the picture book section. I suppose it must be something about the magic of transformation that captures both the adult’s and the child’s imagination. One of these books had the caterpillar sighing – “I wish I could fly, but I have no wings and I am too fat and heavy.” Chin up, little one, life gets better.

So, here’s an Amazon link.
I sneakily re-read it for free in Ottakers, using the baby as a diversion.

I read this book as a teenager. All my friends read it too. We thought it moving, gripping, unputdownable… We read all the prequels and sequels too.

I cringe now to think of it. Sorry, but I can’t bear to read it again so, despite my wish to get this project off to a flying start it just aint gonna happen.

Any-hoo…

The book is about a happy family of six, which gets screwed up completely. Daddy dies suddenly, and Mommy has no way to earn a living so she returns to her family mansion. Problem – her father is sick and always hated the fact that she had married this chap (for reasons too soap-opera horrible to detail, you have to read the prequel to get the full flavour of it) so she is obliged to hide the fact that she has children by him. Those children are locked in the attic, just until their sick grandfather finally pops his clogs… which takes somewhat longer than expected and much pain and damage to the children ensues. I mean, how would you feel if you were a child imprisoned in an attic, required to make no noise, and never ever allowed out at all? Meanwhile, Mommy dearest is getting on with her life, falling in love again and forgetting how much she cares (did she ever?) about her children. She ends up sending them poisoned doughnuts… yes, you read that right, poisoned doughnuts.

It is the first book (well, there was that prequel, written later, but never mind) in a series. The rest of the series charts the messed-up lives of the children in their post-attic days. On to adulthood, pain, revenge and – no, really? – incest.

You still want to read it? Here’s an Amazon link.
Looked at the book in the library, but have not re-read it.

MMR: Science and Fiction. Exploring a vaccine crisis
by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.

This is one of the more thought-provoking books I have read recently, and certainly the most compelling book on its subject.

Horton first gives some detailed background, from the perspective of an insider, about the “MMR crisis” that was ignited when his journal, The Lancet, published a paper in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield raising the possibility of a link between MMR and autism.

His conclusion on that controversy is that the possible autism link was a tentative preliminary suggestion, which has now been totally discredited. He argues that both the original paper and its subsequent (partial) retraction were blown out of all proportion by a media more interested in sensationalism than truth, reporting to a society that does not know how to reason about risk and has lost all trust in science. Notwithstanding serious errors of judgement that Wakefield committed, Horton has some sympathy for him, and in particular for the way that Wakefield has been unjustly vilified for his role in the MMR crisis. Horton also defends his own role, and that of The Lancet, in the affair, and examines both the case for the MMR vaccine and the need for further research into the causes and treatment of autism.

What is most interesting in Horton’s book is his analysis of the lessons to be learned from the whole sorry business.

He argues that science needs to change in order to regain the trust of the public. He points out the commercialisation of science, which undermines its independence and objectivity. He also points to the lack of any strong, independent or trusted public institutions to control scientific ethics, to investigate and debate scientific controversies or to improve communication between scientists and the public. He argues that the media too has lost its independence and objectivity as a result of commercialisation leading to a hunger for what is sensational and controversial over what is merely true.

There is also a fundamental disagreement, it seems, between science and the media about what it means to give a “balanced” account of a debate. The media, Horton says, consider that a balanced report must give equal time to each side of the debate. Science believes that a balanced account gives each side weight according to the strength of the evidence supporting that side. Of course, this can mean – as happened with MMR and autism – that science and media have radically different ideas about what amounts to a fair and balanced account of a controversy.

Horton argues strongly for two new public institutions. The Council for Research Integrity (CRI) would examine conflicts of interest or other ethical issues, and would work to ensure the integrity of scientific research. The National Agency for Science and Health (NASH) would be a forum, including both scientists and lay people, existing to investigate scientific controversy. NASH would, Horton suggests, provide both journalists and the public with the tools to understand and assess scientific issues such as vaccine risks.

It may be that Horton’s vision for NASH and the CRI is unrealistic – there certainly does not appear to be any political will to create such institutions. Nevertheless, his book is a telling account of the relationship between science, journalism and the public and it throws welcome light onto the MMR debate. His voice is clear and authoritative and I recommend his book.