Pioneer in understanding of human memory, Professor Elizabeth Loftus, awarded the 2016 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science
London | New York, 17 November 2016
Professor Elizabeth Loftus has been awarded the international 2016 John Maddox Prize1 for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so. A cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, Loftus is recognised for her leadership in the field of human memory which continued in the face of personal attacks and attempts to undermine her professional status and research.
Professor Loftus is best known for her ground-breaking work on the “misinformation effect” which demonstrates that the memories of eyewitnesses are altered after being exposed to incorrect information about an event, as well as her work on the creation and nature of false memories. In addition to her research, Loftus has appeared as an expert witness in numerous courtrooms, consulting or providing expert witness testimony for hundreds of cases. Her findings have altered the course of legal history, in showing that memory is not only unreliable, but also mutable.
The John Maddox Prize, now in its fifth year, is a joint initiative of Nature, the leading weekly, international scientific journal, the Kohn Foundation, and the charity Sense about Science, and is awarded to one or two people a year. The late Sir John Maddox2 FRS, was editor of Nature for 22 years and a founding trustee of Sense about Science. A passionate and tireless communicator and champion of science, he engaged with difficult debates, inspiring others to do the same.
The judges3 were once again struck by the high calibre and the international breadth of this year’s nominations4 – the highest number received in any year – reflecting a growing recognition in the global science community of the importance of engaging in discussion about science in the public realm.
Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law, and Cognitive Science, University of California, Irvine: “I could hardly contain my excitement when I first learned that I would receive the 2016 John Maddox Prize, especially since this prize recognizes the work of people who promote sound credible science that bears on a matter of public interest and who have faced difficult challenges or hostility in the process. Standing up for psychological science in general, and research on memory in particular, has brought a good deal of hostility my way. Receiving this honor helps to erase the pain of insults, death threats, and lawsuits. And I love the idea that, forever, my CV will contain the name of the late Sir John Maddox whom all respect for his tireless defence of science.”
Sir Philip Campbell PhD, Editor-in-Chief, Nature, and judge: “Elizabeth Loftus has championed scientific insight in a way that perfectly epitomises the values of the John Maddox Prize.”
Tracey Brown, Director, Sense about Science and judge: “It’s one thing to stand up for science. It’s another to keep going when the consequences become personal. Elizabeth Loftus has shown remarkable bravery in pursuing her research in spite of verbal and physical personal attacks. Her resulting contribution to our understanding of human memory has been extraordinary. Elizabeth has never backed away from talking about her work. Her persistence benefits us all because it means we see evidence when we most need to see it – when debates are heated and difficult. John Maddox was always of the view that this was when real communicators put on their boots rather than hung up their coats.”
Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, Director of the Schacter Memory Lab and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Harvard University: “Elizabeth Loftus has pioneered our understanding of how and why memory can go terribly wrong, sometimes resulting in wrongful convictions or wrongful accusations that have devastating consequences for innocent individuals. She has persistently engaged in clear thinking and rigorous research even under difficult circumstances, to the great benefit of both science and society."
Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience & Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London: “Elizabeth Loftus’s remarkable work on the unreliability of eye-witness testimony and the existence of false memories has had enormous impact on cognitive science. But what makes her such a worthy winner of the John Maddox Prize is her determination to use the lessons from her research to challenge courtroom procedures and the unjustified claims of some psychotherapists. As a consequence, she has suffered enormous abuse, but has never flinched from criticising bad practice and the misuse of legal processes and of psychotherapeutic procedures.”
Lord (Martin) Rees of Ludlow OM FRS, University of Cambridge and judge: “Society should be grateful to scientists who scrutinise the science underlying controversial issues and are prepared to engage with the public, even when that engagement presents a risk to themselves. Such people often get more flak than praise. The Maddox Prize is one way of showing our gratitude for their courage.”
Brenda Maddox: “My late husband John had an unusual combination of knowledge of science and eloquence of expression. Someone once asked him, ‘How much of what you print is wrong?’ referring to Nature. John answered immediately, ‘All of it. That's what science is about – new knowledge constantly arriving to correct the old.’ He led a supreme example of science journalism and others will do well to look to it.”
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Notes for editors:
1. Awards ceremony: The prize will be announced at 7pm GMT at a reception in London on 17 November.
2. For photos of the winner or to request an interview, please contact Mark Staniland or James Cola.
3. The John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, in its fifth year, recognises the work of individuals anywhere in the world who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, facing difficulty or hostility in doing so. The winners receive a certificate and £2,000. Previous winners were: Professor Edzard Ernst and Professor Susan Jebb (2015); Dr Emily Willingham, Dr David Robert Grimes (2014); Professor David Nutt (2013); Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Shi-min Fang (2012).
Candidates were judged on the strength of their nomination based on these criteria:
- How clearly the individual communicated good science, despite adversity.
- The nature of adversity faced by the individual.
- How well they placed the evidence in the wider debate and engaged others.
- Their level of influence on the public debate.
4. Sir John Maddox (1925-2009) was the editor of Nature from 1966 to 1973, and for a second period from 1980 until 1995. During his tenure, he laid the foundations for Nature as it is today, establishing a system of peer review and instituting a strong tradition of journalism.
He was a founding trustee at Sense about Science and the inspiration for now internationally established programmes of work including the VoYS (Voice of Young Science) network. This prize commemorates Sir John as a passionate and tireless communicator and defender of science. As a writer and editor at Nature for 22 years, he changed attitudes and perceptions, engaging with difficult debates and inspiring others to do the same.
Sir John, in the words of his friend Walter Gratzer: “wrote prodigiously on all that was new and exciting in scientific discovery and technological advance, denouncing fearlessly what he believed to be wrong, dishonest or shoddy. He did it with humour and grace, but he never sidestepped controversy, which he seemed in fact to relish. His forthrightness brought him some enemies, often in high places, but many more friends. He changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove throughout his long working life for a better public understanding and appreciation of science.”
5. The judging panel consisted of Professor Colin Blakemore FRS, Tracey Brown (Sense about Science), Sir Philip Campbell PhD (Nature), Lord Rees of Ludlow OM FRS, and Natasha Loder (The Economist). The judges sat in a personal capacity and the choice of the award does not indicate the view of any organisation they are associated with.
6. In 2016, there were 72 nominations, with nominees from 17 different countries.
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