A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Monday, November 3, 2014

Note on the 2014 Maddox Prize

As those of you who follow me on twitter or Facebook might have seen recently, Dr Emily Willingham and myself were the joint recipients of the 2014 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science; This is a huge, humbling and unexpected honour. The award  "rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so" and is awarded jointly by Sense About Science, Nature, and the Kohn Foundation. It is named after John Maddox, an inspiring figure who edited Nature for 22 years and consistently encouraged scientists to engage with the public and present the scientific case, even when controversial.

rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.  - See more at: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/john-maddox-prize.html#sthash.ocZyUsfZ.dpuf
rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.  - See more at: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/john-maddox-prize.html#sthash.ocZyUsfZ.dpu

 I am genuinely delighted and grateful to have been recognised in such a way, and really want to thank you, my regular readers, for your continuing support over the years - as you probably gather from my frequent tetchy asides, communicating the scientific consensus can often be somewhat thankless, especially on issues where evidence is at odds with passionately held beliefs. In these instances, writing about the subject often feels like painting a target on one's back, but I do try and reassure myself those who write personal slurs or angry messages are a small albeit loud minority. I delivered a short speech last week at the Sense About Science annual reception, and some of you asked for the text of that so I offer it here;

"I never had the pleasure of meeting John, but I've been inspired by his brilliance; in 2012 I published an academic review with the subtle title “Proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are physically impossible” ; in that paper I discuss his inspired move as editor of Nature to enlist the magician James Randi to investigate a paper which claimed to have found evidence of homeopathy. Their subsequent investigation showed this claim to be unfounded, and showcased for me John's unerring commitment to scientific scepticism . It is a huge honour to be awarded in his name.
Presenting the scientific case can be a seemingly thankless task; we live in an era where instantaneous access to the wealth of human knowledge is at our very fingertips, and yet the paradox of our time is that this same freedom allows odious misinformation and complete falsehoods to perpetuate further and faster than ever before.

Yet while challenging dubious science often feels like a Sisyphean task, it is vital that we in the scientific community continue to engage and support evidence-based discourse, because the problems we face as a society are more than merely academic.  If we are truly to find pragmatic effective solutions to the towering problems facing us today, we will need to encourage evidence in the public sphere.
Curiously perhaps, one of the greatest challenges in conveying  science  is human psychology. The psychologist Leon Festinger observed that "a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point."  Or, if you prefer Paul Simon’s sentiment  “All lies and jest, still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.  Frequently, personal convictions are impervious to any evidence.

Yet in arenas as diverse as politics to medicine, ideological positions devoid of any evidence often condemn us to meander aimlessly around suboptimal solutions. Yet we cannot afford to forget that reality doesn’t care one iota for what we believe - If we persist in disregarding evidence to bolster misguided ideology, we all suffer for it and this is something we should all seek to challenge not only in others, but ourselves too. Whilst some will never be swayed from their position by any volume of evidence, we can only hope that the silent majority are more reasonable.

Perhaps inevitably, when you challenge beliefs that people may hold dear, some will resort to attacking the messenger and this is never  pleasant to endure. On a personal note, I’d like to thank the people who have supported me through the nastier moments; my fantastic parents and brother , my wonderful girlfriend Mathilde, and my long-suffering friends. I’d also like to thank my colleagues in the University of Oxford and Dublin City University, in particular Prof Enda McGlynn and Dr. Mike Partridge, and my editors at the Irish Times and the Guardian. 

And finally, I’d like to extend my gratitude to the inspiring people at Sense About Science, who have demonstrated that engaging more with the public to counter scientific misunderstandings can in fact benefit everyone .   I am deeply humbled and honoured my contributions to public discussion have been recognised by such pioneers. Thank you, and goodnight. 

-David Robert Grimes, Monday 27th October 2014" 

Prof Enda McGlynn, Myself, Danny "Teegan Murray, Prof. Susan Bewley and Prof. Colin Blakemore at the Sense about Science annual reception.

I'll wrap this up here to keep it short, but thank you all again for your enduring support and for reading my outpourings. If you don't already follow the work of Sense About Science, you might want to check them out as their "Ask for Evidence" campaign launches today.  Massive congratulations again to Dr Emily Willingham, whose work (especially on the autism debate) is excellent and can be checked out here. Thanks again folks - and do keep reading!  Dave

PS: If you're curious about that homeopathy paper... 

PPS: I had a chat with the inimitable Nick Cohen last week, and he has written an excellent piece on why evidence matters which is worth a read

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