Leading psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, has been awarded the 2016 John Maddox Prize for pursuing sound science in the public interest, whilst facing hostility from those who opposed her research.
The John Maddox Prize is an initiative of Nature, the Kohn Foundation, and Sense About Science.
Sense About Science gives the following statement on the nature of the current award:
Professor Elizabeth Loftus has been awarded the international 2016 John Maddox Prize 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 Guardian writes:
The work propelled Loftus into the heart of the 1990 “memory wars”, when scores of people who had gone into therapy with depression, eating disorders and other common psychological problems, came out believing they had recovered repressed memories for traumatic events, often involving childhood abuse.
Loftus, now a professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, performed a series of experiments that showed how exposure to inaccurate information and leading questions could corrupt eyewitness testimonies. More controversially, she demonstrated how therapy and hypnosis could plant completely false childhood memories in patients. She went on to become an expert witness or consultant for hundreds of court cases.
In the 1990s, thousands of repressed memory cases came to light, with affected patients taking legal action against family members, former neighbours, doctors, dentists and teachers. The accusations tore many families apart. As an expert witness in such cases, Loftus came under sustained attack from therapists and patients who were convinced the new-found memories were accurate.