The First John Maddox Prize

The panel that chose the winners of the first John Maddox Prize — Colin Blakemore, a British psychologist, Tracey Brown (Sense About Science), Phil Campbell (Nature), and Brenda Maddox — deserve a prize for Most Contentious Award. The Maddox Prize is supposed to be awarded to people who have excelled at:

any kind of public activity, including all forms of writing, speaking and public engagement, in any of the following areas:

  • Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues in any forum.
  • Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
  • Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

The first winners, announced in November, were Simon Wessely, a British psychiatrist, and Fang Shi-min, a Chinese journalist. Criticism of Fang is here. Criticism of Wessely is here (in the comments) and here. One of his papers is here. Wessely is best known for promoting the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat people with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). In particular, “he and his colleagues demonstrated substantial overlap in symptoms between chronic fatigue syndrome and clinical depression. . . . He subsequently developed a treatment approach using cognitive-behavioural therapy techniques, which in many cases brought about substantial improvement.”

The puzzle is that this is considered significant. Maybe people with CFS are depressed because they have CFS? Maybe this is why CBT helps them? A statement explaining the reward does not answer this objection. As for Fang, I have no idea if he deserves the prize. I would be surprised if members of the prize committee could judge for themselves the accuracy and value of his work.

5 Responses to “The First John Maddox Prize”

  1. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Fang Shi-min (also known as Fang Shimin and Fang Zhouzi) was described favorably in a New York Times piece in 2010:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/07/world/asia/07fraud.html

  2. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    CFS sufferers tend to insist that their condition is not psychosomatic. I’m less convinced. Psychological illnesses are well known to be highly influenced by culture. Perhaps there is something about modern Western culture that predisposes people to CFS. For a look at a bizarre psychological condition that’s rare in the West but common in the East, see this article about koro (the belief that one’s penis has either been stolen or is retracting into one’s body):

    http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2002/9/16/81843/6555

  3. dearieme Says:

    Was this one of the most expensive scientific lies ever told?
    http://www.science20.com/news_articles/radiation_effects_did_nobel_prize_winner_hermann_muller_lie-82835

    Seth: Yes. I mentioned it here:
    http://blog.sethroberts.net/2011/09/22/assorted-links-127/

  4. Anna Says:

    Alex,

    I suggest you watch the documentary ‘Voices from the Shadows’. It can be seen here: http://mubi.com/films/voices-from-the-shadows

    another informative website:
    http://mpkb.org/home/alternate/psychosomatic#historical_examples_of_psychologizing_problems_with_organic_causes

    If you’re not willing to spend an hour and $3 learning about the condition, you have no right to claim it is psychosomatic.

  5. dearieme Says:

    Cheating seems to be spreading from science to poetry.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/14/poetry-competition-winner-plagiarist

    Seth: Really surprising, since it seems obvious he would be caught.