Former naturopath and coral scientist share John Maddox prize

19 Nov 2018

Former naturopath and coral scientist share John Maddox prize

A scientist who's documenting the grim decimation of the world’s coral reefs and a naturopath turned whistle-blower on the alternative therapy industry have been jointly awarded the 2018 John Maddox Prize for their courage in promoting science and evidence

The pair scooped the prestigious prize in the face of hostility, grievances from colleagues and legal threats.

Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and a global expert on the Great Barrier Reef, is recognised for his relentless, bold efforts in communicating research evidence on coral reef bleaching to the public and for tackling the misrepresentation of coral reef science.

Toxic backlash

For speaking out, he’s experienced hostility from politicians, public figures and the Australian tourist industry. Faced with efforts to discredit his research, personal attacks and smears in the media, Terry stepped up his efforts to shout louder to an even wider possible audience. He used considerable skills, tenacity and creativity to amplify his voice and the work of researchers.

Professor Terry Hughes said:

“It is a privilege to receive this prize and to express my gratitude – not just for me, but more importantly for future generations, who have the most to lose if we fail to act on anthropogenic climate change.”

Bringing down baloney

Terry shares the award with Britt Hermes, an American former naturopath who is researching a PhD in evolutionary biology at Kiel University, Germany. Hermes has been recognised for her advocacy of evidence-based medicine through her blog, Naturopathic Diaries, in which she exposes bogus claims made by alternative medicine practitioners, which she says could place patients in danger.

Britt Hermes said: 

“I was a naturopath, until I looked at the evidence and decided to speak up about the dangerous therapies used in naturopathy, especially those to treat cancer. Walking away cost me my friends. I am harassed and being sued for defamation. I am honoured to be recognised by the scientific community for changing my mind.”

Fit for a fight

Judges were particularly impressed by her willingness to question her own views, the discomfort involved in communicating about the practices of former colleagues, and her continued commitment in the face of lawsuits and personal harassment. She is currently being sued for defamation by an American naturopath in a case due to be heard in a German court this year.

Tracey Brown, the director of Sense about Science, said the winners had gone to extraordinary lengths to bring scientific research into public discussions despite public spaces not always being supportive of these efforts.

“It is profoundly against the public interest to have research driven from the public domain by fears of personal attack, legal action or institutional hostility,” she said. “This prize gives strength to the elbow of those who push forward in difficult circumstances, but we need to see more action to stop it getting that far.”

The John Maddox Prize, now in its seventh year, is a joint venture of the charity Sense about Science and the scientific journal Nature. It’s awarded to one or two people a year and in 2018, there were 136 nominations from 36 countries.