When you do an online search for information on different therapies, the wackier or more dangerous the notion, the more likely you’ll come across links to a website posted by Dr. Stephen Barrett.
Take, for example, “iridology,” the claim that your health can be assessed by studying the irises of your eyes. The search engine Google turns up some 21,700 links. Barrett’s site is first on that list. Now, try “hair analysis,” also touted as a health diagnostic tool. This time, Google reports more than 15,000. Barrett’s site comes up first again.
A retired psychiatrist living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Barrett has spent over 30 years debunking anything he thinks is medical nonsense. His flagship website, Quackwatch, and seven related sites have become his principal weapons in that campaign.
Soft-spoken, Barrett nevertheless projects confidence in the power of rational discourse. He personally has never been a victim of quackery. “It just happens that I got interested,” he says and then, unexpectedly, mentions his zest for chess and bridge. “I love strategizing. My inclination toward strategic games, combined with my health background and my sense of social justice have all, by sheer luck, focused me.”
No Friend of Fraud
Barrett’s crusade began in the late 1960s, when his interest was piqued by books about two medical issues: the health risks posed by the irresponsible practices of some chiropractors, and the struggles to enact laws against potentially dangerous health products and services. Soon, he and a few like-minded colleagues formed a discussion group on quackery, which evolved into a national network of contacts, and in 1984, into the National Council Against Health Fraud. In 1997, he created Quackwatch.
Along the way, Barrett has become a prolific muckraking journalist. He has co-authored or edited 49 books, including a college text now in its seventh edition. He has had major successes, such as putting teeth into laws that enable the US Postal Service to ban mail order ads for worthless and dangerous health products.
Operating out of Barrett’s basement office, Quackwatch is funded by donations and profits from the sale of publications, and when the money falls short, Barrett contributes his own.
Quackwatch contains material that covers an immense span of topics and issues, including carefully documented assessments of specific herbal remedies, and critiques of media-savvy doctors who promote non-standard therapies. Quackwatch also discusses responsible and appropriate use of “alternatives” such as dietary supplements, and even “regular” drugs. The tone is skeptical and often caustic, but the site’s mission is to advise people about dangerous, ineffective, and/or unproven treatments, rather than to promote what is laudable. (Medical malpractice is not within the scope of Quackwatch, only fraud and “quackery.”)
Overall, Barrett considers “alternative medicine” a fuzzy notion at best. He makes the point that treatments should not be classified as “alternative” or otherwise, but simply as those that work, those that don’t work, and those that we are not sure about. He believes that if something hasn’t (yet) been shown to work, but makes sense, it may just need more study.
But much of the time he sees the use of the term “alternative” as a deliberate ploy to blur the distinction between useful practices like therapeutic massage, and those that cannot withstand scientific scrutiny.
The critiques on Quackwatch note the difference between that which provides a proven, beneficial result, and that which is a dubious claim. For example, in his article on aromatherapy, Barrett states that “pleasant odors can be enjoyable and may enhance people’s efforts to relax.” At the same time, he disputes claims that aromas can eliminate toxins and firm and tone the body.
“You should be guillotined”
Despite Barrett’s pattern of naming names of people as well as products, he has never been sued, except for a countersuit to a libel suit that he had filed. (The countersuit was withdrawn.) His explanation? “I protect myself by not saying anything that isn’t true.”
That doesn’t mean that he isn’t attacked. The Web site posts what he says is a fair sample of his email. The “jeers” range from name-calling, graphic insults—”You and your death dealing, blood sucking, parasites brothers and sisters, should be guillotined”—to reasonable commentary: “I am suspicious of people that take a totally hard-line stand one way or the other,” or, “Though I disagree with some of your content I believe that your site fills a valid role. Intelligent people are never fearful of reading opposing viewpoints and can determine for themselves what is right.”
Among the “cheers” are letters from people who say Barrett helped them save thousands of dollars, and perhaps their health, by alerting them to costly or dangerous treatments. He calculates that “cheers” outnumber “jeers” by four or five to one.
The Power of the Internet
Barrett has another project in the works, currently dubbed “Internet Health Pilot.” Using the volunteer services of some 700 experts on health-related subjects, he hopes to create a list of up to 500 of the best online health sites for consumers. “The Internet,” Barrett says, “permits the promoters of unsubstantiated ideas to reach a very wide audience inexpensively. However, it also enables people like me to put up information.”
This range of easily-available information is making it possible for healthcare consumers to do exactly what Barrett is doing: read the evidence and make an informed assessment.
Mr. Baldwin is a freelance medical writer who resides in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This article is reprinted here with his permission. It was first published in the Summer 2002 issue of MEDHUNTERS magazine, a quarterly that features “extraordinary people in healthcare.”
This article was posted on August 6, 2002.