Hair Magazines Biography
His Quackwatch Web site has a whimsical title, but don't let that fool you. Stephen Barrett, M.D., a retired psychiatrist, cares not a whit about amusing anybody. Rather, he is an indefatigable medical troubleshooter and B.S. detector who wants to tell the truth, as he sees it, about consumer health issues. As for the Web site (http://www.quackwatch.com), which gets more than 1,000 hits a day, its self-described purpose is "to combat health-related frauds, myths, fads, and fallacies."
Barrett, who works out of his 1500-square-foot basement home-office in Allentown, Pa., has the credentials to prove both his intellectual weight and workaholic disposition. The co-author/editor of 45 books, including Health Schemes, Scams, and Frauds (Consumer Reports Books), and Chemical Sensitivity: The Truth About Environmental Illness (Prometheus, 1998), he received an FDA Commissioner's Special Citation Award for fighting nutrition quackery in 1984, and two years later was awarded honorary membership in the American Dietetic Association.
Raised in New York City, Barrett received his bachelor's degree from Columbia University, an M.D. from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and did his psychiatric residency at Temple University in Philadelphia. Married to Judith Nevyas Barrett, a physician, and the father of three (Daniel, Deborah, and Benjamin), he practiced psychiatry for 35 years. "In the late '60s, I began taking an interest in health frauds," says Barrett, 65. "As time went on, I began cutting down on my practice to pursue my hobby. Eventually, I just shut my door." In 1993 he began pursuing his avocation full time.
Today quackbusting remains his passion, "It's intellectually stimulating and publicly valuable," he says. "I try to look at private communications. For instance, I read chiropractors' journals. I look to see what they're saying among themselves, which may be different from what they're saying to the public."
This armchair warrior has won his share of public battles. One research project into mail-order fraud prompted the passage of the 1983 Mail Order Consumer Protection Act. Another put a good many hair-analysis labs out of business. Barrett also counts among his victories "mail from people thanking me for rescuing them from one sort of quackery or another. That's reward in itself"
Biography Magazine spoke to Barrett about issues ranging from the efficacy of alternative medicine to the validity of advice from best-selling diet gurus, and the various forms of medical quackery he says are being perpetrated on the consumer today.Biography: Some detractors say you are simply a puppet of the American Medical Association. How do you respond to this?
Barrett: By laughing. I think the AMA provides outstanding scientific information. I happen to disagree with many of its political and marketing activities. But there is no way that it has the slightest influence over what I do. That's standard quack propaganda.
Biography: Clearly, you seem most comfortable with traditional, commonly practiced medicine.
Barrett: "Traditional" means folk medicine. You mean standard medicine. If something has been shown to work and makes sense, it's fine. If it hasn't been shown to work and makes sense, it might be okay and needs more study. And if it hasn't been shown to work and makes no sense, it's worthless.
Biography: An article in the New York Times last spring described a touch-therapy experiment designed by a 9-year-old student, Emily Rosa. You helped write up the experiment for the Journal of the American Medical Association. The Times piece noted that her experiment "has thrown the field [of alternative medicine] into tumult." How so?
Barrett: In Emily's test, 21 practitioners who claimed they could feel a "human energy field" were not able to demonstrate that they could. The study that we wrote up also included a survey done by Emily's parents over a six-year period [examining] over 800 published reports. In it they analyzed every paper and citation on [Therapeutic Touch] and concluded that there was no evidence that touch therapy had any value whatsoever.
Biography: Didn't some of the healers involved say Emily's study was flawed?
Barrett: Yes, but there were no flaws. One practitioner said, "Well, Emily's too young to do a serious study." I wanted to ask how old you have to be. After the results came in, some practitioners said that Emily's negative attitude had influenced those results. However, none of these very same practitioners had objected to the study's setup. Besides, the idea that the patient's negative intention [in the study, Emily was the "patient"] can interfere is absurd. It is the opposite of touch-therapy teaching theory, which states that it is the therapist's intention that matters and that heals.Biography: What if he tells you that his vitamins are purer or of a higher quality than most?
Barrett: There's no appreciable difference in quality from one vitamin manufacturer to another. Hoffman-La Roche and a few other companies make most vitamins, which are then repackaged by smaller companies for sale to the public. The way distributors for the various multilevel marketing companies often make their pitch to doctors is usually to say, "Come to a free dinner. We'll tell you how to make the money you're losing in managed care." And if doctors can get 100 patients on a monthly vitamin program, they can easily pick up $20,000 to $30,000 a year for doing absolutely nothing. The same pills can be purchased in a drugstore for much less.
Biography: How can consumers safeguard their own health?
Barrett: People should adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes appropriate exercise, food choice, and weight control, and safety behavior. Beyond that, they should have an appropriate level of skepticism toward health information in the media, Finally, they should be skeptical of anyone who says he's practicing "alternative" or "complementary" medicine. Most of these people have bad judgment.
Biography: If people have specific questions, can they contact Quackwatch?
Barrett: Yes. We answer about 25 individual questions a day. People send e-mails. When I am logged in, about 80% of their questions get answered within ten minutes. It blows people's minds. I have an advisory board with more than 100 experts, and within a year people will be able to contact them directly, and get an answer if there's one available. Right now the site is completely translated into French as well. We have over 400 articles available, as well as a new referencing system with a link to the National Library of Medicine. If you click on the citation at the bottom of an article, it puts you right in the library's system and brings up the page with the abstract of the article and related articles. It's amazingly powerful.