Stephen Barrett: King QuackbusterUnscientific health practices are often bunched under the rubric of “alternative medicine.” Consisting of things like colon cleansing and aromatherapy, they “suck in the botched,” as H. L. Mencken put it in his hilarious take-down of chiropractic. In recent decades the critics of quackery have dubbed themselves quackbusters, and the unchallenged king of the busters has been Stephen Barrett.
|Stephen Barrett, ghostwriter|
Barrett has long run the Quackwatch web site. A peculiar irony is that while he has styled himself an all-purpose health expert, he is a psychiatrist, now retired. Psychiatry is marked by a long history of unscientific diagnoses and treatments that have often been indistinguishable from torture. Unlike popular quackeries, psychiatric treatments have often been, and still often are, imposed by force. In a lecture titled “This Unscientific Age,” physicist Richard Feynman took aim at his own favorite quacks: "Who are the witch doctors? Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, of course.” The great critic of psychiatry, Thomas Szasz, wrote that "Psychiatry is institutionalized scientism: it is the systematic imitation, impersonation, counterfeiting, and deception.” Psychologist Robert A. Baker, a skeptic of considerable repute, referred to it as the "pseudoscientific branch of modern medicine we call psychiatry."
Whatever one thinks of psychiatry, psychiatric training in no respect qualifies the trainee as an expert in nutrition, physiology, or biology. Psychiatrists are generally unqualified to practice actual medicine. Barrett has long styled himself a medical, nutritional, and scientific expert, but his own profession might justly be categorized as “alternative medicine."
Barrett’s association with Beth Whelan and ACSH goes back to at least the 1970s. He edited the 1975 edition of Panic in the Pantry, a book Whelan supposedly co-wrote with Frederick Stare. The book notes that a quack "displays credentials not recognized by responsible scientists or educators.” Readers are apparently not meant to ask what makes a psychiatrist an expert on any of the topics addressed in the book. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Barrett rewrote the original edition for its 1975 reissue.) He remains on ACSH’s Board of Scientific Advisors.
While at ACSH in 1988 I did the editing and layout of a “special report” written by Barrett and published by ACSH, called The Unhealthy Alliance: Crusaders for “Health Freedom.” a superficial survey of unscientific health practices, and a reference to people Barrett considered prominent quacks. Once published, it sank into a chasm of disinterest.
After I left ACSH and formed the Consumer Health Education Council (CHEC) in 1989, I sent Barrett a news clip about a small investigation CHEC had done in Houston regarding the promotion of dubious AIDS treatments. He responded quickly, asking if I would write up a brief piece about the study for Nutrition Forum, a bi-monthly newsletter published by J. P. Lippincott Company that Barrett edited. (Nobody at Lippincott apparently thought to question whether a psychiatric degree is a recognized nutrition credential.) I had no interest in writing for him, so he asked if he could write it and put my name on it, to which I agreed. He did so and it was published in the March-April Nutrition Forum. Barrett, then, became my first and only ghostwriter.
The thing that interested me most about that experience, and the reason I let Barrett publish his report under my name, is that he made no effort to authenticate any of the information I supplied to him. He simply took the word of someone he had never met whose assertions validated his own assumptions, and he then submitted his writing as someone else’s work to a prominent science publisher and his readers. It is even among exhibits submitted to a 1994 congressional subcommittee that conducted a hearing on dietary supplements.
And so I learned firsthand how quackbusting works.