Friday, October 5, 2018

Stephen Barrett: King Quackbuster

Unscientific 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.

A brief email exchange with ACSH board member James Enstrom

In August 2018 I emailed two current members of the American Council on Science and Health Board of TrusteesJames E. Enstrom and Daniel T. Stein. Only Dr. Enstrom responded.

James E. Enstrom is described by ACSH as "Research Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.” More interestingly, and part of why I emailed him, he is president of what is called the Scientific Integrity Institute, though it isn’t clear that entity is anything more than Dr. Enstrom himself. Having allied himself with “scientific integrity,” I was interested to know what he thought of my experiences with ACSH’s ethical deficiencies and the insulting and dishonest public comments by current ACSH president Hank Campbell. Not much, judging by his responses.

My initial email:

The “this” I linked to was my original blog post which gives context to this entry.

Dr. Enstrom’s replies are surprisingly revealing and troubling given that he heads an entity whose philosophy includes the statement, "It is vital that the pursuit of truth in all areas of science continue, unimpeded by non-scientific considerations such as popularity and politics.” ACSH has been knee-deep in politics since its inception.

His response:

What did I write that he finds “incredibly harse (sic)”? He does not say. Is he bothered by any of the unethical behaviors that I detailed? He doesn’t say. He also does not say that I wrote anything false. Humorously, and condescendingly, he offers a “respectful and productive discussion” — if I send him a resumé. What does my career trajectory have to do with ACSH’s ethics? His response is not what one might hope for from the president of the Scientific Integrity Institute.

I declined his offer to talk in my second email:

His final reply is honest to a fault.

As a member of the board of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization under federal law, and under the laws of New York State, he states that ACSH’s boards have always been “basically advisory groups with little direct power.” The president  “has essentially all the power, as you know from your time as ACSH.” What he says is true about ACSH, but would it be so if the board complied with its legal responsibilities rather than acting as a powerless advisory group?

I’m not a lawyer, but I can read the Governance Principles for non-profits on the web site of New York City’s government. The obvious reading is that board members have the authority and obligation to ensure that a non-profit behaves ethically and responsibly. I’m confident that New York state law has a similar mandate. But Dr. Enstrom’s email reveals why the ACSH board has acted as a rubber stamp for Elizabeth Whelan and Hank Campbell.

Dr. Enstrom, and the rest of the ACSH board, might want to read the “Overview for directors of not-for profit corporations” authored by a partner and senior associate of the Hodgson-Russ law firm of Albany, New York. The guidance states that the "board can delegate responsibilities, e.g., to committees or employees, but it is ultimately responsible for the workings of the corporation.” It is not the duty of a non-profit board to give the president “essentially all the power,” as Dr. Enstrom admits has been the case at ACSH. 

Dr. Enstrom’s last paragraph about “perspective on ACSH” seems to suggest that unethical behavior at ACSH is excused by the “dirty tactics and dishonesty of activist groups.” ACSH is also an “activist group,” which might be why it acts like one. 


I don’t include this to insinuate anything about Dr. Enstrom and his work as a scientist, but because it is interesting. I’m prone to thinking that he got a raw deal, and was “fired,” as Fox News said he characterized it, for not producing research that pleased political and medical authorities. It’s a disturbing lesson about the politicization of science.

In 2010 the UCLA School of Public Health declined to rehire Dr. Enstrom because, as they reportedly put it, his "research is not aligned with the academic mission" of the institution. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an ideologically diverse group that has become an important defender of academic freedom, brought suit on behalf of Dr. Enstrom, and it was reportedly settled on terms favorable to him, if not entirely to his liking. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Working for Elizabeth Whelan at the American Council on Science and Health

Elizabeth Whelan photo
Elizabeth Whelan
by Nicolas S. Martin

The following may be quoted or reprinted with attribution.

While living in Californa in 1988, I contacted the Manhattan-based American Council on Science and Health (ACSH, pronounced “ak-shuh”) about employment. I did so because I was concerned about what seemed to me to be unwarranted attacks on science from various quarters, especially from environmentalists. I identified ACSH as a counterpoint to irrationality and "junk" science. 

I paid for my own airline ticket and lodging in New York, and after meeting with ACSH's president and vice-president, Elizabeth Whelan and Ed Remmers, I was hired and moved to New York.

Up to that time my work had been in business, which was rare for ACSH employees. I was hired to handle publicity and fundraising for the most part, but one must be flexible. I was immediately pressed into service at ACSH's satellite office in New Jersery, helping to mail out a press packet that had fallen behind schedule. After discussion with office staff it became clear that the Jersey office was in bad shape, and morale was low. With a little more investigation I realized that ACSH was not a tightly run organization, and money was squandered. So, I approached Beth Whelan and told her that I would correct ACSH's problems if I was given the authority to do so. She agreed and appointed me Administrative Director. My first action in that role was to shut down the Jersey office and terminate its staff.

Nicolas Martin at New Jersey office of American Council on Science and Health
The author at the ACSH office in New Jersey in 1988.

I wasn't at ACSH long before I realized that it had a peculiar and somewhat unfriendly atmosphere, mostly driven by Whelan, whose personality could be prickly and her executive actions impulsive. She had a talent for alienating employees.

I didn't find her especially hard to deal with directly, but it was not enjoyable working in a palpably dark and paranoid place. Whelan, Remmers, and a physician who was hired for some nebulous reason, had what I considered lurid and idiotic fascinations with homosexuality, which was a frequent topic of conversation. Remmers once admonished me for off-handedly referring to him and the physician as "you fellows"; telling me that "fellows" implied homosexuality. Whelan invited me to lunch with some of her conservative friends, during which I sat cringing as they animatedly discussed how gays "recruited" vulnerable heterosexuals. Long having had gay friends, I knew this talk was bunk. (For the sake of clarity, I've never been gay.)

When I arrived ACSH had an archaic Wang computer system which had cost a small fortune, and no plan for improvement. I explained the current status of computers, and especially how "desktop publishing" (as it was then called) could drastically reduce ACSH's production costs while speeding things up. My proposal for buying a Macintosh and laser printer was accepted and I then took on the role of editing and designing ACSH publications. All things considered, I had my hands full. (I also proposed and designed ACSH's first magazine, known then as Priorities.)

One of the key things that drew me to ACSH was Dr. Whelan's book, Toxic Terror, which I found powerful and well-written. When I was employed, then, I was surprised to find that Beth was a very poor writer, producing prose far inferior to Toxic Terror. She asked me to edit an essay she wrote for Reason magazine that was dreadful, so I did a thorough rewrite. She accepted my revision and submitted it as her own. When it came time for new edition of one of her books (Boy or Girl, I believe), I noticed that she bought a pile of books relevant to the subject and promptly shipped them out. Eventually she received a manuscript which was obviously the ghostwritten manuscript of the book which she then submitted to the publisher. I'm confident, based on her dismal writing skill, that she didn't write Toxic Terror, Boy or Girl, or perhaps any of the books bearing her name. There were some talented writers who had done work for ACSH, and I think she employed one or more of them as her ghostwriters. I found this quite discouraging and ethically disturbing.

Whelan was visited at ACSH by former minister Gene Antonio, author of The AIDS Cover-Up?: The Real and Alarming Facts about AIDS. Whelan had written a cover blurb for this 
alarmist book, one of the most foolish and unscientic screeds ever written about the disease, calling it "A provocative and enlightening analysis of the AIDS crisis. Must reading."
Elizabeth Whelan endorsement on back cover of “The AIDS Cover-Up"
Conservative Michael Fumento, author of The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, who later collaborated with ACSH, described Antonio's book as "stridently anti-homosexual, portraying gay people as agents of human destruction." And yet Whelan, supposedly the head of a group promoting "sound science," lent her credibility to scaremongering junk science by a minister with no scientific credentials and no grasp of epidemiology. Her ideology trumped her devotion to science.*

Whelan privately ridiculed the widely cited and respected scientist, Bruce Ames. Dr. Ames was and is a prominent researcher at Berkeley whose views intersected in some ways with Whelan's. He was eventually given an award by ACSH, but was was not immune from her derision. My suspicion is that she was jealous of his fame and accomplishment, while she engaged in dubious labor. (Ames made it clear that he didn't accept industry funding for his research.)

ACSH had often been described by critics as an "industry front." The group has frequently defended the products and practices of its funders, which have included pharmaceutical, chemical, and food companies. (Up to that time it had made its list of funders public, but has since ceased doing so.) In interviews Whelan had always insisted that ACSH was not influenced by funders and denied providing quid pro quo work for donations. I took her word for that until I came to know it was false.

The first evidence that Whelan lied came when Remmers confided to me with a bemused smile me that an ACSH booklet about sugar and health had been "printed in-house by Hershey." There was no public acknowledgement of Hershey's printing of the booklet, which was an obvious conflict of interest. While I was at ACSH the organization was developing a booklet on alcohol and health. The Stroh Brewery was included in the editing process, again with no acknowledment either in the published booklet or otherwise.

I contacted the Professional Lawn Care Association to solicit a donation. The PLCA representative equivocated about giving ACSH money, but asked me if the organization could do a booklet about the safety of lawn chemicals. (It would declare them to be safe, obviously.) When I told Whelan she was furious and instructed me to tell the PLCA that ACSH would only do such a booklet if the association paid for it, a direct quid pro quo. After that I had no doubt that ACSH was indeed an industry front, and I knew my days were numbered.

One saving grace was that ACSH had very little influence. It got a fair amount of media coverage for the Thanksgiving menu it sent out year after year, which showed that natural foods are composed of chemicals, and even some that are identified carcinogens. The idea, quite reasonable, was to show that man-made chemicals are no more hazardous than those found in nature. Newspapers would sporadically publish articles based on ACSH's booklets, but the coverage was slight relative to the organization's output. A substantial (in my opinion unconscionable) proportion of the organization's revenue went to staff, and especially the president and vice-president. (My own annual salary peaked at $45,000, I think, which was hardly a huge payday in Manhattan, even in 1989.) I can't remember the topic, but Whelan paid some ACSH contractors to arrange and promote a publicity event at the Roosevelt Hotel. Not a single member of the media attended the embarrassing flop.

Another of ACSH's ethical lapses consisted of reporting full-time employees as contractors. That was done in my case. After I left ACSH the IRS came to me for tax that had not been properly paid. The IRS determined that I had been an employee and required ACSH to pay the tax. Mine was not the only case, as I'd been warned by a former employee, so Whelan was well aware that classifying full-time employees as contractors was illegal but did so anyway.

Whelan ruled ACSH with an iron fist after she founded the organization with Fredrick Stare, founder of the Harvard Department of Nutrition. (In 2016 researchers revealed that Stare had been secretly funded by the sugar industry to clear dietary sugar of any role in heart disease, and to lay the blame on fat. His obituary in The Economist said, "Any recommendation he made was bound to please some lobby or other.") Whelan was openly disdainful of ACSH's directors, chosen for their pliabiity. Board meetings, one of which I attended, were charades. Whelan invariably had her way. She told me if I were asked about my credentials by the board that I should tell them I had a master's degree, which would have been a lie. Fortunately the issue didn't arise, but I would not have followed her direction.

Finally, during an office meeting which devolved into some vulgar comments about homosexuals, I had had enough and resigned on the spot. It took some doing, including contacting the board chairman, to get paid the remaining salary I was owed.

After resigning, I started an organization called the Consumer Health Education Council and soon had articles published in major newspapers and a speech published in Vital Speeches of the Day. I have never solicited or accepted industry contributions.

As if to flaunt her disdain for ethical behavior, Whelan hired Gilbert Ross in 1998, and eventually promoted him to dual posts of medical director and executive director at ACSH. Ross had been convicted of Medicaid fraud and sentenced to 46 months in prison, as well as being stripped of his New York state medical license in 1995. In 1997 a judge found Ross to be “a highly untrustworthy individual,” but just a year later the ex-con was at ACSH, where he remained for 17 years.

Elizabeth Whelan, reliable defender of junk foods and non-smoker, died in 2014 at age 70, over ten years younger than the life expectancy of a white American woman.

I've recently posted some comments on ACSH's web site that challenged both the organization and some of its articles, and the blowback from the organization's current president, Hank Campbell, has been comically fierce. His ACSH does not welcome open discussion and criticism. Campbell says I'm a "clown" who "vomit(s) up amateur moral relativism.” (That during a discussion over the relative risks of chiropractic and medicine.) Campbell dishonestly describes me as having been "intern (sic) here [ACSH] for 6 months in the 1980s or something,” and says I was "disgusted by a woman whose lawn you are not even qualified to mow.”

Following are key excerpts. The entire exchange is here.

I didn't dislike Beth Whelan, but I was disgusted by her dishonesty and homophobia. Unfortunately, post-Whelan ACSH appears to have no complaint about the way she conducted business. Apparently lying about conflicts of interest doesn't constitute "moral relativism.”


ACSH president Hank Campbell responds to my criticisms in a way uncharacteristic of the head of an organization which at least maintains the veneer of a scientific legitimacy. These are characteristic of his tweets to and about me:

Dishonesty has never seemed to disturb ACSH’s governing board, and now public vulgarity reflects the organization’s values. He called me “anti-science,” but he offered no evidence for that. My impression is that if you disagree with Campbell or anyone at ACSH you are, ipso facto, anti-science.

The author's original ACSH business card.

A brief look at ACSH finances (posted August 2018)
According to Charity Navigator, for the fiscal year ending in June 2017 ACSH had total income of $1,260,442. It sustained a loss of $468,561. Hank Campbells salary was reported to be $224,358. According to its annual report, ACSH’s total revenue for fiscal year ending June 1985 was $856,217. In 2017 it would have had to have brought in $1,950,000 to have merely kept up with inflation from 1985 to 2017, but fell short by a wide margin. ACSH’s revenue seems to have peaked in 1999. (At the time Charity Navigator published its report on ACSH, August 1, 2018, it had not received ACSH's Form 990 for fiscal year ending June 2018 from the IRS.) The New York Post reported that Elizabeth Whelan was paid $323,000 in 2010. An anonymous former ACSH board member is quoted as saying, “They were once defenders of sound science. Now you’d be foolish to give them money.” The Post found that three listed advisors were dead and another was included “against his wishes.” From 2001 to 2003 Whelan’s salary increased from $268,593 to $326,612 though ACSH sustained revenue shortfalls of $284,000 in 2001, $33,300 in 2002, and $402,300 in 2003. Her salary amounted to a quarter of total 2003 revenue. All ACSH salaries gobbled up an unconscionable share of income, contributing to the massive revenue shortfall. Whelan was an irresponsible administrator abetted by a manipulable board of directors, but it cannot be denied that she well served her own financial interest. ACSH stopped making its donor list public in 1999.

See also: 

Paging Dr. Ross, Mother Jones, Nov. 2005
Personal reflection on a “Mother Jones” article about a friend and a colleague. Elizabeth Whelan, 2005.
Big pay, low payoff at NYC nonprofit, New York Post, Dec. 23, 2012
Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of a Pro-Industry Science Group, Mother Jones, Oct. 28, 2013
How ACSH reacts to a difference of opinion, Screen shot of ACSH web site, Oct. 21, 2016

* Whelan trashed Fumento’s AIDS book in a review, claiming he didn’t understand epidemiology. In a 1990 interview, Fumento called ACSH an "AIDS alarmist organization,” and gave an example of its use of bogus statistics in a booklet about AIDS:

"Well, I wrote about this in my Commentary piece, the first piece that I did on AIDS, and it caught a lot of attention, and I think a lot of people in the media were ashamed that they had — that they had done this, that they had repeated each other's bad statistics, that they hadn't looked at what CDC was doing. And as a result of that, within five months, nobody else — nobody in the media was doing this anymore. They quit it completely.  
"But about a year later, the American Council on Science and Health came out with their latest AIDS booklet, I opened it up and I was stunned. Those figures were in their latest booklet, as if they had pulled them out of my Commentary piece, and the most amazing thing is that Beth Whalen (sic) had sent me a note saying she'd read the Commentary piece, so she knew about the piece, she knew I debunked those figures, and a year later these figures show up in her own booklet. 
Fumento had the science right, and Whelan, the AIDS alarmist with a Ph.D. from Harvard School of Public Health, was wrong.
Interview with Michael Fumento, “The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS,” C-SPAN 2, Feb. 25, 1990.

What criticizing ACSH will cause to happen on the organization’s web site: 

The management is as predictably thin-skinned as it is vulgar and arrogant.

August 10, 2018 Addendum:

Debased discourse by ACSH spokespersons is commonplace. If the debate is not in the gutter, they are willing to take it there. In July 2018, in response to someone [not I] posting a criticism below an article on the ACSH web site, President Hank Campbell borrowed form his unimaginative repertoire of insults. Just as in his swipes at me, he referenced vomit and called someone a “toadie."

On another occasion Campbell defends the scientific bona fides of ACSH by noting that it’s representatives — mostly Whelan — have been on TV shows like 60 Minutes and The Daily Show. (I got Whelan booked on two national TV shows.) You can’t find more credible scientific forums than  TV magazine and comedy shows. Fond of the fallacy of authority, Campbell points out, albeit in a disingenuous way, that “Walter Cronkite was in our documentary.” Aside from the fact that the film was four decades ago, I believe that Cronkite was the paid narrator for ACSH's Big Fears, Little Risks advocacy “documentary.” Paid or not, Cronkite was a journalist, not a scientist, so how does his presence in a little-seen and long-forgotten film alloy ACSH with scientific prestige? Campbell extends his fallacy by asking the poster to “Please tell us your credentials, and how you are qualified to undermine our hundreds of scientists and doctors.”  (See also: fallacy of credentialism.) ACSH has long had scores of “scientific advisors,” but science is about evidence, not advisory lists or credentials. It would difficult for the person Campbell sneers at to be less of a scientist than Cronkite was. Campbell hopes to bolster his own authority by pretending that the “hundreds of scientists and doctors” stand behind his and ACSH’s every utterance, and that by disagreeing with Campbell and his tiny crew one is assaulting not just ACSH’s advisors, but science itself. One is well-served to remember physicist Richard Feynman’s observation that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”^

ACSH promotes itself by quoting, “What People Say About Us.” Not one of those “people" is a scientist. ACSH is not even “allegedly" a science organization, it is a small advocacy group claiming to speak for science. It’s president, Campbell, is not a scientist, he is an advocate on issues related to science, and many working scientists disagree with some of his views. (There would be nothing wrong with Campbell not being a scientist if he didn’t portray himself as the righteous oracle of science, a role to which nobody can justly lay claim.)

^ Feynman won the Nobel Prize in physics, and in the face of immense political pressure, revealed his finding about the negligence that caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster. His books are great reads and often funny.