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- January 25, 1999
- Vol. 51
- No. 3
Considering Treatments That Sound Too Good to Be True? Quackbuster Stephen Barrett Has a Word for You: Don't
The unlikely target of these venomous barbs is a 65-year-old retired psychiatrist who works out of his Allentown, Pa., cellar, carrying on a single-minded crusade to root out health quackery, from bogus bust-developing creams to false cancer cures. "There are a lot of people who have a rigid belief system," Barrett says of his attackers. "If you challenge someone's religious-like beliefs, you often get this kind of response." Barrett has mounted his challenges in 45 books, numerous journal articles and, more recently, on his Web site, which is financed by the sale of his books. Among his top targets is homeopathy—treating disease with tiny medicine doses that produce symptoms similar to the disease—which he calls "a blatant affront to reality and science." He also works to debunk chiropractors, who he says "combine usefulness with all sorts of strange things," and the vitamin industry, which offers benefits he believes are redundant. ("If you are eating food," he says, "you are going to get vitamins.") And he's not afraid of taking on pop-medical icons such as health guru Deepak Chopra. "That's not science," Barrett says of Chopra's work. "He's never published the results of anything he has done in a peer-review scientific journal." Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, calls Barrett "a brilliant critic—equally knowledgeable and fearless."
Not everyone agrees. Chiropractors, especially, have taken exception to his jabs. "He is so biased that it goes beyond common sense," says Dr. Edward Maurer, chairman of the board of the American Chiropractic Association, who maintains there is plenty of research to prove the efficacy of chiropractic. "He's using his M.D. credentials as a vehicle to become a self-appointed vigilante committee of one."
Working from his basement office, where he has accumulated a library of bogus products, medical journals and quackery-related documents, Barrett relentlessly seeks out fakery and myths to explode. "I see problems, and I like to fix them," he explains. "That's part of my nature."
Barrett was the only child of a New York City schoolteacher father who died when he was 4, and a mother who worked as a secretary at the academically elite Bronx High School of Science, from which Barrett graduated near the top of his class. He went on to college and medical school at Columbia. During his psychiatric residency in Philadelphia, he met medical student Judith Nevyas, whom he married in 1960.
The couple, who have three grown children, eventually settled in Allentown, where Judith ran a family practice and Stephen saw psychiatric patients. In 1969, he read a book about chiropractic medicine and found his mission. "My gut reaction was, 'My God, this is organized crime in my very own field of health,' " says Barrett, who believes the chiropractic approach to disease lacks scientific validity. "Maybe I ought to do something about it." Inspired, he formed a discussion group on health-fraud issues and began writing articles for medical journals. "I'm interested in helping the victim" of quackery, says Barrett, who closed his psychiatric practice in 1993, "but my real emotion is outrage at the perpetrator."
In a highly publicized 1985 study, he debunked claims by laboratories that their tests on human hair could determine nutritional needs, sending hair samples from two girls to 13 labs and receiving radically different analyses. And last April he helped a 9-year-old Colorado girl, Emily Rosa, publish the results of her now famous study that found that touch therapists—who claim to detect human energy fields—could not demonstrate their purported skills in a controlled experiment. His latest concerns include chelation therapy, whose practitioners say they can clear clogged arteries by introducing amino acids and vitamins into the blood through a slow intravenous drip. "If people need bypass surgery and go to them instead," Barrett says, "some are going to die."
Americans' growing reliance on alternative medicine ("Most things with that label don't work," he says) will surely keep Barrett busy, and he looks forward to the thrill of the chase. "This is a combination of work and play," he says of his determination to detect and expose. "I never made much money at it. I did it because it was important."
Bob Calandra in Allentown
- Bob Calandra.
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