The Man Who Loves To Bust Quacks

  • No one was less surprised by the news about St. John's wort than Stephen Barrett, 67, a retired Allentown, Pa., psychiatrist who for nearly 30 years has made it his business to sniff out health-related frauds, fads, myths and fallacies. Through newsletters, books and now the World Wide Web, he has become one of America's premier debunkers of what he likes to call quackery.

    Barrett long ago wrote off St. John's wort as a treatment for severe depression, posting a dispassionate analysis of the evidence for and against it on his website, , alongside similar dismissals of such nostrums as bee pollen, royal jelly and "stabilized oxygen." His site--filled with useful links, cautionary notes and essays on treatments ranging from aromatherapy to wild-yam cream--is widely cited by doctors and medical writers and draws 100,000 hits a month. It has also made Barrett a lightning rod for herbalists, homeopaths and assorted true believers, who regularly vilify him as dishonest, incompetent, a bully and a Nazi.

    None of this seems to daunt Barrett, who has been exposing bogus health claims since the late 1970s, when he first surveyed health-related mail-order ads in national magazines and discovered that none of them lived up to their claims. His findings spurred legislation that authorizes the Federal Government to levy penalties of $25,000 a day on repeat mail-order offenders.

    His big breakthrough--or, as he calls it, his "first Babe Ruth"--came in 1985, when he went after the hair-analysis industry. He sent samples from the heads of two healthy girls to 13 laboratories that claimed they could measure nutritional needs based on a scientific analysis of an individual's hair. The reports were so off base and contradictory that his debunking report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and picked up by the national press. "It left the hair-analysis industry with egg on its face," says Barrett. "Half the labs shut down."

    Other Babe Ruth moments followed, none more satisfying to Barrett than the 1998 publication in J.A.M.A. of a report by Emily Rosa, an 11-year-old Colorado girl who for a school science project devised a simple test of therapeutic touch. It demonstrated that practitioners were unable to detect the "human energy field" on which their technique is based. Hearing of Emily's project, Barrett helped edit a report, got it published and was rewarded with worldwide press coverage.

    Barrett is underwhelmed by today's New Age celebrities. Dr. Andrew Weil, for example, is "very slick but makes glaring errors and hardly ever admits anything is quackery. I call him a 'rubber ducky.'" Deepak Chopra he dismisses as a purveyor of "Ayurvedic mumbo jumbo." (Chopra, for his part, calls Barrett "a self-appointed vigilante for the suppression of curiosity.")

    Chiropractors too have felt Barrett's sting. While he sees benefits in chiropractic manipulation, he wonders about "a whole profession based on an idea--subluxations--that isn't true." He especially deplores the fact that some chiropractors claim that their manipulations can treat infectious diseases and prescribe homeopathic remedies, which he considers worthless.

    Barrett retired from his psychiatric practice in 1993 to devote himself full time to quackbusting. Along the way, he honed his communication skills and now considers himself an investigative journalist taking full advantage of the power of the Internet. "Twenty years ago, I had trouble getting my ideas through to the media," he says. "Today I am the media."