The following email was submitted to the Salon.com letters department in
response to a letter by Stephen Barrett, M.D., the founder and chief
writer/researcher at Quackwatch.com, a major website that specializes in
producing negative, but supposedly fair and accurate, articles on
complementary and alternative medicine. Perhaps because my letter was
necessarilly rather long and complex and arrived late in the debate, the
editors of Salon chose not to publish it. I believe Quackwatch needs to be
held as accountable as the "quacks" they seek to expose. Consequently, I'm
publishing the letter here.
Editor, The Aquarian
Watching the Quackwatcher an unpublished letter to Salon.com by Syd Baumel
March 30, 2000
After characterizing Debra Ollivier's favourable article on homeopathy
[Salon.com, March 16, 2000] as "a disgrace," Quackwatch.com's Stephen
Barrett, M.D., concludes: "Accurate information is available at
In my experience, it is the wilful and hypocritical inattention to
accuracy at Dr. Barrett's website that is a disgrace.
In his long article on homeopathy, Barrett's accounting of the clinical
research is compromised by omissions that would be unthinkable for any
impartial scholar or journalist. In recent years, two major meta-analyses
of homeopathic clinical trials have dominated the English medical
literature on the subject. Both - one in 1991 in the British Medical
Journal, the other in 1997 in The Lancet - have independently documented a
highly significant trend for homeopathic remedies to be superior to
placebos or no worse than standard medical treatments in roughly 100
controlled clinical trials. Barrett ignores both of these studies.
Instead, he cites comparatively obscure, negative (as Barrett presents
them, even when they're really equivocal) critiques and reviews and just
one fundamentally supportive review (commissioned by the European Union),
but then again only to selectively present the negative, "glass half
empty" side of its findings.
Quackwatch.com gives the appearance of priding itself on publishing
negative feedback. In January, to test the waters I sent Barrett a brief
"reader comment" on another article. Among other things I pointed out that
he was wrong to write: "There is no published evidence that St. John's
wort is effective against severe depression." I referred him to a 1997
controlled clinical trial that had found the herbal extract virtually
equal to a standard dosage of the gold standard treatment for severe major
depression, but with far fewer side effects. At the same time I emailed
the author of a FAQ on the essential nutrient tryptophan that
Quackwatch.com links to for their "accurate information" on this
controversial supplement. I asked the author, a medical doctor and
academic with multiple positions in the organized skepticism and
anti-health-fraud community, for the source for his statement that ten
cases of EMS (eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome) had occurred in Canadian
users of tryptophan in 1973. As someone who has written extensively on
tryptophan, pro and con, I know of only the one tragic outbreak of EMS in
1989 that was traced to a single supplier of tainted, genetically
engineered tryptophan. The FAQ's author replied that he'd lost or
misplaced his references but believed I was right in suspecting error. The
year, he thought, should have been 1993. I sent him research abstracts and
citations to suggest he was still wrong, and that there had never been any
cases of EMS in Canada (or elsewhere) outside of the discrete 1989
epidemic (there have been a few other cases of EMS-type symptoms). To the
contrary, 19 of 19 EMS cases reported circa 1993 in Canada had proven
unrelated to tryptophan. I urged him to do his homework and correct his
FAQ so as not to mislead his readers and Quackwatch's.
Recently, when I read Dr. Barrett's self-righteous letter to Salon.com, I
rechecked his "accurate" website for my reader comment on St. John's wort.
It still wasn't there, though Barrett had on March 1 revised his article
to incorporate new evidence to further deter people from using the herb.
For its part, the tryptophan FAQ was also unchanged. I e-mailed reminders
both to Barrett and the FAQ's author. Barrett haughtily brushed off my
concerns saying he had many more important things to do. The FAQ's author
said he had vainly asked the webmaster to change 1973 to 1993 but would
ask again. I replied on March 24 that this change would still, as far as
any of us knew, be an error and that it would lead to a gross
misrepresentation of the potential toxicity of tryptophan (which is still
available by prescription and on the grey market and is still used safely
and successfully in clinical trials). He has yet to reply. Perhaps he will
eventually make the correction. But Barrett is steadfast in his denial.
"Whether your particular points are valid or not would not change the
conclusions about the current significance of SJW or tryptophan," he wrote
to me on March 25, dismissing me as probably just another "nitpicking
pest" and that "this will be my last response to you on these matters."
Nor did he express any intention to publish my "insignificant points" so
that Quackwatch.com readers could decide for themselves. I can't help but
think of the yellow journalist's creed never to let the facts get in the
way of a good story.
Perhaps if I had attacked Barrett in a boorish, illiterate rant, he would
have published that. Judging by the preponderance of such "jeers" on his
website, this is the only critical feedback he welcomes.
The world needs a Quackwatch.com. It's a pity it has the one it's got.
Editor, The Aquarian; author of Dealing with Depression Naturally.