Stephen J. Barrett (born 1933) is a retired American psychiatrist, author, co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), and the webmaster of Quackwatch. He runs a number of websites dealing with quackery and health fraud. He focuses on consumer protection, medical ethics, and scientific skepticism. Barrett's critics say he lacks objectivity. He has brought several defamation lawsuits against a number of them with mixed results. Numerous sources have cited Quackwatch as a useful source for online consumer information.
Barrett is a 1957 graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his psychiatry residency in 1961. In 1967 and 1968 he followed part of a correspondence course in American Law and Procedure at La Salle Extension University (Chicago). He was a licensed physician until retiring from active practice in 1993, and his medical license is currently listed as "Active-Retired" in good standing. Longtime resident of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Barrett now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
In addition to webmastering his websites, Barrett is a co-founder, vice-president and a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF). He is an advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). From 1987 through 1989, he taught health education at Pennsylvania State University.
Barrett is the consulting editor for the Consumer Health Library at Prometheus Books, has been a peer-review panelist for at least two medical journals. He has also served on the editorial board of Medscape and The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. According to his website, he "has written more than 2,000 articles and delivered more than 300 talks at colleges, universities, medical schools, and professional meetings. His media appearances include Dateline, the Today Show, Good Morning America, Primetime, Donahue, CNN, National Public Radio, and more than 200 other radio and television talk show interviews."
Barrett has received a number of awards and recognition for his consumer protection work against quackery. Quackwatch received the award of Best Physician-Authored Site by MD NetGuide, May 2003. In 1984, he received an FDA Commissioner's Special Citation Award for Public Service in fighting nutrition quackery. He received multiple votes or at least one first-place vote in "10 outstanding skeptics of the 20th century by Skeptical Inquirer magazine. In 1986, he was awarded honorary membership in the American Dietetic Association. Barrett has been profiled in Biography Magazine (1998) and in Time Magazine (2001).
The magazine Spiked-online included Barrett in a survey of 134 persons they termed "key thinkers in science, technology and medicine." When he was asked: "What inspired you to take up science?" he replied that his appreciation of medical science:
"probably began when I took a college course in medical statistics, and learned what makes the difference between scientific thought and poor reasoning. Medical school brought me in touch with the rapid and amazing strides being made in the understanding and treatment of disease. My anti-quackery activities have intensified my interest and concern in distinguishing science from pseudoscience, quackery and fraud."
Barrett has become a "lightning rod" for controversy as a result of his criticisms of alternative medicine theories and practitioners. Barrett says he does not criticize conventional medicine because that would be "way outside [his] scope." He states he does not give equal time to some subjects, and has written on his web site that "Quackery and fraud don't involve legitimate controversy and are not balanced subjects. I don't believe it is helpful to publish 'balanced' articles about unbalanced subjects."
A number of practitioners and supporters of alternative medicine criticize Barrett and Quackwatch for its criticism of alternative medicine. Donna Ladd, a journalist with The Village Voice, says Barrett relies mostly on negative research to criticize alternative medicine, rejecting most positive case studies as unreliable. She further writes that Barrett insists that most alternative therapies simply should be disregarded without further research. "A lot of things don't need to be tested [because] they simply don't make any sense," he says, pointing to homeopathy, chiropractic, and acupuncture, among a myriad of other things.
Barrett's involvement in the legal system has also spawned controversy about his objectivity to pass judgment on those he deems "quacks." He or NCAHF has initiated a number of lawsuits against those engaged in what he considers unscientific medical practices. He has also offered testimony on psychiatry, FDA regulatory issues, homeopathy, and other areas of alternative medicine. This has led to him being criticized for his online activities and consumer activism.
Some sources that mention Stephen Barrett's Quackwatch as a useful source for consumer information include website reviews, government agencies, various journals including The Lancet peer-reviewed medical journal and some libraries.
Several libel suits have been filed by Barrett after he was criticized in a long series of email newsletters by Hulda Clark's employee, Patrick "Tim" Bolen, over his criticisms of Clark. Bolen claimed that Barrett had been "de-licensed," among other things. Barrett sued for libel and Hulda Clark's publishing company New Century Press responded with a countersuit against Barrett (as well as numerous members of a mailing list at Yahoo! Groups, and even a strong supporter of Clark) for at least 12 types of crimes and about 20 other civil wrongs, with the most serious being racketeering. After Barrett filed a complaint for damages the countersuit was eventually withdrawn, but was heavily reported by Bolen and others of Barrett's detractors long afterwards without mentioning the withdrawal.
Barrett has filed libel suits against several website operators and USENET posters who reposted Bolen's letters online. Barrett explained his lawsuits this way:
"None of us are thin-skinned or care when people attack our ideas. But unjustified attacks on our character or professional competence are another matter. As Bolen's campaign unfolded, my colleagues and I have notified him and many of the people spreading his messages that libel is a serious matter and that they had better stop. Some did, but it soon became clear that others would not. To defend ourselves, several of us have filed suit for libel."
Barrett filed lawsuits in several jurisdictions, including Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania. Many of these were dismissed on summary judgment under anti-SLAPP statutes, for failing to establish the evidentiary burden for libel, or because of an interpretation of Communications Decency Act ("CDA") that gives users immunity from lawsuits when reposting material online, such that courts need not determine whether Bolen's remarks constituted libel. However, Barrett won a preliminary victory in one suit and the parties ultimately settled in April 2003 after the osteopath made restitution, including a retraction of the offensive material and a payment to Barrett.
Barrett v. Rosenthal, a lawsuit that Barrett initiated with another doctor in California, was appealed to that state's supreme court. Though the California Supreme Court did not rule on whether or not the material in question was indeed libelous, they did adopt the predominant interpretation of Section 230 of the CDA, which grants immunity to defendants for reposting libelous material online. At least one of Barrett's lawsuits is still pending in federal court.
A partial list of articles Barrett was one of the authors or his authored work was cited include:
A partial list of his (co)authored and (co)edited books include:
Collections of articles:
Mother of crash victims turns to high court ; She wants to overturn a Maine ruling that grants immunity to the driver of the cruiser that killed her sons.
Mar 13, 2004; GREGORY D. KESICH Staff Writer Portland Press Herald (Maine) 03-13-2004 Mother of crash victims turns to high court ; She wants...