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Quackwatch

By David Mendosa

Last Modified On: March 15, 2001

All Web sites reviewed here have to contribute real information about diabetes and say it in a way that's easy for most of us to understand. But it took something special for Dr. Stephen Barrett to create Quackwatch.

It took courage.

‘I call naturopaths muddleheads’

Stephen Barrett is a retired physician, and his site is dedicated to exposing health fraud and quackery. That took courage because of the ever-present possibility of being sued for libel. Although truth is an absolute defense against a charge of libel, I find even the threat of a suit intimidating and expensive, because of the need to engage the services of an attorney.

But Dr. Barrett says that because of his strategy he has never been sued. Key elements are carefully checking his facts and avoiding an insulting tone.

"The one thing that is most likely to trigger a suit is for somebody to feel that you are stepping on his ego," he says. I never call anybody a name, except I call naturopaths 'muddleheads.' But you can't libel a group."

When people have complaints, he asks them to spell out their objections in detail. Then, if they can't find anything factually wrong, they are not likely to find a lawyer who is willing to sue.

Dr. Barrett's article, "Fighting Quackery: Tips for Activists," deals with this fear of libel. But no one who understands the law and follows commonsense rules faces any significant risk, he says. Opposing quackery is worth it, he concludes, because it can save lives.

More than 60 files on the site mention diabetes. He is most suspicious of anyone selling a nonprescription product that would replace insulin.

His biggest concern is for those who have type 1 diabetes. "If you give up standard treatment, you have the greatest potential for harm," he says. "With most conditions you are not likely to get done in, but that's one where there is a very high risk, particularly for children."

Generally, Dr. Barrett has no tolerance for any alternative to standard medical practice. The characteristics of a "quacky Web site," he says are these four:

1. Any site marketing herbs or dietary supplements. He says that although some are useful, he does not believe it is possible to sell these products profitably without deception.

2. Any site marketing or promoting homeopathic products. None of them have been proven effective, he says.

3. Any site that promotes alternative methods. "There are more than a thousand alternative methods," he says. "The vast majority are worthless."

4. Any site that promotes nontoxic, natural, or holistic treatments.

"The most important thing is that we started a free, weekly electronic newsletter and it will have a lot of stuff that no one else has," Dr. Barrett says. It's called Consumer Health Digest.

Dr. Barrett says that Quackwatch is now an even higher priority for him.

"I have been buried under this textbook [that I wrote] for almost a year," he says. "And now that it is done, I am not going to do books for a long time."

Perhaps that's bad news for students. But certainly good news for consumers. 


The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.


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