Wikipedia’s Disservice to Alternative Medicine

Health Tips / Wikipedia’s Disservice to Alternative Medicine
alternative medicine.

We’ll return to the Root Causes of Chronic Fatigue series next week, but today a change of pace. I feel I must write about this Wiki business because yet again a patient printed out some misinformation about alternative medicine and brought it in to me for review.

“Oy vey!,” I thought. “If she only knew the back story.”  So here goes.

First, a little history on Stephen Barrett, MD, now pushing 90 and apparently going strong, not through writing about anything remotely alternative. He’s the founder of the website, begun in 1996, several years before wikipedia.

Dr. Barrett’s goal, as he wrote (and wrote, and wrote, and wrote), was obsessive. Everything that was not strictly 100% conventional medicine, “approved” by a majority of US physicians, was labelled quackery. And I mean everything.

If your family doctor was recommending something not taught in an approved US medical school, Dr Barrett’s thinking went, your doc was a quack and likely a fraud.  For credentials into the world of integrative, complementary, or alternative medicine, he has absolutely none. He did, however, have a great deal of time on his hands as a retired psychiatrist who’d mainly worked as a medical director in various psychiatric hospitals.

Read some of his articles and you’ll see a man who believes he must save the US (if not the entire world) from the evils of alternative medicine.

Dripping contempt

Along the way, he developed a very distinctive and easily recognizable writing style that simply drips contempt for any word or phrase not part of mainstream medicine. He place these words and phrases in quotation marks, like “detoxification,” “spinal adjustments,” “subluxation.”  You use these sort of air quotes yourself during conversations when you’re making fun of something.

Now, 25 years later, quackwatch is both immense and, truth be told, passe. There’s virtually no branch of alternative medicine that doesn’t have its own sub-heading (chirowatch, homeowatch, acupuncturewatch). The number of individual articles runs to the tens of thousands.

His hit lists attack organizations and physicians as varied as PETA, Mark Hyman, MD, Andrew Weil, MD, and Joe Mercola, MD (one of these doctors is not like the others). What makes quackwatch so out of touch is that anyone interested in health and wellness is lightyears ahead of these criticisms. And anyone who follows Covid immunization issues knows how dangerous Mercola has been with his crackpot antivax advice.

It seems quaint to think that the millions of Americans searching for the best ways to promote optimal health are somehow being taken in.

The only time I personally crossed paths with Dr. Barrett was during a panel on alternative medicine that was held at Indiana University in Bloomington. He read my name tag and said to me (quite unforgettably) “I’m Dr. Stephen Barrett and if you say one negative thing about me or my organization, just one word, I will sue you and I have never once lost a lawsuit.”

Oh, how I wished I was wearing a gauntlet to yank off and fling at his feet. I timidly replied that I was just planning to talk about alternative therapies for fibromyalgia.

“Oh, I know all about fibromyalgia,” he crowed. “My daughter has fibromyalgia.”

My better angels prevented me from raising the then-recent study showing 38% of patients with fibro had been physically or sexually abused as children.

To put things in perspective, Dr. Barrett joins two other anti-quackery physicians of the 20th century, Abraham Flexner, MD, and Morris Fishbein, MD. The famed Flexner Report of 1910 “standardized” (there are those air quotes again) medical education into the elite, expensive, mainly white, conventional, and unequal healthcare we have today. That Dr. Barrett thinks of chiropractic, osteopathy, naturopathy, and the like as fringe might be the result of Dr. Flexner closing all the medical schools that taught these disciplines.

Fishbein controlled the thinking of American physicians for decades as editor of JAMA, receiving tens of thousands of dollars from the tobacco industry for hiding data about the health dangers of cigarettes.

So where does Wikipedia figure into all this?

Fledgling Wiki needed content and when it first began, there was little to no editing, and Dr. Barrett had content, hundreds of pages of it. His “facts” were pretty much just his opinions, but they flooded the Wiki entries on virtually everything related to alternative medicine.

You can get a good idea of Dr. Barrett’s hostility toward just about anything alternative by reading his entry on chiropractic. Then, if you go to the Wikipedia entry on chiropractic, you’ll see how much of Dr. Barrett’s article has crept into the content.

Although much shorter, a quick glance at the Britannica article on chiropractic shows the difference between a Wikipedia opinion and simple unbiased presentation of facts.

Without too much back-patting, is a virtual encyclopedia of alternative medicine, non-judgmental and even-handed to a fault. Well, that may be laying it on a bit thick. I’m not even-handed when it comes to our excessive reliance on invasive diagnostic tests leading to unnecessary surgical procedures and potentially dangerous prescription drugs. But I am an MD, after all, and not afraid to use the best tools of my profession.

Most of the quacks I personally complain about are the ones in charge of the conventional health care system. The back surgeons scheduling you for spinal fusion instead of trying a few weeks of chiropractic. The rheumatologists starting you on immune-suppressing Humira before taking you off gluten grains and healing your gut. This quackery of the majority is acceptable and, of course, covered by insurance.

Dr. Barrett, through quackwatch, and later through wiki, has spent much of his long life attempting to label each and every form of healthcare, each and every opinion, that goes even slightly outside the most rigid scientific mainstream as quackery and fraud.

It has taken more than a century to realize how utterly and completely wrong Flexner was to close all the alternative medical schools (and take away the licenses of alternative practitioners), how wrong Fishbein was to withhold information from US physicians, and how misguided Barrett is to paint everything from taking supplements and getting your spine adjusted to having your chakras balanced with the wide paintbrush of fraud.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD