Quackwatch’s Promotion of Psychiatric Propaganda

Quackwatch’s Promotion of Psychiatric Propaganda

Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD

Progressive Radio Network, February 3, 2020


Every respectable journalist, especially investigative reporters, have multiple sources for stories they are working on. Major news outlets and news papers, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and television news networks will also have independent fact checkers who review and vet content to validate the content’s accuracy.  One media source that has risen to become one of the world’s most popular resources for information, used by more people than all of the major American newspapers combined, is Wikipedia.

However, unlike mainstream journalism, Wikipedia does not pass the smell test of being legitimately credible. Editors and writers are more often than not anonymous. Their background, expertise and scholarship on any given subject are largely unknown. This is especially the case for many of Wikipedia’s pages dealing with Alternative and Complementary Medicine (CAM) and the personal biographies of CAM’s leading practitioners and advocates. Moreover, although Wikipedia has strict rules for determining what are reliable and unreliable resources for sourcing citations, these guidelines are often not adhered to or intentionally ignored altogether.  Instead, many sources relied upon to discredit CAM and non-conventional medical doctors and practitioners are dubious at best. In some cases they are solely resources publishing ideological propaganda and personal opinions. 

The most problematic sources frequently found on Wikipedia’s pages related to CAM therapies are terribly contaminated by biases favoring private corporate interests and espouse agendas that are both unscientific and crassly dogmatic. Nor are any of these sources acknowledged as dependable by the larger professional medical community. In particular, this includes the industry-supported consumer site Quackwatch — founded by former psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Barrett — the National Council on Health Fraud, the Skeptic-based pro-pharmaceutical blog Science Based Medicine and its offshoots (Respectful Insolence and Neurologia), the Center for Inquiry’s Skeptic Inquirer Magazine and the Skeptic Society’s Skeptic Magazine. None of these listed sources in our opinion, which represent Atheist and scientific materialist doctrines, carry any more objectivity than the most radical evangelical publications promoting Creationism and anti-abortion polemics such as Christianity Today and Relevant.  All of these sources have developed a reputation for extreme bias, and in some cases such as Science Based Medicine they lean towards promulgating fear and engage in hate-mongering. 

A fundamental question that directly concerns Wikipedia’s legitimacy as a trustworthy resource is who is in charge of fact checking information to validate accuracy?  Our own investigations convince us that ultimately nobody is in charge because the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization behind the encyclopedia, has positioned itself from being accountable and legally liable for anything found on the site. The editorial culture on Wikipedia, in particular on subjects concerning health, alternative medicine, controversial sciences such as parapsychology and politics, may be described as a Gangland. However instead of an environment ruled by organized crime organizations, we believe these are gangs of ideologues who have succeeded in occupying the editorial turf to establish their own rules to decide what can be judged as medical science and the criteria to rule whether a medical practitioner is authentic or a fake. The most dominant gang are those associated with the Skeptic clubs, organizations and their front groups that have developed their own unique interpretation for redefining rational skepticism into a cult-like belief system.

Consequently, when Stephen Barrett or any of his colleagues on Quackwatch make statements to ridicule, disparage and categorically denounce CAM and its leading voices, Wikipedia Skeptics reference them as an ultimate, accurate resource. This poses a serious problem because Wikipedia’s own rules prohibit biased site administrators and writers from editing the biographies of living persons. If information is inaccurate or defamatory, it must be changed or deleted immediately. However for the many physicians and CAM practitioners who have been unfortunate to have had Skeptics create their Wikipedia biographies, and worse to have a biography on Quackwatch, it is near impossible for the person to remove falsehoods, fabrications and blatant denigration from his or her personal biography. Consequently their entire reputation and life’s work has been trashed. Quackwatch is little more than the personal blog of Barrett who has complete control over its content. Quackwatch makes its intentions clear on its website: to discredit medical practitioners who do not comply with the dominant medical establishment or who are critical thereof. In other words, Quackwatch and the Skeptics on Wikipedia are intentionally engaging in online harassment, and we believe they may have the protection of the Wikimedia Foundation and its Board to allow this psychological and professional molestation to persist. 

Without Quackwatch, Skeptic editors would be required to do their own homework and research into the personal history and background of a person they wish to attack. For that reason, Stephen Barrett and his site have become a one-stop source of information for smearing those Skeptics hate. 

One glaring example is the biography of the noted psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin.  Barrett goes at great lengths to discredit Breggin’s accomplishments and his challenges to the drug-based paradigm that has come to dominant modern psychiatric practice. In our opinion, Barrett’s attempts to portray Breggin as an unqualified psychiatrist are ludicrous and surreal. A graduate of Harvard and later a teaching fellow at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Breggin has also held staff appointments at the National Institute of Mental Health and has obtained faculty appointments at Johns Hopkins University, the Washington School of Psychiatry, George Mason University and SUNY at Oswego.

One might conclude that Barrett’s criticisms of Breggin are more related to professional jealousy and envy. Whereas Barrett who has not practiced clinical psychiatry, for uncertain reasons, since 1992 and we cannot find any indication has been Board-certified, Dr. Breggin is widely recognized throughout the psychiatric profession despite his controversial criticism towards drug-based therapies. He has also succeeded in convincing many in the mental health establishment to question the medical claims of neuro-biological causation and the brain-chemical imbalance theory for certain mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD.  His book Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal has become an invaluable resource for practitioners in the mental health professions to safely guide patients through the often difficult journey of withdrawing from psychoactive medications. As a result, Breggin has gained a large following in the clinical community. He was instrumental in bringing national awareness to the dangers of lobotomies.  He published the first medical text analyzing the serious risks of electric shock therapy and called it an inhuman treatment. Starting in 1991, he became widely known as a leading critic of the medical establishment’s pathologizing of ADHD, only 4 years after the name was formally designated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In addition, Breggin has served on many occasions as an expert witness in legal cases over permanent injury and deaths that have been associated with these psychoactive medications, including a $1.5 million malpractice award given to a family whose son committed suicide from adverse synergistic effects from being prescribed Paxil and Zyprexa. 

On the other hand, we can not find any notable contribution Barrett has made to increase our understanding and treatment of mental disorders. Nor have we have found any original articles in his profession in the medical literature. His sole occupation in our opinion has been that of a biased pawn of the pharmaceutical industry and the federal health agencies advancing a drug-based model for tackling mental and physical disorders and illnesses.  

Barrett has always favored private corporate interests through his 40 year association with the industry think tank the American Council on Science and Health, which has received support from the pharmaceutical complex, Monsanto, Coco Cola, and the junk food and tobacco industries. Therefore it is not surprising he would challenge Breggin and his remarkable credentials.  Barrett writes,

“The prevailing scientific viewpoint is that ADHD should be regarded as a neuropsychiatric disorder, that it differs from simply rambunctious behavior, and that medication has been thoroughly studied and found to be helpful in managing the problem.”

This statement is patently false, and research about the serious health risks of ADHD drugs such as methylphenidate (eg. Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, etc) have supported Breggin’s concerns. Barrett states that Breggin’s book The Ritalin Fact Book “should be classified as junk science.” However, A 2018 gold standard review of the research into methylphenidate’s risks conducted by the Cochrane Database Collaboration contradicts ,

“Our findings suggest that methylphenidate may be associated with a number of serious adverse events as well as a large number of nonserious adverse events in children and adolescents, which often lead to withdrawal of methylphenidate… Given the possible association between methylphenidate and the adverse events identified, it may be important to identify people who are most susceptible to adverse events.” 

The Cochrane analysis also observed that professional medical bias in the published scientific literature was on average moderate to “critical,” which throws a lot of the published research into question. An earlier 2015 Cochrane analysis of methylphenidate’s effectiveness in specifically treating ADHD concluded that “At the moment, the quality of the available evidence means that we cannot say for sure whether taking methylphenidate will improve the lives of children and adolescents with ADHD.”

After years of reviewing and critiquing Barrett’s writings and his influence on spokespersons within the more radicalized elements within the Skeptic movement, it is commonplace to review his own resources and be led to direct conflicts of interests connected with the pharmaceutical and other private industrial complexes. This is certainly the case in Breggin’s Quackwatch page, which relies heavily upon the work of Prof. Russell Barkley at Virginia Commonwealth University and the advocacy organization Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). Barkley is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on ADHD and a prolific author. He is also perhaps the leading spokesperson for Ritalin having become one of the most widely prescribed drugs for treating ADD and ADHD.

In his The Ritalin Fact Book, Breggin writes,

“Based on my publications and consultations, a series of class-action suits have been brought against Novartis, the manufacturer of Ritalin, charging the company with conspiring with the American Psychiatric Association and the parents’ group Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD) to fabricate the ADHD diagnosis and foster the overuse of Ritalin.”

Barrett accuses Breggin of promoting a conspiracy theory, nevertheless there is more to this. More often than not there are smoking guns to be uncovered in Barrett’s diatribes and they more often than not lead back to pro-drug interests. Dr. Barkley is deeply connected with CHADD and often speaks at their annual conferences. In his book The Myth of the ADHD Child, author Thomas Armstrong investigated how the organization “secretly taking money from pharmaceutical companies for years before disclosing its financial connections after a 1995 PBS broadcast revealed its underhanded dealings with drug companies.”  Besides Novartis, CHADD has received monies amounting to over 1.1 million from Eli Lilly (the makers of Prozac), Johnson and Johnson, Shire (the maker of Adderall) and UCB. Barkley also has financial relationships with these same companies in addition to other pharmaceutical firms in the psychiatric drug industry including Medice, Janssen-Orth and Janssen-Cilag, Theravance and Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

The Quackwatch entry for Dr. Peter Breggin is only one of many examples where Stephen Barrett has twisted and distorted facts to discredit critics of his enablers in the medical drug complex. No doubt, he believes his mission to disparage critics and CAM therapies that are proven more safe and effective than their conventional medical counterparts is a public service. In fact, he sees himself as an advocate of consumer protection. The fundamental problem is that Barrett’s biases and unprofessional and unscientific agenda alone discredit him and his colleagues. For this reason, Quackwatch is not a site to be relied upon for any reason whatsoever. Its conflict of interests with private corporations and their astroturf organizations are rampant. On the other hand, Quackwatch has served to advance the goals of the Skeptic movement and Wikipedia: that is to eradicate CAM and further marginalized its practitioners and advocates from the public discourse. 

The general public, when accessing information on CAM on Wikipedia, has no awareness that the entire site is biased and the anonymous editors and administrators are relying upon sources such as Barrett and Quackwatch. By Wikipedia’s own standards, these sources should be disqualified. Hence, caveat emptor: consumer beware!