Science Defender Gets Sued By Doctor’s Data

Dr. Stephen Barrett has been a longtime force for good with his website Quackwatch. If there’s alternative medicine or pseudoscientific theories that need debunking, he’s always been on top of it. I remember first coming across it nearly a decade ago and it’s the first place I go to when I want to learn more about some particular alternative medicine.

Now, he’s in trouble because he’s pointed out possible fraud with Doctor’s Data, a lab that facilitates chelation therapy. They’re not happy with this and are suing him for the *completely* reasonable amount of $10,000,000.

For what it’s worth, chelation therapy has some legitimate uses, but it gets used for other ailments that have no business being treated with it. For example, it has been used by some practitioners to prevent coronary artery disease. But the American Heart Association said this about it:

We found no scientific evidence to demonstrate any benefit from this form of therapy.

Here’s just a bit of the email Doctor’s Data sent to Barrett:

It has recently come to the attention of our client, Doctor’s Data, Inc., an Illinois corporation, that you have, on a continuing basis, harmed Doctor’s Data by transmitting false, fraudulent and defamatory information about this company in a variety of ways, including on the internet and in other publications. Doctor’s Data is shocked that you would intentionally try to harm its business and its relationship not only with doctors but also with the public…

Barrett wrote back to them a very reasonable response:

I take great pride in being accurate and carefully consider complaints about what I write. However, your letter does not identify a single statement by me that you believe is inaccurate or “fraudulent.” The only thing you mention is my article about how the urine toxic metals test is used to defraud patients… The article’s title reflects my opinion, the basis of which the article explains in detail.

If you want me to consider modifying the article, please identify every sentence to which you object and explain why you believe it is not correct.

They didn’t do that. The lawyers just repeated what was said in the initial email.

As we saw from the Simon Singh case, this is how these so-called medical experts work when they promote alternative medicine. They don’t care what the scientific evidence says about their claims — and many of them suspect the general public, gullible as they are, won’t care.

Barrett said he would correct any mistakes he made — just point them out to him — and Doctor’s Data couldn’t name even one.

Here’s the lawsuit they filed:



Someone better versed in law can let us know how they think Barrett will fare from all this.

Orac also has a very informative writeup of what exactly is going on in this case.

Barrett writes what he considers the “Bottom Line” for all this:

Very few people provide the type of information I do. One reason for this is the fear of being sued. Knowledgeable observers believe that Doctor’s Data is trying to intimidate me and perhaps to discourage others from making similar criticisms. However, I have a right to express well-reasoned opinions and will continue to do so. If you would like to help with the cost of my defense, please follow the instructions on our donations page.

Hopefully, the lawsuit will be dismissed, but until that happens, we need to support Barrett and thank him for his courage in not bowing down to these bullies.

(via The Lucky Atheist)

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I love that the suit references his “minions.” These people may lose the suit entirely based on their charge that it’s literally a conspiracy against them. They’ll have to prove that charge, and that could be pretty hard to do.

  • http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/ Liz Ditz

    I’ve written up a post on the background and rationale for Dr. Barrett to have written the articles Doctor’s Data objects to. As I sometimes do, I have a running list of blog posts and articles commenting on the issue. I’ve included yours.

    http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2010/07/health-consumer-activist-subject-to-legal-threats.html.

  • Sue

    I’ve contributed to his defense fund – please join me! We need to put our money to work, and this is a great cause.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    This appears to be a vindictive suit. Any first-year law student would find it laughable.

    Indeed, the very best thing any of us can do is contribute to the legal defense fund. Being sued costs money, even if you win. Hopefully the judge will toss it out, but even if he does, Dr. Barrett is in for a lot of grief. Being sued is no fun.

  • Frank

    Unless somebody repealed the first amendment and forgot to tell me about it, this lawsuit will fail. Here’s my question though: why do we continue to have laws against libel and slander? I mean, I’m not saying people should libel or slander eachother, but what is the benefit to maintaining a legal prohibition? Does anyone really think that there would be a lot of harmful libel and slander if the laws prohibiting them were abolished?

  • Rich Wilson

    I wonder if he’s looked into this guy: http://www.davidcumes.com/

    [David Cumes] has been initiated as an African shaman (sangoma or inyanga) and can testify personally to the value of their divining techniques, the powerful rituals and plant medicines, the altered states of consciousness induced by drumming and the diagnostic power of the “bones.”

    Inward Bound Healing Journeys operates under a 501C(3) not-for-profit organization supported by grants and by your generous donations.

  • http://godlessartist.blogspot.com/ Kilre

    Hulk doesn’t like people saying Hulk’s practices bad.

    Hulk smash.

  • Matteo Watkins

    Perhaps he should be thinking in terms of a counter suit based on allegations of using the legal system to harass and itimidate. Courts don’t like thier time wasted and have sometimes been simpathetic to defendants in cases like this, passing judgements on plaintiffs in the spirit of teaching them a lesson as to bringing frivolous suits.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    Putting this meritless suit against Dr. Barrett aside, the benefit of laws concerning defamation is that they arm us all with a legal remedy against character assassination. If those statutes didn’t exist, you’d have no protection against someone printing lies about you. Free speech doesn’t mean that someone can go on TV and say you’re a child molester if you’re not. If someone did that to you, and you lost all your customers as a direct result, the law allows you to sue that person for damages. These are generally good laws, but like many laws they are prone to abuse and frivolous lawsuits, which is the source of Frank’s annoyance (mine too).

    The 1st Amendment isn’t in play here, though, because we’re not dealing with the government placing restrictions on speech; rather, this has to do with whether or not one citizen’s speech has constituted defamation of someone else (which it has not, of course).

    What makes this particular suit against Barrett so weak is that the damages cited in the complaint are amorphous and speculative. They don’t point to any concrete, measurable injury they’ve suffered due to Dr. Barrett’s efforts (which is what a judge will be looking for). And even if they did suffer damages, it still wouldn’t mean they win because Barrett didn’t publish anything false. If someone publishes the truth about you, that’s not defamation (generally).

  • http://aurorawalkingvacation.blogspot.com Paul

    I have contributed to the defense fund by clicking the link in this article and donating via paypal. I consider this an important issue, and I support Quackwatch and Dr. Barrett.

  • Dan W

    Well, I hope these quacks lose their case, just like the ones who sued Simon Singh.

    “I love that the suit references his “minions.”” He has minions? I want minions! Is there a Minions-R-Us somewhere that I could get some from? :)

  • Stephen P

    @Frank:

    Does anyone really think that there would be a lot of harmful libel and slander if the laws prohibiting them were abolished?

    In a word: yes.

    For evidence, just see what religious people say about atheists now, even in the presence of libel laws, as frequently documented in this blog and others. Now imagine that there were no brakes on them at all.

    While libel laws are sadly frequently abused they are most definitely necessary. Suppose that someone disliked something you said, and retaliated by spreading a story that you had defrauded a previous employer. As a result you are totally unable to get a job. Do you really wish to live in a society where people are free to do that and you have to just sit there and accept it?

  • Tom H from Cleveland

    While I resprect what Doctor Barrett does and I hope he continues to do so, and while I respect this blog and I enjoy reading and learning from it every day, and while I respect the fact that it is not my blog but is published and edited by someone who does not need my approval, I am left wondersing why this post is included on a blog about religion. Are the chelators claiming that the bible (or koran, etc.) support their wack practices?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    While I resprect what Doctor Barrett does and I hope he continues to do so, and while I respect this blog and I enjoy reading and learning from it every day, and while I respect the fact that it is not my blog but is published and edited by someone who does not need my approval, I am left wondersing why this post is included on a blog about religion. Are the chelators claiming that the bible (or koran, etc.) support their wack practices?

    It’s all part of the same family of beliefs that people believe without evidence.

    You put someone in a position of power, have them say that whatever they believe is supported by the facts (though they can’t provide any), and have them say it confidently/loudly, and people will believe it.

    To quote George Carlin, it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for you.

  • Frank

    The first amendment is absolutely in play here. Any time the government enforces a defamation law, that is the government punishing someone for something that they said or wrote. That definitely brings the first amendment into play. There have been a number of court cases dealing with exactly how far the first amendment goes in protecting people against libel and slander suits. The one that comes immediately to mind is New York Times v Sullivan. I don’t remember exactly what standards have been set out here, but it is absolutely a first amendment issue.

    As to the usefulness of libel and slander laws, I don’t want hypotheticals. I have never met anyone who was unable to get a job because someone slandered them. I have never met a religious person who stopped short of saying something particularly bad about atheists because they were afraid of being sued for libel. If anything, what some religious people say about atheists now is evidence that libel and slander laws do not serve their intended purpose. Does anybody know of a specific, real life case that occured in the United States in the last ten years, where a person was seriously harmed by libel or slander, where the claims made against the person were clearly false, and where the person successfully sued for libel or slander? That’s the sort of thing that would be necessary to convince me that such laws are useful, and I am not aware of any such case.

  • Hitch

    These things can also backfire. The court may find that given the evidence it is fine to use words like “shady lab” etc.

    Much in here should be dismissable, but what is dismissed is in the eye of the judge.

    @Tom, how is this a blog about religion? It’s Hemant’s blog and he can well discuss any topic he likes. Many atheists happen to like open debate and debunking of pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. It is a natural topic for this blog. And many atheists happen to be critical how the legal system is sometimes used to bully certain opinions.

  • Shelley

    The first amendment is absolutely in play here. Any time the government enforces a defamation law, that is the government punishing someone for something that they said or wrote. That definitely brings the first amendment into play.

    Not exactly. For one thing, this is tort law, not criminal law (i.e. the government is “punishing” anyone here, nor are they enforcing anything). NY Times v. Sullivan is only tangentially related to the core issue of this suit. (Defamation laws do not restrict 1st Amendment rights; in order to believe that, you have to believe that there is no difference between legitimate speech and printing lies about someone with the intent of harming them. If you do recognize that there’s a big difference there, then is it not appropriate that the laws should also appreciate that difference?) To say you’ve never met anyone who’s been the victim of character assassination is churlish. I mean, I’ve never met a slave, nor have I ever met someone who was (to my knowledge) a rape survivor—but the laws prohibiting those things are proper laws, no?

    The core question here is: Does what Barrett published constitute defamation (NO), and has Doctor’s Data been damaged by it? (NO—at least, there’s nothing in the suit that indicates they have.)

    I agree that the suit is quite weak. They’re claiming they’ve been damaged, but it isn’t clear that they have been. They filed suit to intimidate Barrett, to cause him grief, and to shut him up. I see it all the time.

  • Sellers_as_Quilty

    The author of this blog has, in my (non-lawyer’s) opinion, been the victim of pretty gnarly character assassination. The bat-shit stuff that crazy lady writes about him seems borderline.

    It seems to me what makes a law useful is not how often it’s operational, but whether or not it limits something we, as a society, agree would be proper to limit, regulate, or prohibit. The laws regarding animal cruelty, for example, are laws that are (I would guess) a non-issue of 99% of the population. And indeed, I’ve never personally known anyone who’d been party to an animal cruelty case. I can’t even think of the last time I read about an animal cruelty case in the courts. So, therefore, laws restricting animal cruelty are useless? I don’t see it that way.

  • qwertyuiop

    Typical quacks. They have nothing to back up their claims, so they try to sue their opponents instead. The unfortunate thing about the system though is that frivolous cases like this still cost the defendant money regardless of merit or outcome.

  • Frank

    Shelley,

    Are you seriously suggesting that the constitution is somehow not applicable to tort law? How on earth do you get there? Can you provide some kind of support for that amazing claim?

    There is a lot of speech I’m not particularly fond of. But the point of the first amendment, as I understand it, is that it is not for the government to decide which speech is “legitimate” and which is not. Once we give the government that power, it is far too easy for the government to abuse it. I realize that there are a few cases where the government has to restrict speech to some extent. And if I thought there was a benefit to defamation laws, that might justify the restriction of speech. But I don’t see the benefit.

    My point in stating who I have and have not met, if it wasn’t clear before, was this: I’m not convinced that such people even exist. The justification that keeps being presented for libel laws is this hypothetical person who is seriously harmed by libel and who is able to successfully sue for libel. And I don’t know that such people actually exist. I have never heard of a real life case of anyone meeting that description. The only time libel laws are in the news it is because they are being abused. And a law that clearly does have a concrete downside, as libel laws clearly do, cannot be justified with abstract hypotheticals. The justification must be as concrete as the downside. If such cases exist, I would really like someone to point some out. But until someone does, I will remain unconvinced.

  • http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/ Liz Ditz

    Dear Mr. Mehta,

    I want to make one correction to your post

    Doctor’s Data, a lab that provides chelation therapy.

    To the best of my knowledge, Doctor’s Data does not provide chelation therapy. Rather, they supply the lab tests and results that allow others (sometimes physicians, sometimes not) who are actually chelating people — often children.

    See Doctor’s Data Facing Multiple Law Suits for a more complete description of what Doctor’s Data does.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    Thanks, Liz — I’ve tried to better clarify what they do.

  • http://www.brilyn.net Brian Lynchehaun

    If such cases exist, I would really like someone to point some out.

    Have you tried looking, or is it up to other people to do your research for you?

    If, perhaps, you were to spend some time looking and be unable to find some, then (probably) people would be sympathetic to helping you find these cases.

    But if your complaint is “I sat on my ass, so it can’t be true!” then people are unlikely to help you out with this…

  • http://anoddbird.tumblr.com/ Jenn

    You lost me when you called Quackwatch a force for good. Too many bad things about chiropractic are said on that site for me.

  • Icaarus

    Well Jenn,

    Before reading the specific blog, but remembering most of the anti-chiropractor arguments, I will say that should not be a reason since chiropractic is based on a single a priori paper, which has lead to some pretty wild, unproven claims. Additionally most chiropractors can really sell the snake oil. (For the record I go about once a month). So there is a lot to say about the industry that is negative. So I would not discount a bad science debunk site just for views on chiropractic alone.

    To everyone else,

    Now I am going to read Quackwatch.

  • http://www.bolenreport.com Tim Bolen

    Stephen Barrett is in big trouble in the Doctor’s Data v Barrett case.

    BIG trouble.

    You can follow the case at http:www.boleneport.com. There you can sign up for the newsletter, and follow the case as it happens.

    Currently Barrett has filed a Motion to Dismiss the case, but there is little chance that will happen. His reason he wants a Dismissal? He claims he is “assisting the government…”

    Next comes “discovery,” a process where Barrett will have to cough up thousands of documents, then go into a video-taped Deposition where he will be forced to answer questions about his support network – those that helped him get his articles on the first page of search engines.

    Barrett’s lead attorney seems to have disappeared, and he has been LATE making EVERY filing deadline since the case began.

    The fun has just begun.


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