Wikipedia Skeptics’ Mission to Suppress the Dissemination of Quality Health and Medical Studies
By Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD
Skeptics place an enormous amount of importance in the scientific research that appears in peer-reviewed publications. At the same time it is correctly critical of the quality of large amounts of clinical research that gets published. The same is true for Quackwatch, the Skeptics’ first-stop resource for information to debunk non-conventional and alternative medical systems, practices and its leading practitioners and advocates. Unfortunately, as we have documented elsewhere, Quackwatch has also been recognized by Skeptic editors who control approximately 700 entries dealing with alternative health and parapsychology on Wikipedia, and likely Jimmy Wales himself, as a legitimate and authoritative reference. But assuming Quackwatch is a reliable source of information is far from the truth. Nevertheless, Quackwatch’s founder Stephen Barrett is heralded as an authority throughout many of Wikipedia’s health pages.
Barrett has accused the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a federally funded department within the CDC, of “wasting money sponsoring useless studies.” Barrett and his Quackwatch colleagues are adamant that tax dollars should not be spent to investigate Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s (CAM) therapeutic successes. Skeptics already believe they have the answer for CAM’s achievements; that is, patients are being duped into a placebo effect. Similarly, the folks over at Skeptic group Science-Based Medicine (SBM), founded by Steven Novella, have also made it part of its mission to lobby against public funding for non-conventional medical research. On Quackwatch, Barrett references his colleague the late Dr. Wallace Sampson as an authoritative voice in his accusations against public funds being spent on CAM. However, Wallace likewise cannot be acknowledged as an objective voice representing sound scientific views.
The irony, and hypocrisy, we find in Quackwatch and SBM complaints about peer-reviewed journals publishing studies into alternative and complementary medicine is that its own attempt to launch its own peer-reviewed journal was a dismal failure.
Wallace Sampson was the co-founder and editor of the now defunct journal The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and Aberrant Medical Practices, later renamed the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine (SRAM). He was also an editor for Novella’s SBM blog. The journal defined itself as the “only peer-reviewed journal devoted exclusively to objectively analyzing the claims of “alternative medicine.” However, objectivity was one virtue the journal was woefully deficient. At a glance many of its contributing authors are familiar to Quackwatch and SBM blog readers, notably Kimball Atwood, the co-founder of Barrett’s National Council Against Health Fraud William Jarvis and Wallace himself. Although there is no recognizable direct financial connection between SRAM and the Quackwatch network, the journal appears to have started with the intent of being a kind of quasi-peer-reviewed Quackwatch with a glossy cover as a means to more effectively penetrate the medical establishment. The fact is that Quackwatch, and its successor SBM, have remained on the fringes of modern medicine. SBM has yet to gain widespread acceptance and is held with considerable suspicion even in the medical profession. It can perhaps be best understood as a small cult within conventional medicine at large. The SRAM journal was evaluated on three separate occasions by the National Library of Medicine to judge whether its professional standards were high enough to be included in the Medline/Pub Med’s Index Medicus and was rejected each time. SRAM was only in print between 2000-2007.
It is also worth noting that SRAM editorial administration operated out of the leading Skeptic organization Center for Inquiry through which all subscription and press inquiries were directed. Stephen Barrett, Wallace Sampson, Steven Novella, Kimball Atwood and David Gorski are all leading celebrities in the Center, especially its Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. What is particularly important is to recognize that SRAM was a product of a network of Skeptic entities with who share a mission to discredit CAM and natural health therapies, and this same network today dominates the Wikipedia’s health pages.
In his Quackwatch article “Problems with CAM Peer-Review and Accreditation,” while praising the peer-review process, Barrett notes that simply being approved for the Index Medicus does not “guarantee quality” research. We would certainly agree with this observation because the quality of a high percentage of conventional medical and drug research finding its way into print is deeply flawed. In recent years this has become somewhat of a scandal within the entire business of medical peer-reviewed literature. But Barrett’s hypocrisy in criticizing the British Medical Journal and the Annals of International Medicine for a “poor job in keeping out junk CAM reports” is worth noting. Quackwatch’s animosity towards practically all alternative medicine, despite CAM’s growing popular and scientific acceptance, confirms its strong bias that would oppose any CAM scientific support from appearing in important medical journals.
The irony is that in order to be rejected from inclusion into the Index, a medical publication has to be REALLY POOR! In the Scimago Institution ranking of peer-reviewed medical journals, which is based upon the quality of science being published as well as its impact and number of citations in the medical literature as a whole, SRAM received an H Index of 9, placing the journal in the bottom quarter of medical publications. Many journals specializing in a variety of alternative medical systems, such as the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, Medical Acupuncture, Journal of Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs, International Journal of Phytomedicine, Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, Deutsche Zeitschrift fur Akupunktur, and Alternative and Complementary Therapies were ranked higher than SCAM. Some CAM journals ranked in the upper quarter of reliable publications such as PhytoMedicine, Journal of Natural Products, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Acupuncture in Medicine, Integrative Cancer Therapies, Planta Medica and the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Even Skepticism’s primary nemesis homeopathy is represented by the Journal of the Faculty of Homeopathy with an H score notably higher than SRAM.
Barrett’s and SBM’s larger mission is to marginalize CAM practices and push it as far as possible to the hinterlands. They believe that increasing mainstream acceptance of CAM is contaminating modern medical practice and clinical protocols for treating patients. For obvious commercial reasons, the pharmaceutical industry has no objections with Quackwatch’s and SBM’s agendas. The founding of NCCAM as a federally funded department in order to support research into alternative medicine and health therefore poses an enormous threat to Skepticism’s bottom-line philosophy of scientific reductionism. Big Pharma makes every effort to gain hegemony on how medicine is practiced in the US by lobbying Washington, influencing federal health agencies and buying off corporate media. Ridding CAM and other non-conventional medical therapies means that patients are offered only a single option for treatment and that is corporate, pharmaceutical-based medicine.
As we pointed out in a previous article, Barrett and the SBM group display many of the same characteristics leveled against conspiracy theorists. They view natural health as a conspiracy orchestrated by practicing charlatans to fool the public by offering false promises in non-drug therapies in order to gain profit. Paranoia runs rampant in the diatribes written by Barrett, Novella and Gorski. For example, Barrett writes, “The NCCAM can be appropriately characterized as a cancer that metastasizes misinformation throughout our medical education system.” There is no sound explanation to validate this claim except to accept Barrett’s opinion that the federal health agencies have been infiltrated and overrun by CAM proponents. This is of course preposterous. CAM funding makes up only a tiny percentage of tax dollars going to medical research. The vast amount in billions of dollars goes to the pharmaceutical industrial complex. Today, the majority of the research and development costs that go into a given drug is funded by the American public. It is estimated that a company may only contribute about 35 percent of total costs in a drug’s development; the remainder is picked up by outside sources, most being from federal health agencies. To the contrary, almost no federal funding is provided to develop new promising alternative medical treatments.
In summary, it is time for the media to undertake deeper investigations into the Skeptic network and the operations being coordinated between Quackwatch, Science-Based Medicine, the Skeptic flagship organization the Center for Inquiry and Wikipedia. This cultist network hides behind the veneer of “promoting science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues” (from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s mission statement). Rather, Skepticism is an ideology with all the trappings of a faith-based philosophy with a sole mission to penetrate the scientific community (with bogus journals such as the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine), the mainstream media, and the public via Wikipedia. The more the darker agenda of Skepticism’s network is brought to light, the faster we can be rid of this dangerous dogma that has been a leading obstacle to medical advancements and a deeper understanding of human biology and health.