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The Illegitimacy of Quackwatch’s Health Bias

The Illegitimacy of Quackwatch’s Health Bias

Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD
Progressive Radio Network, December 31, 2019

To the average person who is seeking high quality and reliable peer-reviewed research on any given medical topic, a Google search takes you more often than not immediately to Wikipedia. However, if the information you seek concerns non-conventional medical practices that fall under the category of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or traditional healing systems, such as Chiropractic, naturopathy, nutritional therapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurveda medicine, massage therapy, etc, then you will fall into deep doubt regarding their efficacy. Wikipedia’s senior and administrative editors hold the unequivocal opinion that all of these medical modalities are pseudoscience and quackery. They have no merit . Nor do those who practice and advocate for them, who are privately characterized as “lunatic charlatans.”

What authority do Wikipedia’s Skeptic editors have to make these claims and condemn entire fields of medicine that are now increasing and gaining popularity? One name and organization stands out on Wikipedia’s alternative health pages: Stephen Barrett and his organization Quackwatch. For the past four decades, Barrett and his Skeptic colleagues have waged an endless crusade to discourage people from even considering the legitimacy of these natural therapies. Clearly, if you take a moment to read Quackwatch articles, you will immediately discover extreme bias. In addition, Barrett and his network rely upon very limited and outdated research to make wide sweeping generalizations that are pointedly scientifically unsound and often absurd.

Wikipedia’s editorial rules clearly state that biased, prejudiced and highly subjective resources cannot be used as references for living persons. If such biases are found on its pages, they are to be removed immediately. However, after two years of endless investigations, we have found that Skeptic editors flatly ignore Wikipedia’s editorial standards.

We are starting to take verbatim quotes from Barrett’s and his colleagues’ articles on Quackwatch and compare their statements, personal beliefs and opinions with actual peer-reviewed research found in the National Institutes of Health Library of Medicine. Often Quackwatch statements veer into the irrational and absurd. For example, Barrett writes, “with safe and effective medicines available, treatment with herbs rarely makes sense.” The results and evidence of Quackwatch being a highly subjective and compromised resource will be clear.

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone)

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroidal hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex with an age specific pattern of secretion. It metabolizes the active androgenic and estrogenic compounds necessary for growth and development. DHEA progressively declines at the rate of 2% per year and can only be replaced with supplementation. There are over 15,900 references to DHEA in the PubMed medical database that reference its pharmacological activities, which include DHEA’s large variety of pharmacological activities like antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-allergic, obesity treatment and cardiovascular properties. It is beneficial in autoimmune disorders like lupus erythematosus, immune modulation, muscle building and hormonal problems.

Quackwatch writer PJ Skerrett, a former editor of Harvard Health, who has denied the cancer risks due to mobile electromagnetic radiation and has been a long time proponent of what we might call “healthy” American junk food, presents DHEA as “the snake oil of the ’90s.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence, Skerrett claims “there’s no solid proof that DHEA supplements have any real benefit for humans. There’s also no proof that they are completely benign.”  And against the evidence cited below, he argues that “as a potent steroid hormone, DHEA has the potential for far-reaching side effects throughout the body…. With DHEA and aging, there are no proven benefits and some potentially serious risks.”

Below are several more recent peer-reviewed studies from the government’s Library of Medicine discrediting Skerrett’s claims:

Effects of DHEA supplementation on hormonal, metabolic and behavioral status in patients with hypoadrenalism.
Institute of Endocrine Science, University of Milan, Ospedale Maggiore IRCCS, Milan, Italy
J Endocrinol Invest. 2004 Sep;27(8):736-41
A placebo controlled, randomized human study concluded DHEA contributed significantly to reduction of body fat mass percentage and benefits women with hypoadrenalism to restore androgen levels.

DHEA, important source of sex steroids in men and even more in women.
Research Center in Molecular Endocrinology, Oncology Laval University, Quebec
Prog Brain Res. 2010;182:97-148
A review and analysis of published studies concluded — and contrary to Quackwatch’s claims that “no serious adverse event related to DHEA has ever been reported in the world literature (thousands of subjects exposed) or in the monitoring of adverse events by the FDA (millions of subjects exposed), thus indicating, as expected from its known physiology, the excellent safety profile of DHEA.”

DHEAS prevents pro-metastatic and proliferative effects of 17ß-estradiol on MCF-7 breast cancer cells.
Justus-Liebig-University, Giessen, Germany.
Biochim Biophys Acta Mol Cell Res. 2020 Feb;1867(2):118600
A study to be published in early 2020 refutes critics of DHEA supplementation who argue against its safety. The researchers concluded that “the results of this study not only challenge the assumption that DHEA-S poses a danger as an endogenous source of estrogen, they rather favor the idea that keeping DHEA-S levels within a physiological range might be supportive in treating estrogen-responsive breast cancer.
DHEA and DHEA-S in Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
Xiangya School of Public Health, China and Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Ottawa, Canada.
Front Aging Neurosci. 2019 Mar 29;11:61.
Conclusion: Decreased DHEA concentrations may be an important indicator for Alzheimer’s disease.

Therapeutic Touch

Stephen Barrett’s article “Why Therapeutic Touch Should be Considered Quackery” states distinctly Quackwatch’s disdain towards this non-invasive method of laying hands on patients to relieve physical and mental discomfort based on a theory of the healing effects of positive energy transfer from the therapist to the patient. TT is also employed for increasing the body’s wound-healing capabilities. Barrett’s position is that “there is no scientific evidence or logical reason to believe that the “energy transfer” postulated by proponents actually occurs. It is safe to assume that any reactions to the procedure are psychological responses to the “laying on of hands.” To support this claim, he cites only two papers published in 1996 and 1998, the second one cites Barrett as a co-author. Both papers reviewed only a small number of practitioners (21) who laid hands on the chief author’s daughter to determine whether an “energy field” was felt. That is all. This is the sole scientific rationale Barrett provides for discrediting TT.

Barrett’s article ends with the recommendation: “If you are on the staff of a hospital in which TT is practiced, please lodge a protest” — which is aligned with one of Quackwatch’s goals to rid conventional health care of non-conventional medical practices

TT is now taught in over 80 professional nursing schools and has been used widely employed in hospital, clinical and nursing home settings for countless number of patients. This also includes “distant healing.” In an Annals of Internal Medicine review of 23 studies conducted by a researcher at Baltimore’s Kernan’s Hospital Mansion, distant healing was found to be 57 percent effective.

Among some recent studies on Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch that show direct positive, effective results are:

Effects of Therapeutic Touch on Pain Related Parameters in Patients with Cancer: A Randomized Clinical Trial
Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
Mater Sociomed. 2016 Jun; 28(3): 220–223
Conclusions: The results of the study showed that TT had a positive impact on the positive management of pain related parameters in cancer patients. Therefore, TT is suggested to be used by healthcare providers as a complementary method for managing pain and its parameters.

Cancer Pain Relief After Healing Touch and Massage.
Department of Supportive Oncology, Levine Cancer Institute, North Carolina.
J Altern Complement Med. 2018 Sep/Oct;24(9-10):968-973
A study of 572 cancer outpatients to establish and compare the effectiveness of Healing Touch (HT) and Oncology Massage (OM) therapies on cancer patients’ pain concluded that “Both HT and OM provided immediate pain relief.”

The effect of Therapeutic Touch on Back Pain in Adults on a Neurological Unit: An Experimental Pilot Study.
University Hospital Graz, Graz, Austria.
Pain Manag Nurs. 2019 Feb;20(1):75-81.
CONCLUSIONS: Therapeutic Touch seems to be a noninvasive nursing intervention for back pain management to provide more professional patient care.

Effect of Therapeutic Touch on Sleep Quality in Elders Living at Nursing Homes.
Department of Fundamentals Nursing, Ege University Nursing School, Turkey
J Relig Health. 2019 May 6.
A randomized controlled experimental study (pretest-posttest control group) concluded that “Therapeutic touch is an effective method of improving the sleep quality of the elders living at a nursing home.”

Vitamin C

Quackwatch has been a sharp critic of Vitamin C’s therapeutic benefits for decades. In his Quackwatch article “The Dark Side of Linus Pauling’s Legacy” Stephen Barrett lays out a long critique to discredit the pioneering work of Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and his research into high doses of Vitamin C to treat the common cold and cancer.

Barrett is not a nutritionist, and in our opinion he displays only a very elementary understanding about nutritional biochemistry and science. Yet there are over 62,000 scientific entries referencing Vitamin C on the National Institutes of Health PubMed. Barrett’s denouncing Vitamin C’s effectiveness for common colds and cancer reference only a tiny handful of cherry picked studies to support his biases, and the large majority of these were published 40 years ago. Nevertheless, Quackwatch’s subjective, biased opinion is given more weight than the full positive picture that can be pulled from the available literature.

Barrett and his colleagues at Quackwatch focus their attacks on Vitamin C on two fronts. First, they argue that Vitamin C does not prevent or lessen the duration of common colds and infections, and second, they claim the vitamin has no positive impact upon cancer prevention and treatment.

In another Quackwatch article “High Doses of Vitamin C Are Not
Effective as a Cancer Treatment” Barrett writes that “vitamin C might even accelerate cancer growth. Thus, even if supplementary vitamin C is eventually to be found to have some use in fighting cancer, that role is not likely to be extensive. Despite these hard facts, many people still claim that high doses of vitamin C are useful as a cancer treatment. Responsible health professionals should clarify this issue so that patients neither forfeit scientific care nor put themselves at risk by using a product that has no demonstrated merit.”

However, as noted above, the majority of Barrett’s references of proof date from the 1970s and 1980s. Science does not stand still for Quackwatch to catch up and enormous advances have been made during the past four decades to better understand vitamin C’s biomolecular properties for fighting disease.

Researchers at the University of Kansas observed that high doses of intravenous Vitamin C annihilated cancer cells while avoiding healthy cells. A problem is that an insufficient amount of research and funding is going into all of Vitamin C’s health benefits. The lead author of the Kansas study, Dr. Qi Chen, noted, “because vitamin C has no patent potential, its development will not be supported by pharmaceutical companies… We believe that the time has arrived for research agencies to vigorously support thoughtful and meticulous clinical trials with intravenous vitamin C.”

High-dose parenteral ascorbate enhanced chemosensitivity of ovarian cancer and reduced toxicity of chemotherapy.
Toxicology and Therapeutics, University of Kansas Medical Center
Sci Transl Med. 2014 Feb 5;6(222):222ra18.

Barrett even warns against pregnant women taking Vitamin C. Following the first trimester, normal placental development begins to erode. Trophoblast cells start their programmed cell death or apoptosis. Oxidative stress contributes to the breakdown. If apoptosis becomes exaggerated, according to scientists from Yale and the University of Manchester in the UK, then it can lead to placental disease and endothelial cell dysfunction. Placental diseases include preclampsia and uterine ischemia, which can cascade and trigger the onset of diabetes, chronic blood pressure, intrauterine growth restriction and multiple pregnancies. However, Barrett is patently wrong. Japanese researchers at Showa University School of Medicine observed that Vitamin C reduces the oxidative stress of genes that lead to unnatural apoptosis and enable placenta cell death to occur normally.

Vitamin C Induces the Reduction of Oxidative Stress and Paradoxically Stimulates the Apoptotic Gene Expression in Extravillous Trophoblasts Derived From First-Trimester Tissue.
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Showa University School of Medicine, Japan
Reprod Sci. 2015 Jul;22(7):783-90.
CONCLUSION: “We have revealed that vitamin C reduces ROS and may promote the apoptosis of EVTs under conditions of 2% O2 while paradoxically preventing apoptosis under increasing oxygen concentrations.”

Almost 30 years after Linus Pauling’s controversial suggestion that Vitamin C can prevent cancer, Johns Hopkins Medicinal Institutions confirmed his findings. Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties “destabilize a tumor’s ability to grow under oxygen-starved conditions.” The study specifically looked at human lymphoma and liver cancer.
Barrett has consistently warned against high doses of Vitamin C by only relying on those studies that support this sentiment. Yet today high doses and intravenous administration of Vitamin C is becoming more widely accepted, especially given in conjunction with conventional cancer therapies.

Intravenous Vitamin C for Cancer Therapy – Identifying the Current Gaps in Our Knowledge
Department of Pathology and Biomedical Science, University of Otago, Christchurch, New Zealand
Front Physiol. 2018; 9: 1182.

Contrary to Barrett’s harsh warnings about the dangers of high doses of Vitamin C, the Otago researchers conclude that:
“Studies consistently show that patients with cancer have lower mean circulating vitamin C levels than healthy volunteers. These patients also exhibit higher rates of hypovitaminosis C and deficiency.”
“IVC is remarkably safe, considering the massive (>75 g) doses that are often administered. However, there are several currently known situations where caution is warranted. These include patients with impaired renal function due to their inability to adequately clear high IVC doses from circulation, and patients with G6PD deficiency due to inability to detoxify oxidative stress generated by high dose IVC administration.”
“Clinical trials indicate that IVC does not adversely interfere with chemotherapy and pre-clinical studies indicate that it may in fact act synergistically in combination with different chemotherapeutic agents.”
“Both pre-clinical and clinical studies indicate that IVC can decrease the off-target toxicity of chemotherapeutic agents, likely through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, without affecting the anti-cancer activities of the chemotherapeutic agents.”

Stephen Barrett and his Quackwatch colleagues, as well as those in Quackwatch’s affiliated Science Based Medicine group, continue their ongoing attacks against the entirety of complementary medicine, despite the fact there are thousands of studies supporting these very therapies’ efficacy and safety. In and of itself, Barrett’s beliefs would be irrelevant except that Wikipedia’s Skeptic editors rely upon Barrett and his organizations as a creditable and reliable source of objective science. We suggest that everyone now contact Wikimedia Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer Katherine Maher and politely ask her why the Foundation allows a double standard on Wikipedia’s health pages and why extremely biased editors who represent the Skeptic ideology are permitted to serve as these pages’ senior administrators. Maher’s email is kmaher@wikimedia.org