Doctor’s Data Sues Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch

In 2010, Doctor’s Data, an Illinois clinical lab, sued Stephen Barrett, who runs Quackwatch, for making false and misleading statements about them. The lawsuit is still in progress. I am glad they sued. As far as I can tell, Quackwatch does contain false and misleading statements.

I’ve gotten about fifteen hair tests — whenever I get my hair cut — from Doctor’s Data. The test measures about forty elements, such as mercury, tin, and selenium. One test costs about $60. One reason I test my hair is curiosity – who knows what I might learn? Another is concern about heavy metal exposure due to living in Beijing. In a post updated in 2010, Barrett called hair tests “a cardinal sign of quackery”. I have no idea whether there is any truth to Barrett’s argument but I am sure he is too confident I am wasting my money. My own data suggest Barrett is wrong about the safety of mercury amalgam fillings. He believes that all safety concerns about those fillings are wrong. I found that when I had some of mine removed, my brain test scores improved starting exactly at the time of removal. We live in a world where all doctors — conventional and alternative — know almost nothing about the cause of almost any major health problem (heart disease, depression, obesity, and so on). Barrett shows no sign of understanding this. He is too sure that people who disagree with him are wrong.

Doctor’s Data is far from perfect. Their hair tests have three serious weaknesses:

1. The information they provide customers like me comes without any information that would allow me to judge the error of measurement. I had to send in two samples from the same haircut to get some idea.

2. The measurements they give come with comparisons to  a group of supposedly normal people (“reference range”) but those people are not described, making it hard or impossible to interpret these comparisons.

3. They do not report calibration results. I would like to make comparisons across tests — e.g., from a test done this month to a test done six months ago. However, I have no idea about the stability of their equipment.

Many clinical labs have these problems.

On the other hand, the information their hair test provides is far from worthless, as far as I can tell. It is hard to learn anything from one test due to the problems I mention (e.g., if a value is high it might be measurement error) but repeated testing is more interesting. If a value suddenly gets worse for several tests, that suggests a problem. Any pattern in your results might tell you something useful.

If Doctor’s Data hair tests are worthless, this would be easy to show. Get two samples of hair (at the same time) from each of ten people. Get all 20 samples tested. If there is no correlation between the two samples, the test is probably worthless. No one, including Barrett, has provided such evidence.

You can learn details of the lawsuit, which Tim Bolen is sure Barrett will lose, from Bolen’s website. I have enjoyed reading about it — for example, this complaint about Barrett’s lawyer’s time-consuming method of discovery. Every story needs a villain.

8 Responses to “Doctor’s Data Sues Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch”

  1. Michael F Says:

    Interesting use of the hair samples. At one time, Doctor’s Data had a service where you could get your toenails analyzed via neutron activation analysis (NAA). The toenails are typically less contaminated by external contamination (i.e. the selenium as active ingredient in dandruff shampoos, dirt under your fingernails from gardening, etc.)

    You might inquire to see if they could offer that as an alternative to hair sampling. There is published literature available on NAA of toe nails and other samples that provides (limited in my opinion) guidelines for certain heavy metals and some correlations to disease (i.e. selenium and prostate cancer).

  2. Nate Says:

    My impression of quack watch is the same. He seems to take the view that anything outside of “standard practice” is quackery. It seems as if his website should be very helpful-but it is not.

    I am a clinical pathologist. On your #3, the lab should be doing calibration studies on any test they report results on. In my lab, we occasionally get requests for documentation of those studies-which we gladly provide. Just call them and tell them your concerns, and ask for documentation of their controls and proficiency testing over the past several months.

  3. David Says:

    It would also be interesting to have them test hair that is new and closest to the scalp, vs hair that has been cut off in a trim. You’d think the later would have more contaminants from shampoo, etc.

    Of course, maybe that is the procedure, I’m only assuming the ends are analyzed based on the comment you made about sending it in at each haircut.

  4. gwern Says:

    So, what *have* you learned from the hair tests? Mercury levels seems like an obvious thing to learn, but I don’t recall you ever mentioning it in your mentions of the fillings.

  5. Stephen Barrett, M.D. Says:

    Two studies have been done in which identical hair samples were sent to multiple laboratories. If you would like copies, e-mail me.

    Tim Bolen has very little understanding of what is happening in Doctor’s Data’s suit against me. He often expresses excitement are about things he imagines that happen not to be true.

  6. D.R. Says:

    Yes, stephen but what you really want is multiple samples sent to the _same_ laboratory. That’s why the studies you mention are a whitewash. But then, you probably don’t care.

  7. Alex Says:

    I have no dog in Quackwatch v. Doctor’s Data fight, but the Bolen site you linked to seems like a heaping helping of crazy. I clicked on a couple of links covering topics I’m familiar with–not a lot of connection with reality. But if you were wondering whether octagenarian magician and skeptic James Randi might be gay, this is the place to confirm it. A lot.

    Seth: I agree, Bolen’s ideas are ridiculous and his treatment of Randi is shameful. But he provides useful links to legal documents.

  8. Katie H Says:

    You are forgetting the difference between reliability, accuracy, and validity. If two tests from the same person yield the same result, then you have a reliable test. But it may not be accurate (the report may have said “12″ both times but the true result is “70″) nor valid (it may have said 12 both times, and 12 is correct, but there are 12 ducks and the report said it counted chickens).

    Seth: Where am I forgetting the difference between reliability accuracy and validity?