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.