The website Quackwatch is legendary in skeptic circles because of how thoroughly it explains and debunks pseudoscience. Dr. Stephen Barrett, M.D., who began the site two decades ago, has done a remarkable job with it. (Maybe one day, they’ll pause the article-writing to modernize the site. A man can dream.)
But the site is also controversial because quackery can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. Is acupuncture a legitimate form of therapy? There are obviously plenty of people who say yes, but the website says the practice is “so nebulous that no amount of scientific study will enable [traditional Chinese medicine] to offer rational care.” You can see why those who practice these procedures would be upset that their entire industry may be challenged by a site that gets prominent placement on Google searches.
Quackwatch also posts article about people who practice questionable forms of medicine, and in 2000, an article on the site wrote about a penalty paid by two doctors who promoted “anti-aging” medicine:
On December 6, 2000, osteopathic physicians Ronald Klatz, D.O., and Robert Goldman, D.O., agreed to pay $5,000 each to the State of Illinois and to stop identifying themselves as M.D.s in Illinois unless authorized to do so by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. The agreement indicates that each acquired an “M.D.” degree from the Central America Health Sciences University School of Medicine in Belize but was not licensed to use the credential in Illinois. The agreement also permits them to list the credential in their curriculum vitae as long as it does not closely follow their name.
All of that actually happened. So there’s nothing wrong with the post. But when the doctors came across that article in 2014, they were furious that it hadn’t been updated with information from 2006 saying that the men were found by the Department of Professional Regulation to be “licensed physicians and surgeons of osteopathic medicine in good standing in Illinois for more than 20 years and are allowed to do what a medical doctor may do in the state.”
It led to an important question: Did not updating the page constitute defamation against the doctors? They said it did.
Thankfully, a judge this week disagreed, throwing out the lawsuit:
[U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe] found that the doctors “have not made out a plausible claim for defamation by implication.” He said the lawsuit, which sought $10 million and removal of the article, did not describe facts sufficient to demonstrate it was false to imply that they falsely pretended to have medical skills or knowledge.
Charles Michael, an attorney representing Barrett and his website, said Thursday in a statement his firm took the case without fee because “we saw two multi-millionaire doctors who practice a dubious form of anti-aging ‘medicine’ trying to use litigation to bully a nonprofit website into deleting a news article that was completely truthful.”
“They probably assumed that Dr. Barrett would simply delete the article rather than bother with the time and expense to litigate,” he said. “They were wrong. Dr. Barrett chose to defend the case, and we were happy to help. I do not care for bullies — or quack doctors. The First Amendment allows Quackwatch to publish its article and keep it on the internet. We are pleased Judge Gardephe agreed.“
The doctors don’t know what defamation means… and they’ve apparently never heard of the Streisand effect either.
Summarizing an accurate article that makes people look bad isn’t a criminal act. Maybe these doctors should spend more time looking at the evidence (or lack of it) of anti-aging proponents instead of filing suits against people who might call the nonsense into question.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link)