A common thread that runs through the activities of various antiscience cranks, quacks, charlatans, and denialists is an extreme aversion to criticism. In fact, in many cases their aversion to criticism is so extreme that a common reaction of cranks to even legitimate criticism is to try to shut that criticism down any way possible. Sometimes, this intimidation takes the form of harassment or attempts to get a critic fired from his job, as has happened with RenÃ© Najera and yours truly. this takes the form of lawsuits or abuse of the legal process, as has been experienced by Dr. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, Kathleen Seidel, Simon Singh, Deborah Lipstadt, Dr. Stephen Barrett, among others.
And Andy Lewis of a website and blog much beloved in skeptical circles known as the Quackometer.
Andy, as you might recall, is a skeptical blogger who developed the Quackometer, a tongue-in-cheek web-based tool that examines websites and rates their level of quackiness based on the language contained therein. He’s been threatened in the past as well, with a particularly colorful quack named Joseph Chikelue Obi having threatened his ISP, which ignominiously capitulated. Fortunately, Andy found a new ISP. Another time, the Society of Homeopaths tried to silence Andy for criticizing its–shall we say?–lack of concern about enforcing its code of ethics. Truly, it’s risky to be a skeptical blogger in the U.K., given its notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws.
Unfortunately, this time around, it’s happened again. Andy picked up on the story of two charity concerts by Peter Kay to raise money for a four-year-old girl named Billie Bainbridge, who, tragically, has a very rare brain tumor known as Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). It’s also inoperable. As if that weren’t bad enough, unfortunately the parents have fallen for the blandishments of one Stanislaw Burzynski and the Burzynski Clinic in Texas that Billie’s cancer can be cured using Burzynski’s methods–oh, and, not coincidentally, Â£200,000, which is the sum these charity concerts are being used to raise. Given that Burzynski has promoted a scientifically unproven cancer treatment called “anti-neoplastons,” which are in reality merely amino acids and peptides isolated from the urine, Andy was, quite understandably, concerned and outraged and expressed his concern and outrage in a post a few days ago entitled The False Hope of the Burzynski Clinic, in which he nicely summarized the history and evidence about anti-neoplastons, pointing out that there is no convincing evidence that they have activity against cancer, much less that they offer hope to a patient like Billie, and no research group other than Burzynski’s has ever reported positive results. I fully agree with his analysis. As a result, the legal thuggery began a couple of days later.
In brief, Billie Bainbridge’s situation is very much like one I wrote about a year and a half ago in which I referred to such situations as “harnessing the generosity of kind-hearted strangers to pay for woo.” In fact, Burzynski featured prominently in my post as well, specifically this video by a woman named Rene Louis who tells viewers that she has a rare and deadly form of thyroid cancer:
When I first heard of Ms. Louis, my first thought that she had been diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is indeed incredibly deadly and usually incurable. In fact, she was diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer, which, while more of a problem than papillary thyroid cancer, is actually usually treatable. A year and a half later, I learn that Ms. Louis apparently couldn’t raise the funds to go to the Burzynski Clinic. Ironically, I think that’s probably is the reason she’s still alive today, because instead she ended up at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. While I’m not a fan of CTCA by any means (think two words: naturopathic oncology), at least they do usually only “integrate” the woo with science-based medicine. Be that as it may, I often wonder why proponents of woo are so slow to castigate the expense of “alternative” practitioners like Burzynski peddling highly expensive , whose clinic’s false promise has led quite a few sufferers from cancer to try such fundraising campaigns to pay for anti-neoplaston therapy, given how quick they are to jump on the expense of science-based medical treatments.
In any case, back to Andy Lewis, who received an e-mail from someone named Marc Stephens who listed his return address as the Burzynski Clinic. The e-mail exchange that Andy has with Mr. Stephens is typical of many exchanges I’ve seen before. Whenever you are accused of libel, the first move is to ask the accuser exactly what passages in one’s article are libelous and to give specific reasons. For instance, it is good to ask, as Andy does:
You state that there is material in my post that is factually incorrect. I would therefore ask you to state explicitly the wording in my post that you feel that is wrong and the reasons that it is wrong. I am keen to ensure my post is as accurate as possible given the subject is a matter of public health.
Please be assured that when I receive clear information on the wording you feel is problematic, I will deal with the matter as soon as I can.
If the accuser lists specific factual errors, then he might–just might–be serious about real possible libel rather than trying to shut you up. However, if he responds the way that Mr. Stephens responds, you can be pretty darned sure that he’s not interested in libel; he’s interested in shutting down criticism, and it’s quite clear that Mr. Stephens is not interested in anything but shutting down criticism using legal thuggery:
FINAL NOTICE TO CEASE AND DESIST
I am not here to grade your article, or play games with you. You fully understand what you’re doing, which is why you are trying to hide behind your so-called “opinion”. You have a history of lying in your articles since 2008. All articles and videos posted from your little network are being forwarded to local authorities, as well as local counsel. It is your responsibility to understand when you brake[sic] the law. I am only obligated to show you in court. I am giving you final warning to shut the article down. The days of no one pursuing you is over. Quackwatch, Ratbags, and the rest of you Skeptics days are numbered.
So, since you have a history of being stubborn, you better spend the rest of the day researching the word Fraud, you better do full research on the relationship of Dr. Saul Green and Emprise, Inc., and you better do full research on Stephen Barrett who is not licensed, or ever was licensed. So his medical opinion is void, which I am sure you are fully aware of his court cases. So your so-called opinion means nothing when this is disclosed in court, and by law you must prove your statements are true. Your source of information are all frauds, and none are medical doctors. You being apart of the same network makes you guilty, in the eyes of the jurors.
You are still accountable for Re-publishing false information, and disseminating false information. None of the previous attorneys that contacted you about defamation had documented history in the courts. We have well documented history which is on record with the court, which is available to the public. So, when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went up against 5 Grand Juries which involved the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Aetna Life Insurance, Emprise, Inc., Texas State Medical Board, and the United States Government, and was found not guilty in all 5 cases, you will wish you never wrote your article. In addition, my client has treated multiple cancer patients around the world, which is fully documented by the FDA, NCI, and Kurume University School of Medicine in Japan, and has finished Phase II clinical trials with FDA approval to move forward with Phase III. I suggest you spend more time with your new child then posting lies and false information on the internet that will eventually get you sued, which will hurt you financially. I am going to pursue you at the highest extent of the law.
If you had no history of lying, and if you were not apart of a fraud network I would take the time to explain your article word for word, but you already know what defamation is. I’ve already recorded all of your articles from previous years as well as legal notice sent by other attorneys for different matters. As I mentioned, I am not playing games with you. You have a history of being stubborn which will play right into my hands. Be smart and considerate for your family and new child, and shut the article down..Immediately. FINAL WARNING.
As Andy notes, this is not the work of a lawyer. Even a lawyer like Clifford Shoemaker wouldn’t be so stupid as to write a spittle-flecked screed like the one above, which in fact contains at least one big error regarding Stephen Barrett, who was in fact licensed as a physician in Pennsylvania for many years before he retired in 1993. In fact, Wikipedia lists his medical license as “Active-retired” in good standing. Not only is Mr. Stephens not particularly bright, but he’s too lazy to get his own facts straight. (Yes, I mean you, Mr. Stephens. I hope you see this.) He also does not appear to be a lawyer, given that he’s listed as being part of Marketing and Sponsorship for the Burzynski Patient Group, which does not appear to be actually affiliated with the clinic.
One wonders how threatening bloggers is good marketing, one does.
It turns out that this is about par for the course for Burzynski, who has apparently set his pit poodle Marc Stephens loose on other bloggers who have criticized Burzynski’s anti-neoplaston therapy, which is, in my not-so-humble opinion as a cancer surgeon, rank pseudoscience. For instance, he’s apparently pulled the same crap with Peter Bowditch eleven years ago. Peter, as those who’ve followed his online career might have predicted, would have none of it. Unfortunately, another blogger threatened by Burzynski’s flack did back down.
Good. It’s also very good that Andy Lewis didn’t back down either.
The answer to legal bullies like Marc Stephens is not to fold but to tell them to stick their threats where the sun don’t shine. And then, of course, to exercise the Streisand Effect to its fullest extent to embarrass the cowardly legal thug as much as possible for his threats.