Jarvis and Barrett co-authored "The Health Robbers," published by Prometheus Press in 1993, of which Barrett is medical editor. Prometheus Press also publishes a new journal, the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, which is edited by Dr. Wallace Sampson, a Stanford cancer specialist who is on the Quackwatch board.
Barrett has been a contributor to Consumer Reports and health advisor for an organization that debunks paranormal phenomena. He's friends with famous skeptic James Randi, "The Amazing Randi," who says he often uses Barrett's research.
"He is the man, as far as I'm concerned," Randi said.
They have all been in this demystifying business even before the days when laetrile--apricot pits and arsenic--was first touted as a cancer cure and pyramids were places to recharge psychic batteries. And, needless to say, they have made enemies.
"They are what I call medical chauvinists," said longtime foe Dana Ullman, head of a Berkeley mail-order company that sells homeopathic books, tapes and medicine kits. "They assume there is only one way to do proper medicine."
Strictly speaking, homeopathy is based on the notion of treating people with infinitesimal doses of substances that are supposed to trigger the body's natural defenses.
Ullman, who once debated Barrett at New York University, said "quackbusters" like Barrett aren't interested in learning enough about homeopathy to even properly debunk it. He said he once tried to join one of the anti-quackery groups but was refused.
"They criticize the [NIH] Office of Alternative Medicine for not having skeptics, yet their own boards are entirely skeptics with no advocates," he said.
That NIH office, Barrett believes, has given a false legitimacy to every "crackbrain" medicinal scheme on the planet. He said he and some friends tried to join its advisory board but were rejected.
"The biggest thing it's done is spread misinformation," he said. "If you ask for information about chiropractic, they tell you to go to the chiropractors' association."
The office's director, Dr. Wayne Jonas, wouldn't comment. But spokeswoman Anita Greene said Jonas tried to work with the skeptics and even wrote a letter seeking Quackwatch board member Renner's help. "They're really extremists in not even wanting alternative medicine researched," she said.
Renner said he couldn't recall details of the letter, but said he was leery about letting some of his research fall into the hands of an office whose advisory board includes "rascals."
His list of dubious healers--which Renner called his "duck list"--was stolen from his office a few years ago. It turned up in the hands of alternative medicine activists, including a lawyer who tried to enter it as evidence in a case in which Renner was an expert witness for the other side.
Such infighting is not uncommon in the small world of alternative medicine proponents and skeptics.
Barrett believes that his biggest impact came in the late 1970s, when he and his colleagues took on the burgeoning vitamin industry. He did a study of the many dubious claims the supplement manufacturers made in magazine ads, which led to a Consumer Reports story and then tougher federal rules on mail fraud in 1983. He believes that his clique's relentless offensive on the dietary supplement industry was responsible for the flattening of vitamin sales in the 1980s.
Even today, Barrett barely hides a contempt for what he calls the "fundamentally dishonest" vitamin business. In their 1994 book "The Vitamin Pushers," he and coauthor Victor Herbert wrote about vitamin manufacturers that made millions by duping Americans into believing that they needed vitamins to ease stress, add pep and provide nutrients not found in three square meals a day.
This all makes it strange to discover that Barrett himself gobbles fistfuls of vitamins. Ten years ago, he had open-heart surgery. To control his cholesterol and homocysteine--a protein byproduct found in blood--he takes niacin, folic acid, B-12 and B-6. And a mineral pill every week.
"But when people say, 'Oh, you're against everything that isn't a drug,' I say, 'Well, I take 100.5 vitamins a week,' " he said. "And I'm using them properly."
Barrett may boast about the responsible way he medicates himself, but he's glum about his impact on this era: Too many people want to believe in a medical miracle. And too many merchants are willing to sell them on the healing powers of pixie dust.
"People are interested in magic," he said. "Editors, station managers, producers all believe that if you can offer magic you get a greater audience than if you throw cold water."