Cancer quack Robert O. Young is arrested and arraigned, but will he be convicted?

Being a cancer surgeon and researcher, naturally I tend to write about cancer a lot more than other areas of medicine and science. It’s what I know best. Also, cancer is a very common area for unscientific practices to insinuate themselves, something that’s been true for a very long time. The ideas don’t change very rapidly, either. Drop a cancer quack from 2014 into 1979, and he would probably be right at home. Of course, part of the reason is because the “elder statesmen” of cancer quackery today were just getting their starts in 1979. Still, the same ideas keep recurring even as far back as a century ago and even older, and if you broaden your criteria, these ideas exist on a continuum, either having descended directly from various ancient ideas such as vitalism, miasmas, or humoral theory or branched off somewhere along the way. Others branch off from the progress of science, taking a germ of a seemingly reasonable idea and turning it into quackery. It is the latter with which I plan on concerning myself today, the reason being that over the weekend I heard some truly awesome news. One of the most egregiously practicing non-physicians who claim to be able to cure cancer that I’ve ever encountered was arrested—yes, arrested!—and arraigned on criminal charges. I’m referring to “Dr. Alkaline” himself, he of the pH Miracle Living program and his Articles of Health blog, “Dr.” Robert O. Young. Behold:

I so so love seeing Robert O. Young in a prison jumpsuit. My only disappointment is that it wasn’t orange. Young deserves to be paraded around in prison orange. I also can’t help but note that I always wondered what the “O.” stood for. Now I know: Oldham. Be that as it may, I’m saving that picture at the top of this post for future talks. This is the way that Robert O. Young should always be pictured.

I’ve mentioned Robert O. Young from time to time on this blog, but it’s been at least a couple of years since I’ve discussed him other than in passing. Consequently, now strikes me as an excellent time to revisit, review, and discuss what sorts of pseudoscience and quackery Young advocates to treat cancer and—as is the case with so many dubious practitioners—multiple other serious diseases, such as lupus, type I diabetes (you read that right, not type II diabetes), metastatic prostate cancer, and cancer in general. (Not surprisingly, Young is also quite antivaccine, publishing anecdotes from parents who believe their child is “vaccine damaged” and appeals to support antivaccine groups like the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC).) Let’s take a look at what happened last week and why, given the law in California, I’m not sure that this case will be the slam dunk we’d all like it to be. The law in California could easily make it a difficult task for the prosecutor to secure a conviction, much less a 15 year sentence. First, however, for those who are not familiar with Dr. Young, it’s important to provide a little primer on who he is, what he does, and why I am so outraged that he’s been allowed to continue to practice for more than 20 years.

The disturbing saga of “Dr.” Robert O. Young

Robert O. Young is pretty famous as far as “alternative medicine” practitioners go, spawning acolytes like Errol Denton who’s been in a spot of similar legal trouble lately, who trained under Young and remains an admirer. Although I had heard of Young before and written about him more in an amusing than outraged manner, I really first became aware of Young through the case of a woman with breast cancer named Kim Tinkham. Not entirely coincidentally, Tinkham briefly became famous back in 2008 after having appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show in the context of her belief in The Secret, that mystical, magical, childish belief system that the universe will bring you what you want if you only want it badly enough. It’s a system of belief that goes far beyond the reasonable concept that people who want something badly enough will be more likely to try to obtain it and thus more likely to get it and into the realm of wish fulfillment, where “wishing makes it so,” a concept that is the central dogma of alternative medicine. At the time, she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, described as stage III, and was being urged to undergo surgery. She refused. In 2007, Tinkham appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

In this interview, Kim Tinkham attributes her decision to “heal herself” to The Secret. Oprah, to her credit, was horrified and even called Tinkham “irresponsible” for not taking advantage of modern medicine. It turns out that the “alternative” practitioner she somehow found was Robert O. Young. It also unfortunately turns out that she died of her disease three years ago, losing her battle with breast cancer. In the interim, however, she did testimonials for Young, even going so far as to agree to appear in an hour-long interview with him (now thrown down the memory hole, although I captured a copy of all six ten-minute segments of it for posterity and only wish I could put them back up on YouTube without a DMCA takedown notice and even potentially copyright charge). In any case, Tinkham is only one of Young’s victims, and she was fortunate enough to have survived longer than I would have guessed initially.

So who is “Dr.” Robert O. Young? Let’s take a look at his claimed credentials:

Before Dr. Young began his extensive nutritional research, his love for sports and science led him to the University of Dr. Robert O. Young, tennis player at the University of Utah—where he studied biology and business in the early 70’s. There he was granted a full athletic scholarship for tennis. His team was consistently one of the top 10 in the nation. He had the experience of competing with the likes of Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, and Roscoe Tanner.

In the 80’s, following his schooling at the University of Utah, Dr. Young studied medical microbiology—training under Dr. Robert Bradford at the Bradford Research Institute in Chula Vista, California ( Dr. Bradford is now a trustee and professor at Capital University in Washington, DC, where he teaches live and dry blood microscopy ( Dr. Young also studied darkfield microscopy under Dr. Maria Bleker—who was the prodigy of the great late biologist, Dr. Gunther Enderlein—in Essen, Germany.

In 1993, Dr. Young received a MS in nutrition from the American College in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1995, he received his D.Sc. with emphasis in chemistry and biology. Dr. Young’s doctoral dissertation was on Disseminated Intravascular Blood Coagulation and Pathological Blood Coagulation. In 1997, Dr. Young received a Ph.D. from Clayton College of Natural Health. His Professor, James E. Harvey from San Diego State University, reviewed and accepted his dissertation as completing all the requirements for a doctorate of philosophy degree in nutrition. Continuing his studies and research, Dr. Young later received an additional doctorate degree in naturopathy (ND) from Clayton College (1999).

As Dr. Stephen Barrett notes, two of Young’s doctoral degrees were received from diploma mills and that Robert Bradford, who was convicted of laetrile smuggling in the 1970s didn’t, even have a college degree. Also, Clayton College of Natural Health was a nonaccredited correspondence school that taught a panoply of quackery. Not long after the state of Alabama began requiring accreditation for license renewal, the Clayton College of Natural Health closed in 2010. As Dr. Barrett drolly notes, the Clayton College of Natural Health did (and does) serve one good purpose, “Its credentials are a reliable sign of someone not to consult for advice.” No kidding. And, even though he claims to have an ND degree, the school from which he obtained it was not accredited, which means that Young’s ND degree is even more worthless than an ND from an “accredited” college of naturopathic medicine, as hard as to believe that’s possible. As The Eleventh Doctor would say, “Basically… run.”

The pseudoscience of Young’s beliefs is hard to summarize in a reasonable amount of text, even taking into account my known tendency towards logorrhea, so massive are its breadth and depth. As has been noted before, Young is so full of pseudoscience that it would take a book to catalog it all, and it begins on the very same page that I cited above, in which Young creates out of whole cloth (well, not quite, but close) a whole “New Biology.” As I’ve said before, that’s always the sign of a crank from whom you should run, as is the claim on his site that over the last 25 years Young has “been widely recognized as one of the top research scientists in the world,” beginning:

In 1994, Dr. Young discovered the biological transformation of red blood cells into bacteria and bacteria to red blood cells. He has since documented several such transformations.

Seriously. If Young had really discovered such things and documented them, he’d deserve a Nobel Prize. Of course, he’s demonstrated nothing of the sort. Basically, part of what he’s selling is a form of regurgitated Antoine Béchamp, a contemporary of Louis Pasteur with a competing hypothesis. That debate was settled scientifically long ago–and not in Béchamp’s favor, for the most part, although 150 years later, germ theory denialists still invoke Béchamp and sometimes even claim that Pasteur underwent a deathbed recantation in which he admitted that Béchamp was right, a recantation that never happened. I frequently point out that, given what was known at the time, Beauchamps was not unreasonable to hypothesize what he did, but the evidence clearly favored Pasteur, which is why Pasteur’s ideas won out and the germ theory of infectious disease became widely accepted.

Béchamp’s concept was known as the pleomorphic theory of disease. It stated that bacteria change form (i.e., demonstrate pleomorphism) in response to disease. In other words, they arise from tissues during disease states. We now know, of course, that bacteria do not arise from tissue, although they might have appeared that way because normal flora can sometimes cause disease. Béchamp further postulated that bacteria arose from structures that he called microzymas, which to him referred to a class of enzymes. Béchamp postulated that microzymas are normally present in tissues and that their effects depended upon the cellular terrain. Béchamp’s hypothesis was, however, superseded by Pasteur’s germ theory of disease and Koch’s later work that resulted in Koch’s postulates. Besides not fitting with the scientific evidence, Béchamp’s idea had nowhere near the explanatory and predictive power that Pasteur’s theory did. On the other hand, there is a grain of truth in Béchamp’s ideas. Specifically, it is true that the condition of the “terrain” (the body) does matter when it comes to infectious disease. Debilitated people do not resist the invasion of microorganisms as well as strong, healthy people. Unfortunately, Bechamp remains a frequently invoked scientist by germ theory denialists like Robert O. Young.

The most prominent idea that Young promotes is encompassed in this slide I once made for a talk on alt-med quackery (click to embiggen):


Basically, to Young, acid is the cause of all disease, to the point that he states that overacidification is the cause of all disease, an overarching theory of all disease that he has dubbed The New Biology, and about which he frequently states that “the pH Miracle Lifestyle and Diet is a program focuses on the foundational principal that the body is alkaline by design and yet acidic by function. This make this program the ultimate program for preventing and reversing aging and the onset of sickness and dis-ease. I would say that the pH Miracle Lifestyle and Diet is the diet for immortality.” (Note that another of Gorski’s rules, besides the rule that health practitioner who invokes Béchamp over Pasteur is to be avoided like the plague is that anyone who uses the term “dis-ease” instead of “disease” is to be similarly shunned. It’s not for nothing that I’ve said that, compared to Robert O. Young, Andrew Weil seems like the height of reason.

For example, after a beautiful aspiring young Brazilian model named Mariana Bridi died of sepsis after a urinary tract infection so severe that she had had to have her hands and feet amputated in a desperate bid to save her life, Young wrote a post entitled Ignorance Caused Sepsis or Systemic Acidosis That Took The Life of a Young Brazilian Woman, whose utter nonsense and pseudoscience garnered a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence. Read it if you dare, but be prepared for terms by Young like “out-fection” instead of “infection.” Elsewhere, Young uses more arguments that echo Béchamp, even going so far as to explicitly deny germ theory to the point where he writes posts like The Illusion of Germ Theory, in which he refers dismissively to “Pasteurian scientific dogma,”a construct that is just as big a warning flag for quackery as spelling the word “disease” as “dis-ease.” He also lambastes what he calls “Pasteurian scientific dogma” (which, come to think of it, would make a great name for a geek rock band) challenges “everything in the modern construct of immunology and what is said to be the immune system,” and characterizes viruses as “molecular acids.” I kid you not. He even goes so far as to state explicitly an attitude I’ve found strongly implied in various alt-med ideas, namely the idea that if you get sick it is your own fault. He even uses exactly those very words, “If you get sick, it is your own fault and not the cause of some phantom virus that you can blame to cover your own lifestyle and dietary transgressions.” I couldn’t say it more explicitly than Young did, although, amusingly, while claiming that bacteria aren’t the cause of disease and sepsis, Young then claims that there is no such thing as “good” bacteria, denying any utility to probiotics. It might be said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but there does come a point where inconsistency can topple the mind of one who considers himself to be great enough to have created a whole “new biology.”

But what about cancer? This is what Young claims to be able to treat is most commonly associated with. I think it’s helpful to read this particular manifesto he wrote a few years ago that sums up his view of cancer, What Is The Cause of Cancer? Is There A Cure? Then read my deconstruction from nearly seven years ago. The sheer level of quackery encompassed in Young’s ideas hurts my neurons. To him, cancer is not a mass of cells that have somehow freed themselves from the normal homeostatic controls that keep human cells differentiated, happy, and not growing out of control. To young, cancer is a “poisonous acidic liquid. But he’s not even consistent, because elsewhere he refers to cancer as “cell that has been spoiled or poisoned by metabolic or gastrointestinal acids” and the tumor mass as “body’s protective mechanism to encapsulate spoiled or poisoned cells from excess acid that has not been properly eliminated through urination, perspiration, defecation or respiration” and the “body’s solution to protect healthy cells and tissues.” These concepts, which aren’t even self-consistent in many areas, are so wrong on so many levels that it would take enormous amounts of verbiage to deconstruct them again.

Young is a perfect example of one aspect of quacks that distinguishes them from practitioners of science-based medicine. Science-based medicine recognizes the complexity of disease; it delves into that complexity, trying to make sense out of it and use that knowledge to develop better treatments for disease. Quacks choose to make sense of disease another way, and that way would be insulting to disease, if disease had feelings, in that they often tend to boil all disease down to one cause or a handful of tightly related causes. I’ve often wondered why. It’s more than just the fact that they don’t understand the science behind disease. After all, Young appears to understand acid-base science, but he only understands it at a very superficial level, demonstrating once again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What I end up wondering again and again is whether Young actually believes this nonsense. I suppose that on one level it doesn’t really matter. It continues to harm patients and it needs to be stopped. But will it?

Will Young be convicted? I’d ask a more disturbing question

The story about Young’s arrest, Controversial alternative health provider charged, besides telling us the facts, provides some disturbing information about the state of the law in California that makes me worry about whether this arrest will actually stop Young. First, I can’t resist mentioning how I detest how the news anchor says that his station has “both sides of the story.” On the other hand, I guess right now it’s a legal case more than anything else; so he has to say that. However, based on science alone, as is the case in so much of what we discuss here, there are not two sides of the story. That pet peeve expressed, let’s take a look now:

A man accused of going beyond advocating dietary changes and using intravenous treatments on “patients” he housed at his avocado ranch in Valley Center pleaded not guilty Friday to 18 felony charges, including practicing medicine without a license and grand theft.

Robert Oldham Young, 61, was ordered held on $100,000 bail, and Judge David Szumowski told the defendant to surrender his passport and not have any patients stay at his ranch.

Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas unsuccessfully sought bail of $1 million, arguing that the defendant was a flight risk because he travels extensively and offers health retreats in other countries and has engaged in allegedly dangerous practices with patients.

“Alternative medicine, practiced properly in the state of California is legal,” Darvas said outside court. “But there are certain things that only physicians can do, and that includes practices that puncture the skin or harmfully invade the body, or treatment in conditions or circumstances that are … dangerous. The defendant is charged because he engaged in practices under those conditions. He did things that only a real doctor can do.”

Darvas alleged that Young sold treatment to people to people who were terminally ill, knowing that the treatment wouldn’t be effective.

Here are some key observations that came immediately to mind. First, Robert O. Young appears to be filthy rich from his business endeavors, so much so that he’s considered a flight risk because of his wealth and the numerous facilities around the world where he promotes his program. It’s mentioned elsewhere in the story that one patient paid $120,000 for treatments at his ranch. In the news report, it states that people seeking “treatment” at Young’s ranch pay up to $2,495 a night to stay there, with an image superimposed of a a price list ranging from $1,295 to $2,495 a night. There are top flight hotels in big cities that don’t charge that much for their luxury suites.

According to the Medical Board of California, here’s how the law ultimately caught up with “Dr.” Young:

The Medical Board worked in conjunction with the San Diego District Attorney’s Office after an undercover investigator infiltrated Young’s avocado ranch where he was illegally treating patients. Both the Medical Board’s investigator and an investigator from the San Diego District Attorney’s Office were diagnosed with diseases and offered very pricy treatments. Many of Young’s patients were actually chronically ill and spent sums of up to $50,000 for Young’s treatment.

Young is the author of the “pH Miracle,” a diet designed to “alkalinize the body. However, Young took it a step too far when he went beyond advocating dietary changes and began using intravenous treatments on patients housed at his avocado ranch in Valley Center.

So, basically, the law did an undercover sting operation and caught Young making bogus diagnoses and offering treatments for them. The sad thing to me, however, is the strong implication that if Young had advocated only dietary changes to treat cancer, he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble even though there is no evidence that dietary changes can cure any cancer. That is the state the law regulating medical practice, not just in California, but in many states.

More disturbing to me is the claim that alternative medicine, “practiced properly,” is legal, which ties into the description above. I’m not a lawyer (obviously), but one thing I note is that this appears either to be untrue or a gross exaggeration. For example, one of Young’s fellow alternative cancer cure advocates clearly thinks California law is the equivalent of the jack-booted fascist thugs endangering those poor benighted practitioners of naturopathy, homeopathy, Chinese and other forms of herbalism, ayurveda, reiki, and dozens of other beneficial healing modalities with the potential threat of prosecution. On the other hand, this person’s writings are a bit out of date, as California has permitted the licensure of naturopaths, with the regulation and licensure of naturopaths overseen by its Naturopathic Medicine Committee under the Naturopathic Doctors Act. Particularly depressing is what the Naturopathic Doctors Act permits naturopaths who have graduated from an “accredited” naturopathy school and become licensed in the state of California to do (paraphrased from the actual text of the law for purposes of brevity):

  • Order and perform physical and laboratory examinations for diagnostic purposes, including, but not limited to, phlebotomy, clinical laboratory tests, speculum examinations, orificial examinations, and physiological function tests.
  • Order diagnostic imaging studies, including X-ray, ultrasound, mammogram, bone densitometry, and others, consistent with naturopathic training as determined by the committee, but must refer the studies to an appropriately licensed health care professional to conduct the study and interpret the results.
  • Dispense, administer, order, prescribe, and furnish or perform food, extracts of food, nutraceuticals, vitamins, amino acids, minerals, enzymes, botanicals and their extracts, botanical medicines, homeopathic medicines, all dietary supplements and nonprescription drugs as defined by the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; hot or cold hydrotherapy; naturopathic physical medicine inclusive of the manual use of massage, stretching, resistance, or joint play examination but exclusive of small amplitude movement at or beyond the end range of normal joint motion; electromagnetic energy; colon hydrotherapy; and therapeutic exercise; devices, including, but not limited to, therapeutic devices, barrier contraception, and durable medical equipment; health education and health counseling; repair and care incidental to superficial lacerations and abrasions, except suturing; removal of foreign bodies located in the superficial tissues.
  • Utilize routes of administration that include oral, nasal, auricular, ocular, rectal, vaginal, transdermal, intradermal, subcutaneous, intravenous, and intramuscular.

So the state of California has indeed basically legalized quackery, as long as it is performed by licensed quacks in the form of those with an “ND” (“naturopathic doctor” or, as I consider more appropriate, “not a doctor”) after their names. Particularly frightening is that NDs can order real medical tests, such as mammography, imaging studies, and the like. This puts MDs in a tricky moral situation. The radiologists who do and interpret these tests know that NDs are quacks, but the law tells them that these quacks can order medical tests and are thus entitled to receive the results and use them as part of their care. Indeed, I’ve spoken with a radiologist from California who occasionally gets orders from ND naturopaths for imaging studies like mammography and expressed to me confusion and consternation over having to provide reports to the naturopath.

A lot becomes clear, however, if you know about the Naturopathic Doctors Act, and that clarity is greatly disturbing. Perhaps the most disturbing thing that become clear (to me, at least) is this. As horrific as his “medical” practices are, as big an offense against medical science as they are, the only reason that the state of California can go after Young now is because it can plausibly charge him with practicing medicine without a license. (Indeed, if you search the California database for him it becomes clear that Robert O. Young is not a licensed health practitioner of any kind in the state of California.) I would argue, however, that if Young were, as the “ND” after his name implies, actually a licensed naturopathic physician in the state of California, there would be little or nothing that the state could have done doing exactly what he has been doing for the last 25 years.

Why do I say that? Simple. Nothing in Young’s ideas are any less pseudoscientific than what a lot of naturopaths believe and use as the basis of their treatments, particularly his advocacy of vegan “alkalinizing” diets to treat all manner of disease and his germ theory denialist ideas. As Kimball Atwood has documented extensively, naturopathy is rooted in prescientific vitalism and full of ideas no less pseudoscientific than anything that Young espouses, such as the actions of ubiquitous “toxins,” imbalances of qi, iridology, applied kinesiology, electrodiagnosis, live cell analysis (which Young himself not only practices, but teaches), hair analysis for those ubiquitous “toxins,” tongue diagnosis, and many others. His idea that cancer is due to “acidosis” due to “toxins” fits right in with what naturopaths believe, and what Young does would not be out of place in a typical naturopath’s practice. True, most naturopaths probably wouldn’t be bold enough to treat cancer with an “alkalinizing diet” without letting the patient undergo conventional therapy, but a lot of them do treat diabetes and other diseases (even type I diabetes) that way.

Like anyone who supports science-based medicine and abhors cancer quackery, I fervently hope that Robert O. Young will be convicted and that the state of California will throw the book at him, so that he’s a very, very old man when he’s finally released from prison. Even as I am happy at how Young has finally been prosecuted and am cautiously optimistic that he will be convicted, there remains a disturbing question that I can’t shake from my head: Had Robert O. Young actually obtained a real ND degree from an “accredited” school of naturopathic medicine, like Bastyr, would there have been anything that the state of California could do to stop him? The answer is even more disturbing: Probably not.