A quack goes to prison, but it's not enough

If there's one thing that's frustrating about the U.S. justice system, it's just how slow the wheels of justice grind. For example, it's hard to believe that it was over two years ago that "pH Miracle" quack Robert O. Young was arrested for fraud, grand theft, and practicing medicine without a license, producing one of my favorite images ever on this blog, that of Young in a blue prison jump suit. The only way it could have been better would have been if it had been an orange jumpsuit, but unfortunately a contact in San Diego tells me that San Diego County doesn't use orange jumpsuits for its prisoners. Oh, well. You take what you can get. Fortunately, finally there is a result. It's a mixed result, but Young was actually convicted of some, but not all, of the charges against him.

That being said, it seemed as though Young would never face trial. Six months later, there was no sign of much happening. Finally—finally!—the trial got underway in November. Unfortunately, it lasted two months, with closing arguments made on January 19, after which the case went to the jury, where it stayed. Meanwhile, the local press wrote stories full of false balance like ‘Wizard of pHraud’ or victim of a witch hunt?, which were amusing more for their descriptions of the arguments of Young's defense attorney Paul Pfingst than anything else:

Young’s defense attorney, Paul Pfingst, has painted the case as more of a witch hunt and said Young is being prosecuted simply because he espouses alternative views to traditional medicine. He noted that the case started with an investigation by the state Medical Board.

“A theory is not wrong. A theory is a theory — and we live in a country where people cannot be penalized for theories,” he told the jury during his closing argument Wednesday.

He sounds like a creationist, doesn't he? Whether he's conflating the colloquial definition of "theory," which can include anything from a well-supported idea explaining an event to any old half-assed guess, with the scientific definition of theory, which describes a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world based on data obtained using the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation, I don't know. It depends on whether you want to consider him a liar or simply clueless about science.

Consider this howler:

Pfingst accused the prosecution of having a “patronizing attitude” against his client and his patients because they opted to try something outside of traditional medicine.

“They just don’t like his science,” Pfingst said of the authorities. “They are wrong. He is a scientist.”

I couldn't stop laughing when I read that line. Unfortunately, it was effective, because for a while it looked as though there would be a hung jury, as a week after the case was handed to the jury jurors told the judge that they were deadlocked. At that point, I was very concerned that Young, like Stanislaw Burzynski and so many other quacks before him, might slither away from justice. Fortunately, as you will see, he did not, at least not completely.

Before I discuss what charges did and did not stick to our pH miracle a little background is in order for newbies (or at least those who aren't long time readers). For those of you who don't remember who Dr. Robert O. Young is (and you really should, given that I've been writing about his pH quackery ever since 2007, when I first featured him in an old feature known as Your Friday Dose of Woo.

Since then, I've discussed the extreme quackery of 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).

Although I had heard of Young before and written about him more in an amusing than outraged manner, I really first became aware enough of Young for my bemused mockery to turn to outrage because of 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. Ultimately, Tinkham paid the ultimate price for her trust in Young.

If you really want to get an idea of just how big a quack Young is, though, I suggest that you read an article 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 beggars belief. 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 are so wrong on so many levels that it would take enormous amounts of verbiage to deconstruct them again.

I could go on, but I won't. Well, not quite. I can't help but also mention how, 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 several years ago. Then read his post 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" 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. I could go on, but I'll restrain myself for now.

I hope you get the idea.

So back to the deadlock. After informing the judge that they were deadlocked, the jury was instructed by the judge to keep at it. So keep at it they did, and last week they came to a split verdict:

The author of the popular “pH Miracle” book series was convicted Wednesday on two counts of practicing medicine without a license, but acquitted on a third count, in a case that his attorney said was as an attack on alternative care.

Robert Young was led away in handcuffs after the verdicts were read and faces a maximum of three years and eight months in prison. Jurors deadlocked on six remaining charges, including two counts of grand theft.

He was taken into custody at the order of Judge Richard Whitney, who said the defendant presented "a significant public safety issue and a significant flight risk."

The 63-year-old Young wiped his eyes during the hearing.

"For me personally, it's hard," he said during a break in the proceedings after the verdicts were read. "This has been my life. People who know me, know my heart."


Unfortunately, the verdict was not as resounding as I had hoped:

On the deadlocked counts, the jury split 11-1 in favor of conviction on most that were related to practicing medicine without a license, and 8-4 in favor of convicting him of theft by fraud.

Three jurors who declined to give their names likened Young's science to selling snake oil, and one indicated the deadlock was frustrating. "It wasn't a satisfying conclusion," Juror No. 10 said.

No, it wasn't. On the other hand, given how quack-friendly California law is, getting a conviction on any charge for someone like Young is a victory.

Even better, all is not lost. I have heard from a fan with knowledge of the case that the DA plans on retrying Young in the future on the remaining counts because prosecutors are very eager to get a conviction on the grand theft by fraud counts and are concerned that he'll wear the convictions of practicing medicine without a license as a badge of honor and spin it as him going to jail for his beliefs, rather than capitulating to the "medical-industrial" complex.

Given what an obvious quack Young is, I can only hope that the San Diego prosecutors follow through. Personally, I want to see Robert O. Young in prison for a long, long time.

Even better: Robert O. Young in a prison jumpsuit! Even better: Robert O. Young in a prison jumpsuit!

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I'm VERY pleased to hear that the DA wants to go forward with the other charges. The thing about skepticism is that every so often you discover that some monsters are real.

By Bob Blaskiewicz (not verified) on 09 Feb 2016 #permalink

This is great news!
If only more quacks were in the same position as he is for pretending to be doctors.
How long would the jail term be for the conviction as it is
( without additional future charges)?

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 Feb 2016 #permalink

Excellent! One down, a bunch more to go, and I like that prosecutor's approach: eager to convict on the fraud count to deny Young the opportunity to claim persecution for his views.

That said, I wonder about this:

Was there any evidence that he was knowingly deceiving his clients, such as a recording of him licking his chops and gloating over all the suckers he's ripped off?

Reason is, "hypothesis (b)" is that he's another True Believer who thoroughly believes his own BS, and thoroughly believes that he was trying to do some good for people.

And the reason that's interesting is: If someone is a True Believer, does that have even the slightest bearing on a charge of theft by fraud?

I'm inclined to believe that a finding of guilt for fraud requires a criminal state of mind, in other words, that the defendant knew he was fleecing the sheep. In that case, the prosecutors are working with a "novel legal theory," in hopes of expanding the definition of fraud, such that a criminal state of mind includes willful ignorance of things that an ordinarily-well-informed person should be aware of. Things such as medical science if one seeks to practice medicine.

If this is correct, then the prosecutors are on a trail that will lead to wide-open doors for prosecution of more of these fraudulent b******s.

Here's to the day we see Mikey Adams the Health Stranger in an orange jumpsuit. But a blue jumpsuit will be acceptable too.

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 09 Feb 2016 #permalink

Add Ty Bollinger and Chris Wark to the list.

Proving fraud in a criminal case is difficult, and yes, it requires proving a criminal state of mind. The elements of proof vary by state, but in general the prosecutor needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt each essential element of the crime: 1) the defendant made a false representation of a material matter, 2) defendant knew that the representation was false, 3) defendant intended to mislead the victim, 4) the victim reasonably relied on the misrepresentation, and 5) the victim suffered some damage or loss.

Many states have crimes similar to fraud with different elements and slightly different elements of proof (theft by deception, e.g.). But they are all hard cases to convict on because they typically require proof of specific criminal intent. The "true believer" defense could work, depending on the jury instructions and the facts of the case.

The 8-4 split after so much deliberation on the fraud charges does not bode well for the DA on retrial. But given what the state wants out of this case, and with a conviction already in hand, the DA has little to lose.

So, when is his guest spot on Real Time?

By Roadstergal (not verified) on 09 Feb 2016 #permalink

I can't resist:
"Orange Is the New Quack"

By Old Rockin' Dave (not verified) on 09 Feb 2016 #permalink

Re. Roleur @ 5: Elements of fraud:

(1) is a slam-dunk. (4) and (5) seem pretty straightforward. Connecting the dots for (2) and (3) gets interesting.

(2) If Young was a True Believer, then the prosecutors have to equate "should have known" to "did know." The devils will be in the details on that one.

(3) "Intent to mislead" depends on (2).

If I was doing this, I'd use the "practicing medicine without a license" conviction as the basis for "knew that his representation was false," and "intent to mislead." At the start of the original trial, all charges had yet to be proved, so the jury's initial uncertainty about the entire set of charges would have colored their perceptions of the more difficult charge, which is the fraud charge. And, some members of the jury may have been inclined to conclude that they had done their duty by convicting on the "practicing medicine without a license" charge without need of adding a further conviction for the more difficult fraud charge.

However, with a new jury hearing that Young has been convicted of practicing medicine without a license, that item now has no uncertainty going into deliberations. I'm inclined to think that this will reduce the uncertainty about the key elements of the fraud charge and help get a conviction.

So on balance, I think the prosecutor is going to get a conviction on the fraud charge.


Re. Old Rockin Dave @ 7:

That works the other way too:

"Quack is the New Orange."

Now if only it was as easy to go after the fraudsters who destroyed the financial system from inside, back in the 00s. In that case we'd have "Orange with Red Suspenders."

By Gray Squirrel (not verified) on 09 Feb 2016 #permalink

This is great news, but I was really hoping it would be Burzynski.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 11 Feb 2016 #permalink

Thank you for sharing this. The charade treatment of Type I Diabetes, and multiple types of cancer is, thankfully, illegal.
The unlicensed aspect did not carry much weight from my perspective, but some state medical boards apparently do protect the public. Unfortunately, some state medical boards are les knowledgeable when it comes to providing proper patient care[1]. In conclusion, thank you for sharing that this quack was finally brought to justice.

Kind regards,

[1]. Snodgrass, Brett (2016). "Novel insight into the quality of assessment of physicians". Health Care: Current Reviews 04 (01). http://www.esciencecentral.org/journals/novel-insight-into-the-quality-…. Accessed February 15, 2016.

Comments and suggestions are welcome on the website. I can also be reached on Twitter @brettsnodgrass.

By Brett Snodgrass (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink

When my daughter was battling cancer I took her to Dr Young. He was so kind to us, he invited her to the ranch for daily exercise, sauna, delicious breakfast and lunch, special massage to estimate the lymp system, sauna and colonics... we could not afford it so I launched a fundraiser. He found out and told us... "Don't worry... there is no charge... we just want her to heal". She went everyday for two months and we were NEVER EVER charged one penny. She's now healed and just started college. I know what I saw. I know from MY OWN experience who Dr Young is... an amazing healer with a heart of gold.