The “Hubbard protocol” is Scientology’s religion-based, pseudoscientific “detoxification” treatment used in its Narconon program to treat drug addiction. It was dreamed up by a science fiction writer with no medical training. Now it is being studied as a treatment for veterans suffering from Gulf War illness. Our limited public money for research is being wasted on a study with no scientific merit. Whether or not you consider this a church/state conflict, the study is clearly ill-advised.
The study: $600K worth of sweat
A description of the study is available online in the government’s clinical trials registry. The DOD funded this study to the tune of $633,677. The subjects are veterans with Gulf War illness characterized by persistent memory and concentration problems, headaches, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain. The illness has not been well defined, and its cause has not been determined; but the researchers are working on the assumption that toxins are the cause and that the treatment will relieve symptoms by removing toxins from the body.
The control group will get only “usual care.” The experimental group will get:
A four to six week regimen consisting of daily, supervised, mild-moderate exercise as tolerated for 20 minutes, supervised, intermittent Finnish saunas (at about 140’F) sauna time with breaks and showers, gradually increased as tolerated to approximately 4 hours, dietary supplements including immediate release niacin in gradually increasing doses from 100 mg to a maximum of 5000 mg per day, salt and water, other vitamins, minerals and oils per Hubbard protocol.
Subjects are randomized to the treatment or control group but are not a random sample of veterans with Gulf War illness. They are a “convenience sample” of veterans who reside in the local area and “show interest in the study,” whatever that means.
The outcomes they measure are quality of life, symptoms as reported on questionnaires, performance on neurocognitive tests, and physical health as measured by standard medical examination and blood tests (metabolic panel, lipid profile, hormones).
Toxins? What toxins?
They describe the intervention they are testing as a detoxification program, but they have no way of knowing whether toxins are responsible for the patients’ symptoms, they don’t identify the toxins, and they don’t demonstrate that any toxins have actually been removed.
One of the participants said, “I was going to be done today, but…I had some more junk come out of my legs. Some black stuff. So I’m going to do one more day and see if I can clean it all out.” The program director, Dr. Crystal Grant, shows off towels with various colored stains (pink, blue, brown, purple, orange, light yellow) that she calls evidence that the program rids the body of nasty toxins. It is no such thing! It is reminiscent of the bogus claims for those detoxification foot baths. It is evidence that something colored the towels, not evidence that the program removes toxins.
One of the participants said by the end of the study she was taking two large canning jars of vitamins a day (!) along with a few spoonfuls of peanut oil.
Scientology’s “Purification Rundown”
The Hubbard protocol is also known as the “Purification Rundown,” and is based on the belief that toxins affect both the body and the soul, and that they can be eliminated from the body by exercise, saunas, and supplements. L. Ron Hubbard believed the regimen would take humans to a higher plane of existence, improve their IQ, and allow them to survive nuclear fallout in World War III.
Scientology’s Narconon program uses this regimen to treat drug addiction. Numerous deaths have been attributed to it, and Scientology has been responsible for deaths from its other programs. Its most famous victim is probably Lisa McPherson, who died during an “introspection rundown” treatment for her mental illness. The Wikipedia article provides a handy summary with links to original sources.
The lead investigator, David Carpenter, is a professor of environmental health at the University of Albany who has been embroiled in controversy because of his research on the questionable diagnosis of electromagnetic sensitivity. He was approached by Scientologists and asked to do this study. A Scientology group is providing the therapy; it charges $2,000 per participant, a discount from the usual rate of $3,000. The vitamins they dispense are labeled with a picture of Scientology leader David Miscavage’s personal chiropractor, who has now gone into the supplement business.
The lead investigator, David Carpenter, was unaware of her conflict of interest until he read about it in The Daily Beast.
Scientology is behind organizations that purport to give impartial advice about drug rehabilitation programs but that actually use detailed scripts to inveigle prospective customers into paying exorbitant amounts for Narconon treatment and subject them to Scientology influence.
Sure, the treatment seems to work
Patients report feeling better, but that could be from a combination of exercise, enjoyment of saunas, and suggestion. They are subjected to an elaborate, time-consuming regimen and have to work at it. The Hawthorne effect of just being in a study may come into play. There is a natural resistance to thinking one’s time and effort have been wasted. It is only natural that participants will believe it has helped them. They are suffering. They want it to work. They expect it to work. They need it to work. A “usual care” group is not a valid control group; it does not control for confounding factors.
When used as a treatment for hyperlipidemia, niacin causes a number of side effects in 92% of patients. It must be started slowly to minimize problems like “niacin flush,” an uncomfortable warmness and redness of the skin. Study participants may interpret these side effects of niacin as a sign that the detoxification is working. It’s not just a matter of innocuous flushing. High dose niacin in the amounts used in the Hubbard protocol can sometimes cause liver failure and death.
Proponents have claimed that niacin releases fat stores into the blood stream to remove toxins stored in fat. In reality, niacin is used clinically to treat hyperlipidemia by decreasing blood lipid levels.
Public funds have been used for this before
Utah has used public funds to “detoxify” cops with the Scientology protocol after they raided meth labs. Public funds have also been spent on “detoxifying” 9/11 workers with the Scientology protocol. This effort has been severely criticized by scientists.
The sins of Scientology
I have written previously about Scientology’s war on medicine. They discourage medical treatment, although medicinal doses of vitamins are part of the Hubbard protocol. Scientology is a religious cult invented by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer. There is a Deadly Devotions episode that provides insight into how people become attracted to Scientology’s promises of a better life and how they are gradually indoctrinated into bizarre beliefs, persuaded to spend their money on a series of self-improvement courses, and let the church take over their life. It tells the true story of Elli Perkins, a woman who reached a high place in the church hierarchy, refused medical treatment for her paranoid schizophrenic son, was misled by a doctor who was a fellow Scientologist who told her son only had a yeast infection and needed treatment with vitamins and isolation. The story ends in tragedy and then attempted cover-up to protect Scientology’s reputation.
Conclusion: A predictable propaganda win for Scientology
In my opinion, this study is ill-advised from a scientific standpoint. It will do nothing to elucidate the cause of Gulf War symptoms or to credibly test the effectiveness of the Hubbard protocol. We can predict that more subjects will report improvement with the treatment than with usual care. That will not be strong enough evidence of its effectiveness to convince scientists; but it will be enough to bolster Scientology propaganda, to provide pseudoscientific support for their lucrative drug rehab business, and to help entrap suffering people in a dangerous cult.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) has issued a strongly worded protest against spending public money on a pseudoscientific/religious practice and using our veterans as guinea pigs in a treatment that does nothing to address their plight. They went so far as to call this study obscene. They wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense urging him to immediately halt the study and open an investigation into how it came about. I would love to see him do just that, but I am not optimistic.
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.