Some of Narconon's more unforgiving critics have dubbed Narconon a "scam", a "quack medical fraud" sold by a "criminal cult mafia". This, however, is a misreading of what Narconon really is and why it does what it does.
The key to the question is Narconon's relationship with Scientology. It is no exaggeration to say that Narconon is thoroughly suffused by Scientology, from the top to the bottom of the organisation: every aspect of it is profoundly influenced by Scientology doctrines and beliefs. The Scientologists are fairly explicit in stating that Narconon and its companion "social betterment" programmes are part of a thrust to get L. Ron Hubbard "technology" in use throughout society. This lies at the root of Narconon's activities, as the Narconon and Scientology pages explain in detail.
When Narconon's religious origins are considered, the "scam" argument simply does not hold water. It is certainly true that Narconon is less than open about its links with Scientology, the validity of its practices or its success rates. This, however, does not automatically put it into the snake oil category. There is no indication that Narconon is motivated primarily by money or a cynical desire to knowingly promote a junk therapy. Those who work for Narconon appear to have a sincere belief in its effectiveness, either because they are themselves Narconon graduates and feel that they owe it to society to promote it, or because as Scientologists they have a religious belief in the absolute correctness of L. Ron Hubbard's theories. They are willing to undergo (and will in almost all cases actually have undergone) the same regime which they promote and prescribe to others, sharing the risks that it presents to all comers. Snake oil salesmen do not normally do that.
Narconon's closest parallel in spirit is not P.T. Barnum but Phillip E. Johnson, the Professor at Law at University of California, Berkeley who is generally acknowledged as the founder of the neo-creationist "intelligent design" movement. In the late 1980s, the Christian fundamentalist creationist movement suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that the teaching in public schools of creationism - the doctrine that God created life, rather than it having evolved through natural selection - violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The creationists soon regrouped, however. In 1990, Johnson published a call for a new strategy which he called "the Wedge", promoting a doctrine of "intelligent design". He reasoned that as the Supreme Court had definitively quashed the explicit teaching of divine origins, a better tactic was to call instead for a type of implicit teaching. Life was held to be "irreducibly complex", making it impossible to have evolved without the conscious intervention of an "intelligent designer". This was, in fact, not a new idea, having originated with the English theologian William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology. Paley contended that if one were walking through a wasteland and came upon a stone he might assume that it simply had lain there forever. On the other hand, if one stumbled upon a watch, the complexity and integration of the timepiece's parts would force one to conclude that this object had not come to exist by chance - rather, that it was clearly a designed artifact. Paley proceeded, by analogy, to argue that the design apparent in nature was evidence of a Grand Designer, namely, God. Johnson's innovation 190 years later was to remove the explicit mention of God and to try to wrap "intelligent design" in a cloak of (mostly bad) science, so that it would pass muster amongst those who did not know the detailed science.
Although "intelligent design" is publicly claimed to be non-religious and non-denominational - theoretically it could be taken to support the UFOlogist view that life was engineered by aliens - Johnson and other creationists have privately stated a very different line, namely the Wedge strategy. Consider, for instance, this statement by Johnson:
Approximately ten years ago, I formulated the Wedge strategy with two related goals. The first was to legitimate the topic of intelligent design, and hence the critique of Darwinism and its basis in naturalistic philosophy, within the mainstream intellectual community. The second was to make the critique of naturalism the central focus of discussion in the religious world, replacing the deadlocked debate over the Genesis chronology which had enabled the Darwinists to employ the "Inherit the Wind stereotype" so effectively. The goals are intertwined because the approach which is capable of challenging the dominant philosophy in the secular world will also tend to attract the most interest in the religious world. Likewise, the secular world finds it fairly easy to ignore a view which it can categorize as marginal in the religious world, but very difficult to ignore a view which has widespread and growing public support. I believe that getting the right issues on the table for unprejudiced discussion is the all-important step. Once that is accomplished, it will be impossible to conceal for long that Darwinism is based on naturalistic philosophy rather than on scientific testing, and that unprejudiced evaluation of the scientific evidence points to the existence of intelligent causes in biology.
["Phillip Johnson's Weekly Wedge Update", 16 April 2001]
The Wedge, in other words, is more of a Trojan Horse strategy - an attempt to smuggle a controversial belief into wider debate under a guise of "scientific reasonableness". There are striking parallels to the approach taken by the Church of Scientology through its "social betterment" organisations. Narconon itself has been called "the bridge to The Bridge" (i.e. Scientology); ABLE, its parent organisation, is seen as a "major forward thrust ... on the expansion of Scientology". Significantly, its activities are placed in the context of getting Scientology into broader use in society: "Only the technology of L. Ron Hubbard can help salvage these beings. We have the only technology to handle the ruins of society. The planet cannot be cleared [i.e. every person converted to Scientology] until these barriers at the lower end of The Bridge are fully confronted and handled with the tech." [ABLE International newsletter 24 April 1991]
But if the aim is to spread the use of Scientology "technology", why does the Church of Scientology bother with using supposedly secular organisations to do the job? This is where the idea of the wedge comes in. In the normal course of events, the Church faces a number of serious obstacles to getting its teachings into use in broad society. These include, but are not confined to, legal problems (such as the United States' First Amendment, prohibiting the entanglement of the state and religion); public controversy (it is undeniable that Scientology is controversial); and prior religious commitments (especially where Scientology doctrine is incompatible with the beliefs of mainstream religions). As the diagram below illustrates, the "social betterment" groups help the Church to overcome these obstacles by routing around them.
A reliable direct link between society and Scientology is blocked by the obstacles mentioned above; these have resulted in Scientology (and for that matter, creationism) being relegated to the margins of mainstream culture. (This does not mean that Scientology is unable to recruit, of course, but it does greatly reduce its effectiveness in doing so.) The link is, instead, provided in an indirect form through the "social betterment" groups which present Scientology doctrines in a form which will not run up against the various obstacles. In a very similar way, creationists promote their religious doctrines through the ostensibly non-religious doctrine of "intelligent design". In so doing, they hope to gradually drive a wedge into secular society, creating a climate in which they can more fruitfully promote their doctrines openly. It is, in effect, a process of habituation.
In Scientology this is known as a gradient, "a gradual approach to something, taken step by step, level by level, each step or level being, of itself, easily surmountable - so that, finally, complicated and difficult activities can be achieved with relative ease." [The Scientology Handbook - <http://www.scientologyhandbook.org/sh1_3.htm>] The concept of the gradient is a key feature of Hubbard's "study technology"; tackling a subject too abruptly, producing "too steep a gradient", is held to be a critical barrier to learning. The solution is to "cut back the gradient" by tacking the subject in smaller steps. By analogy, there is a steep gradient between Scientology and society. The "social betterment" programmes, as a diluted form of Scientology, can be used as a way to cut back the gradient and raise the "acceptance level" of society, introducing Scientology doctrines to a wider audience without frightening the horses. A critical point is that even the truth should be approached on a gradient, according to Hubbard:
Handling truth is a touchy business also. You don't have to tell everything you know - that would jam the comm[unication] line too. Tell an acceptable truth.
Agreement with one's message is what [Public Relations] is seeking to achieve. Thus the message must compare to the personal experience of the audience.
So PR becomes the technique of communicating an acceptable truth - and which will attain the desirable result.
If there's no chance of obtaining a desirable result and the truth would injure then talk about something else.
[Hubbard, HCO Policy Letter of 13 August 1970, "The Missing Ingredient"]
In other words, if the truth is unpalatable, tell an abbreviated version of it or change the subject. Doing this is not regarded by Scientologists as being dishonest. Far from it, in fact; telling only the "acceptable truth" is regarded by Scientology as an entirely ethical tactic. This goes a fair way towards explaining why Narconon's openness is occasionally less than perfect.
Narconon's approach is clearly not that of a scam. Its staff and supporters clearly believe in Narconon, to the point of willingly subjecting themselves to its therapy. Its pseudoscientific nature is the product of blind belief, not deceit. (L. Ron Hubbard's own motives may have been a different matter.) Narconon's behaviour does not in itself make it a scam: its motives are sincere, but are esentially those of a fundamentalist religious group seeking to promote its doctrines under a cloak of secularism.