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Jett Travolta, Scientology, and Jumping to Conclusions

by Brian Dunning, Jan 08 2009

On January 2, as nearly everyone knows, the worst thing that can happen to someone happened to John Travolta and Kelly Preston: They outlived their child.

This has happened to my parents, so I took particular notice of this story, as I do with all such tragedies in the news. They hit a little too close to home.

But this one was different, not because some segment of the population took a sort of morbid pleasure in the news, because that happens all the time with celebrity tragedies; but because a lot of my own friends were doing it. People who I thought were above that sort of thing. My Facebook page and my email inbox have been bulging with messages that could be compared to a victory dance. They took some form of “See? This is where Scientology gets you!”

Now, as of this writing, we don’t have all the facts. Probably by the time you read this, more facts will be available, but what ultimately turns out to be the cause of Jett Travolta’s too-early death is not my point. My point is that without any knowledge of the facts, so many people have been quick to blame John Travolta and Kelly Preston for withholding life-saving medical treatment from Jett because of their Scientology beliefs.

That is an outrageous and obscene charge to make against parents. We don’t know them personally. We don’t know anything about them. We have no reason to think they might do such a thing. We’ve heard in the tabloids that they’re Scientologists, and that’s not enough information to charge someone with killing their son.

Here is from Scientology’s own FAQ about medical care:

Do Scientologists use medical doctors?
Of course. The Church of Scientology has always had the firm policy of not treating the sick. Medical doctors are trained to deal with the physical aspects of illness and injury. A Scientologist with a physical condition is always advised to seek and obtain needed examination and treatment by a qualified medical professional. Once under medical treatment, a Scientologist then addresses his illness or injury with auditing to handle any spiritual trauma or other factors connected with the physical condition which may have predisposed him to illness or injury. There are also many medical doctors who are Scientologists themselves.

What is the Scientology view on drugs?
Scientologists use medical drugs when physically ill and also rely on the advice and treatment of medical doctors. Scientologists do not take street drugs or mind-altering psychiatric drugs of any kind. Scientologists believe that psychotropic or street drugs damage a person physically, mentally and spiritually. They decrease awareness and hinder abilities. They are a “solution” to some other problem and themselves become a problem.

Not even in Scientology’s own doctrine is there any fathomable reason to withhold medical care, except in the case of psychological illness, which isn’t the case with Jett (so far as we know at this point). I’m sure at some point all the facts will be in, but I have no idea whether anyone’s obligated to make them public. And perhaps it will turn out that Jett did die as the result of withholding drugs frowned upon by Scientology (though that seems unlikely from the information we have now, which is that Jett’s condition was medical, not psychological).

This is not a defense of Scientology, it’s a criticism of bad skepticism. I’m the first to stand up and blame Scientologists and Scientology for any harmful acts they are responsible for, but I won’t blame them for things they don’t do just because I don’t like them. Yes, everyone’s read horror stories of things happening inside Scientology compounds, but there’s no justification for people who don’t know the Travoltas to presume to say that such things have happened in the Travolta home. Critical thinking means never jumping to conclusions.

Having no reason at this point to do otherwise, let us offer the Travolta family our condolences, and let us offer them the basic human respect of not doing a victory dance on Jett’s grave.

43 Responses to “Jett Travolta, Scientology, and Jumping to Conclusions”

  1. Rogue Medic says:

    One blog has this post about the attitude of Scientology toward seizures. More on Jett Travolta: an audio recording of L. Ron Hubbard talking about epilepsy

    Since the death has been labeled as natural, it does not appear that we will be hearing anything more about the autopsy. In cases of natural death, there is no obligation to release information.

    My criticism is that he had a treatable illness. At the time of his death, he was not being treated. According to what was released about the autopsy, the treatable illness was the cause of death.

    If Depakote is not working, there are other drugs that may be effective in treating the seizures.

    If the child were a Jehovah’s Witness, and his parents withheld blood, death due to a bleeding disorder would be natural, but preventable. The same is true when the reason for withholding treatment is not religious.

    Why was he not receiving treatment? Was this bad advice from the doctor? Was it pressure form Scientology? Was it wishful thinking? Was it something else? We do not know, but these questions should be asked.

    This is a tragedy. I have not experienced the death of a child, and I hope I never do. That does not mean that questions should not be asked about the death of a child, someone who does not legally have the right to make decisions about his own medical care.

    Seizures are treatable. He was not being treated. The treatments are not always effective, but may have prevented his death.

  2. Gib says:

    If the public home page of Scientology was all we had to go on, that would be fine. But we have the testimony of many people over the years who have left Scientology who inform us that the public face is quite different to being inside Scientology.

    We have more information about Scientology’s beliefs about drugs than just what’s on their FAQ.

    Although I agree that even with the extra information, it’s still a jump to conclude that the Travoltas contributed greatly to the death of their son at this point. Even though I think it’s likely, it’s by no means assured.

  3. Ranson says:

    I highly agree, Brian. As much as we want to point and laugh at the nuttier aspects of Scientology, as well as its legitimate dangers, this does not yet solidly land among those cases. Aside from a few anecdotes and the press release, we don’t know exactly what health issues Jett had, and I was disappointed to see some of the most famous skeptics juping on the “AHA!” bandwagon. Sure, there’s a lot of goofy stuff going on in Scientology, but we have no real evidence of it here. It would serve skepticism better to say, simply, “we have little proof wither way”.

    Wild speculation based on minimal evidence is supposed to be the hallmark of the other side, not ours.

  4. Ranson says:

    “Either”, not “wither”.


  5. Cambias says:

    Well said, Mr. Dunning.

  6. Lunar Mark says:

    I completely agree that ‘critical thinking means never jumping to conclusions’. Thank you, Brian, for saying this ‘out loud.’ It’s a terrible situation that we would make worse by false accusations.

  7. Wintermute says:

    I have to admit that when I first heard the news that I wondered if Scientology was a contributing factor. But I decided not to jump to that conclusion, even before you posted this.

  8. teacherninja says:

    Yes, thank you for that post.

  9. Brian, nicely written, and I agree completely. It’s sad when alleged “skeptics” and “critical thinkers” so quickly jump to cognitive bias-induced conclusions.

  10. BillDarryl says:

    There was similar anti-Scientology conclusion-jumping after Isaac Hayes passed, as well. A friend of Hayes posted this article:,2933,401321,00.html

    I read this article, and although horrible if true, I thought it was actually unfair to Scientology to make such implications about their role in Hayes’ death without corroborating evidence. The best he offers are anecdotes and stipulations, and even he admits that reports from his friends were “conflicting.” And of course, Isaac is no longer with us to defend himself (a problem I have with any “tell all” articles or books about someone who is deceased).

    I think Scientology is dangerous and evil and should continue to be investigated and prosecuted where appropriate. But Brian is right – we should be skeptical about claims we want to be true just as vigilantly as we are about claims we believe are false.

  11. Will Lewis says:

    Not a fan of Scientology, but your friends who you thought were above that appear to be confusing Scientology with Christian Science. So, it has nothing to do with being a bad skeptic or jumping to conclusions, and everything to do with ignorance of the subject in which they’re discoursing.

  12. Scott C. says:

    This incident also gave me pause to examine my own views and those of my community, skeptics and otherwise. Almost in spite of myself, I found myself taking smug satisfaction in this terribly sad event. “I guess scientology can’t fix everything,” I heard myself say. I was just waiting for the ugly truth to surface that this was their fault, thereby justifying my callousness.

    This information may or may not come. I don’t know. What I do know is that this should be a personal matter to be dealt with by the Travolta family and their medical providers. If there was any malfeasance, let’s assume the truth will out.

    The real take-away from this situation, to my mind, is that on that sad day, many, many children died from clear cases of abuse and neglect. Why is the death of a celebrity’s child, regardless of circumstance, more news-worthy than any of them?

  13. Scott Little says:

    Brian, Point well taken. I agree that we shouldn’t judge the Travolta’s in the public court. Losing a child is the worst possible thing for a parent, and I am sure they loved their child. Leave them alone I say, unless some unforeseen fact comes forward that my point to a cause other that what has been reported. It’s a private matter.

  14. mn_monkey says:

    I think woo woo like Scientology will fail under its own weight. We don’t need to heap op speculation in hopes of bringing it down sooner. Two people have lost their child, I can think of no greater personal tragedy.

  15. mn_monkey says:

    heap on … not heap op

  16. Larry C. says:

    Brian, as much as I agree with you about not jumping to conclusions (and have cautioned others about the same), I’m uncomfortable with you having quoted the Scientology FAQ to bolster the point. Even the quoted answers make clear they apply only to “physical” illness. The problem comes in where you draw that line of demarcation — if indeed there should be one as well (your colleague Steven Novella has often said that any organ in the body causes problems when it hyperfunctions or hypofunctions, and why should the brain be any different?).

    So while a cursory read of those answers might lead the reader to believe that they agree medical issues should be treated medically, a more skeptical interpretation is that this doesn’t apply to anything involving the brain. They clearly interpret depression differently than medical science. What about Travolta’s condition? We don’t know, and those quotes from the Scientology websie don’t help us.

    But again, that means we should be skeptical, not that we should jump to any conclusions.

    • Ann says:

      A cursory read of the FAQ won’t tell you that they’ve been known to abscond with a doctor or two if the occasion requires it.

      It, of course, doesn’t mention that they believe MOST illness is psychosomatic and thus – requires auditing and not medical treatment. Such is the case with epilepsy and other similar diseases of the physical brain.

      Although they “teach” that you are not your body – they seem to think that you have a greater power over your body than is actually possible.

      I heard some inkling of the Travolta’s having put Jett through a miniature purification rundown – a process whereby the individual is given auditing, tons of vitamins, lots of oil to drink (yuch) and then put in a sauna for long periods of time to “sweat it out.” In fact it is believed by Scientology that this can flush your system of recreational drugs embedded in your fat tissues.

      Of course, medical science tells us that to subject a child (this was when Jett was quite young and had received his illness diagnosis) to the extreme heat of a sauna or spa is dangerous. No matter, in the name of “freedom” Scientology does all kinds of things that you’ll never find in their FAQs.

      So if the goal was to free Jett of his illness – they succeeded.

  17. John Powell says:

    My wish is that this tragedy will move the Travoltas to more rationality rather than less.

  18. Lesley says:

    I am sure that John Travolta did everything in his power to help Jett. The best doctors and medication, care and love, but epileptic conditions are tricky and ten thousands die from it every year. The mortality rate for epileptics can be decreased by anti-seizure drugs but, as this prominent example shows, never be zeroed out. Throwing Scientology teachings in this mix does only blur an obvious fact: also Scientologists die.

  19. MadScientist says:

    I agree with Brian – there simply isn’t enough evidence in public to blame the parents for anything. Being scientologists may simply be incidental. People who take anti-epileptic drugs and such still have seizures and these simply aren’t predictable (after all, who wants to fall down and have a fit in front of strangers).

  20. Joe Chip says:

    Brian, Scientology also thinks that Aspirin is a mind-altering drug, which by the way *is* a drug that is administered as a treatment for the “Kawasaki disease” (wp), which probably isn’t even the disease that Jett had.

    I will not offer condolences any until I know that the Travolta parents did everything possible to save their child and did not let their weird beliefs interfere. I don’t think that people who make accusations are doing victory dances. They just see a pattern of paranoid cranks who make up their medicine and let their children suffer.

    Only an autopsy can answer these questions.

  21. Max says:

    All right, let’s look at the facts. We have this report:
    “The only cause of death that was listed was ‘seizure'”
    “Travolta, 54, and Preston, 46, have said Jett became very sick when he was 2 years old and was diagnosed with Kawasaki Syndrome, an illness that leads to inflamed blood vessels. Preston has blamed household cleaners and fertilizers and said a detoxification program based on teachings from the Church of Scientology helped improve his health, according to People magazine.”

    We have absurd claims from Scientologist literature, not just their website.
    “Clears do not get colds.”
    “A girl crippled by polio was able to throw away her crutches after my first session.”
    “ONLY processing by Dianetics and Scientology can handle the effects of drugs fully.”

    And seizures are treated with mind-altering psychiatric drugs like benzodiazepines, which include Valium and midazolam (Versed).

  22. SeanJJordan says:


    Reading between the lines a bit, the more interesting point here is the tendency of your friends to rubberneck so they can gloat that their belief system is superior to someone else’s. That’s completely the wrong reaction to have, and frankly, I share your disappointment. It’s just as bad as the Christian fundamentalists saying that AIDS is God’s punishment for a sinful lifestyle. This is the life of a human being we’re talking about here, not some victory for atheism, science, psychology and/or skepticism.

    Some of the comments in this thread are also disappointing. Shame on some of you for letting your personal views against Scientology strip you of your sympathy for others. Be outraged against made-up religions all you like, but when tragedy strikes, don’t use it as a means to advance your talking points. That’s really sick and sad.

  23. Max says:

    In that case, they better shut down
    And especially

  24. Max says:

    Jocelyne Dorfmann
    Age: 34
    Grangey-sur-Ource, Dijon, France
    Died (untreated epilepsy)

    At a Narconon center (run by Scientology), Jocelyne was taken off the medication that controlled her epilepsy. When she had seizures, they assumed it was withdrawal symptoms. After she died, the center was closed and charges filed.

  25. Amanda M says:

    I didn’t feel smug or get any pleasure out of Jett Travolta’s death. What happened is tragic, regardless of the circumstances. Any parent or compassionate person should feel some sympathy in regards to his death. But I think it is fair to be a bit skeptical about the circumstances, even if we will never know the truth about his previous medical conditions or the events of his death. Considering the secrecy by which they operate and harm that they have done in the past by encouraging or outright denying their members proper medical treatment it is not out of line in my opinion, for skeptics to speculate. I think it’s important to separate those who are just after the truth and appalled by the notion that his death may have been preventable in this case, from the sort of skeptics whos attitude often gives the rest of us a poor reputation.

    We will probably never know the real medical details about Jett Travolta’s condition or his death. It is always tragic when young people die, but even more so when there is the possibility that death could have been prevented but for the good intentions of that child’s caretakers.

  26. Born Scientologist turned skeptic says:

    Here’s a quote from Scientology’s own website:

    The mind is not the brain. The brain is part of the body and does not determine intelligence. It can be likened to a switchboard. If one said that a telephone switchboard was the intelligence of the corporation it served, this would be like saying the brain was the intelligence of the person. It is just not true. The brain is simply a conduit that, like a telephone wire, carries messages. –

    When a doctor sees a problem and thinks it is located in the brain, a Scientologist believes that the problem and cure is in the mind. They absolutely have a negative knee-jerk reaction for any medication that deals with the brain and it prevents them from making rational decisions about getting or staying healthy.

  27. Julian says:

    “Some of the comments in this thread are also disappointing. Shame on some of you for letting your personal views against Scientology strip you of your sympathy for others.”

    Sucks what happened but asking someone who knew nothing of the family, the kid, or even knew he existed (like in my case) is demanding a little much. I hope the family well but that’s all I can do.

    Guess I must be a heartless evil person.

  28. John says:

    Of course we should all avoid irrational band-wagon jumping. Also, everything said about sympathy for the bereaved parents is correct. However, our desire to be rational and sensitive should not get in the way of finding out more information in what I consider to be a suspicious case. Scientology dogma does recommend against the use of drugs in many cases, some involving epileptic seizures. This information is from former Scientologists, and it is also referred to in the recording from L Ron Hubbard referenced in a previous post. It is also reported that Jett had been taken off of his seizure medication. I would also like to know how Jett’s early Kawasaki disease was treated (or not treated). Failure to treat this curable disease can result in later health problems. No one should be celebrating a tragic death. At the same time, we should not put on blinders and refuse to follow up on this.

  29. hypertrout says:

    -kid falls and hits the bathroom sink. dead. wet floor.

    -child falls from back of bike when bike-seat comes loose. dead. loose restraining bolt.

    -family asphyxiated from carbon dioxide poisoning. dead. empty battery in detector.

    seriously? people die everyday. completely preventable deaths. did you turn off the iron? did you go back to check? Believe me, scientologists are pretty high on my list of people who make me appreciate my faith and belief in my own common sense. But who gives a fudge about how this kid died? Really? He died. He’s dead. Were there really suspicious circumstances?

    Why haven’t you changed the battery in your smoke detector? You know it needs to be done….? Hmmm that’s a little suspicious to me.

    All over the world people allow other people to die.

    Sure the letters and words might be saying something different, but the sentence structure sure seems a lot like “conspiracy theorists” to me.

    If people want to now “the Truth” then why is it so focused on the Travoltas and Scientologist? What about every other preventable death?

    It certainly seems strange to have such an interest in the truth and facts of the social dealings of a group of people who are more than likely only know as someone through tabloid and hearsay.

    Did you really leave your potentially “deadly to a child” medication where your kid could get to it?
    (it looks a little like candy, wouldn’t you say?)

    Why wasn’t she wearing a helmet?

    You turned your back for how long?

    you can’t swim? what if he falls in?

    people die.

    Let’s be clear, scientologist suck.

    As do anti-vaccinators and pretty much every other nut-job and woo group.

    But come on… seriously?

  30. Max says:

    This being a skeptic blog, it deals with the harm caused by quackery, superstition, and dogma. If a family is asphyxiated from carbon monoxide poisoning because their religion bans carbon monoxide detectors, that’s fair game.

  31. Rogue Medic says:


    The death of a child of famous people will always attract attention. When that death appears to have been due to a treatable illness and the child apparently was not being treated, questions are raised.

    This is appropriate.

    Scientology is not a reason to avoid asking questions.

    Did Scientology have anything to do with the death of Jett Travolta? I don’t know, but Scientology’s approach of not treating neurological conditions with real medicine needs to be examined.

  32. Mastriani says:

    I have no criticism for the Travolta’s or the situation.

    But let’s be honest here: welcome to “humanity”.

    Homo sapien is no different from any viral infection; just looking for another exploitative strategy. The cessation of the child’s life is not cause for celebratory dialog or public speculation. Neither is it cause for attempting to pursue an erroneous line of thinking that supposes ethics have anything to do with hominid behavior.

  33. NightHiker says:

    Brian’s argumentation doesn’t hold water. Jeff Travolta had a condition which needed to be treated with psychiatric drugs, exactly the kind of drugs Scientology forwns upon. While we should not jump to conclusions and state that Jeff died because of Scientology, it is a reasonable assumption – at the very least it’s not less plausible than Scientology having nothing to do with it.

    And the way Brian says the kid didn’t have a psychological problem makes me wonder if he is unaware of the fact that psychiatric drugs treat physical problems, unless one believes in Scientology. Psychiatric is not equal to psychological, but even psychological problems are dependent upon and are influenced by brain chemistry.

    It looks like his own previous experience with the subject clouded his judgement as much as he says his friends’ stance against Scientology clouded theirs.

  34. Rosie says:

    I had no idea that the bigotry toward Scientologists was so viral . . . and disgusting. I don’t love Scientology. I had an unpleasant experience with one who tried to recruit me. But I also had some unpleasant experiences with Christians who tried to get me to “embrace the Faith”.

    But despite my unpleasant experiences with practioners of these two faiths, I don’t go around and spewing bigoted comments about those who practice these and other religions. I like to believe that I’m just not that disgusting. Or bigoted.

  35. Artoo45 says:

    Rosie, criticism does not equal bigotry.

  36. Max says:

    Love the believer, not the beliefs.

  37. Lisa says:

    The problem with the tragic death of Jett Travolta is this: Although all the circumstances are unknown, I can tell you as a former member of scientology (1970-1987) that they absolutely HATE any form of drug intervention, except drugs like antibiotics, and especially psychiatric drugs. There may have been some change since the time I was “in” but I doubt if there has been much of a shift. Most likely, they recommended basic scientology “auditing” , vitamins, and a quiet environment; which may not have been enough to keep him stable.

    Scientology believes in “making the able more able” and privately holds the handicapped in low regard, ie, they must have done something to “pull in” that sort of condition, or they are a “degraded being” not really worthy of the effort to help. These are the types of arguments that were used against people when I was a scientologist when it suited scientology executives to minimize the influence of a friend or loved one. When the friend or loved one attacked scientology, they are deemed a “suppressive person” whose most basic nature is regarded as evil in the extreme. Such is the quality of balance in their skeptical nature.

    Former scientologists know what I mean, and current scientologists who have been around for a while get very uncomfortable with these types of facts, because underneath it all, they are questioning what they see, and they don’t like the implications of the possible truth.

    So the death of Jett Travolta is a big question mark to me. I wish it were not so. I know that the Travolta family loved their son, but only someone who has been in scientology for a time can know the pervasive influence of this religion over the most basic sensible qualities of human nature. That makes this type of event all the more tragic for the victims of scientology.

  38. Julian says:

    If you can’t separate yourself from what you believe you can’t be much of a man. We have every right to criticize the merits of people’s beliefs, the beliefs themselves and the damage they can lead people to do. Part of the free exchange of ideas is weighing them against others to see how they hold up.

  39. NightHiker says:


    “But despite my unpleasant experiences with practioners of these two faiths, I don’t go around and spewing bigoted comments about those who practice these and other religions. I like to believe that I’m just not that disgusting. Or bigoted.”

    Emotional retorts are not a good substitute for objective reasoning. To suspect that atheists might be imoral just because they don’t believe in god is bigotry. To suspect that religious people (be them scientologists or christians) might have behaved in accordance to their religion’s creeds is a reasonable assumption.

  40. NightHiker says:

    Sorry for double posting, but I thought of a good analogy:

    If you are a doctor and you see the child of a vegan couple with malnutrition, I doubt anyone (but vegans, of course) would call you a bigot if you thought to investigate how appropriate their diet was. In the end, you might find out the kid had a congenital defect and the diet was not responsible for the malnutrition, but you need to investigate the most likely cause first.

  41. Edward says:


    An excellent post on the subject of “being skeptical about things we suspect are true” and especially in the area of taking joy in suffering – inexcusable under any circumstances.

    Re medicine and Scientology and their FAQ, I think myself that there is a lot of emphasis on the word “physical” in their FAQ. So my question would be (unrelated to Jett T.): exactly which illnesses are physical, according to a Scientologist? Just as a crazy example: if Scientology defines cancer as a non-physical illness then their FAQ still holds true but they would not seek professional medical care for it.

  42. Sue says:

    I just recently came across your site. As a person with epilepsy, I’d like to pass on some basic information. First of all, epilpsy is not that rare. Approximately 3 million people in the United States have this medical condition, and 300,000 people are newly diagnosed annually. According to the CDC, a study of 10 states found that 1 in 100 people have epilepsy. Medication only works for approximately 60-70% of cases. The other treatment options are removal of portions of the brain, surgical seperation of the two halves of the brain, and implanting a VNS system. None of these other options has a very high success rate. Medications used to treat epilepsy, otherwise known as AED’s, can have horrendous side effects. They can be toxic to various organs such as the liver and kidneys, cause severe loss of cognitive ability as well as memory, cause Stevens-Johnson syndrome which is fatal, as well as cause more seizures. Jett may have had intractible epilepsy, in which case medication was not working and all appropriate medications had been tried in mono and polytherapy.
    SUDEP can and does happen. Although a person’s cause of death is more likely to be injury during the seizure than the seizure itself, seizures can be fatal. As mentioned in a previous posting, the brain, while seizing fails to keep the body breathing, or the heart beating. The options that I have given above for treatment are the only options currently advocated by the medical profession. There is little investigation being done into alternative treatments. And those alternative treatments that exist are not covered by insurance plans. The Travolta’s may have been like many other parents that I deal with, and seeking a healthier alternative for their son. If his seizures were intractible, then his chances of dying of SUDEP were higher than the average person with epilepsy. It is always tragic when a child dies. I can only hope that the Travoltas will find some peace.