Friday 24 July 2009

13 The E-Meter Experts

Day 5, June 3: Scientology called two expert witnesses to defend the effectiveness of the e-meter used in their counselling sessions – but did not quite get what they had bargained for.

At the start of the day’s proceedings, Judge Sophie-Hélène Château had read out a fax from one of the court-appointed experts in the case, a M. Ionesco.

Ionesco had written a report in 1993 on the electrometer, a device used in Scientology’s counselling sessions, for an earlier trial involving Scientology in Lyon, in 1996.

Jean Christophe Hullin, the investigating magistrate in the present case, had added it to the dossier and so M. Ionesco had been summoned to explain his findings.

But in the fax, M. Ionesco sent his apologies, explaining that for health reasons he was unable to attend.

Scientology had produced its own experts however – and they were available to give evidence. First however, Judge Château summarised the findings of the investigating magistrate in this area.

The e-meter is a device that is essential to Scientology auditing, or counselling, sessions.1

In Scientology auditing the subject holds a pair of cylinders in his hands, which are attached to the e-meter. The auditor seated opposite interprets the readings produced during the session.

The device is used to locate moments of distress, bad memories, in order to dissipate their negative influence.

Scientologists believe that e-meter readings help locate such memories – engrams in Scientology’s terminology – and then determine if their negative effect has been dealt with.

Hullin’s indictment drew in particular on two expert reports from the earlier Lyon case: Ionesco’s and another by a M. François Kirchner, drawn up in 1994.

For Kirchner, the e-meter simply measured electrical resistance: its claim to be a precision tool in the search for engrams was a non-starter.

For one thing, Kirchner had argued, any number of variables could influence the readings on the e-meter. But in any case, he rejected as completely unscientific the notion that the device could somehow measure one’s psychological state.

“In these conditions, it becomes clear that the device is nothing other than a front aimed at giving a scientific aspect to an operation that is anything but,” he concluded.

Ionesco’s report reached a similar conclusion regarding the device’s accuracy and its scientific value.

Hullin’s indictment also noted that one model of an e-meter, advertised in a 2004 Scientology magazine, was on sale for a little over 4,800 euros. Sold on the open market, an equivalent device measuring electrical resistance – an ohm-meter – cost a tenth of that price, he wrote.

Today however, it was the turn of the defence witnesses.

Philippe Ripoche, 63, was a tall, distinguished looking gentleman, dressed in dark trousers and a cheque jacket and wearing spectacles. During his testimony he described himself as a Catholic, but sceptically inclined.

Ripoche explained that he had been approached by Scientology to give his opinion of the e-meter in his capacity as an electrical engineer. He had agreed, provided he could work independently and that his conclusions were either used in their entirety or not at all.

As well as examining the e-meter, Ripoche had access to the reports by Kirchner and Ionesco, and his preliminary findings were much as theirs had been: it was essentially a device designed to measure electrical resistance.

But having tested it, he disagreed with their conclusions regarding the e-meter’s lack of accuracy. “I noted it was an excellent device for measuring electrical resistance.”

While he did not accept the official Scientology account of what the e-meter did, there was nevertheless something interesting going on.

“Scientology’s explanations are far-fetched, but you can still observe a phenomenon,” he said.

'I was intrigued'

Ripoche was fascinated to see during demonstrations that when a subject thought of a painful memory it registered on the e-meter. He tried the device himself, with the same result.

“I was intrigued, so I took them in my hands… I brought up a painful experience and immediately saw the needle fall to the right,” he said.

Ripoche decided to take one of the devices home to pursue his research. To this purpose, he recruited some of his friends as informal experimental subjects.

“I asked people to think of certain painful things,” he said: more often than not, the e-meter registered something. And when people got that painful memory out of their system, he noted another phenomenon.

“What I did not expect was that the electrical resistance fell by between 10 and 30 percent,” he said.

Certainly, the device had to be reset with each individual to take account of their different base-level of resistance, said Ripoche. But he felt he had come across something worthy of note: a measurable physical phenomenon. “When people remembered bad memories, the resistance fell,” he said.

Ripoche had only tested his device on 18 people and he made no claims for that being a scientific sample: simply an interesting experiment that deserved further investigation. He also cautioned that he was neither a doctor nor a psychologist.

But he said of the device: “This does allow for precise measurements, and there was a correspondence between bad experiences and a drop in the reading.”

Ripoche was reluctant to criticise the authors of the previous reports, he said. But contrary to what they had suggested, he felt that the e-meter was a perfectly accurate measuring device – and his experiments had revealed that the device was measuring a physical phenomenon.

As to the correct use of the machine, he had nothing to add, he said: he had not read the user’s manual.

Under questioning by Judge Château, Ripoche elaborated. “It measures electrical resistance that seems to be correlated with changes in the emotional state that you are evoking – a painful subject”

Was he saying that the device was somehow measuring, or locating things from the past, asked the judge?

“The device itself, no,” said Ripoche. “Perhaps a competent psychologist could do that – but the device itself no. You cannot distinguish emotions with a machine.” But you might be able to detect a change, he added.

And what if you simply talked to someone without using an e-meter, asked the judge?

“A psychologist could be perfectly effective without an e-meter,” said Ripoche.

Judge Château expressed unease at the notion of an exercise whose object was to track down one’s problems and past painful experience. “Should that not be done by people with a certain competence?” she asked. People who could assume the risks that might come with such a practice?

“I think absolutely as you do,” said Ripoche. He would want the person using it to be qualified – and not as an engineer. He would expect them to have some competence in psychology.

Judge Château could see how intrigued Ripoche was by the device’s possibilities: why, she wondered had the device not been used in this way outside of Scientology?

“I ask myself the same question,” said Ripoche. “If there is something in it, then it should be brought to the attention of doctors.”

Judge Château noted that the Scientology literature spoke of the e-meter readings in terms of absolute certainty: did M. Ripoche share that certainty?

No, he said: the readings were an indication perhaps. As for the more ambitious claims made by Scientology, he said: “That seems to me to be exaggerated. We find a lot of far-fetched claims in the literature.”2

Scientology made great play of the microprocessors fitted in the latest generation e-meters improved their performance, for example: “There is a bit of folklore there,” he said.

Judge Château gave the floor to Olivier Morice, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

'A… laughable stream of verbosity'

Had Ripoche never explained a satisfactory explanation of just what was going on with the e-meter, of how how it actually worked, he asked?

Again, Ripoche said he had not read all the Scientology literature: just a few documents. But he had not been impressed by Scientology’s talk of thoughts having mass.

“That is what is far-fetched,” he said. “There must be more scientific documents somewhere. Thought does not create mass and mass does not create resistance.”3

Morice produced a document by Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, extolling the virtues of the e-meter.

the electropsychometer utterly dwarfs the invention of the microscope, for Leeuwenhoek found the way only to find bacteria; the electropsychometer provides the way for man to find his freedom and to rise perhaps to social and constructive levels of which man has never dreamed and to avoid the perils in that route which man, in going, would have found more deadly than any bacteria ever evolved or invented.4

What did he think of that, asked Morice?

“A far-fetched, ambitious and laughable stream of verbosity,” said Ripoche (une logorrhée fantaisiste, ambitieuse et risible).

Judge Château intervened to ask how much he thought the device was worth.

Produced industrially, he reckoned the factory cost would be around 500 euros per unit. For a reasonable mark-up, he estimated the sale price would be around 2,500 euros. In fact, the actual price was a little over 4,800 euros – which struck him as excessive. “Perhaps it has its own value,” he said, a little uncertainly.

Prosecutor Nicolas Baïetto took over, getting Ripoche to confirm that in his research he had only tested a limited number of people.

But when he suggested to him that the e-meter was little more than a lie detector, Ripoche seemed reluctant to go along with the idea. He did concede however that the two devices had points in common.

Baïetto was not convinced that this was the high-performance device Ripoche was making it out to be. What about variables such as excessively sweaty hands or different-sized hands leading to differences in the amount of skin contact with the cylinders, he asked?

All these factors were dealt with by fixing a zero-reading for each auditing subject, said Ripoche. Baïetto referred to Kirchner’s report, which appeared to show that not every Scientologist took such care with the readings.

Curiously enough, when Kirchner drew up his 1994 report, it had been the defendant Alain Rosenberg who had demonstrated the use of the e-meter for him. According to Kirchner however, Rosenberg had not only failed to observe this basic zero-reading procedure but had made another mistake that rendered the readings meaningless.5

To this, Ripoche replied that Kirchner had not understood how the e-meter was used – and it was at this point Baïetto’s colleague, fellow prosecutor Maud Morel-Coujard, intervened.

Ripoche had already said that he had not bothered to read all the Scientology literature on how the device was used:, she pointed out. How then could he criticise Kirchner for his supposed lack of knowledge?

“You have a point,” Ripoche conceded.

He tried to clarify his position regarding the e-meter.

Certainly, he had been impressed by the accuracy of the device’s readings and the correlation with people’s evocation of difficult memories. But he was not competent to interpret the phenomenon further: a psychologist or an electro-physiologist might be more appropriate.

Meteorologists had the Beaufort scale, he said; and seismologists the Richter scale. “I don’t think a psychologist has created a scale for measuring emotional states.”6

Questioned by the defence, he confirmed that the device he had tested was not actually identical to the ones used by Kirchner and Ionesco in their earlier tests. The point appeared to be that the new device was far more sophisticated and thus more accurate.

Pressed a little further, he criticised as nonsense the claim in Ionesco’s report that the e-meter did not measure anything – clearly it did.

And asked to elaborate on his own experiments, he stressed how powerful the effect of recalling distressing events had been in some cases – and how cathartic the process had been for his subjects. Some had even had tears in their eyes, he said.

'Totally incomprehensible'

The second Scientology expert was M. Bernard Denis-Laroque, a tall and distinguished-looking gentleman, like his colleague Ripoche – perhaps a little stouter around the waist.

He agreed with Ripoche that the e-meter was an extremely accurate measuring device. And like Ripoche, he was uncomfortable with some of the more damning criticism in the earlier reports by Kirchner and Ionesco – to say that it measured nothing was hard to take seriously, he said.

Beyond that however, he expressed himself in more cautious terms.

Asked by Judge Château if he thought the device was measuring something other than a physiological phenomenon – memories for example – Denis-Laroque declared that to be outside his stated brief.

“You didn’t test it on yourself?” asked the judge.

“Ah no – I’m an engineer,” said Denis-Laroque. “And those things don’t concern me. I’m a technician.”

In response to further questioning however, he confirmed that he had some knowledge of lie detectors. “It is the same kind of thing,” he said. “It is the same kind of principle.”7

Any suggestion that there was some kind of relation between an auditing subject’s psychological state and what the e-meter was measuring was not scientific, he added.

After having given a modest estimate for its construction cost, he was told Scientology's actual sale price for the e-meter. “That seems to me expensive,” he remarked.

Questioned by Morice, he was similarly reserved, though it seemed to be out of a sense of professional duty rather than any suspicion the lawyer might be trying to trip him up. He made it clear that he had accepted his brief to examine the device as an engineer and did not want to venture outside his field of competence.

As he had with Ripoche, Morice played his joker card, reading out Hubbard’s encomium to the e-meter that suggested it was more significant development than the invention of the microscope.

At first, the engineer held fast. “That is philosophy,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for philosophy. But I can’t follow you there.”

Pressed a little by Morice, he conceded that inventors sometimes had a tendency to overplay their inventions. “There, clearly he went a bit too far,” he said (…il est allé un peu fort).8

As to Kirchner’s suggestion that the device simply served as a kind of a front, a gimmick to give a scientific veneer to the proceedings, Denis-Laroque was reluctant to get involved in that debate.

How could he know one way or another, he said? His point appeared to be that taking a position involved assumptions about people’s intentions – and that this was outside his field.

Baïetto, for the prosecution, took over.

He established that while Denis-Laroque recognised the machine was a good measure of a body’s electrical resistance, he shared Ionesco’s doubts that it could measure anything more esoteric.

Of the official user’s manual written by Hubbard, Denis-Laroque remarked that there had been a mixture of the technical and philosophical that had bothered him.

Judge Chateau picked up on that. What did he think about Scientology’s claims that the mental processes had “mass”, or “charge”, that could somehow be picked up on the e-meter.

“That for me is totally incomprehensible,” he said.

He mentioned the fictional belief that some people had that the soul weighed 21 grammes – that when people died, their weight changed accordingly.9

But so far as Scientology’s claims were concerned, he said: “That corresponds with nothing I know.

“I prefer Plato, I prefer Aristotle. Mass, energy – that has a very precise meaning in physics.”

“You can’t measure these things with this device?” asked Judge Château.

“Ah non!”

This completes coverage of the second week of the trial.

Next in the series: The Suppressive, Brard
1   While there is a form of auditing that can be done without an e-meter – Dianetics, or Book One auditing – Scientology auditing is done with an e-meter. On the upper levels, you dispense with an auditor and audit yourself on the e-meter.
2   It is not clear exactly what documents Judge Château had in mind here, but one document quoted in the same hearing was L. Ron Hubbard’s 1952 “Electropsychometric Auditing Operator’s Manual”. In it, Hubbard writes: “The nimble needle of the electropsychometer can detect with accuracy things which would have been otherwise hidden from man forever… It sees all, knows all. It is never wrong.”
3   While it was not clear exactly what literature M. Ripoche had read, it is not hard to find claims of these kinds on Scientology websites and in the Scientology literature. One British website for example, declares: “The pictures in the mind contain energy and mass. The energy and force in pictures of experiences painful or upsetting to the person can have a harmful effect upon him. This harmful energy or force is called charge.” The same website describes the e-meter as a “pastoral counselling device”.
4   See Note 2.
5   For a more detailed look at Kirchner's point see this annexe.
6   M. Ripoche had clearly not come across Scientology’s Tone Scale, which claims to do just that.
7   This is a point Hubbard himself made in his 1952 operator’s manual (see the link to note 2).
8   In fact, it was not Hubbard who invented the original e-meter but one of his earliest followers, Volney Mathison. See this advertisement for an early version of the device, as published in a 1952 edition of The Aberree, a kind of fanzine for what was then Dianetics.
9   If memory serves, he referred directly to Alejandro Gonzále Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grammes.

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