Sonic stupidity

You and I may disagree about politics. It’s a near certainty that we disagree about at least some political issues. But I hope we can agree that United States foreign policy shouldn’t be based on pseudoscientific claims with no plausibility.

The Executive Branch is flirting with doing just that. Whether or not you think reversing Obama-era warming of relations with Cuba is a good idea, I hope you agree that we shouldn’t do it based on phantom attacks using a non-existent weapon. I’m talking about the so-called ‘sonic attacks’ that, until recently, were being touted as a reason to close the U.S. embassy in Cuba:

Some of the 21 US diplomats believed to have been impacted by mysterious acoustic attacks in Cuba were targeted multiple times, CNN has learned from a senior US official.

There were nearly 50 attacks in total, the official said.

The incidents have challenged the US government’s assessment that Cuba is a safe country for US diplomats and their families and threatened the future of the newly reopened embassy.

Reported symptoms of the alleged attacks include

…permanent hearing loss or concussions, while others suffered nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. Some are struggling with concentration or common word recall, The Associated Press has reported.

So for the most part, we have a bunch of non-specific and subjective symptoms that differ among alleged victims and are reported second or third or fourth-hand:

…the physical symptoms that people exhibited varied greatly, preventing doctors consulted in the United States from reaching a conclusion about what caused the trauma, two US officials said.

US government technical experts were also baffled. Some affected diplomats had lines of sight to the street in their homes, while others had shrubbery and walls that blocked views of their homes. Some heard loud sounds when the incidents took place, while others heard nothing.

These are exactly the kind of symptoms that are often reported for diseases that don’t exist, such as chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue, and non-Celiac gluten sensitivity.

Snopes has a more thorough rundown and an assessment that neither an infrasound device nor an ultrasound device can explain all the reported symptoms. So there’s no biological plausibility to the claims. What about political plausibility? Why would Cuba, a country that badly wants to normalize relations with the United States, stage such attacks against American diplomats?

There are so many red flags in this story: non-specific, vague symptoms that differ among alleged victims, caused by an unknown weapon that no one has ever seen, with contradictory experiences reported among witnesses. It’s disappointing to see story after story applying no skepticism whatsoever to the claims. CNN again:

Investigators haven’t determined the cause of the incidents, but US officials told CNN they are convinced someone has targeted American diplomats in Havana with a sophisticated device never deployed before, at least not against US personnel.

Want to know one kind of weapon that’s never been deployed? Weapons that don’t exist.

Which is more plausible? An unknown, high-tech weapon is being deployed against American diplomats by a nation that wants to improve relations, causing a huge range of health complaints that are inconsistent from one person to another; or, a President who campaigned on a promise to roll back relations with Cuba and has been working toward that goal against the advice of nearly everyone has seized on a flimsy excuse to close the embassy?

Do we really want our foreign policy to be based on pseudoscience? Even if you think closing the U.S. embassy in Cuba is the right thing to do, I hope we can agree that this is the wrong reason to do it.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    From what I’ve read about this, the Cubans have also given large amounts of access to investigators trying to track this down, which they would not have done if they’d really been up to something. Also, the symptoms are ongoing, whereas if it was the Cubans probably would have stopped it when we confronted them.

    There are some other possibilities as well, here, besides the two you mention. The phenomenon might be real, but caused by:
    a rogue group in Cuba that resents thawing relations
    the Russians, who are unhappy of a country falling out of their orbit
    a natural phenomenon or disease

    • Matthew Herron says

      I agree, those are all possibilities. Still, my money is on some combination of multiple real but unrelated conditions, distortions in the telephone chain from alleged victim –> embassy supervisor –> unnamed ‘US official’ –> reporter at AP, and possibly psychosomatic complaints arising from the conviction that there IS some kind of attack going on. I’ll be very surprised if there really is an attack, of any kind, at all.

  2. militantagnostic says

    Obviously, the Cubans are fluoridating the water supply to the Embassy. Have you ever seen a Communist drink a glass of water?


  1. […] Now and again over the last three years, I’ve complained about credulous news sources taking seriously the absurd claims that the illnesses experienced by U.S. diplomats in Cuba were caused by mysterious attacks with a sonic weapon. Infuriatingly, some articles (this one from CNN, for example) quoted acoustic weapons experts saying that it couldn’t have been an acoustic weapon, then went on to assume that it was. […]

Leave a Reply