More acoustic credulity

Last week, I said that the State Department was ‘flirting with’ making decisions about United States foreign policy toward Cuba based on pseudoscience. They’re done flirting.

From BBC News:

The US has expelled 15 Cuban diplomats, saying Havana failed to protect US diplomats from mysterious acoustic attacks.

None of the news sources I’ve seen explain how we know the symptoms reported by embassy staff were caused by sonic attacks. That seems to be coming solely from unnamed government officials. Many of those same reports give reasons to doubt the plausibility of that explanation, but all the same none of them actually question whether such attacks took place.

They should; here’s why. First, the FBI, investigating with Cuban government cooperation, has found no evidence of attacks, acoustic or otherwise. From CBS:

…the U.S. has not identified whatever device is responsible for the harm. FBI sweeps have turned up nothing.

The Miami Herald agrees:

Cuba says it neither committed the attacks nor knows anything about them. And, to the surprise of many, Raúl Castro’s government permitted FBI agents to enter the country to help investigate.

But if the investigation — which began in February, when the State Department decided there was a pattern to ailments reported by its diplomats — has turned up anything, it hasn’t been disclosed — even within the U.S. government itself.

Second, the experiences and symptoms of affected embassy personnel vary and in some cases contradict government sources.

According to CNN:

The device was so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound, the official said.

From CBS:

The first disturbing reports of piercing, high-pitched noises and inexplicable ailments pointed to someone deliberately targeting the U.S. government’s intelligence network on the communist-run island…

They heard an unsettling sound inside and in some cases outside their Havana homes, described as similar to loud crickets. Then they fell ill.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anyone? Anyway, are the attacks audible or not? The CBS report continues,

Over time, the attacks seemed to evolve.

In many of the more recent cases, victims didn’t hear noises and weren’t aware an attack was occurring, identifying the symptoms only later. That has raised concerns among investigators that the attacks may be getting more sophisticated and harder to detect, individuals briefed on the investigation said.

Okay, so they started off audible but became inaudible. Apparently not considered is the possibility that the earlier and later cases were unrelated.

Finally, no known acoustic weapon is actually consistent with the reports. Each expert interviewed by the various news agencies says essentially the same thing. From AP:

“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”

From The Verge:

That could be because a weapon that covertly uses sound energy to injure people doesn’t actually exist, experts say. “It sounds very appealing and interesting, but I find it hard to believe that there actually is such a device,” says hearing expert John Oghalai, Chair of the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Southern California.

From Federal Times:

“I know of no acoustic effect or device that could produce traumatic brain injury or concussion-like symptoms,” said Juergen Altmann, an acoustic weapons expert and physicist at Germany’s Technische Universitaet Dortmund.

That same quote is in the CNN article, which nevertheless fails to even consider that possibility that the reported symptoms are not due to acoustic attacks. Several articles offer token skepticism without seriously considering alternative explanations. For example, CBS:

Though the State Department has called all the cases “medically confirmed,” several U.S. officials said it’s unclear whether all of the victims’ symptoms can be conclusively tied to attacks. Considering the deep sense of alarm among Americans working in the embassy, it’s possible some workers attributed unrelated illnesses to attacks.

In spite of acknowledging that possibility, the article is titled “Cuba acoustic attacks targeted U.S. intelligence operatives.” Miami Herald again:

Mark Elwood, a professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and author of a 2012 academic paper on the debate, has been following news reports about the Havana attacks closely.

“It is intriguing,” he told the Miami Herald Tuesday, “although I have not seen any real evidence that this is a real issue and not just minor reported illnesses.”

The title of that article, amazingly, is “Is the new Cold War between the U.S. and Cuba based on old Cold War spycraft?” Talk about begging the question. Cold War, really?

The one article that seriously questions the acoustic weapon hypothesis is Federal Times:

When symptoms emerged last November, Cuba was working feverishly with the U.S. to make progress on everything from internet access to immigration rules before President Barack Obama’s term ended. Officials still don’t understand why Havana would at the same time perpetrate attacks that could destroy its new relationship with Washington entirely.

Given what we know, it is absolutely irresponsible to go on referring to ‘sonic’ or ‘acoustic’ attacks without qualification (get the word ‘alleged’ in your vocabulary, at least!). We don’t even know for sure that there were any attacks, as the Federal Times article points out (skipping large bits here for brevity):

It was only natural that American suspicion started with Cuba…But what’s the motive?

Predictably, Castro denied responsibility. But U.S. officials were surprised that Castro seemed genuinely rattled, and that Cuba offered to let the FBI come investigate.

Then, Canadians got ill. Why them?

The warm, long-standing ties between Cuba and Canada made it seem even less logical that Castro’s government was the culprit…

Maybe no one tried to hurt the Americans at all.

I don’t know that there weren’t attacks on American embassy staff, but I think there’s good reason to doubt it. We’ve got a bunch of variable, non-specific, and often subjective symptoms, with no known weapon that can explain them all. We’ve got no known motive, a Cuban leader who ‘seemed genuinely rattled’, and every reason to think that the Cuban government wants to improve relations with the U.S.

If Cuba attacked U.S. embassy personnel, then the State Department is right to pull remaining staff out, and acting reasonably in expelling Cuban diplomats from the U.S.If Cuba isn’t behind the alleged attacks (see how easy that was, CBS?), or if–as I think likely–there were no attacks at all, then this is a reaction to ghosts.

Either way, the failure of CNN, CBS, Houston Chronicle, and other news sources to apply basic skepticism is inexcusable. None of the articles I’ve seen address what should have been their first and second questions: How do we know these were sonic attacks? How do we know these were attacks at all? Next time you talk to your unnamed government official, try asking.

EDIT [2017-10-05]: Fixed ‘token skepticism’ quotes attributed to the wrong sources.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I’m just going to leave this here…

    (Yes, that is Hugh “House” Laurie at 0:47)
    (And yes, that is Peter “Maester Aemon Targaryen” Vaughan at 1:04)

    Someone asked the BBC about this video in June. Specifically, they asked Dr. Adam Rutherford and Dr. Hannah Fry if an acoustic weapon is feasible. There’s a podcast version of the BBC Radio 4 show available if you can get that sort of thing. (Spoiler: the answer is no, it’s not possible.)

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