I don’t want this to become the ‘Cuba’s sonic weapons are bullshit’ blog, and I apologize for my readers who are just here for the Volvox. But there is a massive failure on the part of major news organizations to apply the most rudimentary skepticism to outlandish claims of mysterious weapons, and there’s every reason to think that it’s affecting United States foreign policy toward Cuba.
The story is starting to change as news organizations acknowledge what their experts have been telling them from the start, namely that sonic or acoustic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms of U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba. CBS, one of the least skeptical sources right from the start, is desperately clinging to the magic sound gun narrative:
Investigators are now probing whether the attacks were caused by something more than just mysterious sonic devices after U.S. government personnel complained about hearing loud, bizarre and unexplained grinding and insect-sounding noises in homes and hotels, sources tell CBS News.
“My own multiple sources are saying that some of the evidence, medical evidence, being shown by the patients that have been affected could not all be related to sonic waves,” said Dr. Andy Gomez, interim director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “What other measures did whoever the perpetrator was committing these acts do to cause these health issues with our U.S. personnel in Havana?”
Since there’s no evidence of a sonic weapon, and the reported symptoms are not consistent with a sonic weapon, obviously it must be a sonic weapon and something else! Since there’s no evidence of fairies, and fairies aren’t known to cause colds, my runny nose must be due to fairies and a virus!
Contrast that with The Nation‘s much more skeptical take:
Trump administration officials firmly believe that the Cuban government is not culpable for the “attacks”—though it’s not clear the health problems were actually caused by such an event—and have carefully avoided accusing Cuba of generating them. Their assessment appears to be based on intelligence intercepts of conversations among high-level Cuban officials after the United States brought the disturbing pattern of health problems among US and Canadian embassy personnel to their attention last January. As a “former senior American official” told The New York Times, “there was information that the Cubans were rattled by what had happened and were desperate to find the cause.”
We have already established that sonic attacks are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms: no means. Cuba is, by all accounts, desperate to improve relations with the U.S., and certainly has no reason to attack Canada: no motive. The administration doesn’t believe Cuba is culpable, and there’s no evidence of third-party involvement: no suspect.
The attacks were blamed on “sonic weapons,” but it’s not clear a device exists with the capacity to cause the symptoms reported by US personnel, as well as by some Canadian diplomats.
Carl Zimmer, writing for the NY Times, has one of the most skeptical takes I’ve seen (“A sonic attack on diplomats in Cuba? Scientists doubt it“):
…government officials have suggested anonymously that the diplomats may have been assaulted with some sort of sonic weapon.
Experts in acoustics, however, say that’s a theory more appropriate to a James Bond movie.
Sound can cause discomfort and even serious harm, and researchers have explored the idea of sonic weaponry for years. But scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba.
Zimmer notes that
Even if another player has succeeded in developing an ultrasonic weapon, researchers said, the laws of physics make it unlikely that the device could harm diplomats from afar.
Along with Dr. Robert Bartholomew, some of the experts Zimmer interviewed explicitly question whether the reported symptoms are due to attacks at all.
…while ultrasound can cause many of the symptoms reported, there’s no evidence that it can cause mild brain injury.
“I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms,” [Technische Universitat Dortmund acoustic expert] Dr. [Jurgen] Altmann said. “Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”
For all of these reasons, experts said, ultrasound weapons should not top the list of possible explanations for the hearing loss and headaches and other symptoms said to have been observed in diplomats.
“I believe those people got something that hurt them,” said [Southern Illinois University acoustic engineer] Dr. [Jun] Qin. “But it could be something in the environment.” The possibilities include toxins, or bacterial or viral infections, that can damage hearing.
[Southampton University professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics] Dr. [Timothy] Leighton said contagious anxiety or another psychogenic contributor couldn’t be ruled out. “If you make people anxious that they’re under attack from an ultrasonic weapon, those are the symptoms you’ll get,” he said.
As I said last week: “psychosomatic complaints arising from the conviction that there IS some kind of attack going on.” I want to be clear that I’m not claiming there were no attacks. What I am saying is that there’s no evidence I’ve seen that convinces me there were attacks, and that other explanations should at least be considered. This bit from Time is telling:
The U.S. also disclosed that the scope of the attacks has continued to grow, with a 22nd victim confirmed on Monday. In recent weeks the State Department had said there were 21 individuals “medically confirmed” to be affected by attacks that harmed their hearing, cognition, balance and vision, some with diagnoses as serious as brain injury.
The additional victim was attacked in January but wasn’t confirmed to have been affected until symptoms prompted a new medical re-evaluation, said the State Department official, who briefed reporters on a conference call on condition of anonymity.
What that sounds like to me is that the administration is asking embassy personnel to report any health complaints within the last year or so. Naturally, since people don’t get sick unless they’re attacked by magic sound guns, any symptoms from that time period are going to be attributed to the alleged attacks.