I’ve been meaning to get back to the absurd claims of Cuban “sonic weapons” for a while now (Sonic stupidity; It may seem the stuff of sci-fi novels; More acoustic credulity; No means, no motive, and no suspect; Cuba’s “magical sci-fi sound gun”; More Cuban science fiction), but Brian Dunning has beaten me to it. The latest episode of Skeptoid is all about the alleged attacks on the U.S. embassy, and it leaves the administration’s claims in tatters:
Beginning in early 2016, American diplomats stationed in Cuba began reporting a mysterious illness. They believed they were under attack by what they described as a sonic weapon. No culprit could be identified, no such weapons were found, no clear motive could be established…
As I said in October, “No means, no motive, and no suspect.”
…except, of course, for the fact that the United States and Cuba are not exactly on the best of terms, and the US was tightening its sanctions against the very country its embassy is in.
And that’s not a believable motive. Yes, the U.S. was tightening sanctions, but Cuba was (and is) desperate to normalize relations. Attacking embassy personnel would be a shitty way to go about that.
The first thing many people say when they hear this is that sonic weapons are actually very real.
Yes, just as this commenter did. Dunning goes on to say,
This is true, but using this fact to justify the reports from Cuba would be like pointing out that turtles are real to justify the existence of dragons. Real sonic weapons have nothing in common with the Cuba reports, and are not an acceptable match for them.
The Skeptoid episode goes into detail about just what kinds of sonic weapons do exist (and one that doesn’t) and why none of them is a plausible explanation for the variety of symptoms experienced by the embassy personnel. Dunning also considers other classes of explanation, such as poisoning (intentional or otherwise) and ear infections:
One candidate is labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear that throws off your balance, causing nausea, dizziness, vertigo, and a degree of hearing loss. These are most, but not all, of the symptoms reported. It is entirely possible that some of the affected diplomats had an ear infection and passed it around to one another.
His preferred explanation, though, is the one proposed by the Cubans themselves, which is also reported in Science:
[T]he Cuban scientists settled upon the explanation that American and other scientists had already begun to float, and it’s one that will be familiar to regular Skeptoid listeners. It is, in fact, a perfect explanation that requires no mysterious acoustic weapons drawn from science fiction, and neatly checks every box. It is a mass psychogenic event.
Robert Bartholemew said essentially the same thing in Psychology Today way back in September. Dunning also makes the important point that there doesn’t have to be one explanation:
When we look closely at these reports to try and determine the raw facts, we quickly notice that they are not consistent with one another. Different people reported different symptoms. Most people did not report hearing any particular sounds. Of those who did, they said they heard very different sounds, and at different times and places. None of the sounds bore any similarity to sonic weapons. Only one person reported permanent hearing loss; and as nobody else did, we can safely assume that it was likely due to natural causes for that person. One reported a concussion with no apparent cause, but nobody else did either. So if we are looking for some external cause for these symptoms, we learn that it was probably not any one cause. It was a number of different causes, suggesting that these people were suffering from various unrelated problems.
I agree, as I’ve said previously:
…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.
And in “Cuban science fiction,”
The State Department is convinced that some kind of attack took place, so you can bet that anyone who was there is being asked to recall any health complaint, no matter how minor. Naturally any health complaint the embassy staff can recall is going to be shoehorned into the attack narrative.
There are two points I want to reiterate in all this. First, the disgusting negligence of many press outlets that failed to apply the least skepticism to the ‘sonic attack’ narrative. No actual evidence of any attacks, much less sonic attacks, has ever been presented. All we have ever had is assertions by unnamed “senior administration officials.” And the implausibility of sonic attacks as an explanation was, in many cases, pointed out by scientists quoted in the very same articles that were uncritically parroting the administration’s unsupported assertions. For example, this quote,
A US government official said an acoustic device may have been used to attack State Department employees at the US Embassy in Havana.
The device was so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound, the official said. And it was so damaging, the source said, that one US diplomat now needs to use a hearing aid.
What we don’t know is what kind of device may have been used, where exactly it was placed, and who put it there.
is, incredibly, from the same CNN article as this one:
“I know of no acoustic effect that would produce concussion-like symptoms; according to my research strong effects on humans require loudness levels that would be perceived as very loud noise while exposed,” [physics professor Jürgen Altmann] said.
What CNN, CBS, the New York Times, and other news outlets should have asked their unnamed sources is, “How do you know the embassy personnel’s symptoms were caused by sonic attacks?” “How do you know they were caused by attacks at all?” If they did, they didn’t report the answers.
The second point I want to reiterate is that our foreign policy toward Cuba is being affected by this nonsense. In spite of the fact that
The White House does not believe the Cuban government is behind the mysterious sonic attacks against U.S. personnel,
the reports gave the administration political cover to fulfill one of his campaign promises:
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?
The mindless propagation of unsupported, implausible assertions has now had real foreign policy consequences:
…press outlets from CNN to the New York Times credulously reported that the health complaints were likely due to a weapon no one had ever seen, no one had ever used, and no one who knew what they were talking about actually believed in. Their irresponsible lack of skepticism gave now President Trump the perfect excuse to do what he intended to do all along.
Would it be so surprising if President Trump decided to strike while the iron was hot and start breaking diplomatic ties with Cuba while the press was reporting mysterious high-tech weapons being turned on embassy personnel? I’m not even suggesting dishonesty on the part of the President; he’s never struck me as having a particularly skeptical mindset. Why would he ask hard questions when the media was telling him what he wanted to hear?
Whether or not you think Obama’s warming of relations with Cuba was a good idea, this should give you pause. My point is not that we should be friendlier with Cuba. My point is that we should not base our foreign policy on pseudoscience, and that a stunning failure of skepticism by major press outlets makes them complicit in doing just that.