Final thoughts on Cuba


They won’t be. I’m pretty sure about that. As long as credulous news sources continue to take seriously the absurd idea that Cuba attacked American diplomats with a magical sci-fi sound gun, I’m probably not going to be able to resist bitching about it. But right now I want to talk about what a massive failure this has been by scads of people who should have known better.

MSNBC screenshot

Headline from MSNBC 2019-07-23: “Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania released a new study on the brains of U.S. diplomats who suffered unexplainable health complications following the 2017 Cuba sonic attack. NBC’s Josh Lederman explains the circumstances and next steps to find the cause.”

Here’s what we really know: some people got sick in Cuba. Ever since then, we have been reading headlines about “sonic attacks”. This is a failure of both skepticism and basic journalistic standards because, first, sonic attacks were never a plausible explanation for what happened in Cuba and, second, there has never been any evidence that an attack took place at all.

Some people got sick in Cuba. We know that because of a pair of peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association. I’ve read both articles, and, with the caveat that neurology is far outside of my expertise, they have convinced me that some American diplomats who served in Cuba have real neurological symptoms (Swanson et al. 2018). Furthermore, they have convinced me that these same diplomats appear to have real differences in brain structure from an age-matched, healthy control group (Verma et al. 2019).

Neither of those studies says a damn thing about attacks. When people get sick, the first question you ask should not be “how were they attacked,” but rather “why did they get sick.” Here’s the reason: lots of things make people sick. Most of them are not attacks.

Right from the start, every expert interviewed by media outlets said unambiguously that sonic weapons were not a plausible explanation for what happened in Cuba. In most cases, the news outlets quoted their experts and ran with the sonic weapons narrative anyway. They’re still doing it, the big improvement since 2017 being that they usually put “sonic attack” in quotes.

CN headline

CNN headline 2019-07-25: “Cuba ‘sonic attacks’ changed people’s brains, study suggests”

 

BBC headline

BBC Headline 2019-07-24: “Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study”

“Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study.” There was not ‘sonic attack’ study. The words ‘attack’ and ‘sonic’ do not appear in either Swanson et al. 2018 or Verma et al. 2019 (outside of the references). Those studies, if they’re correct (which as best I can tell they are), show that some people got sick in Cuba. Evidence that people got sick is not evidence that they were attacked, since people get sick for lots of reasons, most of which are not attacks.

Why, when no evidence of a sonic attack has ever been provided, and all the experts are saying that it couldn’t possibly have been a sonic attack, does the media insist on continuing to refer to sonic attacks (or ‘sonic attacks’)? My guess would be that sonic weapons make sexy headlines, and sexy overrides accurate.

Thankfully, there is some pushback. Benedict Carey, writing for the New York Times, is at least asking the right question:

New York Times headline

New York Times headline 2019-07-23. “Were U.S. Diplomats Attacked in Cuba? Brain Study Deepens Mystery”

Not ‘how were they attacked’ but ‘where they attacked’. Rachel Becker, writing for The Verge, gets it mostly right:

The Verge headline

The Verge headline 2019-06-15. “Why we still don’t know what’s going on with ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba and China. It’s extremely unlikely that a sonic weapon is to blame”

R. Douglas Fields, writing for Scientific American, hits the nail on the head:

Scientific American headline

Scientific American headline 2019-03-18. “The Cuban “Sonic Attack” and Journalistic Ethics. A session at a recent scientific meeting exposed the dangers not of mythical high-tech weapons but of the heedless rush to sensationalize”

…the media sensation that has swept through news outlets and major scientific journals for over two years, is fueled by a failure of journalism. The din of sensational coverage in the media overwhelms the accurate reporting by science writers…journalists who had succumbed to sensationalism and ignored their responsibility of fact-based reporting bore much of the blame. They had failed to adhere to fundamental tenets of careful sourcing, verification, obtaining knowledgeable independent views and—to perform the most important role of journalism in a democracy— questioning government authority.

Hallelujah! I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to know that someone else is saying what I’ve been arguing for the last two years. It has been obvious right from the start that sonic attacks were not a remotely plausible explanation for the symptoms of embassy personnel. Credulously repeating the administration’s claims of sonic attacks back then was irresponsible, “a failure of journalism,” as Dr. Fields calls it. Continuing to do so, in spite of expert after expert dismissing the idea, and in spite of two years without a shred of evidence that any attack took place at all, is downright inexcusable.

 

Stable links:

Swanson, R.L., Hampton, S., Green-McKenzie, J., Diaz-Arrastia, R., Sean Grady, M., Verma, R., et al. 2018. Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba. J. Am. Med. Assoc., 319: 1125–1133. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.1742

Verma, R., Swanson, R.L., Parker, D., Aziz, A., Ismail, O., Shinohara, R.T., et al. 2019. Neuroimaging findings in US government personnel with possible exposure to directional phenomena in Havana, Cuba. J. Am. Med. Assoc., 322: 336–347. doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.9269

Comments

  1. Jazzlet says

    If the journalists were older I’d suggest they’d been listening to too much Hawkwind, not that that would be an excuse, but if might explain why their brains were scramled enough to completely overide their ethics.

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