Some people got sick in Cuba. Or did they?

Sound cannon

Image from wired.com.

The last time I wrote about the Cuban ‘sonic attack’ baloney, I said that a pair of peer-reviewed articles had 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).

I may have spoken too soon: Sergio Della Sala and Roberto Cubelli, writing in Cortex, dispute the evidence that American embassy personnel in Cuba suffer from neurological impairment:

The [Swanson et al.] JAMA article represents a case of poor neuropsychology; clinically inappropriate and methodologically improper…

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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.”

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FBI dismisses sonic weapons in Cuba “attacks”

Cuban embassy

Image credit: Getty.

That’s right, I’m using scare quotes. That’s because there is not and has never been any evidence, at least any that the public is privy to, that U.S. embassy personnel were attacked in Cuba.

It’s a near certainty that whatever happened in Cuba, it wasn’t a sonic attack, as I’ve been saying since September. After a months-long investigation, the FBI has concluded the same thing. According to the Associated Press,

Following months of investigation and four FBI trips to Havana, an interim report from the bureau’s Operational Technology Division says the probe has uncovered no evidence that sound waves could have damaged the Americans’ health, the AP has learned.

In a beautiful example of motivated reasoning, the Trump administration has shifted to an even goofier theory.

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More Cuban science fiction

Sound cannon

Image from wired.com.

It’s not even good science fiction. Good science fiction may require suspension of disbelief, but it should at least be internally self-consistent. Here’s part of the story from CNN:

Investigators continue to examine the circumstances surrounding as many as 50 attacks that may have involved the use of an acoustic device, a US official has told CNN.

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.

Now multiple news sources report a cell phone recording of a mysterious high-pitched sound, for example The Independent:

The high-pitched frequencies are believed to have injured at least 22 diplomatic staff, who suffered problems with hearing, cognitive function, vision, balance and sleep.

Wait, I thought it was “so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound.” Get your story straight, will you?

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Cuba’s “magical sci-fi sound gun”

Finally, a major news source is applying some skepticism to the claims of acoustic attacks on U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba. A new article in Wired by Adam Rogers acknowledges that acoustic or sonic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms:

Most of the reporting on this story so far has talked about some kind of a “sonic weapon” or “sonic attack,” maybe a side-effect of a surveillance technology. The problem is, physicists and acousticians don’t know how ultrasound (high frequency) or infrasound (low frequency) could do what the State Department says happened to its people. That leaves two possibilities: a new, sci-fi sound gun or something else.

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“Sort of like a mass of crickets”

Cuban embassy

Image credit: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images.

As I have mentioned now and then over the last year and a half, the narrative that American embassy personnel in Cuba were subjected to “sonic attacks” is bullshit (Sonic stupidity“It may seem the stuff of sci-fi novels”; More acoustic credulity; Cuba’s “magical sci-fi sound gun”; No means, no motive, and no suspectMore Cuban science fictionSonic weapons on Skeptoid; FBI dismisses sonic weapons in Cuba “attacks”Asking the wrong questions: still no evidence of a sonic weapon):

There is no evidence that U.S. embassy officials in Cuba were subjected to any kind of attack. There are a bunch of reported symptoms that are not clearly related and mostly subjective. The symptoms are consistent with lots of other explanations; the only reason they’re being attributed to attacks is assertions by unnamed government officials. To my knowledge, none of these assertions are backed by evidence.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone!

I’ve been doing this for about two and a half years now, and no one’s more surprised than me to find that I’m still at it. I feel a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts about the whole thing:

Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely stop blogging in the morning.

Westley’s still ticking, but no promises.

I published 121 posts in 2018, not too far from my goal of three a week. The most read by far was also my all-time most read, “Research Features: seems sketchy to me.” The reason, I think, is that that post appears not far from the top when “Research Features” is searched on Google. I had a colleague try it for me once, and my post was the third hit. So when the “magazine” contacts researchers, and they Google it to see if it’s legit, they get some criticism along with the magazine’s own self promotion. Several commenters wrote that this saved them time.

Research Features comments

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Asking the wrong questions: still no evidence of a sonic weapon

Back in October, AP reported that they had “obtained a recording of what some U.S. Embassy workers heard in Havana,” a high-pitched whine “sort of like a mass of crickets.”

A new technical report tests the idea that the audible sounds recorded by AP in Cuba could have been caused by two (or more) ultrasonic sources (a less technical description is here). What the paper shows is that sounds similar to those in the AP report can be produced from the interference of one ultrasonic source on another. This much seems convincing. I don’t have a deep understanding of the physics, but the real-world demonstration is hard to argue with.

But just because the sound can be reproduced this way doesn’t mean it was produced this way. I have seen “Eye of the Tiger” played on dot matrix printers. That doesn’t mean Survivor recorded it using dot matrix printers.

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This is how you do it

I’m pretty annoyed with CNN these days. I have called them “recklessly irresponsible” for failing to apply the slightest skepticism to the administration’s absurd claims of sonic weapon attacks in Cuba. Then there’s their website’s autoplay videos, which shrink, move to the sidebar, and keep playing if you scroll past them. Because obviously, when you scroll past a video to read a story, what you want is to see the video.

But Brianna Keilar nails it in this interview with Georgia State Senator Michael Williams:

That’s right, she asked the exact question I’ve criticized CNN for failing to ask: how do you know that? And Senator Williams dances a beautiful little jig in his effort to dodge her question.

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