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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“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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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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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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Sonic weapons on Skeptoid

Cuba

Photo credit: Aexandre Meneghini/Reuters/Newscom.

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 suspectCuba’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…

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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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No means, no motive, and no suspect

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?”

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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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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.

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