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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“It may seem the stuff of sci-fi novels”

This Associate Press report is almost two weeks old, but it reinforces my impression that the alleged ‘sonic attacks’ on the U.S. embassy in Cuba are imaginary:

New details learned by The Associated Press indicate at least some of the incidents were confined to specific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser-like specificity, baffling U.S. officials who say the facts and the physics don’t add up.

“None of this has a reasonable explanation,” said Fulton Armstrong, a former CIA official who served in Havana long before America re-opened an embassy there. “It’s just mystery after mystery after mystery.”

As I said yesterday, sonic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the range of (often contradictory) reports and health complaints of the affected diplomats.

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Sonic stupidity

You and I may disagree about politics. It’s a near certainty that we disagree about at least some political issues. But I hope we can agree that United States foreign policy shouldn’t be based on pseudoscientific claims with no plausibility.

The Executive Branch is flirting with doing just that. Whether or not you think reversing Obama-era warming of relations with Cuba is a good idea, I hope you agree that we shouldn’t do it based on phantom attacks using a non-existent weapon. I’m talking about the so-called ‘sonic attacks’ that, until recently, were being touted as a reason to close the U.S. embassy in Cuba:

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