It is the case that just won’t go away. Controversy continues to swirl around the cause of several outbreaks of mysterious ailments among American diplomatic staff that are widely believed to be from an acoustical weapon. The story first broke in August 2017, when the State Department announced that since late 2016, 22 employees of the American Embassy in Havana, Cuba, had been stricken. Before long, two more victims came forward. Since we first reported on this episode (Skeptic, 2018, 23/1:13–15), a 25th staffer has been added to the casualty list. Most victims reported hearing strange sounds accompanying their symptoms that were variously described as buzzing, humming, and grinding. Complaints included fatigue, dizziness and difficulty concentrating, confusion, headaches, nausea, and more alarmingly, changes to the white matter tracts of the brain and concussion-like symptoms.
Throughout 2017, dozens of American citizens have reported that over the past few years, they had experienced similar symptoms after hearing strange sounds while spending time in one of the two Cuban hotels where many of the attacks allegedly occurred. They claimed that in September 2017, an officer attached to the American embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, reported that he and his wife had experienced similar symptoms after hearing strange noises. By mid-2018, the State Department dispatched a medical team to China after announcing that several diplomatic staff there had fallen ill after hearing similar sounds.
The most significant development in the mystery took place on February 15th of this year when the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study from a team of neurologists who examined 21 of the Cuban victims. They concluded that embassy personnel were indeed suffering from concussion-like symptoms and white matter tract changes.1 They also dismissed claims that it was a case of mass psychogenic illness. Their findings made global headlines. But here is where the story takes a surprising twist: for a study published in one of the world’s leading medical journals, it was remarkably flawed. The authors made startling claims that were not supported by their own evidence. Let’s examine these claims.
The Study’s Purpose
The study was not written in a neutral manner. The authors make it sound like it’s a fact that there is this unknown energy source causing people to get sick. They wrote that the purpose of the study was “to describe the neurological manifestations that followed exposure to an unknown energy source.” This may be true, but they did not prove it. They should have written that the study’s purpose was to describe the neurological manifestations following the alleged exposure to an unknown energy. This is Science 101: stay within the limitations of your data. Don’t make claims you cannot support.
The authors claim that the patients were suffering from white matter tract changes and concussion-like symptoms. In an accompanying editorial in the same issue, neurologists Christopher Muth and Stephen Lewis urged caution, noting that brain imaging found “nonspecific white matter changes in some individuals, but was otherwise unrevealing.”2 White matter tract changes are common in an array of conditions ranging from depression to normal aging. In the months leading up to the release of their study, media leaks by members of the study team claimed that there were significant changes to white matter in the brains of the patients. However, their data did not live up to the hype. As for the other dramatic finding that captured media headlines: concussion-like symptoms, Muth and Lewis were equally skeptical. They point out that many of the symptoms overlap with an array of medical and psychiatric conditions.3
Dismissing Mass Hysteria
According to the authors, mass psychogenic illness was ruled out because all of the patients were keen to return to work, and hence were not malingering—the faking of illness or injury to avoid work or some responsibility. It has nothing to do with this case or mass hysteria. There is no debate about this—it’s the wrong term. This shows an alarming lack of understanding of the literature on mass psychogenic illness. In a later interview, one of the study authors said that the team discounted the mass hysteria explanation because there was no collusion among patients. He said, to have mass hysteria you would have to have all of the patients “in collusion together to make sure all their symptoms match.”4 This assertion is as remarkable as it is untrue. Collusion and mass hysteria are unrelated. They are chalk and cheese. The authors of the JAMA study clearly do not understand the mass hysteria literature.
Another reason for dismissing the psychogenic explanation was the absence of a rapid onset and recovery. They also got this wrong. The second most common type of mass psychogenic illness—motor hysteria—begins slowly and persists for months or years. It appears when prolonged stress causes disruptions to the nerves and neurons that send messages to the brain, resulting in symptoms like twitching, shaking, and trance-like states. It occurs in populations who are under prolonged anxiety, and most importantly, it is often characterized by neurological symptoms. The study team also claim that some patients had not heard about the symptoms previously—essentially discounting mass suggestion as a possible cause. If they were unaware that others were falling ill, how could they be part of a mass hysteria? Yet, when you look at the data, this claim is not as straightforward as it might seem because it took an average of 203 days before the patients were interviewed. Memories fade with time and are easily distorted, especially over such a significant time period.
After a torrent of criticism of their conclusions appeared in a subsequent issue of the journal, key members of the study team defended their report with statements like: “we must continue to withhold certain sensitive information” and “despite the preliminary nature of the data….”5 These statements are red flags. They are essentially asking us to take their word for it and to trust their judgment. Science does not work this way. Scientists present evidence and draw conclusions based on that evidence, not information that is being kept hidden from the public. The fact remains that when you take away the dubious claims of white matter tract changes and concussion-like symptoms, we are left with a classic outbreak of mass psychogenic illness. On the weight of evidence, this is by far the most likely explanation.6
Earlier this year there were claims of a similar “acoustical attack” in China. The manner in which the State Department responded to the new attack claims was sensational and unnecessarily alarmist; it issued an alert based on vague symptoms (dizziness, headache) from just two diplomats in Guangzhou. Apart from ambiguous stomach pain, these two symptoms are among the most common medical complaints in the world. The State Department’s mishandling this case is a recipe for what I call “The Sonic Attack Scare,” or if you like, “The Microwave Panic” to spread further. The United States has nearly 300 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions across the globe with thousands of staff—employees who are now on the lookout for strange sounds and vague feelings of unwellness. This is a classic setup for an outbreak of mass hysteria. The groundwork has been laid for future “attacks” via mass suggestion. As a result, this saga seems destined to continue with no end in sight.
The Latest Claim: “It’s Microwaves!”
In early September 2018, one of the authors of the JAMA study, Dr. Douglas Smith, began making new claims that cannot be substantiated. On September 1st, the New York Times carried the headline: “Microwave Weapons are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers.” Smith told the Times that microwave radiation could be the culprit. There was only one problem with his interview: he provided no corresponding evidence. According to Kenneth Foster, Professor of Bioengineering of the University of Pennsylvania, the microwave explanation is “a real stretch” as it would require “a major airport radar transmitter with the subject’s head close to the antenna in its direct beam.”7 While technically possible, it is highly unlikely. Those reporting symptoms were not even at the Embassy, but in their own homes or in one of two major Havana hotels. The microwave explanation was so unconvincing that it was never even considered in the JAMA study by Dr. Smith and his colleagues.
If one scours the internet, you will find many claims about the American military engaging in secret experiments with microwave weapons. However, earlier this decade, the prestigious science journal Nature published a review on the progress of the development of microwave weapons. It concluded: “Despite 50 years of research on high-powered microwaves, the U.S. military has yet to produce a usable weapon,” and referred to it as “Wasted Energy.”8 The author of the review, Sharon Weinberger, is the Washington Bureau Chief for Yahoo News. She is an expert on the history of the U.S. military’s development of microwave weapons.9 She reports that the situation remains the same today. After publication of the New York Times article speculating on a possible link between microwaves and the sick diplomats, Weinberger Tweeted: “American work on U.S. microwave weapons intended to target humans has been an unmitigated disaster… Filled with secrecy, overblown claims, and ultimately weapons of questionable utility, like the Active Denial System, which was never deployed on the battlefield.”10 Even if such a weapon existed, it would be impossible to target individuals deep inside one of the two massive hotels in Havana, as has been claimed.
This “mystery” will be solved not through endless speculation, but by following the facts, adhering to mainstream science, and looking for patterns. When we do this, the most plausible explanation remains mass suggestion incubated in an atmosphere of Cold War paranoia, ever-present background noises, and mundane medical conditions such as tinnitus. In short, claims of a “sonic attack” are unsound, and talk of microwave radiation is unconvincing. For a series of events that have been under intense scrutiny since early 2017, to still be unable to present convincing evidence of these “attacks” is revealing.
About the Author
Robert Bartholomew holds a doctorate in Medical Sociology from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, and is the author of many books on pseudoscience. He teachers History at Botany College in Auckland, New Zealand. His most recent work, American Intolerance: Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants (Prometheus 2018), looks at the history of foreigner panics in America.
- Swanson, Randel, Hampton, Stephen, Green-McKenzie, Judith, Diaz-Arrastia, Ramon, Grady, M. Sean, Verma, Ragini, Biester, Rosette, Duda, Diana, Wolf, Ronald L., and Smith, Douglas H. 2018. “Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba.” JAMA, 319(11), 1125–1133, March 20.
- Muth, Christopher C., & Lewis, Stephen L. 2018. “Editorial: Neurological Symptoms Among US Diplomats in Cuba.” JAMA, 319(11), 1098–1100.
- Muth & Lewis, op cit.
- Sample, Ian. 2018. “What Happened to US Diplomats in Cuba?” The Guardian, Science Weekly Podcast. February 23.
- Hampton, Stephen, Swanson, Randel, and Smith, Douglas H. 2018. “In Reply.” JAMA, August 14, 320(6), 604–605. See p. 604.
- For a more in-depth discussion the likely role of mass psychogenic illness in the reporting of illness in U.S. diplomatic staff, see: Bartholomew, Robert E., and Perez, Dionisio F. Zaldivar. 2018. “Chasing Ghosts in Cuba: Is Mass Psychogenic Illness Masquerading as an Acoustical Attack?” The International Journal of Social Psychiatry 64(5):413–416; Bartholomew, Robert E. 2018. “Neurological Symptoms in US Government Personnel in Cuba.” Letter. Journal of the American Medical Association 320(6): 602 (August 14); Robert E., and Perez, Dionisio F. Zaldivar. 2018. “Sonic Attack Claims Stir Controversy in the United States.” Op Ed. Swiss Medical Weekly, February 23: 1–2; Bartholomew, Robert E. 2017. “Politics, Scapegoating and Mass Psychogenic Illness: Claims of an ‘Acoustical Attack’ in Cuba are Unsound.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, December, 110(12): 474–475.
- Mosbergen, Dominique. 2018. “Microwave Weapons could be the Culprit Behind the Mysterious U.S. Embassy Attacks.” The Huffington Post, September 2, https://bit.ly/2wYcEGZ
- Weinberger, Sharon. 2012. “Wasted Energy.” Nature, September 13, 489:198–200.
- Weinberger, Sharon. 2018. The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. New York: Vintage.
- Weinberger, Sharon. 2018. Tweet dated September 2, 2018 from @weinbergersa