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 - except, of
course, for the fact that the United States and Cuba are not exactly
on the best of terms, and the US was tightening its sanctions
against the very country its embassy is in. But when these reports
reached the ears of scientists, eyebrows were raised, because
it made no sense. Today we're going to look at the alleged sonic
weapons used against American diplomats in Cuba.
Sources in the US State Department gave various reports to news agencies to describe the attacks. Whatever device was used made no audible sound; yet one diplomat's hearing was damaged to the point that he now requires a hearing aid. As of this reporting, as many as 24 Americans, plus the families of five Canadian diplomats, were said to be affected. A September 2017 statement from the US State Department described the symptoms and made it clear that this was being treated as an attack:
Over the past several months, 21 U.S. Embassy employees have suffered a variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature. The affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping. Investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks.
In October of 2017, the United States expelled fifteen Cuban diplomats in retaliation for the alleged attacks. And within the American embassy, staff was reduced to a skeleton crew in the face of the ongoing illnesses.
And while newspapers wholeheartedly trumpeted the sonic weapon attacks, scientists and those with knowledge of such weapons were urging caution, because there's almost certainly no such thing as what was being claimed.
The first thing many people say when they hear this is that sonic weapons are actually very real. This is true, but using this fact to justify the reports from Cuba would be like pointing out that turtles are real to justify the existence of dragons. Real sonic weapons have nothing in common with the Cuba reports, and are not an acceptable match for them. So let's look at real sonic weapons to better understand just how far out there the Cuba reports are.
The most common type of sonic weapon is called an LRAD, short for long range acoustic device. An LRAD looks like a large flat panel that can be aimed, and it produces very loud sound at the most annoying frequency, about 2.5 KHz. The sound is projected over a long distance in a beam that's about 30° - not all that tight, but very tight for an acoustic device. They can produce sound at up to 160 dB and can be heard over three kilometers away. But the sound disperses over longer range, and when used as a weapon, they are effective at causing intolerably loud sound for as far as one to three football fields. LRADs are what they use against pirate boats and crowds of unruly protesters. They are also used for signaling and long distance communications, such as announcements to distant crowds. Above all else, an LRAD works because it is loud. The Cuban weapons were said to be silent, so it takes very little analysis to see that the most common acoustic weapon is not what was employed in this case.
There are really only two other kinds of sonic weapons, and "weapon" is really too strong a word for either of them. M84 stun grenades, also called flashbangs, temporarily disorient victims with a flash of over 1,000,000 candela and a bang of over 170 dB without causing any permanent damage. This is also clearly not what happened in Cuba. Finally, there is a gimmicky system said to be able to discourage teenagers from loitering, by playing a high-pitched whistle that, supposedly, only the youngest, healthiest ears can hear. It's intended to annoy, not to harm, due to the unpleasant sound. This is also totally inconsistent with the Cuba reports.
About the only other thing even worth mentioning is the old urban legend about the so-called "brown note" - a low frequency rumble just beyond the bottom end of human hearing, which is said to liquify the contents of your bowels and cause immediate uncontrollable diarrhea. It's never been demonstrated and is highly implausible from a physics perspective. Why would only the bowel contents be affected? In any event, prodigious uncontrollable diarrhea is not one of the symptoms reported from Cuba, so we can be pretty sure that some gigantic "brown note" generator was not involved.
So what could the weapon have been? Random bloggers and Internet commenters seem to feel that they have the answers. The weapon deployed in Cuba was probably an LRAD type device using an inaudible frequency or even microwave or other electromagnetic radiation - wholly unevidenced speculations, of frequencies known to not have any effect on humans at plausible energy levels. It sounds sciencey in a blog or on Facebook, but it's not the way real physics works.
When we look closely at these reports to try and determine the raw facts, we quickly notice that they are not consistent with one another. Different people reported different symptoms. Most people did not report hearing any particular sounds. Of those who did, they said they heard very different sounds, and at different times and places. None of the sounds bore any similarity to sonic weapons. Only one person reported permanent hearing loss; and as nobody else did, we can safely assume that it was likely due to natural causes for that person. One reported a concussion with no apparent cause, but nobody else did either. So if we are looking for some external cause for these symptoms, we learn that it was probably not any one cause. It was a number of different causes, suggesting that these people were suffering from various unrelated problems.
Poisoning has been suggested as a potential cause. Mercury, lead, and a number of industrial solvents can cause nerve damage resulting in hearing loss. It's a poor theory though, because they'd have had to have significant exposure over a long time, and it would have been trivial to detect in their system. Such poisoning was tested for, and was not found. Sure we can speculate that some new, unknown poison was used that we don't know how to test for, but that's more pure speculation with no evidence.
Some have suggested that the victims may have simply been sharing an ear infection. One candidate is labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear that throws off your balance, causing nausea, dizziness, vertigo, and a degree of hearing loss. These are most, but not all, of the symptoms reported. It is entirely possible that some of the affected diplomats had an ear infection and passed it around to one another. Critics of this theory have pointed out that only Americans reported being affected, though; and they work closely with Cubans every day. However, it's worthy of note that the Cubans don't tend to be in the habit of reporting their colds to the US State Department.
As the newspapers shouted about Cuba's unprovoked attack against the diplomats, and the US State Department applied pressure to make them stop, the Cubans decided to figure out what was going on here for themselves. Once they learned of the Americans' complaints, they formed a 2,000-person task force under the veteran Col. Ramiro Ramirez representing every security and science discipline. They turned first to potential causes they knew to be plausible based on their experience in the region. They tested for permethrin, the leading fumigating agent used there against mosquitos. In cases of accidental high exposure, permethrin has been shown to cause headaches and nausea. No excessive permethrin was found.
Next the Cubans turned to neighbors and domestic workers of the American diplomats who would have all been exposed to the same thing as the Americans, whatever it was. Nothing was found. Nobody had suffered any ill effects caused by sound. Cuban scientists used every device in their arsenal to hunt for the mysterious sonic weapons, but came up empty handed.
Finally, the Cuban scientists settled upon the explanation that American and other scientists had already begun to float, and it's one that will be familiar to regular Skeptoid listeners. It is, in fact, a perfect explanation that requires no mysterious acoustic weapons drawn from science fiction, and neatly checks every box. It is a mass psychogenic event.
Before you guffaw and dismiss this, let's review what we've learned about acute stress in previous episodes. Chronic acute stress can produce definite physical symptoms, and they are - all down the line - exactly the symptoms reported by the diplomats. Sleeplessness, anxiety, nausea, headaches, fatigue, cognitive impairment, etcetera. The reported symptoms began immediately after Donald Trump had been elected President and vowed to crack down on US-Cuban relations. This placed greatly increased stress on the American diplomats.
We don't know exactly how the "sonic weapon" theory got started, but somehow it did. When this story spread among the diplomats and their families, it added to their daily stress even more. And whenever someone heard a funny sound - such as the ones reported by some of the victims - they attributed it to the sonic weapon. Their stress increased, thus the symptoms increased, and the sonic weapon theory was apparently validated every time someone felt worse. It's a situation that feeds on itself and amplifies itself with each iteration.
A close analog to this is electromagnetic hypersensitivity which we studied in episode 72. People think they are allergic to WiFi. When they believe a WiFi network is around, they become anxious and stressed, and they attribute the resulting symptoms to the WiFi. The more they believe it's happening, the worse their actual physical symptoms get, and the stronger their belief in the misinterpreted affliction becomes. Just as this can happen to an individual, it can also happen to a group who spend a lot of time together and share the same environments and stressors.
This also explains why it happened only to Americans (plus a few Canadians) and not to the local Cubans in the same houses and buildings. We would expect a mass psychogenic event to not affect the Cuban neighbors and employees. As Cubans, they have no reason to think they'd be targeted, and they lack the stress of being from the enemy country.
It's a solid explanation with numerous precedents from recent history. It fits nicely with Occam's Razor, in that it's an ordinary explanation that does not require us to make any changes to our understanding of physics or biology. Of course we don't know that this is in fact what happened, but unless some evidence emerges showing a physical cause, it's the best supported explanation. And that, my friends, is how we do science.