Were the ‘Sonic Attacks’ on American Diplomats Just Sci-Fi?
February 5, 2019
“Any talk of a sonic attack is science fiction … . I have no doubt that the Trump Administration, which has consistently claimed that an attack took place (including Trump himself), now realize that they have made a mistake, but they do not want to admit it … . As for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings chaired by Senator Marco Rubio, it was a sham.”
I’m going to attempt to do several things in this article. For those unfamiliar with the claimed recent “sonic attacks” on embassies, I will provide some background information. In parallel, for people interested in reading an example of how the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) team works, I will describe the role I had in converting the story’s initially credulous Wikipedia article into its current version: one that makes it clear that the purported “sonic attacks” in Cuba and China all but certainly never happened.
If you are already familiar with the details of this ongoing “attack” story and are not interested in the GSoW skeptical outreach project (oh my!), feel free to skip ahead to my interview with mass psychogenic illness expert Robert Bartholomew, who provides his latest thoughts on this internationally important subject.
It was sometime in mid-2017 that I first started to hear and read that U.S. diplomats in Cuba had been assaulted by some sort of sonic weapon. The story was everywhere in the media. Many embassy personnel were reporting a variety of health issues, both short and long-term, and these were now being attributed to attacks dating back to 2016. In October 2017, it was reported that President Trump was positive that these attacks had occurred, saying: “I do believe Cuba’s responsible. I do believe that … . And it’s a very unusual attack, as you know. But I do believe Cuba is responsible.”1 Trump’s assertion that we were attacked had real-world repercussions: for one thing, it led to the U.S. State Department reducing its Havana embassy staff to a minimum. Canada eventually reacted as well by flying home the families of their diplomats.
As an aerospace engineer, I have some understanding of what is possible in this arena given the known laws of physics. So, while remaining open to the slim possibility that something real, nefarious, and not understood at all was occurring, I was not quite buying that these “sonic attacks” represented something real. Being a Guerrilla Skeptics team member, and having sworn a solemn oath to fight fake news and pseudoscience on Wikipedia (wouldn’t it be cool if we actually swore an oath?!) in October 2017 I set out to investigate what the English-speaking world’s number-one source of online information had to say on this subject.
I quickly found the very recently created short Wikipedia article named “Cuba sonic attack.” It contained only a tiny amount of skeptical material, so reading it would leave people with little doubt that the sonic attacks being discussed were real. Hell, the article’s name at the time was “Cuba sonic attack.” This version of the article is available here. (Note that while you can easily view any former version of a Wikipedia article, the current name—Havana Syndrome in this case and as of this writing—is always displayed.)
I did enough research to confirm that there was a sufficient amount of reliable skeptical criticism available against the position that this had been an actual series of attacks, so I had the article’s name changed to “Suspected Cuban sonic attacks.” (The complexity of the evolving story later caused a whole series of name changes, which—as of this writing—has settled on the phrase popularized by the media: “Havana Syndrome.”)
After successfully injecting “Suspected” into the name, and having more pressing things on my plate, I left it to other interested Wikipedia editors to eventually follow up and add additional skeptical content to the article. Unfortunately, when I reexamined it nearly a half year later, the article had grown significantly, but it had been expanded by mostly adding to the reports of the details and repercussions—medical and political—of the supposed “health attacks.” (That phrase was actually part of the article’s name at that time.) In my opinion the amount of skeptical content included did not nearly balance the material supporting claims and implications that real attacks had occurred. Importantly, the article’s lead—the summary of the article (which is the only part of an article most people ever read)—included not one iota of skepticism. (This version of the article is archived here.) The lead said, in full:
“In August 2017, reports began surfacing that American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba had endured unusual health-related incidents, dating back to late 2016. Twenty-two employees of the State Department reported experiencing what were referred to as ‘health attacks’.”
Enough was enough. I once again researched the reliable sources regarding this subject, and by late April I had used what I found to completely reconstruct the article. Besides adding adequate skeptical material to the main body, the article’s lead now included this sentence, concisely summarizing all the newly included skeptical content:
“Others expressed doubts, including scientific skeptics such as Brian Dunning, at least one U.S. Senator, the director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, and mass psychogenic illness expert Robert Bartholomew.”
The article still included all the injury claims being made by the diplomats, as well as the political finger pointing, but it now included ample skepticism that the medical issues were related to any attacks, and many statements made by sociologist Robert Bartholomew were used. Anyone reading this version of the article (or even just reading the revised lead) would hopefully come away with a very different opinion than they would otherwise have had. (This version is archived here.)
By the way, lest you think this rewrite was presumptuous of me, (“Rob all on his own changed what the other editors wanted to have the article say? How dare he!”), let me explain that this is virtually impossible on Wikipedia. That is especially true for an article on a controversial subject. I made these changes through discussion, arguments, and agreements reached with other interested Wikipedia editors who allowed these alterations to happen and who made their decisions based upon the available facts as reported by reliable sources.
After that major rewrite, as is usual for Wikipedia articles concerning current events, material was sporadically added or changed by editors (including me in this case) to reflect newly published information. This included adding the claims regarding similar supposed attacks that were being reported in China. In fact, as this is still an evolving story, article changes are continuing right up to the time of this writing and beyond. (The live version of the article may be found here.)
One of the subject-matter experts whose opinions I added to the “Havana Syndrome” article regarding these “attacks” being an instance of mass psychogenic illness—rather than a real one using futuristic weaponry (or any weapons at all)—was Robert Bartholomew. I reached out to him, and he agreed to provide an update on this continuing story for CSI online readers.
Rob Palmer: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this! Let me start off by asking you to introduce yourself to the readers of this article who may be unfamiliar with your training and background.
Robert Bartholomew: My first career was as a radio journalist. I served as news director for two stations in upstate New York. I hold a PhD in medical sociology from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, and have published over forty articles in peer-reviewed journals specifically related to mass psychogenic illness dating back to 1989. Part of my doctorate was on this topic. The chair of my PhD committee was Professor Arthur Kleinman, former chair of the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard University.
Palmer: Before we get to the supposed “sonic attacks,” can you describe some other cases of mass psychogenic illness that you have investigated.
Bartholomew: I investigated the Vancouver “Toxic Bus” case. On May 25, 2004, an Arab-looking passenger stepped off a bus in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. As he was leaving, the man asked the driver how his day was going … and the bus driver said good. The man then said, “It won’t be for long.’’ Minutes later the driver felt unwell and asked if any passengers were feeling sick. When one said yes, he pulled the bus over and called for help, fearing chemical or biological attack. Several emergency responders also fell ill. In all, ten people were sickened from what was initially believed to have been a chemical attack.
Symptoms included eye irritation, headache, vomiting, dizziness, loss of coordination, stomach pain, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and tremor. Each of the patients quickly recovered. Police identified methyl chloride as the chemical in the “attack.” However, methyl chloride is common in the environment and can be found in everything from cigarette smoke to burning wood and coal—even aerosol propellants and chlorinated swimming pools, and the amount found was minute, 27 parts per million. Vancouver’s chief medical health officer, John Blatherwick, came to the same conclusion as I did: that the episode was an example of mass psychogenic illness.2
I have also investigated a series of mysterious illness outbreaks in Herat province in Afghanistan during August to September 2015 with a psychologist working there and a local Afghan government official. Over 800 students from several different schools were affected, and basic information about the incidents was gathered and analyzed, including interviews with the students. We concluded that these, also, were the result of mass hysteria.3
Similar incidents of “mass poisonings” of Afghan schoolgirls have been reported for the past decade. The Taliban have vehemently denied any involvement in these cases, and the evidence supports their contention. Not a single victim died as a result, despite several dozen incidents. Most cases were triggered by the presence of an unfamiliar odor, and in almost every instance the victims quickly recovered and were experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. Separate studies by the World Health Organization and the United Nations, have reached a similar conclusion—that they were the result of psychogenic illness.4, 5
Palmer: Okay, how did you first learn of the Cuban “sonic attacks,” and when did you first suspect that things were not as they were being presented?
Bartholomew: I suspected mass psychogenic illness as soon as I began researching on the use of sound by the military and later microwaves. Dan Vergano, former science editor for USA Today, made me aware of the case. I conducted a thorough review of the literature, and what was being reported contravened the laws of physics. I dug deeper. The more I looked at this scientifically, the more skeptical I became. I never immediately assume that mass psychogenic illness is involved. You have to look at the worst-case scenario first because you are dealing with people’s lives. I can tell you that there are many psychiatrists who are very skeptical of the sonic attack claims, but they do not want to be publicly quoted or identified because mass psychogenic illness is a contentious subject, and they do not want to get caught up in the controversy.
Palmer: Some of your quotes in the current version of the “Havana Syndrome” Wikipedia article implied that the U.S. claims of there being sonic attacks in Cuba may be insincere. Do you still believe that? [This question was in reference to Bartholomew’s February 2018 statements regarding a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the “attacks.” According to The Guardian, Bartholomew said that it “reads like US government propaganda” and “It’s like the authors are trying to get us to believe an attack has occurred.”6]
Bartholomew: I have no doubt that the Trump Administration, which has consistently claimed that an attack took place (including Trump himself), now realize that they have made a mistake, but they do not want to admit it. The facts in this case are beyond clear and compelling; they are definitive. Any talk of a sonic attack is science fiction. Now some people are trying to move the goalposts and claim it was a microwave attack. There is even less evidence for that than a sonic attack.
Palmer: Now, let’s talk about the Wikipedia Havana Syndrome article. The most current reference from you in that article is not very recent. What have you published that can be used to provide more current info, such as on the electromagnetic weapon hypothesis or crickets (both mentioned in the article)?
Bartholomew: I have just completed an 80,000-word book manuscript on this episode with UCLA neurologist Dr. Robert Baloh. We look at the history of claims that sound waves have caused illness, and we also examine the microwave claims. To think that someone could hold a weapon—sonic, microwave or otherwise—and target U.S. diplomats while deep inside a major hotel, while people standing next to them were unaffected, is James Bond science fiction. It is clear that embassy staff heard cricket and cicada sounds and mistook them for a sonic attack. Bug experts who have heard the sounds reached similar conclusions.
Palmer: How frustrating is it to be sure this was not an attack and see that you are being ignored? And what’s your opinion of the hearings held on this subject by the U.S. Senate in 2018?
Bartholomew: While it is frustrating to see misinformation published, the truth will come out in the end because we are dealing with science. The wheels of progress turn slowly, but they inevitably turn, and they will in this case—because all you have to do to solve this outbreak is to steer clear of the politics and follow the facts. When you do, it is a classic outbreak of mass suggestion. I am 100 percent certain that this is a case of psychogenic illness. This is not arrogance; it’s science, and the facts in this case speak for themselves.
As for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings chaired by Senator Marco Rubio, it was a sham. Senator Rubio asked leading questions and made jokes about the possibility of psychogenic illness. Professor Robert Baloh and I would relish the opportunity to address the Foreign Relations Committee because I think we could set them straight, so long as they are genuinely interested in learning the facts and leaving the politics aside. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we are not engaging in speculation. It is not speculation to conclude that smoking causes cancer and people who jump off tall buildings into a concrete sidewalk will die from massive trauma. So too with the Cuban saga. The evidence of mass psychogenic illness is not suggestive or even compelling; it is definitive. There is no question about it.
Palmer: Do you wish to express direct criticism of any of the studies cited in the Wikipedia article?
Bartholomew: I can state unequivocally that the two studies suggesting that some type of exposure or attack took place—one in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the other in Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology—were seriously flawed. The authors of the JAMA study did not have a good grasp of the literature on psychogenic illness. One of the key authors later described mass psychogenic illness as a form of collusion. This is wrong! They do not understand the literature. Place 1,000 competent psychiatrists in a room and every single one of them will agree with me. It’s not debatable. These studies did not demonstrate that some type of attack or exposure took place. When you focus on the facts and take out the politics and wild conspiracies gleaned from social media, you have a classic outbreak of mass psychogenic illness.
Palmer: Lastly: “Havana Syndrome.” What do you think of that description?
Bartholomew: I like it, but it should be placed in quotation marks because it is technically not a syndrome as the symptoms are too varied. The New Yorker article referred to it as a syndrome, and I have no problem with the term, so long as it’s in quotes. I think it’s probably the best description, so I hope you keep it.
Editor’s Note: More information on this topic, with commentary by Bartholomew, appears in an article by Jack Hitt in the February 2019 issue of Vanity Fair.
Acknowledgements: I want to thank Robert Bartholomew for his participation in this interview. One year ago his own article covering this subject, “Sonic Attack Claims Are Unjustified: Just Follow the Facts,” was published by CSI, and you can read it here.
- “Trump Says Cuba ‘Responsible’ for Alleged Sonic Attacks, but Offers No Evidence.” 2017. The Guardian (October 16).
- Bartholomew, Robert E., and Simon Wessely. 2007. “Canada’s ‘Toxic Bus:’ The New Challenge for Law Enforcement in the Post-911 World—Mass Psychogenic Illness.” The Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 49(5): 657–671.
- Bartholomew, Robert E., Stephanie Lockery, and Abdul Fattah Najm. 2016. “Terror Attacks That Never Were: Myths of Poison Gas Attacks in History and More Recently on Afghan Schoolgirls.” The Skeptic 21(3): 44–49.
- World Health Organization, Eastern Office for the Mediterranean. 2012. “Mass Psychogenic Illness in Afghanistan.” Weekly Epidemiological Monitor 5(2) (May 27):1.
- Aikins, Matthieu. 2013. “The ‘Poisoned’ Schoolgirls of Afghanistan.” The New York Times (April 25).
- “Fresh Row over Mysterious Sickness Affecting US Diplomats in Cuba.” 2018. The Guardian (February 24).