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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 23.1 > The “Sonic Attack” on U.S.Diplomats in Cuba

The “Sonic Attack” on U.S.Diplomats in Cuba

Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. —popularized by Carl Sagan1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down. —Lisa Dierch and Ben Tausig2

IT’S THE STUFF OF SPY NOVELS AND SCIENCE FICTION films. On October 13, 2017, the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, dif ficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University, Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

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About Skeptic

EVIL, THEISM, and ATHEISM Answering the Hard Question “You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There is No God?”; God, Heaven, and Evil: A Renewed Defense of Atheism; The Devil’s Mark: The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin; Whence Cometh Evil? The Concept and Mechanics of Natural Evil; Virtuous Reality: Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism; Tearing Down Mr. Hume’s Wall: A Response to Moral Realism Skeptics; Brazilian Cancer Quackery; The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up; Understanding Human Skeletal Variation; Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education; Why Freud Matters: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition; Hope and Hype for Alzheimer’s; I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too; Junior Skeptic: The Incredible Claims of Pet Psychics…