It's the latest theory—but is it true?
Posted Sep 02, 2018 in Psychology Today
By: Robert Bartholomew Ph.D.
There is a new explanation making the rounds for the mystery illness responsible for sickening 25 U.S. embassy staff in Havana, Cuba, beginning in late 2016: microwave radiation. On September 1, 2018, the New York Times carried the headline: "Microwave Weapons are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. embassy Workers." Dr. Douglas Smith, one of the lead authors of a recent study of 21 of the affected staff members, told the Times that microwave radiation could be the culprit. His musings have naturally received significant media attention. Smith helped to write a recent study on the mysterious illness outbreak in Cuba in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
There's only one problem with the microwave theory: There's very little evidence to support it. A similar explanation was proposed late last year by James Lin, an Electrical and Computer Engineer at the University of Chicago, who argued that the Cuban illnesses could have been caused by targeted microwave pulses. The trouble with this hypothesis is that it would require a massive transmitter and the target would have to be right next to the antenna. It's just not feasible. Those reporting symptoms were not at the embassy, but in their own homes or in one of two major Havana Hotels. To target staff in these venues is not only impractical, it doesn't make any sense.
Curiously, when the JAMA study was published earlier this year, the microwave explanation wasn't even considered. The researchers claimed that a mysterious energy source had affected the brains of their patients. The study included phrases like "we must continue to withhold certain sensitive information" and "despite the preliminary nature of the data." Any time scientists withhold information and ask you to trust them, it is a giant red flag. Their study was filled with flaws and made claims that were not supported by the data. That they began their study by stating matter-of-factly that their purpose was "To describe the neurological manifestations that followed exposure to an unknown energy source," tells you all you need to know. This statement demonstrates from the onset, a lack of scientific rigor. When you take away the dubious claims of white matter track changes (which are common in everything depression to normal aging) and concussion-like symptoms (for which there was no clear evidence), we are left with a classic outbreak of mass psychogenic illness.
Spread to China
Earlier this year there were claims of a similar 'acoustical attack' in China. The Chinese twist makes the likelihood of some type the of attack even more improbable. The manner in which the State Department responded to the new attack claims was quite 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 have to be among the two 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') spreading even further. The U.S. has nearly 300 physical embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world with thousands of employees, everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, all with staff who are now on the lookout for strange sounds and vague feelings of illness. This is a classic mass hysteria setup. 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.
Here's the bottom line: It's all well and good to speculate but show us some evidence. So far, it's not there, so I am going with Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation is the most likely. In this case, the most plausible explanation that is grounded in mainstream science is mass psychogenic illness. Not long ago, the prestigious science journal Nature published an article by Sharon Weinberger reviewing the progress in the development of microwave weapons. Titled, "Microwave Weapons: Wasted Energy," it concluded that "Despite 50 years of research on high-powered microwaves, the U.S. military has yet to produce a usable weapon." Ouch! A piece of advice: Stick with mainstream science and the known, before speculating about exotic, far-fetched explanations, and the unknown.
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). 320(6): 602 (August 14).
Bartholomew, 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.