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New 'Sonic Attack' Study Mostly Spin, Little Substance

A new study proves nothing.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has just released a second study on claims that U.S. Embassy staff in Cuba were exposed to a sonic attack or other unknown energy source (July 23rd, 2019). Scientists conducted more detailed neuroimaging on the brains of those affected compared to a group of healthy controls. Here is their alarming conclusion; They found significant differences. The report states that “advanced brain MRI techniques revealed significant neuroimaging differences in whole brain white matter volume, regional gray and white matter volume, cerebellar tissue microstructural integrity, and functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks…”

To the layperson reading this technical study, it sounds like something sinister really did take place in Cuba. Even major media outlets bit: The New York Post carried the headline, "Cuba 'sonic attacks' changed US diplomats' brains, study finds."

But take a look at the fine print.

Under the section on ‘Limitations,’ they state that “…it cannot be determined whether the differences among the patients are due to individual differences between patients or differences in level and degree of exposure to an uncharacterized directional phenomenon.”

So why didn’t they state this in their Abstract or Conclusions? We can only speculate. The original study in JAMA was seriously flawed. The authors, and the journal itself, took a lot of heat for it. This second study also contains serious flaws, not the least of which is inflated findings. The evidence just is not there, but the wording makes it sound like there is more of a mystery than there really is.

While the study's lead author, Ragini Verma of the University of Pennsylvania, called the results "pretty jaw-dropping," the only thing that was truly jaw-dropping was how poor the study was. For starters, brain changes do not equate to brain damage. Further 12 of those affected had pre-existing histories of concussion, compared to none in the healthy controls. Such differences could go a long way toward explaining the differences between the two groups.

Here is what a lot of people do not realize: The stress associated with mass psychogenic illness can cause changes in brain function. The literature on mass hysteria is filled with outbreaks involving patients exhibiting neurological abnormalities. These are not the short-lived cases in which someone detects an unfamiliar odor, falls ill, then quickly recovers, usually within hours and rarely longer than a day. There is a second type of outbreak that is characterized by the appearance of neurological symptoms. These types of cases typically involve exposure to long-term stress that occurs for months and even years. This second outbreak type is what happened in Cuba.

How is it that scientists continue to suggest that something mysterious took place, sonic or otherwise, when the supporting evidence is just not there? Neurologist Sergio Della Sala at Edinburgh University made similar observations in his criticism of the original JAMA study. I have no doubt that when neurologists take a close look at the new study, they will be just as critical and underwhelmed by the evidence.

While these results are still vague and open to interpretation, some news outlets and ‘believers’ are latching onto this as 'proof' that they were right all along and say, ‘I told you so.’ This study will only sow more confusion among the general population who are not experts on medicine, acoustical weapons, psychogenic illness, or physics. People often see what they expect to see from ambiguous data — and this is Ambiguous with a capital 'A.'

If someone has proof that Embassy diplomats were exposed to a mysterious energy source, then present it. To date, no one has. The evidence is not there.

References

Robert W. Baloh, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (February 2020). Havana Syndrome: The Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery Illness and Modern-Day Mass Hysteria. Prometheus Books (an Imprint of Rowman & Littlefield).

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).

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.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (2018). “’Sonic Attack’ in Cuba Caused ‘White Matter Damage:’ The Facts Don’t Add Up.” The Skeptical Inquirer 42(2):8-9 (March-April).

Bartholomew, Robert E. (2018). “The ‘Sonic Attack’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department Claims Don’t Add Up.” The Skeptic (United States) 21(4):8-12.

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 110(12): 474-475 (December).

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