What’s a Science Reporter to Do When Sound Evidence Isn’t Sound?
On Tuesday, Michael Mason, my editor on the science desk, shot me an email. Would I consider writing an article about “this sonic ‘attack’ business”?
I knew exactly what he was talking about. I had been vaguely puzzled about this business for months.
Earlier this year, my colleagues at The New York Times started to report on a medical mystery that has turned into an international standoff. American diplomats in Cuba have fallen ill with a variety of perplexing symptoms, including — reportedly — some that might denote mild brain injury. The United States government has claimed foul play and accuses Cuba of, at the very least, not protecting the diplomats.
No one was publicly saying what caused the symptoms. But again and again, I would see suggestions that the diplomats were being attacked with a sonic weapon. A sound rifle, perhaps.
I knew that an article on sonic weapons would be very different from the ones I usually write. Consulting with Gardiner Harris, who covers international diplomacy for The Times and has written several articles about this case, I learned there was not even an official medical report.
I decided to try to draw some boundary lines for all the speculation swirling around the story. Is the idea of a sonic attack plausible, based on what scientists know about sound and the human body?
I wound up perusing a massive 2009 book called “ ‘Non-Lethal’ Weapons,” with a chapter summarizing research on using sound to incapacitate people at a distance.
But there’s less than meets the eye. There’s a lot of wild rumor about secret weapons that can make brains explode or make people think there’s a voice inside their head. And while medical researchers have studied the effects of sound for decades, they’ve done so sporadically, leaving us with a very patchy understanding.
So I hit the phone. I didn’t want to talk with just anyone — I looked for people with lots of experience in research that had direct bearing on this question. I started with Timothy Leighton, whose job title at Southampton University is, literally, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics. Better yet, Dr. Leighton has published the only thorough recent scientific review of the effects of environmental ultrasound that I’m aware of.
When I interviewed Dr. Leighton and others, I made clear I didn’t expect them to solve this mystery; I just wanted them to reconcile the question with what we know through science. Everyone I spoke with had been following the news, too, so in each interview we hit the ground running.
Spoiler alert: The consensus was that it was extremely unlikely the diplomats were the victims of a sonic weapon. It would be necessary to rule out less exotic possibilities before taking that one seriously. The notion has ricocheted like mad around the press, making it possible for readers to assume that it has been generally accepted by experts. But it most certainly has not. I’ll be curious to see if articles like mine can put the brakes on the speculation.
If the United States government ever does release the results of a detailed investigation, I would love to report on the case again. But, as the retired acoustics professor Steven L. Garrett pointed out, the chance to easily prove that a sonic weapon was involved — using a cellphone microphone — is long past. I may never get to write that follow-up.
October 12, 2017
Sources:` New York Times
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