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What We Can Learn From the 'Havana Syndrome' Fiasco

New report sounds the death knell for 'Havana Syndrome.'

Key points

  • A new government report has concluded that 'Havana Syndrome' was not caused by a secret weapon, but an array of health conditions and anxiety.
  • While 'Havana Syndrome' appears destined to fade from the headlines, confirmation bias is likely to perpetuate its persistence.
  • History is replete with examples where scientists have advocated for a particular position, only to have their claims discredited.

On March 1, 2023, the National Intelligence Council announced the results of investigations by five separate U.S. intelligence agencies into the mysterious condition known as ‘Havana Syndrome’ which has afflicted dozens of embassy staff stationed in Cuba since 2016. The council concluded it was “highly unlikely” the array of health complaints associated with strange sounds were caused by exposure to a secret weapon from a foreign adversary. These findings are supported by an independent investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and a panel of elite scientists known as the JASON group. When the State Department asked their employees to record the sound heard during their ‘attacks,’ analysis of several recordings concluded that they were the mating calls of crickets.

The intelligence community found that ‘Havana Syndrome’ was the result of a variety of existing health conditions, environmental factors, and anxiety—all of which were lumped into a new catch-all category. A contributing factor was the laundry list of common symptoms that were associated with it: headaches, nausea, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, fatigue, tinnitus, insomnia; even nose bleeds. The most serious claims of brain damage and hearing loss were never proven. While the full intelligence report has not been released, officials familiar with it note that “environmental factors” included health conditions induced by such devices as malfunctioning air conditioning and ventilation systems.

Refusing to Let Go

These findings sound the death knell for Havana Syndrome, which now appears destined to slowly fade from the headlines, kept alive by lawyers and confirmation bias—the tendency to seek out information that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs and stereotypes. Confirmation bias is a major driver of conspiracy theories because when people go down the rabbit hole and embrace beliefs on the margins of science, they often seek out books and websites that support their own views, giving them a distorted picture of the world. If you are a believer in Bigfoot, you can join Bigfoot groups, read Bigfoot books, and seek out fellow believers online. Before long, it can seem like most people are believers, when in fact, a 2020 survey found that 11 percent of Americans believed that “Bigfoot/Sasquatch is a real, living creature.”

A key component of confirmation bias is "belief perseverance"—that’s when people continue to adhere to a belief despite compelling evidence to the contrary. A famous example of this appears in the book, When Prophecy Fails, the study of a small UFO group in Chicago centered around a woman who predicted an apocalyptic flood. When her prediction failed to materialize, instead of abandoning the group, many members became even more committed. There are numerous historical examples of this doubling-down effect.

With the release of the new Havana Syndrome report, some politicians and journalists who spent years making the case that symptoms were due to a secret weapon from a foreign adversary are refusing to accept the findings. They continue to suggest that there is more to what happened than crickets and mass suggestion—and there is. What became known as ‘Havana Syndrome’ was the culmination of bad science, shoddy journalism, and a government that mixed politics with science. History is replete with examples where scientists have advocated for a particular position, only to have their claims discredited. But instead of admitting this, perhaps out of concern for their reputations or embarrassment, they refused to accept the consensus of the scientific community and stubbornly continued to double down on their original claims.

The Lesson of ‘Havana Syndrome’

Over the past few years, to its credit, Psychology Today published every one of my columns on Havana Syndrome—each arguing that it was a combination of mass psychogenic illness and a redefining of existing health conditions—and that claims of secret weapons were unsound. They did this in spite of sensational media reports to the contrary. In August 2017, a State Department spokesperson first announced to the world the existence of a mysterious illness in American embassy staff in Cuba. Within three months, I had published the first analysis of the condition in a peer-reviewed medical journal. The conclusions were not that dissimilar to the recent intelligence agency findings. What was the secret to figuring this case out so early on?

Gather the facts. Follow them. Ignore the naysayers and trolls. Steer clear of the politics. Be skeptical of those with vested interests. And above all—back yourself.

It was good advice then, and it's good advice today.

References

Baloh, Robert W., and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2020). Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy and Hysteria. Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus Books.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Baloh, Robert W. (2019). “Challenging the Diagnosis of ‘Havana Syndrome’ as a Novel Clinical Entity.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 113(1):7-11.

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. (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)

Brode, Noah (2020). “Bigfoot is Real (For 11% of U.S. Adults). Civic Science, May 11, accessed at: https://civicscience.com/bigfoot-is-real-for-11-of-u-s-adults/

Festinger, Leon; Henry W. Riecken; Stanley Schachter (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

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