Did Skeptics Debunk Havana Syndrome?

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Last year, I thought my best friend was dying. My dog Indy suddenly got clumsy, tripping over his own feet, having trouble jumping up on the sofa, and even as we were rushing to the car to get to the vet, he couldn’t navigate going down stairs and had to be carried.

I won’t leave you hanging: he’s fine! The vet examined him and diagnosed him with idiopathic vestibular disease, something I had never heard of before in my life but I was overjoyed to learn about, because it was temporary and not painful or deadly for Indy. The vestibular system is what many animals use to maintain balance, and for most mammals like you and me and Indy that’s mostly done in the inner ear, with help from the eyes and of course the brain. So “vestibular disease” means that Indy’s balance was thrown off, and “idiopathic” means “we don’t know why, it just happens sometimes.” And when it does happen, dogs and humans both tend to just get better over the coming weeks. The only lasting damage for Indy is a permanent head tilt, which doesn’t bother him and honestly makes him, like, 20% cuter. 

What I didn’t consider at the time, though, was that perhaps there was an identifiable cause: perhaps Russian spies parked outside my house targeted Indy with a top secret energy device for the purpose of causing him severe discomfort and to scare him away from criticizing the fascist Putin regime. Perhaps Indy actually had HAVANA SYNDROME.

A few months ago, a patron asked on my monthly livestream if I had considered making a video about Havana Syndrome and the fact is that yeah, I had considered it, but never bothered for a few reasons. For one, it’s a huge issue involving shadowy governments and I just never felt like I had enough data to form a unique, interesting, or solid opinion for you. And also, there just wasn’t any news to make it relevant.

Well, after a solid week of reading about international political intrigue, research on auditory and microwave weapons, medical case studies, and far too many “definitive” debunkings, I’m finally ready. Let’s talk about Havana Syndrome.

So, back in 2017 the mainstream news reported that dozens of US and Canadian diplomats in Cuba had been “impacted by mysterious acoustic attacks” leading to a variety of symptoms, many of which seemed related to the vestibular system: nausea, headaches, and dizziness, but also memory loss, hearing loss, and “brain fog.” Many of the diplomats insisted that it was a direct attack, and some of them said they were attacked multiple times, at work and at home. Cuba denied any involvement, and rumors abounded that it may have been the work of China or Russia.

Skeptics rushed in to point out that this had all the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness, or what we used to call “mass hysteria.” I’ve discussed this several times in the past, like when I covered the “epidemic” of teens “catching” Tourette’s on TikTok. The brief explanation is that the symptoms experienced by people suffering from a mass psychogenic illness are absolutely real and can be debilitating, but the cause of those symptoms isn’t a virus or bacteria or other environmental factor, but the victim’s own anxiety stoked by their preconceptions and suggestibility. Skeptics love a good mass psychogenic illness story. It’s weird, it’s based on people fooling ourselves, and it provides a good logical explanation for things that may seem to be supernatural at first blush, like why an entire medieval village might suddenly start dancing against their own will. Is it Satan? No, it’s merely anxiety, the tiny Satan that lives within our own brains.

Robert Bartholomew is one such skeptic, and he has been so vehemently insistent that Havana Syndrome is a mass psychogenic illness that he co-wrote an entire book about it in 2020. And last month, he wrote an article for Skeptic Magazine titled “THE GAME IS UP: NEW STUDY FINDS NO EVIDENCE FOR HAVANA SYNDROME,” which Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer described as a “definitive” debunking of the idea that Havana Syndrome has anything to do with spies or weaponry or anything but basic human psychology.

Amusingly, within a few days of that article hitting Skeptic, The Insider, 60 Minutes, and Der Spiegel published the results of a year-long investigation revealing detailed evidence that suggests Havana Syndrome is real and caused by “directed energy weapons wielded by members of Russian GRU Unit 29155.”

That was too juicy, so I finally sat down and read up on everything. I’m going to try my best to describe what each side has to say about this, but if you want to go straight to the sources, as always you can find links to everything freely available in the transcript on my Patreon, directly linked below.

So to start, Bartholomew hangs his conclusive debunking on two studies recently published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, stating that they “failed to find any evidence of brain or inner ear damage in victims of Havana Syndrome.” I read them both: one found no evidence of existing brain damage in supposed Havana Syndrome patients using MRIs, but the other one DID find significant differences between Havana patients and a control group when it came to both “objective and self-reported measures of imbalance and symptoms of fatigue, posttraumatic stress, and depression.”

Bartholomew further says that previous studies that DID find evidence of damage were “clearly flawed and any competent mainstream scientist who read them would have seen these shortcomings.” He links to two long reads, from Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, to support this, and lucky you, I read them so you don’t have to.

The New Yorker article from 2021 only describes a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, which used MRIs to study the brains of 40 patients with (suspected) Havana Syndrome and found “signs consistent with damage to the patients’ brains: the volume of white matter was smaller than in a similar group of healthy adults, which indicated that something structural in the brain had been affected.”

They don’t describe any criticism of the study.

But back in 2019, Jack Hitt DID write for Vanity Fair that:

“When The Journal of the American Medical Association published the report by the initial medical team, it also ran a hand-wringing editorial undermining the very article it was publishing. The “initial clinical evaluations,” the JAMA editors observed, “were not standardized.” The “examiners were not blinded,” and some of the ailments were based on “patient self-report.” There was a “lack of baseline evaluations and the absence of a control.” Those factors, the editors concluded—along with the fact that many of the reported symptoms “occur in the general population”—meant that the results of the study are “complicated.” The editors added a disclaimer, much like the one in Bush v. Gore (don’t ever cite this case in the future!), urging “caution in interpreting the findings.”

“The editors suspected that skeptical scientists would attack the study, which is exactly what happened. The chief editor of Cortex, Sergio Della Sala, ridiculed the authors’ methods, specifically for setting a low bar for reporting embassy staffers as “impaired”—resulting in “numerous false positives.” Take the symptom of tinnitus. Some 50 million Americans—one in six people—experience ringing in the ears. If the JAMA scientists had assessed “any group of normal, healthy people” using the same criteria they applied to the diplomats, Della Sala pointed out, they would have found “several of them performing below the chosen cut-off score in one or another test.”

Okay, so we have possibly flawed earlier studies, new studies that find no evidence for a specific type of brain damage, and finally Bartholomew attacks David Relman, the Stanford microbiologist who has taken up the cause of proving Havana Syndrome is real and likely caused by some unknown weapon. Bartholomew says that Relman has swerved out of his scientific lane – that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that he has refused to allow doctors to examine the patients who Relman thinks present the most clear cut cases.

Bartholomew doesn’t mention it, possibly because the audience for Skeptic Magazine would not see this as a red flag, but I think it’s worth noting that Relman is also one of the scientists who was wooed by the Lab Leak hypothesis for the origins of COVID-19, long after the experts published very clear and convincing data that the origin was most likely in the wet markets of Wuhan. In my opinion that does show a willingness to ignore the experts in favor of a more exciting story of a massive government conspiracy.

A few other bits worth noting: there are stories that “patient zero” in Havana was so focused on convincing everyone he was attacked that he may have convinced his coworkers to interpret every weird sound or sensation as an attack. Also, some recordings of the weird sounds diplomats heard turned out to possibly be particularly annoying crickets. Finally, early investigations that have since been declassified failed to find evidence that a weapon was used in any of these cases.

On to the report from 60 Minutes (an American investigative tv show), Der Spiegel (a German newspaper), and The Insider, an independent site founded by Russian exiles who debunk Russian propaganda efforts and which previously discovered and revealed the Russian special agents behind several assassinations and assassination attempts, including the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

The most information is contained in the report on The Insider, but if you’d prefer to have someone other than me talk to you about what they found, you can watch the 60 Minutes segment on YouTube (might depend on what country you’re in). Link in the transcript. But here’s the overview:

They discuss how the illness wasn’t contained to diplomats in Havana, but in fact earlier cases were reported in Germany, and later cases were in China, Russia, and Ukraine. And in fact, nearly all of the cases involved the most successful US spies working in counterintelligence specifically focused on Russia. So that’s interesting, because you’d think if it was just a psychogenic illness, you’d see the illness “spread” through offices regardless of the victim’s rank or specific job.

They profile many victims, whose stories certainly do not sound like anxiety and often include the agents’ spouses and children and EVEN HOUSEHOLD PETS, suggesting that perhaps Indy was NOT targeted. Perhaps I was the target and he was just felled by friendly fire. Something to think about. I mean, I’m not a spy but if I were a spy would I even tell you? Probably not. Actually yeah I probably would and that’s why they never let me be a spy. Anyway, let’s move on.

Considering the participation of The Insider, it’s no surprise that the real meat of the investigation focuses on Unit 29155, “a notorious assassination and sabotage squad of the GRU, Moscow’s military intelligence service.” The report meticulously catalogs the usual suspects of 29155, claiming evidence that places various agents in the exact cities around the world where US agents claimed to be struck by this unknown weapon. Some of the agents even confirmed seeing these men lurking nearby at the time of the incident.

Finally, the team addresses the elephant in the room I haven’t even touched on yet (because Bartholomew doesn’t seriously contend with it): is such a weapon even possible? They dug up evidence showing that not only has Russia been experimenting with nonlethal acoustic and microwave weapons for decades (something that doesn’t appear to be disputed by anyone, since other countries including the US have done so as well), but also that senior agents for 29155 were actually promoted for successfully testing such weapons as recently as 2019.

It’s also worth noting that they found documents showing that US officials were nervous about agents connecting these illnesses to Russia, suggesting that it’s a tenuous relationship that we might not want to disrupt because the result of Russia directly attacking US agents would be, well, a nuclear war with Vladmir Putin. I’ve played a lot of Civilization so I understand that sometimes you just have to ignore a little espionage to avoid Gandhi turning one of your cities into Chernobyl.

The report concludes by comparing Havana Syndrome to Gulf War Syndrome, another mysterious and much scrutinized disease that affected military veterans on both sides of the Gulf War of 1990 to 1991. A quarter of a million soldiers reported a multitude of chronic illnesses for a decade following their deployment, and skeptics were insistent that it was a mass psychogenic illness. Here’s John Stossel in 2001 calling it a “nocebo” in discussion with James Randi:

“The veterans have real symptoms, but major studies have found no germ or pattern of chemicals that could explain how the war caused those symptoms. If they were caused by chemicals, you’d expect the soldiers closest to the action to be sickest. But that’s not the case…

“All that publicity about poison gas, environmental toxins, about other soldiers getting sick—that plus the stress of military service can make people sick.

    (on camera) From believing it, some people really get sick?”

To which James Randi replies, “Whether something’s really there or not may be irrelevant. It may just be the belief system at work.”

Yeah, spoiler alert but Gulf War Syndrome is real. A study in 2022 confirmed that people with a particular genetic makeup were unable to metabolize sarin nerve gas and thus were more likely to experience the symptoms associated with Gulf War Syndrome. But I bet they enjoyed that John Stossel segment.

Of course, just because that turned out to be real, it doesn’t mean Havana Syndrome is really caused by Russian agents with a secret weapon. Personally, I have no idea what’s true. I don’t find the hypothesis particularly extraordinary – militaries are always experimenting with new weapons, the technology is within the realm of reality, Russian agents have been fucking around like this for decades, the US military is always trying to hide what they know or don’t know, and we as a society tend to not give a shit about the health of the people who claim to be protecting our sacred way of life. The worst argument I think I’ve seen in this whole thing comes from skeptics who say “But why would the US government lie about this or not get to the bottom of this” and I’m like, have you met the US government? Do you think they’re just super excited to pay for medical expenses for, um, anybody? Jon Stewart fought for two decades to get anyone in Congress to give a single shit about the health care of first responders who survived September 11th.

But all that said, no, we still don’t have a weapon, and honestly we probably won’t for another several decades because that’s about how long it’ll take to be declassified, excepting in the case of a whistleblower.

While I appreciate critics like Bartholomew raising important points about the validity of certain studies and the existence of alternate hypotheses, I have to admit I find it gross and inappropriate to claim that an MRI study failing to find evidence of brain damage is a “definitive” debunking. Even James Randi was very careful to avoid using the word “debunk” because of its negative connotations, and I really wish skeptics would go back to that. Like, let’s keep the word “debunk” for when we’re really super sure something is frivolous misinformation. Because calling THAT a “debunk” is just going to make people roll their eyes and completely dismiss what you have to say. And maybe they’d be right to do so, judging by Bartholomew’s hasty follow-up to rebut the 60 Minutes episode: “IT’S THE RUSSIANS!


He rails about every aspect of the show, though it seems like he didn’t even know about the more in-depth report on The Insider. He complains that David Relnor shows up, even though that was actually a clip from their previous episode on Havana Syndrome and wasn’t the point of this episode. He complains that all the spies they interviewed were kept anonymous, because I guess Bartholomew assumes that 60 Minutes failed to fact check their sources and only he can confirm these people’s stories.

He criticizes one woman because she says that the man she saw lurking outside her house when she was attacked looks like a Russian agent whose picture she was shown, though she cautions that she can’t be absolutely sure. Wow, a witness who understands that witness identification is error prone. Burn her. Burn the witch.

He then says that “brain fog,” one of her many symptoms, is “a common description of people experiencing anxiety,” which is a common tactic known as “poisoning the well.” Brain fog is also a common description of people experiencing long COVID and pregnancy, so what? And when it’s revealed that she has had several surgeries to fix holes in her ear canals, he says she probably got it SCUBA diving. Sigh. This is why I’m actually being very kind by suggesting Bartholomew hastily scribbled this reaction down, because I want to believe that if he had an extra five to ten minutes he could have thought of a hundred less shitty ways to suggest that her symptoms may have a different cause. Maybe while admitting that you have no idea at all what she’s been through besides that 30 second clip on 60 minutes, you aren’t an ear nose and throat expert, you aren’t a doctor, and you certainly aren’t her doctor.

Then he calls it propaganda and ends his response.

I went into Bartholomew’s first article giving him the benefit of the doubt: sure, it’s a bad headline and Shermer promoted it in a dishonest way by suggesting it was a comprehensive debunk. But this sloppy follow-up is just so embarrassing, and it makes him sound like somebody who only has a hammer and would like every problem to be a nail.

I want to end by stressing that it’s okay to admit when you don’t know something for sure. It’s okay to say, “Hey, these early studies had some issues so we need more evidence.” Or, “Here’s another possible explanation for what’s happening.” But it’s so incredibly egocentric to sit on your sofa in New Zealand or wherever and claim that you know conclusively what shadowy world governments are getting up to and what explains hundreds of top secret counterintelligence agents have experienced and are continuing to experience. I don’t know. You don’t know. One day the world will probably know for sure, but today isn’t that day.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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