Appeals to the authority of science have become fashionable in discussions of public policy issues. Debates over climate or public health now often include injunctions to “follow the science”. “Following the science” turns out to be immensely complicated, requiring the careful and judicious balancing of evidence from many sources, examining methods in meticulous detail, carefully establishing what may be concluded from the available evidence. This has recently been made clearer to the Biden administration in the case of COVID-19 booster shots.
The Biden administration has, however, inherited an excellent opportunity to set an important example in how to consider scientific evidence when struggling with wrenching, emotional, politically-charged public policy issues. That opportunity is called the Havana Syndrome.
The Havana Syndrome refers to a diverse set of medical symptoms first reported by CIA employees and American and Canadian diplomats assigned to Havana, Cuba. These symptoms soon came to be believed to be the result of deliberate attacks with some kind of unknown weapon. The weapon has been hypothesized to be a “sonic weapon”, a microwave weapon, insecticides, and most recently, a pulsed radio-frequency directed energy weapon. No evidence of any such weapon has been found to date. Individuals vary considerably in the symptoms they report, but in many cases the symptoms are serious and debilitating.
There has been intense resistance among those experiencing these symptoms, as well as the executive organs of the US government, the US Congress, and many others to seriously consider what may be the most plausible explanation for these symptoms: that they are psychogenic in origin. The placebo effect is well known: a patient who believes in the efficacy of a therapy may well show symptomatic relief even if the therapy is really a sham. There is a corresponding nocebo effect, of which Havana syndrome may be an example: people exposed to a harmless stimulus they believe to be threatening may develop symptoms consistent with their expectations.
There is a stigma attached to the idea of psychogenic symptoms. It is seen as somehow more honorable to be “wounded” by a physical weapon wielded by our enemies than to have simply succumbed to the natural and well-understood effects of certain kinds of chronic stress. To admit that there may be no secret weapon is understood by some to suggest that the victims are lying about their symptoms, are malingering, or are simply weak. This could not be further from the truth. Stress-related symptoms are as real and as debilitating as those with readily-identifiable organic origins.
The US House of Representatives recently passed a resolution entitled the “Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act (HAVANA).” This well-intentioned but fundamentally misguided piece of legislation jumps the gun by assuming that we know that the symptoms resulted from deliberate attacks, and that neurological damage resulted. One can perhaps be forgiven for drawing such conclusions on reading on a recent NASEM report, which asserted that the “attacks” were most likely the result of some kind of directed-energy weapon. The NASEM report specifically considered the possibility that the symptoms reported were psychogenic. The NASEM committee was not given access to data that would be necessary in making a definitive analysis possible, though, and stated in their report: “Thus, the committee was not able to reach a conclusion about mass psychogenic illness as a possible cause of the events in Cuba or elsewhere.”
The NASEM committee’s conclusion that the acute and chronic symptoms observed in the Havana cases are consistent with exposure to pulsed radio-frequency radiation are scientifically controversial. A scientific review of the NASEM report issued in December, 2020, concluded that “Scientific support for the committee’s probable mechanism includes a number of studies that have neither been replicated or are unsupportive of the mechanism”. Referring to mass psychogenic illness, the review states: “Certainly this illness is a much more likely cause of the symptoms than directed microwave energy”.
The claim that brain injuries have been found in those suffering from Havana symptoms has been taken by many as a “smoking gun” that they were really exposed to some kind of physical weapon. There is considerable scientific controversy over claims that neurological changes can be found in the brains of Havana victims, and over what the studies on which these claims are based really mean.
There are many factors that make the directed energy explanation attractive to various parties: it gives victims status as individuals wounded by an enemy while in service of their country; some politicians find the explanation attractive because it potentially implicates Cubans, Russians, or Chinese; other politicians simply want to support and help American public servants in need.
Media figures and politicians are likely to continue to ignore the very real scientific objections to the conclusion that Havana symptoms result from exposure to any possible secret weapon thus far considered, and to continue to refuse to seriously consider the possible psychological and social foundation of these symptoms. This is a disservice to those whose lives have been upended by Havana syndrome, and is likely to needlessly extend and amplify their suffering. Following this science is difficult: there are highly complicated and technical issues to be considered. Sadly, it is also difficult because doing so jeopardizes a narrative that is emotionally and politically appealing.