How ‘unusual health events’ sidelined science in Cuba


In the year In 2016, U.S. diplomats began to suffer from what is known as “an alarming set of neurological symptomsUnusual health problems (AHIS) and is widely known as the “Havana Syndrome”. It was first reported in Cuba, but later spread to American diplomatic missions, the most common description of which was that medical science was now faced with a “new disease that had been invented”.Directed force” weapons Carried by unknown enemies. It was the story. They were eagerly received in the news reports And Some US government officialsBut It met with the skepticism of many scientistsyears of conflict.

But on March 1, seven American intelligence agencies were released Improved AHI assessmentHe rejected the idea that these diseases were caused by alien attacks or force-driven weapons. The review also rejected the idea that AHIs are the expression of a single identifiable syndrome. Criticism When the syndrome was first announced, it was made by several researchers. These conclusions came after a medical examination More than 1,000 cases, extensive inquiries, monitoring, laboratory reports and evaluation of various data sources, according to the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence. One can only imagine the resources required to thoroughly evaluate these very real – but confusing – health complaints.

The saga of Havana syndrome is a dramatic failure of science with serious consequences for patients and international relations, illustrating how medical evidence is fought by political pressure. It’s hard to believe that the scientifically implausible narrative about AHI has persisted for seven years. Far from misinforming the public, the story skews US policy decisions and, most importantly, fails to adequately address the pain and suffering of patients, which is very true. Would you be able to overcome the anxiety and despair if the authorities told you that your illness was the result of an attack by a mysterious weapon that causes an unknown disease? What failures in the scientific process allow this to happen?

The first failure itself was mentioned in the recent release Intelligence assessment. It’s a well-known problem: confirmation bias, where people only get what they expect to get. The first medical studies were uncritically accepted as saying that “the illnesses could not be explained by natural or environmental factors.” Also, the reported symptoms confirmed the existence of a true and novel condition similar to traumatic brain injury, only without obvious trauma. In other words, “attacks” with certain weapons are taken as a starting point, and the medical results are interpreted accordingly. The intelligence review found that “a combination of clinical and academic criticisms pointed to methodological limitations” in those early studies. Current medical research offers a different interpretation, according to the evaluation, environmental factors (such as stress) and previous medical conditions play a significant role in the symptoms.

The second failure is to dismiss comments and evidence that do not fit the main narrative. Since 2018 Jama Published Two wrong articles He proposed this A new mental disorder. These were the first medical reports, and the idea of ​​a power tool In doubt And Objections as if Many scientists. Serious errors in analysis Neuropsychological And The neuroimaging data was clear. These were basically the arguments. A hearing in the US Senate is pending.And in the news media, which He published his studies Alleviating objections. Official US government travel advisories Acceptable in unknown (And it had links.) one of these articles to scare visitors away from Cuba.

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) convened a panel of scientific experts to critically review AHIs in 2020. Final panel report It had at least two serious problems. First, he sidestepped the arguments of scientists who could be attacked Prescribed power tools are unrealistic. Second, battered microwires are a “very plausible” (easily confused with “most likely” in news reports) explanation of neurological symptoms, a conclusion that contradicts the evidence carefully reviewed in the body of the report. The NASEM report dismissed the neuroimaging findings, neuropsychological tests and most laboratory tests used by US diplomats to suggest a new syndrome. In the NASEM report, there was no evidence for microwave weapons in the AHI. Some of the researchers (not on the panel) who first explained the microwave effect mentioned in the report I disagree later Microwaves can explain AHI. In addition to that, A careful and thorough review In 2018, the JASON Group (a long-term scientific advisory board for the US government) already concluded that “directed energy sources” are an unlikely cause of AHIs. This report was covered up by the US State Department sponsor of the NASEM report, who did not share it with their panel and made it public three years later.

A third failure is the lack of scientific involvement that allowed the misinterpretation of the AHI to develop. Given that the first cases occurred in Havana, the Cuban Academy of Sciences (CAS) created an interdisciplinary panel of experts to review all publicly available reports and community health surveys that are believed to have occurred. Six members of this panel (including myself) met with State Department medical officials in Washington, DC in September 2018, but unfortunately, not with the staff involved in the injured diplomats. This exchange was conceived as the first of many discoveries. In subsequent discussions, Cuban academia’s desire to cooperate with US agencies was ignored. In contrast, CAS’s engagement with Canadian officials and medical researchers to study reports of AHI in a minority of their citizens has been active and effective. An interesting CAS reportPublished online in December 2021Although there are different sources of information and perhaps different initial assumptions, they mainly agree with the US intelligence assessment: weapons of force were scarce. Attacks by foreign agents were rare; And AHI was not a recognizable syndrome, but instead a collection of different medical conditions, some of which were pre-existing conditions. “Havana syndrome” was a misnomer in the final analysis. He wasn’t a syndrome or from Havana.

We can all learn something from this story. Errors such as confirmation bias (making data fit an unproven assumption), ignoring inconvenient arguments, and not communicating with all interested parties can always happen again. Governments and science are both human enterprises, and it is human to err. The bias of scientific input can lead to wrong policy decisions that can harm many people. Science tends to correct itself, but it needs protection, especially if it doesn’t give us the answers we want.


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