Oriental Medicine Charlatanry

Someone in my Facebook friendslist (whatever it’s called there) posted a thing about acupuncture and how it actually works, at least as an analgesic.

And, well, yeah. Done right, it can work as an analgesic. It can work as advertised.

Unless of course the practitioner is a total quack asshole who advertises that acupuncture (or other oil-of-smoke medications) will cure cancer.

Somewhere on the Korean internet is a web forum where doctors hang out and chat, something like Dave’s ESL Cafe, and one of the long-running topics of complaint is how often patients show up at the conventional doctor’s office, basically on death’s door and fully cognizant of their condition — they know they have bowel cancer, or whatever — but too far gone to treat. How did they get there? They tried to cure their condition using “Oriental Medicine.” And because of this misstep, all too many of them end up either dead, or screwed up for the rest of their lives.

I’m all for cultural sensitivity, but I think there’s a more important kind of sensitivity that’s important, and that is, being sensitive to the fact that, unfortunately, large numbers of people are easily manipulated. It’s just true. Lots and lots of people are poorly educated, superstitious, not that bright, have been raised to fear conventional hospitals, or whatever. These people end up dead when they get a condition that needs proper, prompt treatment, but seek it from quacks and charlatans.

That is a worldwide phenomenon, by the way. It’s not just in Korea that these leeches feed on human weakness. Faith healers, psychic surgeons, all of them: they’re crooks, they’re liars, they’re the scum of the earth. They fool people whose memetic immune systems have been weakened, and they  leave them dead, or worse, convince them — their marks — that they themselves (the marks) have the same magical powers to heal the sick, or can learn those powers (for a fee, of course). Sometimes, they are so callous they don’t even believe in the system they are selling. More tragic is when they do believe in it… they’re much more effective vectors of memetic infection when they do buy into the crap.

I had some students, long ago and in another city, question me at length about what it would take scientists to “believe” in gi, which is the Korean word for what, in English, we call “chi” or “qi” — that Chinese notion of life-energy, connected with breath but also with geomantic forces and yin and yang.

When I explained that it’s not the business of scientists to “believe” in things, that they would have to produce some evidence for gi, they got rather upset. They kept on insisting that gi was unprovable, and not liking when I pointed out that science, especially medical science, is allergic to the unproovable.

“But it’s real!” they insisted.

“Then prove it scientifically. Produce some evidence.”

“We can’t!”

“Then how do you know it’s real?”

“We just know!”

“Yeah, well, science doesn’t work that way. Until you prove it’s real, it doesn’t exist except as a superstition.”

“You can’t prove it doesn’t exist!”

“I don’t need to. That’s not how science works; you’re the ones claiming something is real. If you want others to believe it is, then give us  some scientific evidence. It’s your job to prove it’s real, not mine to prove it isn’t — at least, not until you’ve offered some evidence for me to look at. That’s how science works. You produce evidence, I question it, you defend it, and either your interpretation is good and everyone changes their thinking to acknowledge it, or your idea gets discarded, like the idea that the sun goes round the earth or the idea that frogs and worms grow magically out of mud.”


It was, for them, not a scientific issue. It was not an intellectual issue. It was an emotional issue. It was a matter of proving that Korean traditional medicine worked as well as, or better than, Western science.

Which is a much easier thing to claim when you have no flipping clue how science works. Which reminds me of a story I thought I’d posted, but can’t find on this blog, about how, back in the old days of my first year in Korea, there was a girl who was an Oriental Medicine Pharmacology major. She was extra-nice to me, gave me flowers after one of my gigs, and seemed like a genuinely sweet young lady, as well as bright and good at English. Had she majored in, I don’t know, Urban Planning or High Wire Acrobatics, I might have ended up dating her. But, well…

… one day, she invited me along to check out the laboratory at the Oriental Medicine Pharmacy Department building. This was when I discovered that another of my students, an older woman, was actually her thesis advisor or something. (And supervisor at the lab.)

Up to this point, the both of them had seemed bright, sane, and rational to me.

Then they explained their methodology to me. Basically, it consisted of, “We know that _______ [some Chinese medicine containing black licorice] cures melanoma.” (Yes, they were sure they had the cure for melanoma right there in the lab. SRSLY.) “But we need to prove how it works, since we already know it  does.”

And then they explained what they were doing. Basically, they had petrie dishes and were dropping samples of various ingredients in the specific Chinese miracle medicine. A little licorice powder here, a little powdered unicorn horn (or whatever) there.

“But… assuming there is a medical effect, wouldn’t it be… you know, a product of complex chemical interactions between the ingredients, in the proportions specified? Or, maybe, the way that those ingredients and chemicals are metabolized and what their products are in the bloodstream?”

“We’re trying licorice first, to see if it’s the active agent.”

“Um. How long have you been testing it?”


“Powdered licorice?”


I didn’t know what to say. As they led me around the lab, showing off all that equipment, my heart was pained. This was real lab gear. Serious lab gear. It could have been used to test all kinds of things, to study things using real scientific method. To try find something that actually does cure melanoma. Instead, it was being used to dump powdered licorice onto melanoma cells for months at a time.

It is to weep.

Sadly, Oriental Medicine is still widely accepted in Korea. It is legal to practice it, and as far as I know, there is no law against either putting on airs of medical expertise, nor against claiming miracle cures are possible from licorice and other random ingredients. And that’s sad, because despite the fact that science has nothing to say about the existence of gi, it could very easily demonstrate how very few conditions Oriental Medicine is actually good for.

Which, well, is very, very little.

6 thoughts on “Oriental Medicine Charlatanry

  1. As always, summed up my own feelings very well Gord, and reminded me a great deal of regular critiques of National Health Service funding of chiropractic treatments in the UK on The Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast (highly recommended by the way http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/series/science).

    On a partial side note, I can’t remember his name of the top of my head sorry, but your point about the existence of “gi” being not a scientific issue or even intellectual issue for your students, but rather an an emotional issue instead, reminded me very strongly of that person who was fired from his university for having a blog about Dokdo, and asserting that it was in fact Japanese. He had extremely similar emotional, rather than evidence-based assertions from his Korean colleagues when his blog came to light.

    I’m curious: I’ve heard that asserting that criticizing JFK produces very similar responses from most Americans. Would you say that that is true? (I’m sure you’ve met rather more than I have!)

  2. When I was going to see my mother just before she died, I had 2 different Koreans wanting to send various things with me which would “cure” her cancer: that powder made of ground up grains which you mix to make a drink (can’t think of the name), and those finger-shaped sticky puffed rice snacks which they often serve around holidays. I didn’t bother to explain that my mother barely had an appetite at that point, and certainly wouldn’t be interested in new, strange food.

    I will say, though I wouldn’t be going to a han-eui-won for cancer care, the various treatments including acupuncture and heat lamps did wonders when I was having back pain.

  3. Some of my mother’s friends did much the same thing while Mom was suffering from her brain cancer: they hauled out the superstitions. I learned about “gwang-sogeum” (“light salt”) and the fabulous, cancer-erasing effects of aloe. I also learned that all antioxidants cure cancer. It’s amazing what wisdom appears in moments of crisis.

  4. James,

    Well, chiropractic treatment might be slightly useful for back pain, though risky. (I was treated once and had temporary relief from discomfort. But I wouldn’t go back.)

    The guy you’re thinking of, who was fired, is Gerry Bevers. Here’s a post about his firing. He still blogs here, and is of a decidedly prescriptivist bent, often pointing out how badly Koreans speak their mother tongue. (It’s wrong because it violates Korean grammar!)

    (While I have no opinion worth expressing on Dokdo, except that it is often used as a convenient distraction — and even saying that will piss some people off — and though I think the firing was shameful, I also get the impression Bevers was at times irrational and very emotional about the issue… and about Korea more generally.)

    I haven’t criticized JFK to many Americans, but I have known Americans who felt it necessary to debunk the magical aura of princely wonderfulness that seems to have accreted around his memory.

    I think there are other hot-button topics that are more similar, such as criticizing the American government’s reaction to 9-11. (There was a while where very few, right or left, felt they could criticize, and everyone else was either cheering or quietly feeling both uneasy and afraid to speak out.)



    Allison and Kevin,

    Ugh, I’m sorry to hear about those experiences.

    This again raises the point that the official endorsement of these forms of treatment not only can cost lives, but facilitates the exploitation of the desperate.

    (And as a commenter pointed out on the LJ thread, this is done not only at monetary and emotional expense, but also at the expense of the lives of a number of animals from endangered species.)

    It’s enough to make one wish that James Randi’s Korean doppelganger would show up and offer a W1,000,000,000 prize for the first person who could demonstrate an oriental medical cure for cancer. For all the claims of medicines than can cure it, how come nobody knows anyone it actually worked for?

    It also highlights the importance of public education in stamping out this kind of charlatanry.

  5. Oh, and Allison,

    Sure, as I say, dealing with pain, heat lamps and other stuff can work. It’s a joke that this is called “Korean medicine” though: heat lamps are not traditional Korean medicine.

    The acupuncture is traditional Korean (from Chinese) medicine, though, and can work for some things, as I noted at the beginning. However, acupuncturists who claim to patients to be able to cure diseases with acupuncture should be banned from practicing.

    Or, rather, acupuncture should simply be subjected to the same testing as all other medical science, as is happening in the west, and used for what it’s good for, without the whole sham alt-medicine system that currently surrounds it.

    EDIT: I should add, I have experienced one or two treatments of the shammy kind. At the massage room of Total Sauna, I think it was called, in Jeonju, one masseuse suddenly put those vacuum cups onto my back and told me it would help, even as I said I didn’t want that kind of treatment.

    It didn’t help, and I walked around with big red welts on my back for days. And then I found the best physio clinic in Junghwasandong and learned it cost W3000 (at the time, ~$3, for those following along abroad) per (insanely effective) treatment. I was at a loss to understand how or why anyone would ever go the Oriental medical route.

    But since someone on the LJ thread is asking WHY people would insist on it, I’ll give my opinion:

    • a general feeling of alienation by western medicine and doctors — especially a popular resentment of doctors seen as profiteers of others’ misery. (And unfortunately in too many cases, it’s an accurate perception.)
    • a postcolonial fixation on all things Korean as somehow inherently “good for Koreans” — as well, probably, as a kind of emotional resistance to the medicine of the West tied up with the same nationalist sentiments that allow some people to swallow wholesale the idea that kimchi can prevent SARS or other diseases.
    • actual bad experiences with doctors. I’ve seen Koreans being treated like crap by residents, for example undergoing some sort of nasal suction procedure and saying, “It hurts!” and being told, rather sharply, “No it doesn’t! Be quiet!” And most Koreans don’t tend to say “It hurts!” lightly. (I am much quicker to cry out in pain.)
    • a generally poor level of science education and critical thinking skills. Education in Korea not just deprioritizes the skill of critical thinking, but in fact seems to inihibit it for a lot of people… and science education, well… I’ll put it this way — I’ve testing, impromptu, my classes on the basics of science education, like say understanding gravitational acceleration (if we drop a person and a pencil from the top of a building, which one hits the ground first?) and, anecdotally, 30-60% of every group I’ve asked has asserted that heavier objects fall faster than light ones. I don’t know if it’s particularly different from the US, but then, the US has horrible science education, so such a comparison would hardly deflect criticism.

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