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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.

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