If you have been around any science and engineering departments of any of the well-regarded universities and research institutions in the U.S., you will find that Chinese as an ethnic group are very well represented among the faculty and research staff. Yet, anyone with even the most superficial interaction with the Chinese community will come away with the observation that despite prominence in the science and engineering fields, theirs is still a community infatuated with superstition, and perhaps even delight in celebrating pseudoscience as part of their cultural identity.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region of the country where, for a large portion of the population, belief in and the acceptance of woos, pseudoscience and New Age ideas of every stripe is the norm. I constantly run into people who think that just because I am Chinese, I must necessarily subscribe to all the baloney of Feng-Shui, use Chinese herbal cures to treat ailments and take Chinese numerology seriously. If I part-take in Tai-Qi and/or Qi-Gong, it is assumed that I do so not just for their exercise value but to “unblock my Qi” to ensure prosperity and bowel regularity. When I meet other Chinese for the first time, they are astonished that I do not arrange furniture in my living room in accordance with the “ancient and proven principles” of Feng-Shui. They are flabbergasted that I would buy and live in a house with the digits “5-3” (no life) as part of the street address or that I do not fret over my cars’ license plates with a few digits of “4” (death) but lacking in the digit “8” (prosperity) on them.
If you have ever wondered why you don’t run into too many vocal card-carrying Chinese skeptics in your circle of skeptic friends, consider this story which circulated among the Chinese students at MIT when I was there as an undergraduate 30 years ago. The faculty adviser for the Chinese Student Association, so the story goes, is a biology professor with 7 daughters. One evening after the association’s officers meeting, he went out for beer with the students and after a few pints to loosen up, confided to them that he will be leaving his wife because she had not bore him a son. He will take his chances with a new wife. The students stared at him in stunned silence for a few awkward minutes until one of them came up with the courage to blurb out:
“ … but … but … but … Professor [fill in the blanks with your favorite Chinese family name] … you should know better – you determine the sex of the baby, not your wife!”
Sheepishly, without looking up, the professor replied:
“You know that and I know that. But how do I explain it to my parents? I am their only son. How do I give them and their family ‘face’ if I don’t try it the Chinese way?”
I am sure this is an apocryphal story and it is possible that some variant of this story may still be around today. Stories of this sort serve two purposes. First, for those of us on the inside, it serves as a reminder that however knowledgeable and learned we may be about how nature really works, we should not rock the boat too much when it comes to challenging strongly held beliefs that are a part of our cultural heritage. It is a subtle admonition to curb our enthusiasm for debunking our ancestors’ superstitions. Second, for those looking in from the outside, this story illustrates how for some, when confronted with disconfirming data, will allow cultural loyalty or ethnic chauvinism to trump education and intellectual integrity.
In my upcoming essays on this blog, I will address some of the issues and challenges of being a skeptic from personal experience, as one raised in Asia in a well-read but conservative Chinese household. I will try to give you some insight from the inside of a very ancient culture where superstition and pseudoscience reign supreme. You will get my take on Feng-Shui, Chinese Astrology/Zodiac, Numerology, Acupuncture, herbal cures and why we eat sharks fin, bird nests and seal penis for good health.