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Skepticism — A Cultural Perspective

by Yau-Man Chan, Oct 24 2008

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.

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20 Responses to “Skepticism — A Cultural Perspective”

  1. Earl Cole says:

    Nice read Yau! With such numeric superstitions within the Chinese culture, how does this affect the huge gambling culture that is deeply embedded and the newly found “Vegas-style” of gambling and showmanship that has spread throughout Macau? Lucky number 7 is not so lucky anymore! Being that I’ve been to many parts of China a few times, as well as partake in Asian-American activities through my former career in marketing, this article really made a lot of sense to me. Shark fins and Seal penis? Can’t wait to see that on the drive thru menu at McDonalds. Best of luck to you my old friend with your new blog of skepticism. I’ll believe it when I see it, but won’t buy it till I try it!

  2. Billy Massie says:

    What a fantastic blog, the story was especially funny.
    I have to agree with you on your knowledge of food and wine. You turned me on to one of my favorite noodle dishes, and it seems I order it too often. I also enjoyed the duck and crab feast. That was one meal I will never forget. I thoroughly enjoy shark fin dumplings, but I doubt I could bring myself to eat penis, even though I am sure it is very delicious.

  3. Jon says:

    It always baffles me that people attribute an actual causal effect to numbers. It also amazes me that these beliefs go unchecked on the basis of the practice having been popular for a significant period of time. Surely a quick poll would be all that is required to find out that people with 4 in their license plate live as long as everyone else. Feng Shui amazes me, am i conceited enough to think that the cosmos as a whole gives a crap about the orientation of my furniture? Argh!

  4. shane says:

    A recruitment consultant I knew used to give a gift to all her contractors/employees every year. One particular year she gave clocks which freaked out a few of the people of Chinese heritage. It seems that clocks have the same association with death as the number 4 and it is a major faux-pas to give clocks as gifts.

    Good luck with the blog Yau-man. :-)

  5. Elles says:

    Wonderful post.

    I myself am half Chinese on my mum’s side. My mum is usually a rational person, she even accompanied me to two CFI conferences and had just as much fun shmoozing with Austin Dacey, Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, etc as I did.

    But then it comes to stuff she was brought up to believe in while she was growing up in China during the cultural revolution. She still refuses to admit that the Chinese gov’t has done things that are less than stellar, and she believes in Qi, acupuncture, and all sorts of Chinese medicine because “it has been around for thousands of years.”

    She also has high blood pressure and she has chosen to use Chinese medicine to treat it.

    I strongly identify with my Chinese culture, and I especially love the food, but as an insider I definitely do think I should “rock the boat” or “stir the pot” or whatever variant of “make a lot of noise” you like. I only have one mother, after all.

  6. Kathy says:

    I think this is a very important perspective, especially as China expands economically and also as Chinese and other Asian traditional medical and spiritual practices are adopted in Western culture. There seems to be a notion of wisdom tied in with an ancient culture that gives these ideas legitimacy. Acupunture, Feng-Shui, etc are all part of the New Age woo in western cultures now. It is interesting to get a view from a person who knows both cultures. I look forward to future posts discussing how these ideas get passed through generations and through other cultures.

  7. Robert DeCaire says:

    If there is one thing I’d love to eradicate from the Earth immediately and forever, it’s Chinese medicine. The threat to endangered species (to say nothing of the threat to human health) is unconscionable, and it is simply amazing that it persists.

    When the communists in China took power they took pains to destroy as much of the existing Chinese culture as they could, burning temples and other connections to China’s religion and imperial culture in accordance with their atheist, anti-imperial doctrines–this was the Cultural Revolution. While their wrong-headed destruction of China’s historical places and artifacts (and ethnic minorities) was appalling to anyone with a love of history and culture, somehow this pogrom missed one thing they could seriously have done without: the hedge magic that they refer to as medicine.

  8. Chris Kavanagh says:

    I think the Chinese Communist party did initially have programs to stamp out ‘traditional medicine’ but then came to realise the benefits of having a cheap source of ‘medicine’ that the majority of the population believed in. The pseudoscience that is now so prevalent within traditional Chinese medicine can also be traced to efforts of Mao’s communist government to present Chinese medicine to the rest of the world as ‘scientific’. Anyway, just my memory from a few Chinese history courses might be wrong.

    More importantly Yau-Man’s blog judging from this first entry looks like it will be great. It’s nice to see a fresh perspective being explored!

  9. TonyK says:

    Excellent post. I encountered a similar issue when our daughter was born in May. Each of my cousins had fallen prey to and capitulated with our grandmother when she insisted that all of their children be baptized. This is a woman who isn’t even a C&E catholic, she’s been to churches for weddings and funerals in the decades I’ve known her, and even then she’s skipped a few so she didn’t have to listen to a long sermon. But, she insisted “she HAS to be baptized”, but I stood my ground and told her, “No, she doesn’t. I love you dearly, but my wife and I are both atheist and don’t believe in that hooey and won’t participate in it even as an appeasement of family. If, when she’s old enough, she decides to go that route, that’s her choice but neither you nor I will be making it for her.”

    She may be a wacky old broad, but I’d defend her with my dying breath and she knows that, so she finally relented. Much to the chagrin of my much weaker cousins… :)

  10. Tom Maydon says:

    Thanks for that Yau-Man. I’m a Westerner in Beijing (have been here for nearly a year now). And so I’m experiencing things in reverse. However I have very similar observations.

    Chinese superstition is also a very important part of Chinese culture. In the sense that perhaps in the West, even if you’re atheist you may want to get married in a church just because it is traditional. And so it is in China. As China becomes more dominant, so their identity in the world is important. So a lot is made about events like China’s first space walk. Whereas the Chinese-built US$20M spacesuits are commendable and was noted by the press over here, there was a comparatively a lot more Brouhaha around the Chinese medicine that had been provided to each of the crew members (just showing that Chinese Taukonauts were going into space, wearing Chinese space suits and even their medicine was Chinese – very patriotic). Chinese people here are defensive over TCM (Chinese Medicine) and distinguish TCM from Science-Based medicine simply by calling the latter “Western Medicine” . A remnant of their isolationist past.

    Some other superstitions prevalent here:
    1. Not sharing a pear (as it implies separation)
    2. Not giving a clock/watch as gift as it implies imminent death
    3. Not cleaning your house during the Spring Festival as you may sweep your good luck away
    4. Buildings regularly don’t have a 4th or 14th floor (and sometimes not a 13th either).
    5. Telephone numbers are sold on street corners (any phone numbers with a few 8s in are expensive)
    6. Anything concerning Qi (Feng Shui/Tai Qi etc)
    Thanks for that Yau Man…希望福到

  11. Yau-Man Chan says:

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, I will be commenting on the origins of some of these superstitions in subsequent blogs. The absence of 4th and 14th floor (and even 10th floor depending on the regional dialect) is relatively harmless – I guess no worse than our tristadecaphobia in the West.

    As for giving clocks and watch, you can actually do it – all you have to do is enclose a coin (of any denomination)or a currency bill in a red envelope in the gift box. When the receiver finds the coin or bill, he will give it to you and all is well and good since he has in effect purchased the clock/watch from you! Same goes with knives, scissors and other sharp objects as gifts. The logic is not unlike Islamic brothels where the customer upon entry signs a marriage certificate and when business is completed, signs the divorce papers on the way out! Sad but true.

  12. Shahar lubin says:

    I’m and Israeli-American atheist jew traveling SEA at this time. I met a viatnamese guy who ended up breaking up with his intended wife on account of his family being against their chinese astrological signs.
    The acceptance of chinese superstition is rampant among left leaning westerners as well. How often did I hear the line “you can’t check asian medicine using western tools”. The worst kind of special pleading fallacy. This would usually come from people who will gladly attack and criticize the christian and jewish faith. They flock to buddihsm and opther eastern schools without taking it to task for the same misoginism and nonsense of they parent’s faith. Women are just between animals and men in the reincarnation cycle and so forth.
    Speaking of “asian/chinese/eastern medicine”, we need to stop using this term as well as “alternative medicine”. This is falling into the trap of quackery that give it validity. I believe we need to move on towards the term “evidence base medicine”.
    In countering mumbo jumbo we need to learn how to approach it without antagonizing people. Like all ancient medical philosphies, the chinese did come up with many things that work. Those things they explained with theories. We now have better theories that are better in explaining those phenomona and better in predicting effects. Acupancture has actual effect, but many non real ones have been attached to it. I believe it’s better to accept their theories as early ones that have evolved since then. Einstein hasa proven Newton wrong, but we don’t go around attacking Newton as a crank.

  13. Joe says:

    Yau-Man,

    I guess your friends/relatives in the Chinese community believe your sckepticism is the reason you didn’t win Survivor 2007 (?)

  14. Armando Simon says:

    Boy, did this article struck such a strong chord with me! I, too, am an immigrant and so is my wife, though from different countries. I’m originally from Cuba; however, my attitude towards superstition in Cubans is frankly hostile. Unfortunately, there have been times in the past that this resulted in my failure in hooking up with some gorgeous Cuban girl who expressed these beliefs. I find it very embarrassing, particularly if it comes from someone who has lived most of their lives in the USA. My God, where to start? Well, for one thing, let’s try “santeria,” a quasi-religious, semi-voodoo claptrap. Essentially, it deals with shamans going into trances after drinking a lot of alcohol and communicating with African gods. Oftentimes a dead chicken or cat is waved over a person’s head or is slapped on her face. Santeria has gained a lot of respect in this country for two reasons: (1) it is mostly, though not exclusively, practiced by Cuban blacks and, of course, anything that blacks do we are supposed to automatically and unquestionably praise (like rap). (2) Since it comes from Cuba and the brutal Communist dictatorship has thousands of admirers in the United States, it is likewise automatically praised. But, aside from santeria, there is also the run of the mill superstitions, like having a fit if a hat is left on top of the bed, or an umbrella is opened inside or if one rocks a rocking chair without anyone sitting on it. My favorite,though, is attributing a large species of moth, native to Cuba and Florida with it being a witch. Whenever some Cuban expresses any of these beliefs, I feel like going into a closet and hiding inside. And don’t get me started on dreams!
    My Indonesian wife has made an effort to rid herself of her culture’s superstition (and believe it or not I HAVE been very tolerant with her, not voicing my objections at all). She has slowly absorbed the rationality in American culture and the fact that I didn’t reinforce some of her superstitions (like avoiding certain days of the week, or adhering to fengshui) without repercussions resulting from . . . the gods? . . . helped also. She, herself has remarked on the transformation of her character since she began to live in the United States; perhaps it is due in part because there were no other Indonesians to reinforce her beliefs. One thing she IS upset about, though: she dreamed of having caught fishes . . . and she did not win the lottery.

  15. Tony says:

    I am very disturbed by the rather chiling tendency that people who hold cultural ideolgies, superstitions, and pseudo beliefs demonstrate when confronted with evidence-based proof of their illegitamacy – they tend to typically reject such proofs. This may be due to a lack of real understanding of the scientific method but it is more likely a result of fear. Letting go of myths and beliefs that may have made meaning in your world, or contemplating defiance of the moral authority figures in your family and culture, may be too frightening to contemplate.

    I recently attended the 18th International AIDS conference and was struck by how many examples existed of this phenomenon. For example, even when confronted with research which showed that schoolchildren in the US who received sex education and were given safer sex tools reduced their risk of HIV infection, innumerable schools continue to keep to their abstinence/ignorance model. Thus they would rather risk children’s lives than act in conflict with their moral dogma.

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  19. Paul says:

    My wife is Chinese and I am constantly confronting Chinese superstitions. That being said many of these “superstitions may have some basis in fact. For example, regarding the story of the man who would leave his wife in order to have a son, I think science actually supports the “Chinese way.” People educated in basic biology “know” that the man determines the sex of the child because he must contribute the y chromosome for there to be a boy. But this completely misses the point. Studies have shown the men produce sperm with y chromosomes and x chromosomes in roughly equal number so that from the the man’s prospective he literally is contributing nothing to the chance of having a male or female, because just based on the contributed sperm the chance of having either are equal. And yet, statistics will show that families with children of all or overwhelmingly the same sex are much more frequent that random chance would produce. The answer lies in the fact that there are certain environmental conditions within the female reproductive tract such as acidity, etc. which tend to favor the survival of sperm with either the y or x chromosome. Thus, it is the woman’s body which is doing the selecting by creating the conditions which favor the production of one gender over another. The man would probably have better luck having a son with another woman.

  20. Ben says:

    Thank you for the interesting read. I have been curious about the juxtaposition of Chinese superstition with prominent Chinese scientists.