Letter to the editor: Response to “The Perils of Chinese Medicine”

I occasionally like to read articles that hold opinions that differ from my own to reflect on my beliefs and to think about how to make my profession better. The opinion piece entitled “The Perils of Chinese Medicine” that appeared in the Portland State Vanguard, however, was not what I had expected. It did not present well-developed thoughts about the dangers of the modern day practice of this ancient art and science. It was weakened by factual inaccuracies, logical fallacies, moral indignation and emotionalism used as blunt weapons of persuasion.
Mr. Sun’s comments about Chinese medicine are incorrect and misleading. A case in point is the unfortunate and uninformed contention that healthcare practitioners and healthcare planners are touting the idea of completely eliminating Western medicine therapeutics and surgery and replacing them with Chinese medicine.

The history of allopathic or disease-centered medicine is that this dominant system by definition waits until dis-ease has become disease (measurable) and heroic measures must then be taken to address the problem. While there will always be a need for acute and chronic care intervention, people should not wait until they need heroic measures to rectify issues with their health and well-being. Small problems can be nipped in the bud before heroics are called for. Alternative and complementary medicines like Chinese medicine focus on the prevention of disease and often help to avert the extremes of disease (and in some cases even disease itself). Chinese medicine also provides options for those who are not satisfied with mainstream medicine. In addition, the theories underlying many complementary medicines, including Chinese medicine, are variations of what Western science refers to as “systems theory.” In the medical field, this equates to the idea that the human being is an integrated structure existing on many levels, and that the person should be understood as a complete and integrated system and not just as a collection of parts. How is it not a good thing to learn from already long functioning systems theory and practice to benefit Western science and medicine in a direction it is already beginning to explore?

Mr. Sun seems to believe that scientific rationalism is the best and only way to view the world. Even so, he demonstrates repeatedly the same kind of logical errors that contemporary science was created to address. For example, Mr. Sun cites one bad experience with Chinese medicine, in which it is used cynically as a tool to bilk unsuspecting tourists and he concludes that this immoral behavior represents an entire profession. My question here is: Does this really speak to the problems inherent in Chinese medicine as a practice, or is it merely an illustration of the problems inherent in viewing medicine as a commodity and then using people’s concerns about health as a hook to become personally enriched?

When Mr. Sun refers to the medicinals that he reports seeing in Tongrentang in Beijing, he tries to take the moral high ground by talking of the animal parts he observed: deer “tusks,” rhino “tusks” and elephant tusks, for example, and asking if Portlanders would still frequent Chinese medicine if they knew such things were being sold as medicine. In China, eliminating the use of endangered animals parts in medicine is a work in progress, though progress is being made ‒ 15 to 20 years ago all rhino horns in China’s pharmacies were confiscated and destroyed (so it is unclear how one appeared in Tongrentang). Their historical use in the field is a fact. However, the implication that the actions of our predecessors or those of individuals in other countries tar the present Western generation of Chinese medicine practitioners with the same brush completely overlooks the fact that endangered animal parts are not part of the pharmacopoeia here. Indeed, for modern, licensed practitioners, they never have been. In point of fact, Chinese medicine practitioners in the West are leaders in the fight to stop their use.
As a conclusion to his article, Mr. Sun states:

The only division in medicine is between medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work. TCM squarely fits in the latter category, and the sooner we accept this truth, the less harm we will do to fellow humans and other animals on Earth.

In this regard, Mr. Sun fails to provide evidence other than his opinion that this statement is supported by fact; and while he does not appear to understand, let alone accept Chinese medicine, a growing body of scientific studies and clinical practice outcomes do show that Chinese medicine is effective. Anecdotally speaking, many individuals come to me after years of treatment in the Western system with no real relief from their condition, or with a desire to get away from some of the serious side-effects of Western therapies. I cannot claim to help everyone, but I have helped many resolve problems that Western medicine was unable to, and in some cases, even helped individuals avert surgery.

Objective observation of all phenomena and the engagement of the rational mind in providing understanding are paramount to rational scientific thinking. However, the stance of scientism, the belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview (i.e., the most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints) is as obstructionist to progress as the old wives tales that science was developed to overthrow. If one only sees what one wants to see, how is it different from superstition?

Those who passionately hold to ignorance and prejudice in discourse offer no possibility of real communication or learning. Perhaps, more importantly, though, of what use is a poorly researched and emotionally charged polemic in contributing ideas and information regarding the issues that Mr. Sun feels plague Chinese medicine? Whatever his ultimate objective, Mr. Sun needs to provide more than just faulty logic, inaccurate and uncorroborated information to defend a highly subjective and naïve argument that can be summed up as: “I am right so you should all just believe me.”

One last question, though: What is a “lapidary objective”?

Brenda Hood, PhD, LAc
Associate Professor and Clinical Supervisor
School of Classical Chinese Medicine
National College of Natural Medicine