Posted by: Kash Farooq | May 30, 2011

Stuck on a boat with a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine

I recently had my first experience of a cruise – a 3 day cruise on the River Yangtze.

There were only a handful of English speakers on the cruise so after embarkation – see, I know the lingo already – we were given a guided tour of the ship instead of having to sit through an introductory presentation.

Straight away we bumped into the ship’s doctor – Doctor George.

“Good” I thought. You need a doctor on the ship. I’ve heard about all those nasty vomiting bugs that you get on cruises.

Doctor George informed us that he was there to help with any new or existing conditions, and hoped we would be able to attend his lecture the following morning: a lecture about Traditional Chinese Medicine. Turns out that Doctor George studied at TCM College.

Whilst being glared at by my wife with that “don’t you dare say a word” expression on her face, I knew that, being a good skeptic, of course I had to attend. And take notes.

The ship's clinic

The ship’s clinic. To the right of the door are the usual customer testimonials, rather than PCT evidence. One of the testimonials: “After the acupuncture session with you I haven’t smoked once during this cruise”. I’m glad you want to stop smoking, but managing to not smoke for one day of a three day cruise is not yet a reason to jump for joy.

And so, the next day, I attended the lecture. And I’m glad I did. It was enlightening.

The first point that Doctor George wanted to get across was just how old Traditional Chinese Medicine is. It has been around for 5000 years he informed us. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that is the Appeal to Antiquity logical fallacy.

For those of you who don’t know, Traditional Chinese Medicine covers a broad range of practices such as acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine. These disciplines have been around for a long time. The Chinese Communist Party ridiculed these practices as irrational, backwards, and based on superstition. Then they had a complete change of mind when they realised “Shit! We need health care and can’t afford medicine that works”. Chairman Mao revived it as a cheap way of providing care to the masses; even though he did not use it himself or even believe it worked. It was in fact Mao’s government that coined and promoted the term “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. The government created an army of “Barefoot Doctors”; farmers who received minimal basic medical training and worked in rural villages. Reference: “Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth” by Harriet Hall.

And now Doctor George was now going to tell us about all these ancient practices.

I learnt that 14 meridians connect your internal organs to external parts of your body, and that these can be accessed via acupuncture points. He informed the audience that this is why chiropractic works. The chiropractors lucked out by hitting one of the meridians through the back. Perhaps the British Chiropractic Association should have mentioned this during their libel case. Perhaps it would have helped?

All the organs can also be accessed via a person’s ear, apparently. They used to perform acupuncture on the ear, but it was too painful. They have now discovered that they can just Sellotape herbal seeds to certain points on the ear and it works just as well as the acupuncture needles did. Strange that. Call me cynical, but I’m going to speculate that taping cat litter to the ear will work just as well.

The Doctor then displayed a World Health Organisation list of diseases and disorders that can be treated with acupuncture. I was startled that such a list exists. I’ve since checked, and it does exist on the World Health Organisation website – a web page from 2003 listing all the diseases that Doctor George listed. There was, of course, no mention of the numerous Cochrane Reviews suggesting that relief via acupuncture is just due to the placebo effect. I recommend that you read “Trick or Treatment” by Earnst and Singh for more about that.

We now moved onto hands. Doctor George can learn a lot about your health by just looking at your hands. A broken life line shows you have lung problem. Wavy lines cutting across your life line shows what you are allergic to.

Next on this non-stop alt med roller coaster ride was reflexology. A contrived diagram appeared on the projector screen showing a drawing of a pair of feet pushed together. “Can you see what that looks like?”, Doctor George asked. “It looks like a human torso! The big toes form a head! The heel represents your arse! (He may not have used the word ‘arse’). “Therefore”, Doctor George asserted, “we can access any problems in the head area via your big toes.”

Dr. George's Reflexology Chart

Reflexology chart drawn by Dr. George himself. It is clear that your big toes represent your head. (Click to see larger version in all its glory)

I was sitting near the back so he could not see the incredulous expression on my face. Good job too as his next sentence was:

“If during this trip you come to me with a headache or a migraine, I won’t examine your head, I will look at your feet”.

Doctor George looked satisfied with how his presentation had gone. He had explained the “science” of TCM to the audience, and had convinced everyone that it definitely worked. He didn’t seem to notice that the mechanics of reflexology and acupuncture that he had described contradicted each other.

So finally there was only one thing left to do when presenting to an audience that was 95% European and French Canadian: attack western medicine.

A lot of his assertions will be familiar to skeptics. Arguments included:

  • Western medicine treats the symptoms, not the cause of the symptoms.
  • Chinese medicine has a philosophy of prevention rather than cure.
  • Chinese medicine is all natural. There are no chemicals.

Some of his arguments, however, I was not expecting to hear. I thought that these arguments were just the preserve of homeopaths and other alternative medicine peddlers in the west. Doctor George stated that western medicine requires you to use it forever. That you will never be able to stop using the drugs once you start. That western medicine’s answer to every situation is surgery or pills. And do you know why western medicine so readily resorts to these solutions? Big Pharma.

Yes, he blamed Big Pharma. Yes, that conspiracy theory is alive and well in China too. I’m hoping that after this blog post I’ll finally get my damn Big Pharma cheque that I so richly deserve.

Oh, and why is surgery harmful? Because it damages a person’s qi. Obviously.

China is a very superstitious country. The amount of superstition that I witnessed did surprise me. Everyone seems to believe this stuff. There were reflexology and acupuncture adverts everywhere. Each one of our guides asked us if we need to see a reflexologist for anything.

And on a ship that is potentially several hours away from emergency facilities, the on-board doctor was, in my opinion, a quack.

I’m just glad nobody on the cruise was ill.


I recorded a version of this blog post as a report for episode 85 of the Pod Delusion, a podcast about interesting things.


  1. Your life in their hands – what a thought.

    (And possible abuse of the red cross emblem.)

  2. Dr George’s reflexology chart is destined to become a classic. Interestingly, many reflexologists also invoke immunity metaphors, in that reflexology ‘works’ by stimulating the immune system. In my experience, they even do this for autoimmune disorders where stimulating immunity should actually make the condition worse.

    Nice post — a great description of several pseudoscientific principles!

  3. No one on the ship was ill because, after that, they were too damned scared to be.

    Far from being ancient, though some undoubtedly is, lot of what is called TCM *originated* during the barefoot doctors period.

    Fortunately there is good, conventional medical practice in China in addition to TCM.

    I took a cruise through the Three Gorges before it was flooded (we were lucky enough not to have a doctor on board). The Yangtse was a stunning sight then – I assume you went through the 3Gs – how was it now that the water level is so much higher? Much must have been lost, but it was spectacular enough that man would have difficulty overpowering the scenery.


  4. You should have asked him if he knew Fang Zhouzi, also known as Science Cop, a well known skeptic in China who has become well known for his criticisms of Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are some good articles online about how Fang Zhouzi was attacked by hired thugs after he criticised one quack urologist.

  5. Yep, I’m living in China right now and I’m amazed by the superstition here. Everything somehow gives you either good or bad luck, or is good or bad for your health. I’m surprised a cruise ship didn’t have a real doctor though!

  6. It is amazing that lots of the drugs and cures used now in the world came from medications that were use in China. There are lots of treatments that are used in the west that do not work – many types of surgeries that are given that do not really help. One of the biggest of group of contributor to the political campains are the pharmasutical companies. They still sell cigaretts in the US. You can laugh and make your comment. It is easy to see that you have been totally brain washed about the traditional medicine in China. The quality on ones life is not based on the things they own or the money they have to travel. Your words reveal you lack of insite to the realities of life.

  7. i believe you need some da huang. that will clarify things.


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