Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tradtional Chinese Medicine: Skeptically approaching a Skeptical history

I was recently asked what I thought about this skeptical piece on the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the USA,:
Dunning, Brian. "Mao's Barefoot Doctors: The Secret History of Chinese Medicine." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 24 May 2011. Web. 29 Dec 2011.
Unfortunately, I found it full of inaccuracies and misconceptions. I wish skeptics would be more careful of their facts when they try to correct misunderstandings. And I wish other skeptics would be more careful of their facts when reading their works.

To Allan and others,

I've now read the skeptoid report your mention. I'm afraid I do not consider it a reliable description of  the history of traditional Chinese medicine either in the West or in Asia.

Three big problems (IMHO).

1) He overstates the condition of Western (allopathic) medicine in urban China during the time period he discusses. China has always had a shortage of  doctors trained in modern medicine. I'm not sure if they do now or not. I'd need to find reliable sources (and I don't trust the PRC gov't.) Also since the Chinese system includes MDs with three styles of training (Western style with a post-graduate MD degree, as well as those with basically a four or five year bachelor's style MD degree) you'd have to be careful to define what you're measuring exactly.

2) He ignores the political atmosphere that led to the rise (and perhaps end) of the "barefoot doctor" phenomena. (It was in part an attempt by Mao to undermine the influence of Western trained or influenced intellectuals who happened to be working in healthcare.)

3) He ignores the entire history of Chinese traditional healthcare systems prior to the time period he discusses.

In short, although I am not familiar with other works by the author, I don't think this one is terribly helpful for those trying to understand these things. You might try seeing my article, and perhaps more importantly the shorter, earlier article that is in the reference list to this article.

Peter Huston

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