Popular Culture  •  July 3, 2017

Why Eastern Medicine Annoys You

It’s not so infrequent that we come across people who have chips on their shoulders about Eastern medicine. Every chance they get, they try to knock it down, mainly by saying it’s not scientific. If you ask them what their beef is, they’ll likely tell you that it’s because it promises things it can’t deliver, and because they don’t want to be ripped off. But think about it; does your Western doctor promise to fix your problem and refund your money if she can’t? The doctors I’ve seen certainly did not. If you are worried about getting ripped off, avoiding incompetent Western doctors is a much bigger challenge because you can’t entirely avoid seeing Western doctors, whereas you can choose to stay away from Eastern medicine entirely. It’s pretty obvious: Getting ripped off is not actually their beef.

Eastern medicine is not comparable to Western medicine. In fact, the idea of comparing is a preoccupation of Western medicine. It systematically and scientifically measures and compares, and finally chooses the superior solution. And, in order to base the entire practice on science, they have to isolate and control for the most elementary aspect of every problem they are trying to solve. This leads to everyone specializing in a very narrow niche.

One time, I had a pimple-like rash slowly spreading from my belly down to both of my legs and up towards my neck over the course of several weeks. I went to see a dermatologist and explained what was happening. He then took a skin biopsy. He took a look at it with a microscope and called me back with his conclusion that it’s an insect bite. I almost laughed. I said, “But doctor; are you telling me that there are insects on my body moving about an inch every day, coordinating each other’s movement so that they spread evenly to both of my legs and toward my neck?” He didn’t know how to answer that. He said something like, “Well, I don’t know; I’m just telling you what I see.” The topical cream he gave me did nothing. The visit was a complete waste.

This is a very typical manifestation of the impotence of Western medicine. The fact that he was looking at it through a microscope is rather symbolic and ironic. Some years later, I discovered that I can consistently reproduce this problem by taking lots of probiotics. Apparently, I’m allergic to them. This is probably an area that is so far away from his specialty (microscope) that the prospect of him correctly diagnosing was slim to begin with.

My wife was recently suffering from a severe pain in her left arm. When she went to a hospital, they sent her to an elbow specialist. She explained to him that her pain ran all along her arm, from her shoulder to wrist. His response? “Well, I only treat elbows. If you want your shoulder treated, you need to go see a shoulder specialist.” Confronted with this absurdity, she had no choice but to accept his treatment. After spending a thousand dollars, his treatment had no effect whatsoever. A complete waste.

When I suffered a mysterious liver failure and almost died, the Western doctors couldn’t do anything for me because they didn’t have any solutions that have been scientifically proven to work. They were hoping that it’s hepatitis C so that they could at least offer some solutions, but the blood tests came back negative. They had no clue why my liver was failing.

Western medicine is amazing in many cases if the solution exists. Penicillin is a good example. It can work like a miracle when it does. But such solutions are relatively rare. Even with today’s medical advancement, for instance, they have nothing for the flu. And, the doctors are unwilling to recommend anything that hasn’t been scientifically proven to work.

With my liver problem, they told me they had no solution, and that either my liver would cure itself or it would fail entirely. So, I wanted to know what type of food might help my liver recover, but they told me nothing. They might have had some recommendations but they probably do not offer them unless they are scientifically proven. In other words, even after dedicating their entire adult life to medicine, and gaining deep insights and intuitions, they are not allowed to offer them unless they are scientifically proven. Part of the problem is probably fear of lawsuits; why expose themselves to unnecessary risks? But they were happy to tell me what I should avoid eating because there is no possibility of getting sued for that. They told me to get on the waiting list for liver transplant.

The key marker we were monitoring was bilirubin. The level kept going up and it wasn’t looking good. My friend with a dry sense of humor told me that liver transplant is probably not worth the trouble. I went to see an Eastern doctor whom an acquaintance of mine recommended. He gave me a bunch of Chinese herbs, and within a few weeks, my bilirubin level began going down just as he told me it would. After about three months, I fully recovered.

The key difference was that he figured my problem was autoimmune. How did he figure it out? I have no idea, but he did take into account every piece of information I offered, including all the lab results from the Western doctors.

Eastern medicine is holistic. This is the key philosophical difference. They don’t ignore anything even if it seems unrelated. If there is a pain in your elbow, they might even look at your foot (this is just my wild conjecture). They certainly wouldn’t send you to a shoulder specialist nor would they draw conclusions solely from looking at your rash in a microscope. And, they are not shy to offer recommendations based on their own intuitions or insights even if they cannot scientifically back it up. And, their recommendations could encompass a broad range of fields from diet, exercise, meditation to living environment. Visually, the difference may look like this:

The shape of Western doctors’ knowledge is rectangular on purpose. The actual shape would likely be a tall bell curve but both sides that extend beyond their own specialty must be chopped off because they are not allowed to use them. As soon as the problem goes outside of their own rectangular area, they have to defer to other specialists; otherwise they would be deemed unprofessional. They could also get sued. So, they might know a lot more than they tell you, but they can’t tell you. This is why the area covered by this rectangle is overall smaller than the area covered by the Eastern doctors who are free to use anything and everything they know.

The shape also explains why some of the solutions available to Western medicine are almost miraculous. When your problem fits nicely within that rectangle, it’s fixed almost overnight. In other words, the vertical axis of this chart can be equated with efficacy. If the solution is available, Western medicine is indisputably superior to Eastern medicine.

Because of its philosophical orientation, Western medicine is highly effective when the problem has a simple cause and effect. For instance, if you can isolate the problem to bacterial infection, prescribing an antibiotic would solve it overnight. But what if the patient keeps getting re-infected? You could keep prescribing antibiotics but obviously, it won’t be addressing the real problem. As a doctor, you would simply be removing the symptom. You would need to figure out what is causing the re-infection. Suppose you discover that the patient’s immune system is alarmingly weak because of her general stress level, but, at this point, your job is over. You will send her home by saying, “Take it easy,” because this is not your problem.

In this way, in Western medicine, you are passed around from one frog in a well to another without anyone overseeing the big picture, or caring about your overall health. Your primary care physician does not play the role of the director. She is acting essentially as a broker for specialists. She does not gather the information from all the specialists to draw the final conclusion: She defers the conclusion to each specialist, and ultimately leaves it up to you to decide.

Eastern medicine starts from the point of view that most problems in life are too complex to comprehend in logical or scientific terms. So, they don’t pretend to understand or be able to explain what they do. Logical explanations are not expected of Eastern doctors, at least not in the East because such requirements would severely limit what they could offer as solutions. They are free to use their own unexplainable insights and wisdom. In this sense, Eastern medicine is more art than science.

A good analogy might be corporate CEOs. Steve Jobs came back to Apple when they were slowly dying. Jobs resuscitated them successfully. If he were required to explain what he was going to do and prove the efficacy in advance based on evidence or data, he wouldn’t have been able to do so. Why? Because the problems CEOs must fix are too complex. If they cannot use everything at their disposal, their hands would be tied. They have to be given the freedom to do anything without having to prove the efficacy in advance.

Both human body and economy are a highly complex network of contingencies. Managing them well requires the use of everything you have at your disposal. If you try to limit yourself to what can be scientifically proven, you won’t be healthy nor successful in managing your business.

Everything in life lies somewhere on the spectrum of art and science. Where on the spectrum any specific field ends up is entirely cultural. Most Westerners expect medicine to be on the far right (science) and they have a hard time seeing it any other way. In fact, they are so deeply immersed in that belief that they don’t even consider it a belief. To them, it’s just a universal truth. But in the East, medicine lies on the left side of that spectrum, just as being a great CEO is more art than science.

If someone said to you that the value of any piece of art must be scientifically proven, you would think it’s absurd. Eastern medicine is the same way. If you insist that Eastern doctors only offer solutions they can back up with evidence and data, they would think it’s absurd. (Just as Steve Jobs would have told you to fuck off.) In fact, if that is your criteria, why bother trying Eastern medicine? Just stay away from it.

If the chip on your shoulder is about establishing which is superior, there is no doubt: Western medicine is. Why? Because superiority (or comparison) itself is the whole premise or preoccupation of Western medicine. Eastern medicine is trying to solve problems that cannot be compared because of the complexity of the contingencies. Each and every problem is unique for Eastern medicine because of the multitude of factors it takes into consideration. It’s not concerned with proving the superiority of any particular solution.

Letting logic or science make decisions in your life is safer, therefore, less painful, because it’s not actually you who is making that decision. We end up expressing ourselves when we make decisions based on something other than universal, objective standards. This is the scary part for many because you are making yourself vulnerable to pain/hurt. This philosophical difference permeates through every little decision we make, even down to what we wear. If you choose your clothes based purely on objective and practical criteria, you will look exactly the same as others who follow the same principle. But in this process, you are alienating yourself. You are systematically marginalizing yourself for the superiority of reason.

Ironically, however, this very attitude stifles the progress of science also. For us to achieve something meaningful in our lives, we cannot be robots that only pursue logically sound permutations. Breakthroughs are made through our imagination, and by being open to trying something irrational, to stumble across things that don’t make any sense. We then apply reason, after the fact, to scientifically explain what we observe. Penicillin was accidentally discovered by Alexander Fleming when he noticed that a Petri dish that had been mistakenly left open was contaminated by mold from an open window. All around the mold was clear of bacteria. The scientific explanation for it came after the fact. The beginning stages of innovation often seem implausible and crazy. But if you are not willing to risk being mocked as “quackery” or “pseudo-science,” science would not make progress.

Great scientists, I think, understand this. They come to a realization that the ultimate problem of reason is reason itself. Only those at the bottom who are too scared to imagine or take a leap of faith, stick to what cannot be mocked to live a safer, painless lives.

If you cannot accept Eastern medicine without examining it through the prism of Western medicine, just stay away from it. Nobody is forcing you to use it. You don’t have that choice with Western medicine but you do with Eastern medicine. If you can’t leave it alone without trying to discredit or mock it, then what is probably more helpful to everyone is to examine what your chip on your shoulder is made of.