My interview at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and a note on folk medicine

Last night I had an hour event (45 minutes of conversation about Faith Versus Fact and 15 minutes of Q&A) at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, co-sponsored by the Hong Kong Skeptics. You can watch it by clicking on the screenshot below.

The interviewer is Mike Bigelow, a businessman, former Jehovah’s Witness (now a nonbeliever), and officer of the Hong Kong Skeptics Society; he had some great questions. The taping was done by Andrew Davidson, who kindly recorded it on his phone and posted it on Periscope.

My thanks as well to Phillipa Milne, head of the Literary Festival, to David Young, one of my “handlers” who extended me warm hospitality, and the other Literary Festival and Hong Kong Skeptic folk who dealt with the logistical hurdles.


I was gratified that the event was sold out, that the audience seemed enthusiastic, and that many people bought books (WEIT was also on sale).

After the event I got to talk to some of the audience, and I was especially interested in what four young Hong Kong medics—practitioners of modern scientific medicine—had to say.

One thing I’ve learned is that although many people in Hong Kong and China are not conventionally religious, they are often deeply superstitious, not only relying on untested or disproven forms of medical treatment (acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine), but having a belief in feng shui, lucky numbers (many buildings don’t have fourth floors), ghosts, and the like. Since the last chapter of Faith versus Fact was about the dangers of faith healing, I wanted to know whether these dangers applied to non-religious but untested Chinese folk medicine.

The medics instantly said “yes,” and noted that they’d come across many cases of people who had been severely damaged by relying on folk and traditional cures rather than scientific medicine. One, an oncologist, told me grisly stories about women with breast cancer who had tried to cure themselves by rubbing herbal creams on their tumor-ridden breasts, which of course only got worse and worse, often over years. By the time they sought Western treatment, it was too late, though many could have been cured had they consulted a real doctor early on. The oncologist said the same thing about lymphoma: it’s often a treatable and curable form of cancer, but becomes terminal if treated with folk nostrums.

So yes, there is lots of ineffective “faith healing” in which the “faith” devolves not on gods and their wills, but on untested remedies. Belief in untested forms of medicine is itself a form of faith, for there’s no systematic evidence that they work. But I suppose we knew that already. I just wanted confirmation from local doctors, and got it in spades.


  1. GBJames
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink


  2. Sastra
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    A lot of alternative medicine cures, when examined, turn out to be embedded in or derived from supernatural, spiritual ways of understanding reality. Vitalism, intentional energy, magical correspondences, the naturalistic fallacy, and a universe guided by forces which have personal reactions to human beings (and vice versa) count, under a broad but fair definition, as “religious.”

    Of course, some things just don’t work but might have had a plausible mechanism for doing so if they had. The faith then is only a trust in a pill, a doctor, or a conspiracy of pharma shills. But if it’s woo, then there’s a supernatural explanation — and it’s usually some tale being spun about the cosmos and our place in it.

  3. Posted November 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Great… Nice respite from other events… 150 views already. Relaxing with a red wine and listening…

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    When you say that many buildings in HK don’t have fourth floors, you mean they stop at three — or that they go from three to five, the way some US highrises go from 12 to 14?

    BTW, one look at the photograph, you can see that the chi in that room is all wrong.

    • Posted November 11, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      When I used to have a lot of spiritual friends, I used to organize my home in a way that broke as many dictates of Feng Shui as possible, and watch them freak out. (I don’t have so many spiritual friends anymore for some reason….)

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 11, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        The “know thine enemy” school of dealing with religious bullshit.

      • somer
        Posted November 11, 2016 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

        My uncle who was a war hero but bigoted (after the times) didn’t believe in the claims of religion but believed in its authoritarian classist and militarist utilities. Because someone is an atheist personally doesnt mean they don’t support religion (or at least traditionalist expansionist/domination oriented religion) in the society as a whole.

    • Posted November 11, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      The last time I flew (with RyanAir), I had a seat at the 14th row and so mentioned that the 13th row was missing.

    • Dan
      Posted November 12, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      They go from 3 to 5. It’s because the word for four sounds very much like the sound for death. I actually learned about this from watching Japanese anime, and I knew that the Japanese typically borrow many words, numbers, and superstitions from the Chinese.

  5. rickflick
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Great interview. The interviewer was quite good. I know all the “answers” by heart at this point, but it still nice to hear the case so neatly and succinctly made.

  6. ethologist
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget the impact that these superstitions have had on animal and plant populations throughout the world, most notablyl rhinoceros, tigers, pangolins, and even donkeys(!).

    To wit: (


  7. Posted November 11, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Are the non-religious really that strongly opposed to the idea that free will is an illusion? I ask because that’s not been my experience. Maybe Jerry is a lightening rod for that sect?

  8. E C Siegel
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    When in a shopping area in Taiwan I saw many booths of astrologers. Of course, they now use computers.

  9. nickswearsky
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    “One thing I’ve learned is that although many people in Hong Kong and China are not conventionally religious, they are often deeply superstitious,..”

    This is my understanding as well from extensive travel in Asia. My father in law died not long ago, and the funeral was surprisingly christian — only because a Buddhist monk charged too much! The fact was that it made no matter whether the funeral was religious or not. But, my wife was forbidden from visiting friends during her stay, as that brings death to others. She could only have friends visit her at home.

    There is a fair interest in Asian herbal medicine, some of which is quite interesting and potentially very helpful (Youyou won Nobel last year for malaria treatment derived from Chinese traditional medicine) But, it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  10. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 11, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I think the trade in Shark Fin in Hong Kong would confirm some of this believe in the medical and superstition culture.

    • somer
      Posted November 11, 2016 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

      I think its responsible for the threatened status of quite a few animals whose parts are wanted for traditional medicine purposes

  11. ToddP
    Posted November 12, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like the Hong Kong Skeptics are doing good work. Great interview.

  12. Posted November 14, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    With some of the “Chinese medicine” stuff, there’s also a bit of ethnic pride, etc. as well to contend with, I’d think.

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