Ginseng: Made of Pure Magic?

Ginseng: So awesome, The Star doesn’t even have to tell you how it’s actually supposed to work.

News coverage of alternative medicine is often abysmal, but Toronto’s The Star offers far more words to a fluff piece than I ever thought possible. After a long and irrelevant personal story about a woman’s personal experiences with Ginseng, The Star then shrouds the root with enough credulous hyperbole to make 2012 doomsayers blush.

Counting the Fallacies

1. “Ginseng has been prescribed by Eastern doctors for thousands of years.”

This is called an argument from antiquity (with a dash of argument from authority). Regardless of who has been using something and for how long, what matters is evidence of whether or not something actually works. A more appropriate and objective sentence might be “Doctors have found that extensive research on Ginseng supports its use for symptom X, corroborating ancient use for symptom X.” But they can’t say that, because the evidence is at best inconclusive.

2. “Traditionally, Westerners have been skeptical, preferring to rely on physicians and pills to cure what ails them.”

I like to call this the “White Guilt” or “Asian people are magic” fallacy, a form of ad hominem. “Western” is a convenient pejorative to dismiss the merits of modern medicine and deflect legitimate criticism of alternative medicine. Defining something by its geography does not provide evidence either way for the efficacy of a medical treatment. Nothing prevents an “Easterner” from being equally skeptical of Ginseng’s benefits if the supporting evidence is inadequate.

Worse, their assumption isn’t even true. Vaccinations, antibiotics, water treatment, nutrition (related to “Western” industrial advances like GM foods), etc. These so-called “Western” ideas are pervasive in Asia, and for good reason – they are effective and may even save lives.

3. ” Consumer demand for naturopathic and alternative medicines is growing, and the race to back ancient health claims with scientific evidence is heating up.”

The context of this sentence makes it difficult to evaluate, but I smell an argument from popularity brewing in there.

4. “Canada even has a commercial ginseng success story in Cold-FX, sold as an immunity booster.”

It only took a sentence to have that fallacy brewed and steaming ready. Popularity is irrelevant to effectiveness, without appropriate supporting evidence. Also, shouldn’t the race mentioned above be in the other direction? It’s completely inappropriate to sell and promote remedies for medical conditions without adequate evidence of efficacy.

5. ” Ontario scientists are working in their labs to prove the herb is as valuable as the Chinese have believed for thousands of years.

If that’s what they’re doing, they’re crappy scientists. They aren’t supposed to be trying to prove something, they are supposed to be testing hypotheses. Otherwise, they aren’t using science to find answers, their misnaming their biased research “science”. The Star seems to assume that the proof is there, scientists merely need to find it. And if they are being that biased, no doubt they will find something, but will the results be meaningful? Unfortunately, no. At this point the article mentions some labs having difficulty receiving funding to support research on (sometimes demonstrably useless) natural remedies, despite public interest. No mention on whether the study designs were appropriate enough to deserve research money.

Health Canada gets some blame for allowing a window in which improperly controlled products are on pharmacy shelves regardless of apparent safety or efficacy, leading to a rise in popularity after the well-funded marketing machine of alternative medicine has thoroughly worked people over – ironically convincing them that Big Pharma is only out for profit. Health Canada even provides monograms on products they have approved for efficacy, relying sometimes on “ancient use” as evidence enough. See Erik Davis’ continuing series illustrating some of Health Canada’s fails in this regard. These days, having a Health Canada stamp of approval on a “natural” product is less than worthless next to the approval of homeopathic rabbit vagina (Exhibit A).

Exhibit B is mentioned in the article:

“Cold-FX, made with a patented extract of ginseng, was approved in 2007 with the claim that it boosts immunity to stave off cold and flu.”

There is no such thing as “boosting immunity” unless you have just been vaccinated or otherwise exposed to pathogens. So with that approval, Health Canada demonstrates a dangerously inadequate knowledge of physiology and immunology to be making efficacy approval decisions.

6. “While scientists try to dismantle Western concerns about the efficacy of herbs, traditional Chinese medicine remains vibrant in China, where ginseng has long been revered as the miracle “man-root.””

Again if the scientists are doing their jobs properly, they aren’t trying to “dismantle” anything – they are trying to objectively answer a question.

As for reverence (argument from popularity), I’d like to see The Star‘s cute story about butchering endangered rhinos for their horns, which are also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat fever, despite the availability of common, inexpensive, and much less destructive “Western” alternatives (such as Tylenol). So, I guess the West isn’t all bad and the East isn’t all good. It’s almost like medicine is a complicated topic deserving of in-depth context and analysis. Readers won’t find those things in The Star‘s article.

At this point there are several more arguments from antiquity and brown people are magic: Discovered thousands of years ago, blah blah blah, ancient Chinese whatever, blah blah blah, Ontario is the biggest producer of North American Ginseng which is shipped to China – wait, what?

“Here the ginseng is good quality,” Yeung says. “In China, everyone wants America, Canada. They don’t want to eat Chinese ginseng.” … Ginseng, worth an estimated $100 million in annual exports, is one of the top field-grown horticultural crops in Ontario, behind potatoes, tomatoes and apples.

We ship the Chinese their own mystically awesome “Eastern” medicine because they prefer Western quality to their own Ginseng, which as we know has been “prescribed for thousands of years”? Interesting… I’m sure there’s layers of cultural perceptions to unpack there, but The Star certainly doesn’t provide any insight or context.

7. ““One of my accomplishments is that normally, or in the past, people involved in herbal medicine were considered by our peers as second-class citizens,” Lui says. Now they can be found at some of the continent’s best universities.”

Argument from authority. Again.

The article then goes on to describe several studies, such as rat studies, providing no context whatsoever for whether proper controls were used, whether any of the labs mentioned have a history of positive results that aren’t successfully replicated in other labs, whether the results are applicable to North American Ginseng (which the author seems to obfuscate a bit, mostly focusing on the North American species, but often simply saying the less precise “Ginseng” when in fact there are at least 11 species, several of which are used in TCM remedies with slightly different applications).

8. “Cold-FX, for example, made $97 million in revenue in 2008 and 2009. Last year, it was a sponsor at the Vancouver Olympics.”

Argument from popularity. Again.

9. “In Chinese, ginseng is called “Ren Shen,” which translates literally as “man-root.” It’s an apt name for a root that looks like a man and is believed to be good for every part of one. Canadian researchers are trying to prove that North American ginseng is indeed a multi-purpose herb.”

Cure-all fallacy. Not only does it work, it cures everything. And we can say that in completely sincere tone right before pointing out that this is yet to be even remotely demonstrated with scientific research… The cart is most certainly before the horse.

Conclusion

Does Ginseng work for any of the Health Canada approved indications? I wouldn’t be able to tell from this article, but enough people without knowledge of fallacious argument techniques might think it’s fantastic, especially combined with countless acquaintance testimonials of “I tried it, and it worked”.

If Ginseng is effective as medicine for particular applications, that would be great – another new source of healing. But wishful thinking and arguments from authority, antiquity, and popularity won’t heal anyone, regardless of the remedy.

11 Responses to “Ginseng: Made of Pure Magic?”

  1. John says:

    Sounds like you’re equating lack of proof with disproof, which is another logical fallacy. ;)

    ginseng is just a natural stimulant – I don’t know what all the fuss is about, on either side of the argument.

  2. Bryan says:

    While I love any takedown of the alt-med insanity, you’re a little off base with coldFX. Although they advertise themselves in the same fashion as a lot of the naturopathic’s do, they have some scientific evidence that their product works; which is why health canada lets them get away with it (they also got smacked down by HC for making claims not supported by those same studies). I don’t have the citations on hand, but there was at least one double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial that showed positive effects. Not a full-blown phase II or phase III by any stretch of the imagination, but sufficient to support their claims of reducing the frequency and duration of colds.

    I’d also point out that while “boosting” the immune system is so vaguely defined as to be meaningless, that is not the same as saying that its not possible to modulate the immune system in such a way as to make it more (or less) responsive to infectious agents. In fact, I spent a lot of my PhD studying was of doing just that – specifically, I looked into compounds which could potentially induce hematopoiesis in HIV patients, with the goal of reducing secondary infection. I also studied something called “LPS tolerance”; basically an anti-boosting mechanism that we hoped would be of use for treating sepsis patients. The number of “boosting” mechanisms are too numerous to list here, but they do exist and play a central role in the funcitoning of our immune system. So it is, in fact, possible to “boost” the immune system, at least in the context of its cellular response (which isn’t the same as saying you’ll have better immunity). I believe that coldFX has been shown to increase the number of NK cells, meaning it likely falls into the hematogenic class of immunostimuolators.

    Bryan

  3. Janice in Toronto says:

    John, the fuss is about incredibly sloppy reporting.

  4. Steve Thoms says:

    I would add one point about #9 on this list, in addition to it being described as a panacea. By mentioning the human-like shape of the root, TCM sellers are also invoking a kind of sympathetic magic. In short, it looks like a person, so it must be good for a person.

  5. Nathan Stanley says:

    I agree Steve, I was thinking the same thing. Very sloppy reporting, shame shame Star.

  6. Thomas Doubts says:

    Yep, another bit of sloppy reporting from The Star, and more sloppy oversight from Health Canada. It could be, based on lack of scientific evidence and a lack of dangerous side effects, Health Canada isn’t willing to expend the resources to police useless products that are unlikely to harm anyone. The problem with this attitude, of course, is that silence implies efficacy. These products, like cigarettes, should come with front-label, easily-visible messages stating that “According to Health Canada and current scientific data X does not treat, cure or provide relief from any known disease, condition or injury.”

    And Steve, further to the “man-root” sympathetic magic comment, have you ever wondered what purpose zucchini serves in TCM?

  7. Ziad says:

    Well anyone who wants to attempt to make money from hypocondriats will make claims like they do about ginseng (along with other foods like acai berries)

    the fact about ginseng is simply that it is highly nutrious. its a root, all roots hold high levels of nutrients of different types and quantities, some edible, some not.

    it does have benifits from consumption, especially if u are training, or working out, only because bodily activity consumes nutrients in the body and ginseng is able to replace those lost nutrients.

    my personal opinion is all those extracts are a massive waste of money and are most likely made from the wastes and scraps of those highly potent foods.

    all foods have benefits, all western medicines are refined from chemicals and compounds discovered in foods, plants, animals whatever.
    found in

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.