I used to fall asleep at night with needles in my face. One needle shallowly planted in the inner corners of each eyebrow, one per temple, one in the middle of each eyebrow above the pupil, a few by my nose and mouth. I’d wake up hours later, the hair-thin, stainless steel pins having been surreptitiously removed by a parent. Sometimes they’d forget about the treatment, and in the morning we’d search my pillow for needles. My very farsighted left eye gradually became only somewhat farsighted, and my mildly nearsighted right eye eventually achieved a perfect score at the optometrist’s. By the time I was six, my glasses had disappeared from the picture albums.

The story of my recovered eyesight was the first thing I’d think to mention when people found out that my parents are specialists in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and asked me what I thought of the practice. It was a concrete and rather miraculous firsthand experience, and I knew what it meant—to begin to see the world more clearly while under my mother and father’s care.

Otherwise, I rarely knew what to say. I would recall hearing TCM mentioned in relation to “poor evidence” or “badly designed studies” and feel challenged to provide some defense for a line of work seen as illegitimate. I would feel a pull of obligation to defend Chinese medicine as a way to protect my parents, their care and toils, but also an urge to resist shouldering that obligation for the sake of someone else’s fleeting curiosity and perhaps entertainment. 

Mostly, I wished I had a better understanding of TCM, even just for myself. Now that I work in machine learning (ML), I’m often struck by the parallels between this cutting-edge technology and the ancient practice of TCM. For one, I can’t quite explain either satisfactorily.

It’s not that there aren’t explanations for how the field of Chinese medicine works. I, and many others, just find the theories dubious. According to both classical and modern theory, blood and qi—pronounced “chi,” variously interpreted to mean something like vapor—move around and regulate the body, which itself is not considered separate from the mind.

Qi flows through channels called meridians. The anatomical charts hanging on the walls of my parents’ clinics feature meridians scoring the body in neat, straight lines—from chest to finger, or from the waist to the inner thigh—overlaid on diagrams of the bones and organs. At various points along these meridians, needles can be inserted to remove blockages, improving the flow of qi. All TCM treatments ultimately revolve around qi: Acupuncture banishes unhealthy qi and circulates healthy qi from the outside; herbal medicines do so from the inside.

On my parents’ charts, the meridians and acupuncture points are depicted like a subway map and seem to float slightly upward, tethered only loosely to the recognizable shapes of intestines and joints underneath. This lack of visual correspondence is reflected in the science; little evidence has been found for the physical existence of meridians, or of qi. Studies have investigated whether meridians are special conduits for electrical signals—but these experiments were badly designed—or whether they are related to fascia, the thin stretchy tissue that surrounds almost all internal body parts. All of this work is recent, and results have been inconclusive.

In contrast, the effectiveness of acupuncture, particularly for ailments like neck disorders and low back pain, is well-supported in modern scientific journals. Insurance companies are convinced; most of my mother’s patients come to her for acupuncture because it’s covered by New Zealand’s national insurance plan.