Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ask a Korean! News: New York Times Endorses Fan Death

This is fun:
In a new study, a team of researchers based primarily in Britain sought to review evidence on the effectiveness of electric fans during heat waves that have occurred all over the world. . . . The authors of the new report pointed out that when temperatures climb past 95 degrees, having a fan pointed at you can actually contribute to heat gain, not reduce it.

At those temperatures, being directly in the path of hot air blown from a fan can raise the risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Really? In a Heat Wave, an Electric Fan Can Cool You Off [New York Times] (emphasis added)

This is exactly how the Korean explained Fan Death in this post: the mechanism of Fan Death is dehydration and heat exhaustion. This is consistent with Korean people's general belief regarding Fan Death -- that is, heat, enclosed room and fan pointed directly on the body comes with the risk of death.

Have fun with this, people of Reddit. Thanks for the constant traffic to the Fan Death post, and all the nice things you said about the Korean's intellect. By the way, if you seriously think that Fan Death is rumor spread by Korean government in the 1970s in order to reduce electricity consumption (when the far easier option for the dictatorship would have been to simply ration electricity,) you are a greater moron than you ever suppose the Korean to be.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Ive been sleeping with the fan blowing on me for years, though it never gets above 95 degrees in my house

  2. Wait, your defenses of fan death, conceptually, are fine, and happily rebuke the gross foreigner habit of dismissing everything "korean" as simple-minded. But isn't there some middle point between warning people about being directly in the path of hot air and putting a timer on every fan? Or the overstatement of the risks? And aren't the folk-explanations like hypothermia or oxygen deprivation (explanations I've heard, in person, from Korean friends) still ridiculous?

    1. They ARE ridiculous, and in the original post, I clearly stated that they are. But you don't have to come to this blog to hear that, given the abundance of other blogs that engage in the "gross foreigner habit."

    2. I was living in Korea as a child when many "possibly Fan Death accidents" were getting a lot of media exposure. (Note: POSSIBLE; even the news stories clearly indicated that the fan was only a possible culprit, not the absolute cause.) Just to be clear, from my experience, every time I was warned of fan death by either news media or other people in person, the warning almost always included "being directly in the path of the fan wind."

      The details of the warning is still clear in my head; On a very hot summer day, in an enclosed room (all doors and windows shut), keeping a fan on all night directly to my face while going to sleep may be fatal.

      In order to prevent this possible accident, I was told to do one of the following:
      1. Keep windows or room door open during the night, in order to allow ventilation.
      2. Put the fan on timer, so it doesn't run all night.
      3. Put the fan on oscillation mode, so the fan isn't directly on my body all night.

      I would say most details of this warning are consistent with the Korean's reasoning for the cause of Fan Death, despite that the explanations for the "fan death" phenomenon was never consistent among the sources (is it hypothermia? inability to breathe due to facing strong wind?? no one quite knew for sure.)

  3. People don't wake up when suffering from heat exhaustion or dehydration? Also, the New York Times did not 'endorse' fan death. In fact, the article doesn't mention death at all.

    1. You should read the original post first.

    2. I did. It still doesn't answer my first question.

      You didn't address my second point at all. The title of your post is demonstrably incorrect. For the New York Times to 'endorse' fan death the article would have to use the term 'death' (or some form of it). It may, vicariously through your explanation for fan death, endorse it. However, the New York Times in of itself did no such thing.

    3. Also, you should read the original Cochrane Review. If you did, you would discover that it is clear to point out that it is making no claims as data is insufficient. The Cochrane Review does not conduct its own tests. Rather, it seeks out information which it found to be insufficient.

    4. I've read the original post... as well as the majority of the comments, where several of the links in the chain of "logic" in the original post are deconstructed and shown to be nonsensical. Such as: fans in apartments work like heating coils in convection ovens, that normal-temperature living human bodies in uncomfortably warm apartments behave like chickens in hot convection ovens; or the idea that the thermal-diffusion properties of water and air are identical, and sweat cools us by creating a layer of cold air insulating us from the hot air all around. None of these claims actually reflect reality, and unless I've missed something and this blog is actually some kind of speculative fiction experiment, then I don't think we're supposed to outright implausible invent physics to suit our speculations.

      Nor are we supposed to twist what articles say to claim that major news outlets have asserted the truth of dubious folk mythologies. An article in the NYT saying that fans "can increase" your body temperature but which states inconclusive results in a survey of the literature is far from a scientific endorsement of the notion of Fan Death.

      While I will agree that some expats do fixate on what they feel are illogical features in Korean culture, it's worth noting that expatriates do that everywhere. Not only that: as an anglo-Canadian, I found having parents who were culturally alien to the place where I grew up a burden when I was young, but in some ways I know I see my own culture through more critical eyes because I learned to see it through the eyes of an outsider; the constant contestation by my culturally-foreign parents of the worldview I was soaking up from not just friends but teachers, neighbors, and other local adults may not have made my life easier, but it did broaden my horizons, to the point where I've come to feel that expats are among the best people to turn to, in order to have a society's sacred cows turned into hamburgers. "Among the best," note; I did not write "the best and only"...

      I have just three more things to constribute regarding this subject:

      1. My partner, when "Fan Death" happened to come up in conversation, said, "Well, all my friends my age knows that it's bullsh*t. These days, only old people and stupid people believe that." My experience suggests otherwise, but her perception supports the idea that this folk myth is dying out slowly, probably because plenty of Koreans have gone abroad, and especially traveled in the tropics, and noticed nobody else on Earth is scared of leaving a fan on at night in a closed room while they sleep.

      She agreed that Koreans don't use the word "Fan Death" but there are words that correspond to it in Korean, and the concept itself does exist in Korean in much the same form as is outlined on those English-language websites seeking to debunk it. Saying that "Koreans don't call it Fan Death!" is really a dodge: we could say the same of "arranged marriage" (or "taxes" or "mercy killing" or "ethnonationalistic jingoism") but that doesn't mean there isn't a Korean word for the same concept. Those who are curious what it is can click here. From my admittedly imperfect Korean ability, this transliterates as roughly "death by fan" which, given that it sounds even goofier than "Fan Death", renders the whole claim that Koreans don't call it "Fan Death" rather duplicitous, does it not?

    5. 2. To those commenting about why people don't open their windows: actually, in Korea, it is common to build apartments where no cross-ventilation is possible, so while The Korean's grasp of how toaster ovens might compare to them is risible, they do sometimes resemble ovens, and opening windows doesn't usually help. I've lived in four or five apartments in Korea, all of them built within the past ten or fifteen years and most of them in blocks where working class families lived. In not one of them was cross-ventilation possible.

      Note: This fits with a more generalized poor attention of ventilation and heat regulation in Korean design overall. (Heating blocks placed under chairs in buses, with no fans to distribute the heat; large buildings with terrible ventilation; and so on.)

      Nicer, and better-ventilated, apartments do exist, but you need a *considerable* amount of money to live in one of those. The result isn't just that a lot of living spaces not only get hellishly hot, but also that the benefits of opening a window in most of them are very limited; indeed, when you factor in the mosquitoes and other pests that inevitably come inside when you do open your window--because, again, while most apartments come with bug screens on the windows, the screens are rarely effective because they're improperly installed, or poorly designed, or just cheap trash nonfunctional to the point that they should be below the minimum of a proper building code--the result of that is very high usage of fans and air conditioners. This is a problem that needs to be addressed seriously, now, before we get so short on energy and the rising temperatures result in more actual deaths...)

      This is not a Korea-specific problem, mind: we need to be rethinking domestic architecture to make it more green *everywhere* but in Korea, this is probably harder than it sounds because of the fact that lots of organizations are already labeling new buildings as "green" that most certainly are not. (The building in which I work is a stunning example of this practice.) Well, that and the still-pretty-common practice of leaving windows and doors open when the air conditioning is on... which is directly traceable to the popular mythology surrounding the Fan Death myth that The Korean seems so eager to ignore in his search for a rational explanation of the fantasy.

    6. 3. I've still seen not one creditable rebuttal to the question of why there's no comparable cultural injunction against fans in closed rooms in tropical countries where it is often over 35 degrees Celsius; if Koreans were quick enough to make the connection after having fans in their homes for only a short time--as I sincerely doubt most Koreans had domestic fans before the Korean war, but even if I'm wrong, it can't have been much earlier than that, right?--then why haven't the poorer classes of populations throughout the tropics (where people have similar housing conditions but face higher temperatures more often with less air-conditioning available) developed a similar folk mythology?

      In other words, if fans really could overheat people to the point of death, or even serious health risks, there are billions of people facing the perfect "Fan Death" storm laid out in The Korean's original post much more often than do Koreans: why haven't they realized it, and/or why aren't they talking about it?

      The likeliest answer is that it has nothing to do with fans themselves, and also that people in tropical countries never developed this kind of fear because, unlike Koreans, they didn't face the dangers of having to heat their homes anywhere near as often as Koreans did. The older, coal-burning version of the ondol heating system was prone to killing people in sealed rooms. People simply carried the logic forward to fans. The nonsense about fans consuming oxygen, or causing hypothermia, are just the nonsensical "logical" explanations people cooked up later when trying to explain the illogical behaviour, and the deep-seated fear attached to it. Throw in a little accelerated-change-induced technophobia, et voila.

      (And yes, while Korea is certainly an early adopter of technology, there is a strong technophobic strain in this society at the same time. Anyone who lives here will have noted all the panic about controlling the internet, gaming, and even the constant grousing among young people about whether cell phones--or more recently, smart phones--are "good" or "bad" for us.)

  4. The article explicitly mentioned the risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, both of which can easily cause death. I'm surprised that this is new information for some people. I see senior citizens at the emergency room all the time who don't like to use air conditioning but almost suffer heat stroke from sitting by their trusty ol' personal electric fan.

  5. It pains me to see this "defense" of bunk science. The Korean is almost unfailingly a staunch defender of reason, data, and rigorous education, which is why it puzzles me as to why The Korean is so invested in defending a conclusion built upon myth and woo woo. Fighting the foreigner "bizarre Asian" stereotype is valid and necessary. However, belief in fan death is also a matter of scientific literacy—both in terms of absolute scientific knowledge (in this case, of the principles of thermodynamics, the ignorance of which contributes greatly to the widespread misunderstanding of climate change amongst Americans), but also in a population's ability to discard old, faulty knowledge and accept new knowledge. The Korean's defense of a population's widespread "general belief" with a complete disregard for how that population comes to believe it greatly pains me.

    We Americans now live in a nation where a fearful belief in a false danger of vaccination is killing hundreds of babies (succumbing to a growing whooping cough epidemic), where one of our party's presidential candidates and sitting Congresspeople unquestioningly passed on a false claim on national television that vaccines caused mental retardation (Michele Bachmann), and where one of our greatest innovators and entrepreneurs died at age 56 in the prime of his career after refusing modern medical treatment for months in the belief that alternative (bunk) medicine would cure him of his cancer. That even Steve Jobs did not have the working scientific literacy skills to evaluate which medical treatment was based on science and which was based on useless superstition speaks to how insidious the impulse to accept claims uncritically can be when our health is at stake. It is the same impulse that lets us unquestioningly say, "Red wine is good for your health." The Korean passed that off as benign in his original "fan death is real" post; I couldn't disagree more.

    It is very lucky that the consequences of believing, propagating, and apologizing for the bunk science of fan death result in beneficial actions (turning off fans in hot enclosed spaces). But letting bunk beliefs go unchallenged, as The Korean does here, is not in the long term a beneficial practice for a society.

    1. If you want to talk about science, talk about science -- not about how everyone is being dumb.

    2. In these cases, you can't separate the two. A mother who hears a media report that claims scientists have evidence that vaccination is linked to autism and then decides to forego her own infant's shots isn't a simple case of "being dumb." She's made a rational decision based on the information she was presented with. Where she has failed is in her own lack of critical thinking challenging the report, her lack of scientific skepticism. She's also being let down by the reporter's lack of scientific literacy, inability to filter good science from bad, and the well-intentioned but dangerous journalistic tendency to "tell both sides of a story"—none of which can be simply chalked up to "being dumb".

      People will do dumb things and will forever find dumb ways to hurt themselves. But a nation that once eradicated whooping cough and is now experiencing an epidemic, and whose media perpetuates false scientific information about health and scientific matters has a problem deeper and more systemic than people simply "being dumb." There is a breakdown in how science is communicated, for which scientists, the media, educators, and the voting public all share some responsibility. "Red wine is good for you" is not in itself harmful, but passed on unquestioningly is a sign of something malignant.

      I understand that the Korean's original intent was to note that "Fan Death does exist, and Koreans are no stupider than any other people for believing in it." The latter sentiment I wholeheartedly share.

      The problem I have with the assertion that "Fan Death does exist" is that the rationale and accuracy of the scientific argument used to support the conclusion is as important as the conclusion itself because it is an indication of how well scientific knowledge is disseminated throughout the society in general. Saying the New York Times "endorses Fan Death" in a way that "is consistent with Korean people's general belief" but not their *reasoning* behind that belief lets society and its institutions off the hook for its failure to correct misinformation.

      Of course, AAK is not a scientific advocacy blog, but I have always appreciated the Korean's impassioned defense of education and critical thinking. It's clear The Korean is in this post responding mainly to a race-based critique instead of a societal/institutional one—a response that I wholeheartedly agree with. And in his original post, The Korean made a point of noting the role of the Korean media in perpetuating a false Fan Death explanation, and laid out the actual scientific cause of Fan Death. I only wanted to make the point that all societies benefit from being held to stringent standards of critical thinking and scientific literacy, and saying "Fan Death does exist" is giving them a free pass.

    3. If your argument is that Fan Death is, in fact, "bunk science"--and that therefore the Korean is stupid for defending it--then it is only logical that you say WHY you believe it's bunk science, rather than make a circular reasoning. (People are dumb because they believe in Fan Death; Fan death is not real because only dumb people believe in it?)

      The Korean has clearly given his reasoning in his previous post. What is yours?

  6. This is elementary thermodynamics. I can't believe people still think it's an urban myth.

  7. My problem with Korean populace's belief in fan death is caught in one paragraph of your previous post: "So Korean people had it right after all – fans can kill. They just tend to give the wrong reason."

  8. Maybe this has been mentioned before, but I think one of the reasons fan death (or at least the detrimental health effects associated with sleeping with fans on - to which I can attest!) has been recognized in Korea but less so elsewhere is the condition requiring a small enclosed room. Due to the design of modern Korean apartments with solid papered walls, artificial flooring that covers the underfloor heating system and double-glazed windows, Korean rooms become almost completely air-tight if you close the door (usually close fitting) and windows. Rooms are also often quite small and even cheaper modern housing in Korea has this quality, as the chief concern has always been to stay warm in winter. Apartments and houses in Europe and Japan (with which I'm familiar but I assume other places also) are rarely as airtight, older and larger houses even less so, so will not create the "enclosed room" condition required.

  9. Why is it that Korea is the only country in the world in which fan death is considered legitimately as a cause of death?

    How is it possible that all the coroners, cops, and medical investigators throughout every other country haven't bought into the fan death myth?

    Could it be that if you look at all the circumstances surrounding the supposed fan deaths, that the added heat factor from the fan is but a very tiny, infinitesimal contributing factor, and to take that minute factor and extrapolate and exaggerate it as the "cause of death" would be absolute stupidity?

    Could it be that the fan running was not in scientific terms the "cause of death," and the Korean media blowing that factor wildly out of proportion is ridiculous and dangerous from a public safety and scientific viewpoint?

    Could it be that the entire reason that scientists in other countries don't advocate the media going on benders frightening the public about the danger of fans is because they are aware of the thermodynamics of fans in high heat, and they are also aware that they are not significant contributing factors in deaths, and that running fans can just as easily contribute to cooling body temperature with a slight change in conditions?

    Why do you claim that the New York Times endorses fan death when they did absolutely nothing of the sort?

    Do you realize the word "death" did not appear in the article?

    Do you realize that the researchers did not make the jump that you did in implying that increased risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion could lead to death?

    Do you think that might be why they said this: "The researchers said that while they could not support or recommend against the use of electric fans in sweltering conditions, it was important to consider their potential harms and benefits."

    How can you claim that the NYT and the researchers "endorsed fan death," when they specifically said that they do NOT recommend against their use in sweltering conditions?

    Would it not seem pretty logically clear that if they in fact believed that the use of fans could lead to conditions which increased the chances of death, that they would VERY SPECIFICALLY AND EMPHATICALLY recommend against their use in hot conditions?

    1. "Why is it that Korea is the only country in the world in which fan death is considered legitimately as a cause of death?

      How is it possible that all the coroners, cops, and medical investigators throughout every other country haven't bought into the fan death myth?"

      Back in my hometown I was researching really a lot about Korea, because I was so crazy about this country, my top dream destination, along with Japan (which now I don't quite dare go yet, because of radioactive contamination). And I've been living in Seoul now, for over two years. And you know what? Even after I came to Korea, even after spending months, maybe one year here, going to school, hanging around with Korean people, surrounded by their culture, watching their TV... I've never ever heard about fan death, actually, I've found out about this myth when I ran across that article on this blog.

      I dunno what kind of people the Koreans in the USA are, but here... I dunno, I never noticed such a behaviour. I mean, I'm even living with a Korean and he even put two fans in our bedroom because one was not enough. Maybe because he's an electronic engineer, so he knows better?

      But anyway, what I wanted to say is that your statement about Korea and this particular myth is exaggerated.

      And for your information, fans sell very well here. And they've got them all turned on at the fan shops and department stores, where there are no windows. Doesn't it tell you something?

  10. Next major public health scare in Korea: TV DEATH!

    Televisions generate heat. That heat leads to increased risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Which leads to death.

    I beg of you Koreans, do not leave your televisions on in an enclosed room on a hot summer day with the windows closed. A Korean medical examiner is bound to stumble upon the scene and extrapolate the cause of death as being caused by your Samsung plasma.

    And for the love of all things Korean, do not even consider leaving both your TV and your fan on at the same time when you go to sleep. You may as well just shoot yourself in the head.

    Can we name all the other household products that generate heat, which by definition increases the risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion? Alarm clocks? Ipods? Cell phones? Rice cookers? Computers? All generate heat and anything that generates heat in an enclosed room is a potential killer.

    Panic time!

  11. TheKorean logic:

    "The evidence we identified does not resolve uncertainties about the health effects of electric fans during heatwaves. Therefore, this review does not support or refute the use of electric fans during a heatwave."


    The New York Times endorses fan death!

  12. For a bunch that considers facts and logic paramount, they sure haven't read your original article. My guess is they stopped reading and started writing comments somewhere around "New York Times Endorses Fan Death", and when urged to read the original article, stopped reading and started writing comments somewhere around "All of the above is fine and good, except… Fan Death is real."

    I actually thought the Expat's "Korean Derangement Syndrome" was probably exaggerated... apparently not.

  13. The article made a good point about how electric fans don't actually lower temperatures, and that, when the temperature gets above a certain point, they can actually make someone feel hotter.

    It's similar to the point the Korean brought up in his earlier article on "fan death" and some possible causes of it.

    That said, that New York Times article didn't actually endorse "fan death." As its author wrote,

    "...when temperatures climb past 95 degrees [35 degrees Celsius], having a fan pointed at you can actually contribute to heat gain, not reduce it. At those temperatures, being directly in the path of hot air blown from a fan can raise the risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion."

    However, nowhere in the article itself did the author explicitly (or even implicitly) endorse "fan death."

    The most he wrote was this: "...while they (the researchers) could not support or recommend against the use of electric fans in sweltering conditions, it was important to consider their potential harms and benefits."

    What I took from reading it was that, when using an electric fan, you should be aware of its limitations, and that, when it gets really hot, it can make you feel even hotter.

    1. This is why they have invented a new type of electric fan that uses ice to blow only cool air.

  14. Let's all switch to air conditioners! ^_-

  15. I don't know if some people are just playing dumb or they really are. This is science, plain and simple.

  16. I don't understand the commotion here about whether or not the author explicitly used the phrase "fan death" or even the word "death" at all. Of course he would not use that phrase as it is not at all a term that people take seriously and it would definitely undermine his credibility. That's not the point here. Yes, people should be aware of the limitations of using fans for cooling off in sweltering conditions, lest you increase your risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion, as was endorsed by this study. The problem precisely is that people are not doing this, in which case sometimes the outcome may be death - it is not a stretch to link these two things. So the cause of death is not some abstract and silly thing called "fan death" but dehydration and/or heat exhaustion. The colloquial term "fan death" is exactly that plus a ridiculously unscientific sounding name and other myths (that even The Korean admits are myths) about the root cause of why this happens. Sure, it is ridiculous that "fan death" can be thought of as a root cause of death (something that the coroner would put down), but regardless of what specific words are being used in these studies or this article, the truth is that a 3rd party has linked fan use in sweltering conditions in a closed room to dehydration and heat exhaustion, which when carried to extremes may cause death.

  17. How many of the supposed "fan deaths" in Korea actually occurred in a room that was above 35 degrees C? My guess is none. Outside temps at night (when these are presumed to have mostly occurred) are usually 25 at the highest. It would be extremely rare to have an inside temp of 10 degrees hotter than the outside temp. If people are using fans to "keep cool" and they're in fact making the temperature 10 degrees hotter than it is outside, that is an unbelievable level of stupidity. They could just open up all the windows and be cooler. That stubborn little fact seems to destroy probably 99% of these cases, so claiming that this study boosts the case for fan death is absolutely untrue. The 35 degree requirement actually diminishes fan death tremendously.
    The conditions required to even bring this minor effect into fruition are so rare that it's doubtful any "fan deaths" met that minimum level.

    The entire phenomenon is a case of scientifically ignorant cops and coroners (or whoever determines cause of death in Korea) not understanding what causation is. See fan on. See dead person. FAN CAUSED DEATH.

    1. You've got good and logical points, but you're missing something.

      it is not impossible that inside the house is much hotter if your home is placed somewhere, or is built with a bad air circulation. Even wide opening all the windows doesn't help. You must go as far as opening the door, but I'm feeling quite uncomfortable if I sleep with my door open. It's not that I think a thief will come in, but you never know. Besides that, insects get get in a lot more, you know, mosquitoes and cockroaches, those annoying little creatures.

      I'm in Seoul and we have had an unusually hot summer, now the temperature started to calm down and it is liveable again. But, trust me, our home was a sauna. And I'm not exaggerating. I mean, it was hot with all the humidity and stuff. Even in the night.

      What we do to cool our home down is placing a fan at an open window to bring the air from outside in. Hoping it might help. And it does, now. But just until the day before yesterday it was only blowing hot air in.

      But the tap water is still warm. Because the source warmed up, due to the extreme weather.

  18. The article is saying that the fan accelerates heating if and only if the ambient air is already warmer than the skin. This, I think, is not controversial; if it is, it shouldn't be. But you had claimed the fan can warm even when the outside air is cooler, due to some unknown biological effect those arguing from thermodynamics had not accounted for.


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