Here's why it shouldn't take a Seoul National University doctor to refute this ridiculous myth, but rather common sense armed with the basic critical thinking skills and basic science education any high school graduate should have.
Suspicious Fact: Logic
If South Korea is the only country in the world where fan death is officially reported, but many other countries and locales in the world have entire populations that have been falling asleep next to fans and under air conditioners for years, doesn't anyone think anything's wrong with this picture?
It's a logical fallacy and a particularly human foible: gullibility: if you believe something to be true, or real, or concrete, then it is. If an old man dies of heart failure or sleep apnea in any other country where no one believes in "fan death," then the doctor will look more closely and investigate the real cause. If a nation believes that you can die from sleeping in front of a fan – if even the doctors believe it and then ask the family, "Did he sleep in front of a fan?" and the the family confirms – yes, he was! – then fool doctor's eventually gonna write it up as "fan death." And then everybody's gonna believe it, since "a doctor said so." 휴.
Now here's a fan that could kill me, if I stuck a vital appendage in the blades.
Stupid Hypothesis #1: Hypothermia
Why does your body feel cooler in front of a fan? Because you perspire and as the water evaporates, it takes heat away from your body. If you sit in front of a fan too long, you may feel uncomfortably cool. But come on – your core body temperature simply cannot drop to dangerous levels because of air – that is the same temperature as any of the other air in the area – simply because it blows over your body. This is why you feel less cool as you stop perspiring, because as your body is no longer perspiring (because you have less excess heat it wants to get rid of), there is less and less water to evaporate off your skin. When you are all dry and no longer overheated, that's when the fan's air feels no longer cold and more annoying than anything else.
But a fan can only get you down 'round to normal body temperature, but not actually take you down to hypothermic levels. It's not actively taking heat away from your body by reducing the temperature. And even an air conditioner only cools down to a set temperature, and maxes down at 18 degrees Celsius. Yes, air refrigeration technology could cause hypothermia, if you happened to get drowsy and fall asleep in the meat freezer while on break at KFC. Neither a fan nor an air conditioner can reduce your body temperature even within a smidgen of the range to cause hypothermia. I'm not a doctor, but I know I ain't gonna freeze to death because of being in a cool room for a few hours. If frail old people actually died of hypothermia next to air conditioners, then Florida wouldn't be a favorite retirement spot for old folks, now would it? And surely, I would have heard of a case or two in the decades since Americans have been using air conditioners and fans and doing the unthinkable – sleeping under them!
Stupid Hypothesis #2: Suffocation
A fan creates a vacuum by blowing air across your face? Really? In what universe? A vacuum is defined by an absence of air, not its presence.
It's the same silly idea you get when people think they'll suffocate if they stick their head out of a moving car. Dogs do it all the time and they don't die. If this were true, surely one case of "motion vacuum death" would have occurred out of the many people out there racing motorcycles, flying hang-gliders, parachuting, competing in cycle races, skiing, speed skating, surfing...you get the point? Not only is this scientifically ludicrous, the fallacious nature of this belief is pointed out in just about every type of activity that brings human faces into contact with air moving faster than 10 miles per hour.
Really Stupid Hypothesis #3: Carbon Dioxide Asphyxiation
Well, this one's possible – if you have a gas or coal-powered fan. And then you'd be dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, which often happened when old ondol systems malfunctioned. I would have another aunt right now were it not for such a malfunction decades ago. But such is the fear that old people still tend to have, which may have been transferred over to the notion of "fan death."
But let's get real. The motor of the fan produces carbon dioxide that kills you? Say what? Koreanegroes, pleeeeze. A few house plants probably produce more carbon dioxide than any electric fan would. Then we'd have "computer fan death" and people in crowded PC bangs across Korea would be dropping dead like flies. People – there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of mini-fans whirring incessantly in small, smoke-filled rooms across the nation. Worried about harmful products in the air? Tell people to stop smoking in PC bangs! The tar and other carcinogens from cigarette smoke is actually going to take years off your life, which is why I don't go to PC bangs.
Are there any more questions that this layman can answer? Really. The fact that this must even be addressed in a newspaper is embarrassing.
Korean folks are some of the most highly-educated and literate populations on God's green planet. I think "fan death" is just one of those thing caused by the way knowledge is produced in the education system, along with a glaring lack of critical thinking skills.
A university student of mine once tried to point out a logical fallacy to me by offering an "illuminating" question told her by her professor. It had to do with the demonstrating how correlation does not equal cause, which is a basic misunderstanding that many untrained minds out there make.
So we were having our little discussion when she smugly posed the question to me, as if I was going to actually get caught in her paltry intellectual trap: "Do you know why the incidence of rapes and the consumption of ice cream rise and fall in almost 1:1 correlation?" No, I didn't, nor did I want to even waste time on some silly answer that I was sure about to come.
I simply said that yes, I knew perfectly well that correlation and cause were different, much as my waist line and the expansion of the universe were not causally related but more of a factor of time (and its effect on my slowing metabolism and levels of laziness). But she decided that she "had me" and gleefully provided the answer: "It's because of temperature! In the summer, it's hotter, so want to eat more ice cream and girls wear less clothing, causing more men to be sexually tempted."
Oh. My. God. Apparently, her professor is a "trained" social scientist in possession of a Ph.D. at Yonsei University. Apparently.
Yes, I agreed, no causality between ice cream consumption and rape. Duh. But the temperature alone as a correlating explanation, resting atop the specious assumption that higher skirts and more ass means more incidents of rape? Surely a social scientist is going to look deeper than that. So here's another, far more reasonable hypothesis for the "obvious" relationship between more revealing clothing and a higher incidence of rape:
Maybe – just maybe – instead of assuming that men are walking around getting woodies and inevitably wanting to rape women more – given a certain probability and incidence of rape in a society (and surely there might be some fluctuations over time), perhaps in the summer there are more opportunities for such incidents to occur, made possible by the greatly increased levels of certain kinds of social interactions that occur at a more frequent rate in the summer, as defined by greater amounts of free time to socialize on vacations, trips, group outings, and the like – and if we're going to bring temperature into the picture, it's far more plausible to argue that people are simply outside and socializing more – which is true, given the fact that people aren't sitting outside in bars, verandas, even convenience stores during the winter as much or for as long as during the summer. Even if you're thinking in terms of pure space and seating alone, most social venues gain more seats and potential clients because of the ability to sit outside – which is enabled by the temperature that the professor seems to be trying to point out as a correlating factor.
So the prof's right in trying to use an interesting example in trying to point out this logical error – too bad his reasoning was simplistic and reliant on some pretty specious assumptions themselves. With professors like this, who needs urban myths?
The American Equivalent of "Fan Death"
For the American equivalent of "fan death" – produced by a lack of reasoning skills that's due to an over-abundance of bullheaded ideology combined with a basic misunderstanding of science and what it asserts, more than a lack of critical thinking skills in and of themselves – check out my post on "Chuck D – Public Enemy Number One" and the irksome insult to both faith and reason defined by so-called "intelligent design."
THE KOREAN CASE
[lack of basic critical thinking skills] + [sensationalist media lacking same] + [decision to not use solid science education] = "fan death"
THE AMERICAN CASE
[bullheaded ideology] + [decision to turn off critical thinking skills] + [lack of solid science education] = "intelligent design"