It’s summer, and it’s hot, and every night I sleep with a fan blowing blessedly cool air over my bed, usually with the windows closed to keep the murdering rapists out. So I’m sure that others will be as surprised as me to discover that in one country in the world, this is considered to be as dangerous as sleeping with a loaded gun.
South Koreans of all ages, religions and levels of education will tell you that every year in S.Korea, people fall victim to ‘Fan Death‘ resulting from operating a fan in a closed room while asleep. This is not a kooky urban legend supported by only a few neurotics – fans in S.Korea come with warnings not to operate them under the above conditions, and include timer nobs so that the fan can be set to safely turn off on its own as you fall asleep. The media participates by reporting cases of fan death in all seriousness. And the government-funded Korean Consumer Protection Board has released this statement:
If bodies are exposed to electric fans or air conditioners for too long, it causes bodies to lose water and [causes] hypothermia. If directly in contact with [air current from] a fan, this could lead to death from [the] increase of carbon dioxide saturation concentration and decrease of oxygen concentration. The risks are higher for the elderly and patients with respiratory problems. From 2003 [to] 2005, a total of 20 cases were reported through the CISS involving asphyxiations caused by leaving electric fans and air conditioners on while sleeping. To prevent asphyxiation, timers should be set, wind direction should be rotated and doors should be left open.
Even the medical experts in the country are convinced that this happens, and have put forward plenty of explanations for why, ranging from asphixiation to hyperthermia to hypothermia. None of them seem to be able to explain why it doesn’t happen in North Korea, or in other countries with similar climates, or even to Koreans living abroad.
How does it get this bad? A vicious circle of argument by authority – the doctors think that it must be real because it’s in the media, the media thinks it must be real because the doctors say it is, and South Koreans think it must be real because the doctors and the media say it is. Any lone voice in the wilderness is summarily drowned out, such as those doctors who actually perform the autopsies and pronounce cause of death due to heart or lung disease or serious alcoholism. South Koreans will vigorously defend their belief as cultural if faced with a skeptical foreignor, and will even go so far as to suggest that perhaps South Koreans have a unique physiology that makes them susceptible to this particular danger.
Fan death is a fantastic example of how something with absolutely zero basis in fact can take on the appearance of fact, and even be defended in the face of no supporting evidence beyond anecdotes, vox populi and argument by authority. Replace ‘fan death’ with ‘homeopathy’, ‘astrology’ or any other baseless belief, and that statement still stands.