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The rise of pseudoscience and the dangers of supporting it

There is a clamour to prove that all ideas of ancient India had a scientific basis, and to discredit evidence-based science as western.

The rise of pseudoscience and the dangers of supporting it

‘Cowpathy’: The DST funded 10 projects on cows totalling over Rs 5 crore in 2020. PTI

Dinesh C. Sharma

Science Commentator

AFTER India’s two successful missions — the soft-landing on the moon and the launch of the Aditya-L1 mission to study the sun — some Indian scientists are, ironically, making headlines for the wrong reasons. A video of Laxmidhar Behera, Director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mandi, has gone viral, in which he linked the consumption of meat with the growing incidents of cloudbursts and landsides in Himachal Pradesh. He has a doctorate from IIT-Delhi, has taught at IIT-Kanpur, and specialises in robotics and artificial intelligence. Behera had earlier spoken about the existence of ghosts and evil spirits and of keeping menstruating women away from Janmashtami celebrations.

The likes of him have existed in the academic and scientific world in the past, too, but they were on the fringe and their number was small. The worrying trend now is that Behera is not alone, nor are such people at the fringe. He heads a prestigious institution and participates in policymaking. The journey from the fringe to the mainstream has been swift over the past decade. First, we had a vice-chancellor speaking about the ‘science’ behind the Pushpak Vimana at the Indian Science Congress. Then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised ancient science, citing the example of Lord Ganesh being a creation of plastic surgery and Vedic stem cell technology. Now, we have a number of academicians and researchers pursuing ancient ideas. They are also in decision-making positions and attract government funding to nurture weird ideas.

Leading scientific and research institutions seem to be vying with one another to promote the virtues of ancient ideas. The desperate drive is to put the ‘scientifically validated’ stamp on outlandish claims.

This is not to be confused with the systematic study and documentation of traditional knowledge which has been going on for a long time. For instance, several institutes of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, like the National Dairy Research Institute and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, have been engaged in research on different aspects of Indian cattle breeds and dairy products like ghee. The production and utilisation of biogas, or ‘gobar gas’, started in the 1960s. The Indian National Science Academy has produced well-researched documents on Indian traditions and knowledge systems in mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, etc. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research pioneered the setting up of the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library to prevent the patenting of Indian traditional knowledge by multinational companies in the 1990s.

What differentiates all this from the post-2014 trend is the clamour to prove that all ideas of the past had a scientific basis and to discredit evidence-based science as western. The exercise is couched in a Hindu political and ideological framework. So, ‘cowpathy’ becomes superior to the modern systems of medicine. The proponents of such ideas mistakenly believe that if such claims come from the IITs — not from ayurvedic or agricultural institutes — they can be touted as ‘scientifically accepted.’ A recent ‘research’ paper from Virendra Kumar Vijay of IIT-Delhi defines ‘cowpathy’ as a ‘treatment based on products obtained from indigenous cow as used in ayurveda’ and then quotes ancient ayurvedic literature to claim that ‘cowpathy’ is useful in the treatment of arthritis, kidney disorders, gastrointestinal tract disorders, asthma, cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, heart attack, blockage in arteries, gynaecological problems, etc. The paper was presented at a conference on ‘Gau Vigyan’ (cow science) in modern life and medical science organised by IIT-Guwahati in May 2023. Incidentally, this IIT has a centre for Vedic altruism.

In the same conference, Lalit Pandey and Uday Dixit from the departments of biosciences and bio-engineering and mechanical engineering at IIT-Guwahati said that ‘cuddling of cows contributes to wellness trend and helps to overcome depression and anxiety’. Jyoti Kumar and Rohit Pandey from the design department of IIT-Delhi wanted a new framework to assess cow science. This, they feel, should be based on ‘a mixed methods approach where the physical observable phenomena can be mixed with the non-physical and non-observable through existent phenomena within the acceptable philosophy of modern science.’ A paper by researchers from the Post-Graduate Institute of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Akola, went to the extent of saying that panchagavya — a concoction of cow urine, milk, dung, ghee and curd — has been proved to be ‘very curative’ in the treatment of heart disease, cancer and AIDS.

The people who presented these research papers are not fringe elements. They are all from elite institutions and the conference was organised at an IIT. These elements are thriving at the cost of the taxpayers’ money. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is among the funding agencies supporting such pseudoscience. It has a programme that goes by a fancy acronym, SUTRA-PIC (Scientific Utilisation Through Research Augmentation — Prime Products from Indigenous Cows), and was launched in 2020. In the first year, it funded 10 projects totalling over Rs 5 crore. For instance, Rs 42 lakh was given to develop a protocol for ‘forensic authentication and traceability of products claimed as made from panchgavya’, and the one to ‘explore the anti-infective potential’ of cow urine-dung-ghee mix at IIT,-Varanasi got Rs 65 lakh. Such funding is flowing for cow science from several other government agencies too.

In 2015, progressive scientists warned that ‘rationalist scientists will find their workspace squeezed as they begin to deal with a government that is influenced by parochial consideration’. These words of Mayank Vahia have proved prophetic. Unless scientists come out against the government’s support of pseudoscience and ideology-driven science, genuine scientific research will suffer. It will also harm a better public understanding of the real achievements of the past. Hopefully, Abhay Karandikar, Director of IIT-Kanpur, who has been appointed Secretary, DST, will crack down on schemes like SUTRA-PIC and lead the community in supporting rational science. The misuse of scientific departments and funding agencies by their political masters to push their ideologies must stop.


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