Cowpathy is an open path to pseudoscience
The cow became a venerated religious symbol at the beginning of the Bhakti movement in the medieval period, later a symbol for some Hindus in north India during the Mughal rule and, in the 19th century, transformed into a political symbol. Since then, cow protection has become an organised movement, and conservative political leaders have used the animal as a tool to mobilise traditionalist votes. When independent India’s lawmakers were drafting the Constitution, Hindu traditionalists in the Congress party wanted to ban cow slaughter as part of the constitutional framework, but modernists balked at that suggestion. The cow continues to remain a big bone of contention, thanks in no small part to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has incorporated the animal into its election messaging.
The turning point came in 1967, during the fourth Lok Sabha elections, when right-wingers discovered how effectively they could canvas support in the name of cow protection. The BJP employed the same tactics, but more efficiently, in the 2014 elections, in which it won a historic victory. Be that as it may, cow politics is one thing and cow science is another. Why would the government advance bovine dung and urine as panacea for ailments including cancer? Why would ministries broadcast the misguided views of self-styled experts as scientific fact and confuse the public?
In November 2014, the Ministry of AYUSH was born under the new BJP government, and has since been vigorously campaigning for research on cow products it believes have medicinal properties. In 2017, the government created a national steering committee chaired by the science minister for ‘Scientific Validation and Research’ of cow products. In February 2019, the government approved a proposal to set up a commission called the ‘Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aaayog’ to conserve, protect and develop the country’s cattle population, especially of indigenous breeds. The aayog was also expected to work with the ministry to produce panchgavya, a concoction made from milk curd, ghee, dung and urine and branded as a cure for a variety of diseases. The body has claimed pregnant women may be able to give birth to “smart, highly intellectual and healthy children” if they regularly consumed the substance. Of course, aside from some antiquated beliefs, these claims had nothing else by way of support, especially no peer-reviewed papers or clinical tests.
Also in 2019, the government announced research collaboration on indigenous cows between the University of California, Davis, and Ganpat University in Gujarat. The outcome of this union remains unclear. In July, the AYUSH ministry picked Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Goa to promote ‘cow-based tourism’ and economy, endeavours centred on bovine ingredients such as ghee and, of course, urine and dung. Despite such tall claims, the Ministry of AYUSH has thus far wanted for any form of verification or evidence. On the other hand, the ministry has often announced it has acquired patents for its substances as if to justify its existence. This cuts no ice, however: patents only represent rights over intellectual property, not the scientific validity or effectiveness of the property. It’s worrisome that any uncritical official encouragement from the powers that be for unsubstantiated claims can lead to scientific cronyism and the proliferation of false claims no more valid or meaningful than quackery.
For instance, researchers at the Junagadh Agricultural University in Gujarat have reportedly been able to kill cancer cells using cow urine but it’s not clear how, especially considering bovine and human urine both mostly comprise water and minerals like sodium, potassium and phosphorus, and some waste products like creatinine and epithelial cells. Their study appears to follow one entitled ‘Gomutra: A multidimensional drug review article’, published in an International Journal of Ayurveda and Pharmacy and discussing unvalidated ‘studies’ in obscure publications that follow no peer-review. The Junagadh team also told Times of India their study “was very risky because we directly experimented on cancer cells procured in a bottle. We found the exact quantity of cow urine required to kill a particular number of cells in a day.” This is an absurd statement: even the most common bleach available in the market displays broad-spectrum effectiveness against germs and proteins but such antimicrobial efficacy can’t be interpreted to mean the bleach can cure cancer!
Unfortunately, the near-complete lack of any scientific validation of the medicinal properties of cow-derived products did not discourage the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and other departments overseeing research in India, and the Ministries of AYUSH and of New and Renewable Energy, and the Indian Councils of Agricultural Research and of Medical Research from issuing an “open call for R&D proposals” on February 14, 2020. The topic? Indigenous cow breeds, broken down into five themes, all riddled with problems.
The scheme it seems will support studies to therapeutically characterise milk and dairy products derived from indigenous cows, and provide funds to researchers on ‘cowpathy’, defined as treatment regimens based on these products. The circular also quotes ancient texts to support the curative properties of cow urine for ailments including leucoderma, hyperlipidaemia, arthritis, renal disorders, dietary disorders, gastrointestinal tract disorders, acidity, diarrhoea, dysentery, cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, asthma, psoriasis, eczema, heart attack, gynaecological problems, and more. One wonders what these new studies will find that older ones already haven’t.
A group of scientists from around India subsequently sharply criticised the proposal and demanded the government withdraw it, and instead redirect funds for more legitimate branches of study. In an online petition, they cautioned that “the purpose of this scheme is to pour in money to aid confirmation bias of (its) proponents” and that “such a flawed document issued by the DST along with several other bodies of the government will severely undermine the credibility of the Indian scientific establishment.” To quote Michael Shermer from the Scientific American, “Science is a set of methods aimed at testing hypotheses and building theories. If a community of scientists actively adopts a new idea and if that idea then spreads through the field and is incorporated into research that produces useful knowledge reflected in presentations, publications, and especially new lines of inquiry and research, chances are it is science.” The ‘cow science’ only shows all the hallmarks of pseudoscience, whereas the government’s backing has dealt a blow to mainstream research already set back by insufficient funds. Finally, the move raises several ethical questions regarding human safety and due process.
Can we hope that better sense will prevail in future, that the government will change its mind and more honestly evaluate its stand on the magical prowess of cow excreta? Perhaps not if the words of a lawmaker of the Assam government, uttered March 2, are anything to go by: “We all know that cow dung is very helpful. Likewise, when cow urine is sprayed, it purifies an area. … I believe something similar could be done with (cow urine) … to cure coronavirus” (sic). In turn, the words of a leftist French mayor, upon being reproached for his lavish lifestyle, come to mind: “I am a socialist, not an idiot.” In India’s prevailing political climate, it becomes important to say, “I am a nationalist, not an idiot.”