Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog doubles down on defense of cow dung 'anti-radiation' chip with questionable 'study'

In October 2020, the Chairperson of the National Commission on Cows, the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), made headlines with bizarre claims about a cow dung chip that could supposedly block "harmful radiation" from mobile phones. They went a step further, saying the claims were backed by 'scientific proof'. A group of scientists wrote an open letter to RKA at that time, asking to see proof of their claims. The letter has now received a response from the Chairperson of RKA, Dr Vallabhbhai Kathiria. The reply is so comical, it could be dissected in an oped of its own.

But let's draw our attention to another attachment that came with the RKA Chief's letter – a letter from the head of the Physics Department at Saurashtra University, Prof Mihir Joshi, who has apparently certified the so-called "scientific analysis" of the so-called cow dung chip. The results of this study were retrieved by The Print. The fundamental idea of the experiment could be described as simplistic. It is also a classic case of deciding the conclusion of the study first and designing a ‘study’ to reach that predetermined conclusion.

The experiment was supposedly designed to 'prove' that cow dung chip blocks radiation. The professor and researchers involved in the experiment used a radioactive material, a cow dung cake, and a standard Geiger–Muller counter (GM counter). They checked the readings on the detector, after which they placed a cow dung cake between the source and detector, followed by another reading. These steps were repeated with various cow dung cakes of different shapes and thicknesses. The researchers claim that the reduction in the reading after the introduction of the cow dung cake proves their point about its radiation-shielding capability.

There are multiple problems with this approach.

First, the term 'radiation' is used to describe a range of different types of emissions. High-energy radiation like X-ray photons or fast-moving electrons come from radioactive sources. But the claim was made about radiation from a mobile phone, which uses very low-energy radio waves. The experiment they carried out is practically useless to support the claims made about mobile radiation.

Secondly, it is a well-known fact that if you introduce a solid object in front of a radioactive source, it will block some of the radiation. The same effect will be seen with any kind of brick. This experiment cannot prove that cow dung has any special quality that make it a useful shield from radiation.

The loopholes in this study are very obvious to any real researcher. But for the benefit of all, I will highlight the major flaws.

1. The researchers have used cow dung as the test substance “X”, without any other substance to compare (what researchers call the "control"). What would happen if we make partitions of the same size and shape but use donkey dung/camel dung instead of cow dung? What would happen if we use wet soil instead, or wood, or plastic? Without these comparisons to highlight the benefits of using cow dung, the data only proves that introducing a solid partition between the path of "radiation" reduces the count in a GM counter. This is hardly a surprise or new information.

2. Experiments with radioactive sources are statistical in nature. If you take multiple readings with an identical setup, the counts will likely be in a narrow range of readings, and not identical from one trial to the next. The standard deviations of these observations, another important statistical measure, depends on the exact setup of the experiment. So, any experiment with a radioactive source and GM counter is done with multiple sets of readings with each setup. We always take a minimum of three readings, but more readings are encouraged, so the average of them can be scientifically useful. The reported variation in the counts for different partitions of cow dung may or may not be statistically meaningful. We already see one hint towards this in the reported data: all counts are in the range of (343 p/m 28) per 100 seconds, but it is clear that there is no meaningful pattern in the data as the thickness of the sample was varied.

3. The GM counter, by nature, is sensitive to all kinds of ionizing radiation (including high energy photons like X-ray and gamma rays). That doesn’t make it a useful tool to measure low-energy photons like radio waves that are used in mobile communication. It is unclear how this experiment validates the original claim by RKA that cow dung chip reduces radiation from a mobile phone.

4. It is worth pointing out that if this cow dung chip blocked the 'mobile radiation', the phone would not receive any transmission from the mobile towers and won’t be able to transmit anything back. Any mobile phone wrapped in a radiation shield like the one the study talks about would be nothing more than a shiny, expensive paperweight.

Reply to Scientist's Le... by Tech2

It is not surprising that the politically-motivated RKA is peddling pseudoscience of this nature. What's really disheartening is the willingness of a Physics professor from a reputable state university, in indulging them. The academic is either ignorant about the flaws in the study himself or knowingly backing false narratives for petty favours. Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse, but my concern is reserved for the students of these so-called educators.

Kathiria is an oncologist by profession and proud of his education (as evident from his letter attached here). Being an oncologist, however, he would have studied the use of nuclear radiation in both diagnostics (X-ray/MRI) and treatment (radiotherapy). He would also have studied preventive measures to protect medical personnel from unwanted exposure to radiation. Please bear this in mind while reading the piece of unintentional but yet comedic literature produced by him.

This letter follows an unstructured, unhinged, rambling style, changing tracks at random places (not unlike the average Trump speech). Like the popular Marathi idiom “नमनालाच घडाभर तेल” (using a full pot of lamp oil just for the initial greeting), the first half of the letter doesn’t even touch  on the core subject, giving a self-proclaimed "positive introduction" to the general benefits of a radiation shield, cow dung and the importance of "positive thinking" and "researching at the science behind Indian culture".

The letter is almost entirely incoherent – impossible to make sense of or write a structured response to. So, instead, I am highlighting a few verbatim quotes. (For a hearty laugh, I do encourage you to read the letter in its entirety.)

"As a scientist, you all know that cow dung is priceless and it is a wealth."

"Like cow milk, cow ghee, cow curd, cow urine and cow dung, all these five elements (पंचगव्य or Panchgavya) are beneficial for mankind and all living creatures as a whole. Like other scientific innovations, they are blessings to mankind and possess too many useful properties and scientific qualities."

"Today, when we see serials like Ramayan, Mahabharat, Krishna, Chanakya, Upanishad Ganga etc, we find unmatchable technologies used in social life which is still beyond our reach."

"Some educated people think that ancient Indian history, culture and traditions are myth but the truth is truth, pathos is pathos and affection is affection."

"During my interaction with Scientists in the USA, many of them told me that seven out of 10 researches fail. But when the remaining three trials become successful, it not only bear the research expenses of all the 10 research but they also earn millions of dollars. …. I am scared that they will surprise us one day by putting forth their research on our ancient knowledge in front of us in redefined way, with their names and at that time we will only feel proud that it is written in our ancient science and Puranas."

"We don't say that we are the only right ones. It is our philosophy to accept everything which is good and real beneficial. We acknowledge Vatsyayan also as Rishi."

"Money making was not the agenda of sages then, so they haven't taken any patent for the benefit of mankind."

"There are myths about Indian cows which should be viewed with scientific attitude."

"I don't know whether you believe in sin and good (sacred) but you will definitely be a partner in this sacred mission."

"Cow dung is radio protective. Our ancestors have written this somewhere and some experiments are going on."

"We know this well that IR (infra-red) rays are also absorbed by cow dung, so that the temperature of the house made up of cow dung remains lesser. Global warming is increasing because IR absorption is reducing due to modern cement concrete buildings."

"The way I am a Cancer surgeon, but I cannot become authority to comment on every findings in specialised surgeries of branches other than Cancer, same way you all may be unaware of many fields about Cow science and it is natural too. This is not a political statement. It is a social thought."

"I am convinced that through Cow Science, we can get ways to save future life on the earth in today's climate change disasters and COVID-19 like pandemics."

"Expecting positive constructive and vibrating response."

Highlights from the letter are verbatim except for style.

The author is an associate professor at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE-TIFR), Mumbai and is a physicist/astronomer by training.

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