About a year ago, in an interview with Behindwoods Air News, a Tamil YouTube channel, astrologer A.B. Mugan claimed he could “scientifically” find out if a soul “attained peace”. He took out a bent copper rod with a bright red handle. “Once you touch a deceased person’s photo with this rod, it will keep pointing at the photo if the person’s soul hasn’t attained peace – if it has, then the rod will turn away,” he said.
He then proceeded to pull up a dead person’s photo on a mobile phone, albeit with dubious hand movements. Like a magician inviting the audience to inspect his props, he even asked the interviewer to test the rod.
Mugan’s claims, you might think, can be dismissed as unbelievable. Wrong. At the time of writing, the interview has over six lakh views. A video where he demonstrates his “scientific proof” of soul detection elicits comments that express a sense of awe. The rod itself - known as Dowsing Rod - is sold on major e-commerce platforms for up to ₹8,000.
YouTuber Dharma Durai (popularly known as Mr. G.K.) noticed Mugan’s videos on Facebook after he was tagged by a few followers. He invited the astrologer to an interview on his channel, where he interrogated him on his ‘scientific’ methods. After a confident start, Mugan’s answers soon got vague and unconvincing. For instance, when asked if he has published his research in a renowned scientific journal, Mugan replied that he has written in Bhagya, a Tamil entertainment weekly.
G.K. isn’t a scientist. He is a BSc graduate who quit his IT job to become a YouTuber. After starting with history videos, he moved to his other favourite subject: science. “There weren’t many people explaining complex topics, like the fourth dimension, in simple terms. I felt I could fill this space,” he says. He now has 1.22 million subscribers and 146 million views across all his videos. “Though I started a channel to educate people on science, I soon realised debunking pseudoscience is a big part of that,” he says.
Power of pseudoscience
From flat-earth theory to soul-detecting copper rods, there is an imaginative range of scientific misinformation on the internet, drawing a large and growing number of people.
Pseudoscience seems to be thriving on social media. In India, a chunk of it stems from sentiments about a glorious past. Case in point: Ayurveda and its many interpretations by health influencers. Krish Ashok, who interrogates nutritional myths on Twitter and Instagram, says that people hark back to the “original text” to make preposterous claims like refrigeration is bad or that mixing fruits and dairy is harmful.
“Without refrigeration, we cannot feed all the people on the planet. And if fruits and dairy can’t be mixed, then you are arguing against the consumption of milkshakes,” he says. “Two-thousand years ago, without refrigeration, milk got spoilt in minutes and fruits rotted soon. So these combination rules might have made sense then. But not today, when our understanding of microbiology and metabolism has advanced. You have to take everything in its context.”
Another ancient Indian achievement that regularly does the rounds online is the vimana, flying chariots mentioned in mythological texts. Though a 1974 study by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, concluded that the aircraft described in the Vaimanika Shastra were aerodynamically unfeasible, the text was presented at the 102nd Indian Science Congress in 2015.
Pranav Radhakrishnan, who made a video on the vimanas on his YouTube channel, Science Is Dope, reckons pseudoscience is dangerous on multiple levels. “While some of it – like the belief in vimanas – causes intellectual harm, others – like believing in alternative medicines that lack scientific evidence – can result in health hazards, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.
Pranav, like G.K., didn’t set out to debunk pseudoscience. As a science educator, he just wanted to discuss his favourite subject. “But I noticed a lot of prominent people peddling a lot of pseudoscience and misinformation. No one was calling these people out. I made one debunking video, which did well. So I realised there was an audience for such videos,” he says.
Unfortunately, on most occasions, pseudoscience draws more eyeballs online than science. Pranav gives two plausible reasons for this. “One: pseudoscience is glamorous. Take the case of vimanas. The idea of a flying machine in ancient India is so fantastical, you want it to be true. And two: people are sometimes desperate. For instance, if they have a complicated health condition and if someone offers them a simple cure, they tend to believe that.”
Many victims of such misinformation are educated; many of them have college degrees. But, according to Pranav, having a degree hardly matters. “Our education system does little to inculcate scientific temper. It teaches us what to think but not how to think.”
Dealing with pseudoscience
Hepatologist Abby Phillips, known as The Liver Doc on Twitter, classifies pseudoscience on social media into misinformation and disinformation. “Misinformation is a mistake. For example, when a guy says he didn’t get COVID because he had giloy juice. Disinformation, meanwhile, is the AYUSH ministry calling giloy juice safe despite the availability of evidence suggesting it’s harmful. And disinformation in healthcare can be dangerous,” he says.
Calling out big business firms and government institutions attracts a lot of trolling on Twitter. “They think I am against their political party/religion/culture. I just block them,” Dr. Phillips says. “With misinformation, you can make them understand by pointing out facts. But with people spreading disinformation, you have to lock horns and show proof that they are lying.”
Ashok, meanwhile, avoids Twitter fights. He knows social media algorithms prefer conflict and controversial posts because they drive engagement. He calls out just the misinformation without naming anyone. “Also, it is harder to argue with friends and family than with strangers online because it requires empathy.”
Empathy apart, social media platforms also need bigger fact-checking teams. According to a New York Times report, however, these companies have shrunk such teams after the recent wave of layoffs. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, for example, left only one person in charge of misinformation policy worldwide, the report said.
Against this backdrop, there is a pressing need for a vigorous fact-checking community, especially in science, against copper rods that can spot souls and ancient aircraft that can take off.