As part of the activities of Scienceground, yesterday we met Gyorgy Scrinis, an expert on global and conceptual aspects of nutrition. In the afternoon he gave an academic seminar on the theme of corporate influence of food companies in the public health agenda, and later in the evening he engaged in a public discussion on nutritionism – aka nutritional reductionism – which he identifies as one of the dominant ideologies of our time. In between the two events, we organized an open session of discussion to prepare an informed conversation. All of the recordings are available here:
As comes to the public discussion (FoodMania.wav), there is one moment I would like to focus on. It starts at 1:17:53, when a person from the audience (who qualifies as a researcher in statistics) questions some of the conclusions of Scrinis. In particular, while agreeing on the misrepresentation that the industry and the system of media provide of scientific results, he defends scientific reductionism arguing that it is based on a solid statistical methods, asking Scrinis whether he imputes the responsibility of the bad state of affairs on scientists. Scrinis has a very precise answer:
Here’s my two cents of the scientists’ burden, with a very ideological twist, I admit.
The arena of corporations’ tailoring of products and propaganda is moving more and more into the heart of sciences. After exploiting family, sports, music, yoga, coolness, etc. and whatever other image to convey its products, now the industry is dipping into science, which remains the last “authoritative” discourse in our society. They do so by creating products explicitly targeted to meet the functional needs of our body, on the assumption that science knows how specific nutrients affect metabolism. An example of such a very advanced product was brought forward by one in the audience:
Here is what Scrinis said about it:
My own take is as follows. The problem, to put it mildly, is that it is very questionable that we actually have such detailed knowledge of how nutrients work. To put it strongly, we know nothing about how human metabolism works, apart from islands of respectable knowledge here and there, some at the cellular level, some at the physiological level, some at the epidemiological level and so on. These islands of knowledge do not really communicate very well among themselves. To date, the only grand-unified theory of nutrition is the old-style motto “eat like your grandmother would tell you” (which makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view… but evolutionary time-scales are certainly not the time-scales of interest for the industry).
So here’s the scientists’ fault: What keeps these pieces of knowledge tied together is some sort of story-telling, some inside story, some narrative within the science of nutrition that makes the scientists believe (or claim) that they work on the same thing, that their research is solid, and that they are a community of scholars. Maybe they publish on the same journals, maybe they go to the same conferences etc. But is this narrative strong enough against external pressures?
Because, check this out: The global industry that wastes the resources of planet Earth is now postmodern. It is not interested in the specific product, the product is flexible. Want a smart watch? We’ll make you a smart watch. You prefer coffee in capsules? We have that. A very precise food-item that meets your dietary needs? No problem, we’ll package it with a watch that monitors your “nutritional” needs and reminds you it’s time for vitamins…
Production of material goods will scale, eventually. But that’s not the point. The industry is not chasing the next product. The industry is chasing the next story-telling, ahead of manufacturing the product. It experiments and creates trends in the rich countries, and then mass-export them in “developing” ones.
Anybody can judge the quality of the products that this system produces.
So that’s what the industry is after, and people around have to be weary. All those little beliefs and creeds, and sayings and stories, and back-talks etc., all of those things that make up the untold story of a community’s life, all of a sudden get blown up to industrial scale and sold as truth – as if the process of creating that truth did not matter. That’s the definition of pornography. Science used to be prudish, today it is becoming pornographic.
How can such industry “buy out” the internal narrations of a community? What are the mechanisms of how this happens? This is at the core of Scrinis’s research.
So, in the end, I agree with Scrinis, yes, if science lends itself to a reductionist and decontextualized extrapolations, then it is the fault of scientists working on nutritionism, not because they work for the industry (some do, implicitly or explicitly, but of course it’s more complex than that…), but because nutritionists have not established themselves as a serious community that is capable of withstanding pressure from the outside and give a some authenticity to their work.
One final remark is the following. Going back to the milieu of the person questioning Scrinis, I believe this debate has also to include how statistics is used and abused in academia. Unfortunately we did not have the time to discuss this issue (on which we broadly discussed in the activities proposed at Festivaletteratura), nor Scrinis has the competence on this theme, which from my point of view is his major weakness in the argumentation, at least as it comes to bringing further “inside” arguments to his otherwise perfectly sound analysis.