Conversations with Gyorgy Scrinis



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:

[A day with Gyorgy Scrinis]

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:

Yes, I’m criticizing the scientists…

Here’s my two cents of the scientists’ burden.

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 target certain specific needs. An example of such a very advanced product was brought forward by one in the audience:


Here is what Scrinis said about it:

“It’s not bad nutrients, it’s actually…” […]

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 the 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. You want 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 coffee…

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!

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. How can such industry “buy out” the internal narrations of a community? How is it possible that 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 one’s life. Imagine all those things blown up to industrial scale: that’s pornography.

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 (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.



Going back to the milieu of the person questioning, I believe this debate has to move to 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 I believe may be his major weakness, at least as it comes to bringing arguments to his otherwise perfectly sound analysis) […]

[I will constantly update this post as I go through the material over and over again…]

* Heart of Science would make for a great reboot of Heart of Darkness


Big Food – corporate influence on the public health agenda

As part of the activities organized around the visit of Gyorgy Scrinis, together with Centro di Salute Internazionale and Dipartimento di Storia Culture e Civiltà we have been organizing this focus on corporate influence on the public health agenda.



Ore 15.30, Aula Capitani – Dipartimento di Storia, Culture e Civiltà,


L’incidenza dei disturbi connessi all’alimentazione come obesità, diabete, ipertensione e cardiopatie è in aumento così come crescono le preoccupazioni riguardo alle implicazioni per la salute dei prodotti alimentari ultraprocessati. A questi problemi le grandi multinazionali del settore alimentare, denominate Big Food, hanno risposto con una serie di strategie volte a spostare l’attenzione dalla qualità del cibo ai singoli nutrienti, identificati sia come il problema da risolvere che la soluzione agli stessi disturbi connessi all’alimentazione, e, in ultima analisi, a depoliticizzare il discorso sull’alimentazione deviando l’attenzione dalle cause strutturali delle patologie legate all’alimentazione, come il ruolo della stessa Big Food nel creare un contesto alimentare insalubre attraverso la produzione di cibo ultraprocessato e confezionato. Parallelamente, le multinazionali del cibo hanno utilizzato diversi canali di influenza per interagire con i processi politici e di governance con l’obiettivo di produrre e mantenere un ambiente normativo favorevole per le loro pratiche e la commercializzazione dei loro prodotti. Esempi di strategie utilizzate da Big Food per influenzare le agende politiche, compresa quella della salute pubblica, vanno dalle azioni di lobby alla partecipazione nelle cosiddette partnertership pubblico-private, dall’utilizzo del loro potere economico nei contesti globali e locali fino alla partecipazione diretta o indiretta ad attività di definizione di leggi, regole e di politiche. Infine, le grandi aziende alimentari sono impegnate attivamente nel plasmare il discorso pubblico e definire i termini del dibattito politico sulle questioni alimentari e nutrizionali attraverso pubblicità di prodotti, campagne sulla salute e benessere, finanziamenti per la ricerca e sponsorizzazione di gruppi di professionisti e di cittadini.

Almost Nothing vs The Sense of Beauty

I was invited to briefly introduce the movie Almost Nothing – CERN Experimental City at Cinema Ariston, Mantova. Here you can find the Italian audio version of my ten-minutes presentation. Let me embroider it.


Just one year ago came out The Sense of Beauty – When Science Meets the Seventh Art, another movie about research at CERN. Both movies offer an artistic viewpoint on the activities at CERN. My interpretation is that they offer two almost antithetical ways of conceiving the scientific enterprise, and quite possibly also the artistic enterprise (but I’m no expert on this). This is in line with how the conversation about science is changing. Furthermore: the very fact that these movies exist may be revelatory of a crucial social change within CERN.

But first: I am no particle physicist at all (my apologies to all my friends who do work on projects at CERN). But precisely because I do not talk “on behalf” of CERN, or of “physics” for that matters, my point of view may turn useful. I talk as an external member of the broader community of researchers in physics who have been observing CERN from the outside for many years, with good insights on the physics and the sociology involved in the project.

So, in what sense are these two movies completely different? I cherry-pick two moments out of each movie.

In Almost Nothing, there’s a chill-out moment with beers on a terrace towering Geneve. The interviewer asks:

“But there’s no chance that you wanted to see it, and that’s why you see it?”

A young researcher by the name Daniel Figueroa answers

“When you are creating knowledge, there is always that chance, you can be completely biased. But there’s something I would call robust science, which is, when it’s being observed from many angles, from many perspectives, from many different experiments, or from many different observations that are not even related, but still they give you the same information, and at some point your theoretical framework may fit sufficiently well, such that you understand that it’s really the explanation. But it’s true you are not there to prove it, you are just using your intelligence to use all the observations to build up a coherent explanation. It works too good to believe that this is not the case.  In science, when something is fake, it reveals immediately the patterns.”

In The Sense of Beauty, on several occasions Gianfrancesco Giudice is interviewed. The first time he says:

“Physical laws as were known in the 19th century correspond to our common perception. The laws of quantum mechanics, instead, are paradoxical, therefore they seem far from reality. What is bizarre about this is that reality instead follows the laws of quantum mechanics. That is the true reality, because it is there where we go find out the essence of nature.”

In both quotes the italics is mine. In Giudice’s words, we find an almost religious concept of science as the pursuit of an ultimate truth (theoretical physicists tend to have a very platonic mindset). In fact, all of the movie The Sense of Beauty parallels science to religion in a more or less direct way. CERN is portrayed as a cathedral. The epigraph goes:

“Some call it the religion of our time.

Even if it broke the mirror of the world into a thousand fragments.


More subtly, at some point it is said that:

“Sometimes [science] is taking us by hand, without telling us where we are going”.

Again, science “in a strong sense” is seen as something that exists on its own, and that feeds the minds of people who work for it. Revelation. Furthermore, in Giudice’s words, it is nature that follows the laws of  conceptual construction developed by humans. A more secular view could be that the “laws ” of Quantum Mechanics are some sort of arrangements humans momentarily stipulate to follow what “nature” does. This overturning is precisely within the lines of western religiousness, first of all of Christianity: the fact that God has knowable human features captures the desire of the human to replace nature, not to be respectful of it and accept its mystery. And we are back to the very first verses of the bible…

With all the outspoken and militant atheism running down the corridors of physics departments, I find it quite ironical that the greatest scientific experiment humans ever made is portrayed as a cathedral, and science as a religion. Maybe that should ring a bell.

On par with that, The Sense of Beauty also seems to have a similar take on the artistic enterprise in terms of absolute beauty, but I will keep my hands off of that.

Almost Nothing takes a quite different view, portraying science “in the weak sense” as a social activity and not indulging on esthetics. The CERN is portrayed as a (particularly ugly) city where humans are engaged in social activities that make it a meaningful experience (and where shooting cool situations is nearly in impossible, so says the movie director).

The social aspect is also present in the conception of science. Let’s go back to Figueroa’s words. He says create knowledge, instead of, say, discover truth. He uses the word coherent instead of true. Science is robust (and not, say, evident) when things are figured out by many from several angles and perspectives: again a social practice (Nietzsche: “We can say nothing about the thing in itself, for we have eliminated the standpoint of knowing. A quality exists for us, i.e. it is measured by us. If we take away the measure, what remains of the quality?”).

My points is that this difference in perspectives is not only in the minds of the authors of these documentaries, but it is also very present within the scientific community,  whenever a researcher deals with how to narrate his story to himself first, and then to the community of scholars, and then to the so-called “stakeholders”. In my view, the shift from the science-as-truth to the science-as-social-activity paradigm is necessary at times where the authoritativeness of science is under attack. Portraying “weak science” is now more cogent than “strong science”.

The very fact that these movies exist is a piece of evidence that CERN is in search of a new identity, that the Higgs boson isn’t enough. And, after all, maybe it had never been about the Higgs boson! Maybe it was just about creating a community who could preserve an important form of knowledge. Now, the community at CERN has two ways to go: either borrowing from the repertoire of communication experts, strategists, etc. to focus on the object, say the Higgs boson, to make it cool (but not necessarily well understood…) – that is, to grab on the mystical aspects of science; or else to embrace the fact that what was more important was the process, embodied in all those rituals that the community celebrated to gain credibility, and that could be resumed as the scientific method.




Food Mania – Dentro l’ideologia nutrizionista

Un percorso di approfondimento con Gyorgy Scrinis

Bologna 6 Dicembre 2019

“Una caratteristica del nutrizionismo – o riduzionismo nutrizionale – è il focalizzarsi sulla composizione in singoli nutrienti degli alimenti come strumenti per comprendere la loro salubrità, e l’interpretazione riduttiva del ruolo di questi nutrienti nella salute del corpo. Una caratteristica chiave di questa interpretazione è che in alcuni casi scavalca e nasconde l’interesse per le qualità di produzione e processazione del cibo e dei suoi ingredienti. […] Tuttavia, la mia critica al nutrizionismo non si basa sulla preoccupazione che gli scienziati qualche volta si sbaglino – infatti, l’insistenza che esista una risposta chiaramente corretta o una verità scientifica riguardo agli effetti sulla salute dei nutrienti è uno dei tratti caratteristici dello stesso nutrizionismo. Non è che la scienza della nutrizione non abbia avuto intuizioni considerevoli nelle relazioni tra nutrienti, il cibo, e il corpo. Il punto è che queste intuizioni sono spesso state interpretate in una maniera riduzionista e poi subito tradotte in linee guida nutrizionali. Quest’interpretazione comporta la decontestualizzazione, semplificazione, ed esagerazione del ruolo dei nutrienti nel determinare la salute del corpo. […] Il nutrizionismo è stato il paradigma dominante della scienza della nutrizione nello scorso secolo e mezzo. Già all’inizio del ventesimo secolo, iniziava a infiltrarsi nella comprensione pubblica del cibo e della salute. Entrando negli anni 70 il nutrizionismo aveva già colonizzato e trasformato le linee guida alimentari a sua immagine e somiglianza, per diventare negli anni 80 una strategia dominante che ha guidato le pratiche di marketing dell’industria alimentare.”




Ore 18, presso Làbas, Vicolo Bolognetti 2


Ci troviamo a discutere  della letteratura scientifica di Gyorgy Scrinis e a prepare le domande all’autore, per una discussione informata. Qui sotto le referenze bibliografiche.


Ore 20, Biblioteca multimediale Roberto Ruffilli, Vicolo Bolognetti 2





Gyorgy Scrinis è Senior Lecturer in Food Politics and Policy presso la Facoltá di scienze veterinarie e agricole dell’Universitá di Melbourne. La sua ricerca si è focalizzata sugli aspetti politici, sociologici e filosofici del cibo e della nutrizione compreso il ruolo delle multinazionali del cibo nel sistema alimentare. Nel suo libro «Nutritionism. The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice» (Columbia University Press, 2013) ha sviluppato una critica del riduzionismo nutrizionale, inteso come focus sui singoli nutrienti piuttosto che sul cibo nella sua interezza e nella sua qualitá, una visione adottata nei campi della scienza della nutrizione, dell’ ingegneria alimentare e nelle pratiche di marketing adottate dalle multinazionali del cibo.




Festivaletteratura è una rassegna letteraria. Ha luogo annualmente a Mantova nella seconda settimana di Settembre. All’interno del festival, l’esperienza di Scienceground offre uno spazio di conversazione sul ruolo sociale della scienza, e sul ruolo del sociale nella scienza.

ubi minor  – Laboratorio di didattica e ricerca in ecosofia. Spazio di ricerca in ecologia filosofica. Organizza seminari di ricerca presso il dipartimento di Filosofia dell’università di Bologna.

Deckard – Laboratorio di scrittura e divulgazione scientifica crossmediale. “Se dieci persone non capiscono quello che scrivi, il problema non è mai delle dieci persone, è il tuo.”



Festivaletteratura: scienceground [at] festivaletteratura [dot] it



G. Scrinis, Nutritionism. The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Jennifer Clapp & Gyorgy Scrinis (2017) Big Food, Nutritionism, and Corporate
Power, Globalizations, 14:4, 578-595

Scrinis, Gyorgy. “Reformulation, fortification and functionalization: Big Food corporations’ nutritional engineering and marketing strategies.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 43.1 (2016): 17-37.
Scrinis, Gyorgy. “On the ideology of nutritionism.” Gastronomica 8.1 (2008): 39-48.

Due laboratori a Suzzara

Sono stato invitato la settimana appena scorsa ad un giovane festival delle scienze a Suzzara. Per l’occasione, ho tenuto due laboratori, il primo con una ventina di ragazzini delle elementari-medie, replica di un laboratorio già proposto a Hackspace Festivaletteratura:

Come costruire un calcolatore meccanico con lego e biglie

Il bit è il più piccolo pezzo di informazione. Quando scriviamo un messaggio su WhatsApp, o scattiamo una foto con lo smartphone, non stiamo facendo altro che modificare un certo numero di bit secondo una successione di calcoli. Concetti un po’ astratti: in pratica, di cosa è fatto il bit? E cosa vuol dire ‘lanciare un programma’? In questo laboratorio impareremo a costruire il più semplice dei calcolatori usando il lego e lanciando biglie come fossero programmi informatici, per iniziare a capire che cosa succede nel cuore dei nostri smartphone.

Il secondo laboratorio era per una platea era di una settantina di studenti del Liceo Scientifico Manzoni di Suzzara, ed è stato la crasi di tre precedenti laboratori , uno già proposto al master di comunicazione scientifica di Trieste, discuss qui, e due già proposti a Scienceground Festivaletteratura sulla statistica come metodo critico:

I piselli verdi rugosi fanno cadere in skateboard?
Pare che comparire sulla copertina di Sports Illustrated “porti iella”: molti degli sportivi che vi sono immortalati poi iniziano una parabola discendente. Ma è veramente un fatto straordinario, oppure esiste una spiegazione semplice? In questo laboratorio cercheremo di comprendere le fallacie statistiche, ovvero quei particolari inganni che il cervello ci gioca quando ci confrontiamo con pattern di informazione. Affronteremo anche come queste stesse fallacie affliggono la produzione e l’interpretazione della conoscenza scientifica.

I film con Nicholas Cage causano l’annegamento?
“Tutto ciò che sai è falso”: un motivetto ricorrente tra i complottisti amatoriali. In questo breve corso puoi diventare complottista PRO! E aggiornare la frase in: “Tutto ciò che sai non è vero”. Ups… ma non è esattamente lo stesso? E se fosse: “Tutto ciò che non sai può esser vero?”. Aiuto! In che senso un fatto è giusto o sbagliato? E di quali strumenti è necessario dotarsi per combattere “Big Data” e “Big Pharma”? Non troverete la risposta in questo laboratorio, ma in ogni caso la nostra non-risposta non è del tutto non-vera.

I laboratori stanno evolvendo, ogni volta che li faccio cambiano, soprattutto il secondo sta diventando sempre più articolato ed appassionante, riesco a mantenere l’attenzione dei ragazzi per varie ore, e mi riprometto di proporlo in giro in vari contesti.

Per l’occasione mi sono registrato, ma non posso pubblicare i materiali (contengono le voci dei ragazzi). Chi fosse interessato ad ascoltarli può chiedermeli personalmente.