National ignorance

The italian bunch of easy-to-persuade
di Eliana Vitolo
From the 18th of February of this year a new decree came into effect in Italy, banning chemical products in every kitchen, in restaurants as well as in our homes. Taken by Francesca Martini, the undersecretary for health, this measure’s aim is in fact banning  the

use – or even storage – of all additives (except sweeteners) for which current EU legislation sets a maximum acceptable daily intake (ADI), and making the restaurants inform their clients about each ingredient of the food they are going to eat.
After this publication on Nature magazine, now everyone who has read it could probably imagine that the main Italian problem to solve is fighting the molecular cookery growth, to defend Italy’s traditional cuisine. All these people could not be that wrong: although Italian government is undertaking to manage more important emergencies, it is useful for it to solve other little cases, especially if they have been hyped by TV.
The use of chemical products in the recipes has actually been attacked by Striscia la Notizia: it has such an influent position that the undersecretary Martini, during the interview of the 22nd December 2009, promised to ban all chemicals used in molecular cooking.
The first question, in my opinion, should not be Is it a good decision or not? but Why is a TV show so important to make a government decide about this subject so fast, as it actually were the most important problem to solve? The question has no complicated answer: in Italy, as in many other countries, TV is the most popular mass medium and almost all of us use it to get information.
But the huge difference between the Italian situation and the one of the other States is that in our country we are so ignorant about science that we truly believe in every news that TV defines as scientific; therefore, as Striscia la Notizia said that some chefs were trying new dangerous chemical techniques in their kitchens, everyone got alarmed and the pro-bio-vs-chemical motto began to be heard again. The fact that proves how much ignorant we are is that the decree of the 18th of February strikes any additive (nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, monosodium glutamate, etc. we eat most of them in the food that we eat quite everyday) but it does not even skim over the real danger (in fact almost none of the molecular gastronomy ingredients are touched by the final version of the decree, as Davide Cassi -Professor of Physics at the University of Parma- said). Talking in a wider scale, the real problem is that Italy is one of the most ignorant European country as concerns science.
In Why scientists are not dangerous (Gilberto Corbellini, Perchè gli scienziati non sono pericolosi, Longanesi, Milano 2009) it is easy to see through graphics, statistics and datas that Italians (more than other European people) still have doubts on the Darwin evolution theory and think that it is, after all, just a good idea of an acute scientist that wanted to be paid attention with this irrational thought that we do are smart monkeys. Moreover the book shows that in Italy there is the highest percentage of people who do not trust scientists and their discoveries, but prefer getting information from the TV programmes. Now everyone could understand why the undersecretary Martini’s interview on Striscia la Notizia was so successful.

Probably few people know that this decree, which is supposed to be the symbol of the natural good ingredients against the chemical evil ones, was not supported by the Slow Food movement; as Roberto Burdese – president of Slow Food Italy – said: “we do need limits and regulations as regards chemicals in the recipes, but if chefs handle them wisely, innovation iswelcome when it brings quality.
The only thing that we should always remember is that we can’t try to hide problems, disguising them as scientific issues or scientific attempts to upset the natural order.
As Peter Barham – physicist at the University of Bristol, UK, – said “It is ridiculous  to try to legislate against progress, for that is what this Italian ban seems to me to do”.

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