skip to content

Cambridge Festival of Ideas puts truth under the spotlight

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas celebrates its 10th anniversary with a line-up of distinguished speakers and a host of exhibitions and events.

Truth has dominated the news agenda in the last year and is the driving force of academic research. This year's Cambridge Festival of Ideas puts truth under the spotlight, discussing everything from whether we can still believe in experts and how conspiracy theories stake their claim to truth to what has driven populism around the world to whether we can still keep secrets in an age of technology.

The Festival, which  this year celebrates its 10th anniversary and attracts thousands of visitors, runs from 16th to 29th October. A packed programme launched today teems with over 200 events ranging from debates, talks, exhibitions, films and performances held in lecture theatres, museums and galleries around Cambridge. There are events for all ages and most are free.

Speakers include Tristram Hunt, former Labour MP and now director of the Victorian and Albert Museum, award-winning author Pankaj Mishra, Richard Dearlove, former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Professor Richard Evans, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  Will Moy, director of Full Fact fact-checking agency, Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics, philosopher Professor Rae Langton, Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer for the Guardian, economist Ha-Joon Chang, technology author George Zarkadakis and author and revisionist historian Ruth Dudley Edwards.

Debates include:

- Empire and Brexit - a conversation between Tristram Hunt and Financial Times commentator Gideon Rachman moderated by historian Shruti Kapila, discussing the afterlife of the Empire and its role in Brexit, and the changing world order, especially the rise of China and India and Britain’s identity in the Asian Century. [17th October]

- I don't know it for a fact, I just know it's true: how conspiracy theories stake their claims to truth. This discussion, organised  by the Conspiracy & Democracy project at CRASSH, focuses on the strategies conspiracies use in making their pitch for plausibility and staking their claim to truth. [18th October]

- EU vs UK: in the Brexit battle will truth be the loser? As the Brexit negotiations proceed, who will win the PR battle over Brexit and who will be the losers? What will the outcome be for Britain's future relations with Europe? Join a debate about the ramifications of Brexit for European politics and the broader issues of how narratives are formed in public discourse. With Matthew Goodwin, Catherine Barnard, Robert Tombs and Leonie de Jonge. [20th October]

- Legacy of a revolution. Russia expert Victor Sebestyen talks about his new book 'Lenin the Dictator' and the legacy of the Russian Revolution on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. [18th October]

- Denial: in defence of truth: Professor Sir Richard Evans was the principal expert witness against Holocaust-denier David Irving when he sued American historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel. Here he reflects on the case and the recent film – Denial – based on the events. [21st October]

- Can we keep secrets? Leaks and hacks are both praised as tools of transparency and accountability or condemned as espionage and manipulation by malevolent powers. How safe is our data in the digital age…and what is the worst that could go wrong? Discussing this topic are ? Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, MI5 historian Christopher Andrew, journalist Nick Davies and Martha Spurrier, head of Liberty. [21st October]

- Can we believe the experts? Have the people really had enough of experts? With economic experts taking a particular bashing since the recession, what does the future hold for economics and can it reforge its links with politics?  Join economist Ha-Joon Chang, political scientist Helen Thompson, journalist Aditya Chakraborrty and editor Victoria Waldersee as they discuss whether we can re-forge the link between politics and economics and improve the way research is used in informing policy. [25th October]

The Festival also features a number of events celebrating the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and linked to the past, present and future of India, including:

- Mahatma versus Modi? Indian democracy at 70.  How did Gandhi and his visible politics of truth lay the foundations of Indian democracy? Has Modi transformed it beyond recognition? What is the relationship between media and truth from world’s largest democracy? Join historians Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji, writer Pankaj Mishra, and journalist Chandrahas Choudury, moderated by historian Maria Misra. [17th October]

- Technology and nationalism in India. What is the role of technology in India's recent economic development and how does this link to equality issues and the rise of nationalism? Has technology created greater inequality or can it close the gap? Join Jaideep Prabhu, Shailaja Fennell, Surabhi Ranganathan and Bhaskar Vira for a discussion about the role of technology in the politics, economics and social issues at play in today's India. [23rd October]

- India Unboxed, a special series from the University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden.  From classic films by the old masters of Indian cinema through to the best contemporary documentaries, this series is a great introduction to the film of India - beyond Bollywood! [throughout the Festival]

In addition to talks, lectures and film, there are also experimental performances on issues ranging from the Enlightenment to climate change as well as a plethora of exhibitions:

- My little Enlightenment plays: a performance lecture. My Little Enlightenment Plays is an experimental performance piece that presents imagined conversations with Cavendish, Diderot, Goethe and other Enlightenment thinkers to reflect on anachronistic science, (ir)rationality, language, and politics. [25th October]

- Cambridge contest of liars. Can you tell truth from lie? Cambridge Storytellers invite you to meet some of the finest liars in East Anglia as they try to blind you with science and pull the wool over your eyes with a collection of tall tales, outrageous fibs and alternative versions of the truth. [19th October]

- An incline of nightjar. With its mechanical churring song and nocturnal habits, the nightjar is one of our most unusual summer migrants. It is a bird which we know surprisingly little about and yet it has a strong cultural resonance. Learn about a recent collaboration between researchers at the British Trust for Ornithology, writers, storytellers and artists which brings the nightjar into a new focus. [25th October]

- Computing history: where did all the women go? An exhibition which brings together pioneering women whose contribution to the computing industry was undeniably formative but whose stories have often been written out by a focus on the ‘great men’ that have been involved. It will redress the balance to ensure these women’s contributions are once again seen as historical fact. [18th October to 3rd November]

There will also be a range of hands-on sessions for adults and events for children, including storytelling and art sessions on themes like colour, The Arctic and animals. One workshop for adults is Speaking Truth to Power. Led by Dr Amy Erickson and Emma Nicholls, it brainstorms ideas for 'bystander training' in how to deal with sexism and racism. [17th October]

Ariel Retik, manager of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, said: "The Festival of Ideas aims to challenge people’s received ideas and to question the status quo. The theme of this year's 10th anniversary Festival is truth. From fake news, espionage and conspiracies to populist lies – the subject of truth (and lies) has dominated the news in 2017. These stories are entwined with wider topics: How do we decide what is true? Can there be a ‘correct’ historical narrative? How do religions and ideologies stake their claim to universality? The Festival is a chance to discuss from a huge variety of different perspectives what truth really means.

"At a time of shifting political sands, we will also be marking 70 years of Indian independence and 100 years since the Russian Revolution. A core aim of the Festival is to share with the public some of the incredible research and thinking that is happening in Cambridge and beyond across disciplines and institutions and to encourage an exchange of ideas between audience and researchers. Every year, we welcome thousands of people to hundreds of events, including talks, debates, performances, films and exhibitions. This year, we look forward to doing the same.”

The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Arts Council England, Cambridge Junction, The Nine Dots Prize, Cambridge Film Festival, Cambridge University Press and The Conversation. The Festival media partner is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

*Bookings for the Festival of Ideas open on 25 September. Facebook:
Twitter:  #cfi2017

Image credit: Alfred Stevens' sculpture Truth and Falsehood, Wikimedia Commons