Arguing over dinner

Having an opinion is easy. Discussing that opinion with strangers, however, is not as easy. But during the first Kennisdiner (knowledge dinner), people seem to be doing quite well. The food probably helps.
By Thereza Langeler / Photos Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Information sciences student Floris Cornel (22) swallows a bit of white chocolate mousse and repeats his opinion: tinkering with the DNA of unborn children is just fine. ‘If we can save them from certain diseases, what’s wrong with that?’

Next to him, chemistry student Merlinde Wobben (20) contemplatively moves her spoon around her dish. ‘Sure, but where do we draw the line? Don’t you think it’s dangerous?’ Their table companion Ingrid Munneke (71) backs her up: ‘What if the technology ends up in the wrong hands?’

They’re enjoying the last course served at the first Kennisdiner on Monday evening, 18 September. The dinner is organised by Studium Generale and the Grand Theatre. In the theatre hall, 75 people are sitting at thirteen tables. They are here to listen to three lectures and eat a three-course meal. Every lecture is followed by a course. And then they talk.

‘Damn lies’

‘The talking is the focus of the evening’, says Kirsten Krans, one of Studium Generale’s programme makers. ‘We usually organise lectures that last an hour, with a thirty-minute question round. That’s a fairly one-sided affair. But it’s just as important to engage in conversation, share your thoughts and potentially have them changed.’

We should do this with people other than our friends, our roommates, or our fellow students. ‘We talk to those people anyway. We’re much less eager to share our opinions with people we don’t know. So we thought: let’s organise something where strangers share a table.’

Some people are taken a little aback, but sitting with strangers is truly compulsory. Upon arrival, guests are presented with a quote that corresponds to their table. ‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored’, one of the tables says. Another reads: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.’

One way or another, all the quotes used harken back to the evening’s theme: the fiction of reality. Historian Jan Blaauw, professor of artificial intelligence Bart Verheij and biologist Désirée Goubert have each put their own spin on the theme.

Chickpea soup

Blaauw gets the ball rolling with his research of censorship of textbooks. The room is transfixed, and they haven’t even had their appetizer yet. Once the chickpea soup with puréed feta cheese has been served, the diners start various animated conversations.

‘In my own experience, talking over dinner is much easier’, says programme maker Kirsten Krans. ‘Any other setting quickly feels too formal, too forced. But when you’re having dinner together, conversation often just flows.’

It does look as though the guests have quickly forgotten that they don’t know each other. After the soup, Bart Verheij tells them about his ambition to create an argumentation system: artificial intelligence that can test hypotheses and have a critical discussion.

At Floris Cornel, Merline Wobben, and Ingrid Munneke’s table, they start talking about self-driving cars. When it comes to the pear couscous with orange and date salad, Cornel says: ‘I haven’t had food this healthy all year.’


In between the main course and dessert, Désirée Goubert presents the room with a difficult ethical issue. Goubert practices epigenetic editing: she alters DNA. It’s indisputably for the greater good – curing breast cancer – but the technique can also be used on unborn children. Is that something we should want?

Cornel is for, but his table mates are not so sure. Over bitter fruits with white chocolate mousse, they argue, philosophise, and fantasise. The dessert ends the dinner, but fanatics are welcome at the bar.

‘I had a great time tonight’, Merlinde Wobben says, satisfied. ‘Educational, fun…’ Floris Cornel would probably go again. ‘Not every week, though. But a few times a year could be fun.’


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