Many years ago Tavistock Place, now home to Continental Stores, was on my cycle route home. I can no longer remember whether the sign “Continental Stores” was visible then or whether it had a second sign over it. However, the faded red backdrop, the vintage font and the whole feel of the frontage does make “Continental Stores” (the café) stand out a bit from the crowd. Continental Stores is run by the same people who run Store St Espresso on Store St. but much of the original decoration of the café has been kept from the old shop that previously occupied this space. And although this ‘new’ branch is now more than three years old, for various reasons I’ve never quite got to visit until a couple of weeks ago.
We arrived fairly late, just half an hour before closing, and managed to get a long black before the espresso machine (which was apparently having a bad day) finally packed up. Although filter coffee was available, this is not the case when you arrive so close to closing. The coffee was however very drinkable and the window seat provided a great place to watch people pass by. Bubbles formed around the edge of the coffee, reflecting the light streaming through the window in this airy café. White mists skitted over the surface of the drink. There was plenty to consider in the café too, from the oil paintings on the wall to the subtle green colour of the glass separating the interior of the café from the bar area (for more on glass colours click here). A large amount of science in a cosy place. However today’s train of thought took a somewhat different direction. That day, sitting in the café, prompted a thought train to develop in a more introspective direction: what does climate change denial have to do with personal integrity and the need for a continuing dialogue between science and religion? And what does that have to do with coffee drinkers?
Incredibly, it started with a map.
On the wall in the main area of the café, behind the counter, is a map depicting the world. Although there is a photo on this page, there is a far better one in Brian’s Coffee Spot review of Continental Stores which can be found here (scroll through the gallery to find it). Also on the map are two circular depictions of the Polar regions. That fact, that the poles are illustrated separately and that the map is a rectangular impression of our spherical home impressed on me the knowledge that it is extremely difficult to truly represent our globe on a flat piece of paper. All maps are projections and the one at Continental Stores is the familiar cylindrical projection where you imagine a cylinder of paper wrapped around the equator of the Earth and then project the profile of the countries around onto it.
A few years ago a Malaysian-Chinese lady, now in her 70s told me a story about growing up in Malaysia (then Malaya) under British colonial rule. At school it was always impressed upon her how much larger Britain was than Malaysia, you could see it just from looking at the maps (which were always of the cylindrical projection as displayed at Continental Stores). It was only later that she realised the importance of map projections. Although Malaysia, at the equator, was fairly well represented by the cylindrical representation, Britain, being relatively closer to the poles, was stretched and so appeared much larger. Britain is in fact larger than the Western Malaysia peninsular but not to the extent that it appeared from the map. Had the map projection been used as a subtle political tool justifying Britain’s rule over Malaya*?
Similar thoughts occurred to me recently with some of the comments that have followed hurricane Harvey in the US (and the floods in south Asia that have killed more than 1200 people but have sadly been far less reported here in the UK). Was the intensity of the hurricane, and the fact that we are experiencing similarly intense storms more frequently, a consequence of climate change?
Although that’s an interesting question, it’s not the one that I would like to consider today. Instead, it’s the response on social media generated by data about the frequency of the hurricanes and their strength. “Why are you only showing weather information for the past X years, if you look back further/look more recently…” etc. It is the same with graphs showing global temperatures as a function of time. People ask “Why are they plotted that way, if we looked back further/zoomed in a bit more….” It seems that there is an accusation behind many of the questions; there is doubt about the integrity of the scientist who circulated the graph. What is at the root of this?
When writing a scientific paper (even on a relatively uncontroversial topic like magnetism), there is frequently a lot of discussion about exactly how to present the data. The graphs need to be clear enough and on a scale that the ‘message’ of the paper is delivered quickly. But equally in a way that does not misrepresent the data. Then, different authors have different ideas on aesthetics. The final graph is a balance between these. So why is there such distrust of similar graphs presented on subjects such as climate change? Are we so used to being sold messages in adverts that we immediately suspect the scientists of an evil motive, trying to persuade us to ‘buy’ an ideology?
Clearly there are occasions on which data is presented in a manner to impress rather than to reveal, as was the case with the map. Though even with the map, there is some ambiguity. Some cylindrical projections can be helpful for navigators as lines of latitude and longitude cross perpendicularly. There are times when such a representation would be useful. So when we generate, share or read such graphs, we need to ask ourselves questions about our reaction to them. Are we representing the data truthfully? Are we trying to make the data fit into opinions that we already hold? These questions apply equally whether we are creating the graph or if we are seeing it on social media and reacting to it.
These considerations generate questions of their own. What do we think science is? Do we believe in the existence of truth? What is truth anyway? What are my motives in sharing/reading this piece of information; am I trying to understand the world or manipulate it to my advantage?
Which is just one reason (of many) that a respectful dialogue between science and the humanities, between scientists and theologians is desperately needed. Religions and philosophies have been asking questions about the nature of being, questions of truth and motive for millennia. Tools such as the examination of conscience have been developed by religious traditions to allow us to interrogate our own motives and to start to understand our own behaviour. In a week when it was revealed that more than 50% of people in the UK describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ it seems to me that, whether we believe in a religion or not, many of us would benefit from such an examination of conscience before we hit ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘share’. Questioning our motives before creating, sharing or commenting. But such tools require space and the time taken to slow down, perhaps in a café, to deliberate on our own attitudes. Time that is needed to help us to see if it is our behaviour that needs amending before we question the integrity of others.
Such deliberations often don’t have conclusions but instead open up more questions. The fortunate consequence of which is that it becomes imperative that we spend more time contemplating our coffee in quiet, welcoming and thought provoking environments such as that found at Continental Stores.
Continental Stores can be found at 54 Tavistock Place, WC1H 9RG.
*I have kept the name of the country Malaysia as it is now known apart from when referring to the time when Britain had colonised it and called it “Malaya”.