slow down and think science and belief

Is it summer yet? The Swallow Coffee shop, Shepherd’s Bush

Coffee Shepherd's Bush
Outside the Swallow Coffee Shop on Goldhawk Road

It was a spring day as we walked along Goldhawk Road towards the Swallow Coffee Shop. A sign, hanging above the door alerted us to the location of the cafe: an image of a swallow in flight, no name, just the image. A nod to the coffee houses of old perhaps that would advertise themselves with a picture above their doorway. The cafe is on the corner of Goldhawk Road and Richford Street and immediately strikes you as being more open and airy than some of the shopfronts we’d passed along the way. The counter is on the right as you go in and coffee is by Ozone.

The cakes looked good but sadly the tempting brownie was decorated with pistachio. Often I find that my nut allergy does have the incidental effect of keeping my waistline down. So sadly, once again it was just the long black that day. There is plenty of seating inside the Swallow cafe and we chose a table up the stairs, on a type of mezzanine level towards the back of the cafe. A map of London was on the wall next to us, which we studied a little in order to discover that a bit of artistic license had been taken with the geography. On the wall opposite, another map showed the region of Hammersmith. There is something interesting in the way that these maps were rendered. What was it that the cartographer intended to convey?

Lubrication station or plant stand
From mirrors to fireplaces and the nature of heat, what do you see in a coffee shop?

A sign above some plants indicated a “Lubrication Station”, perhaps needed by the Swallows on their hazardous migration to and from South Africa. Looking down towards the front of the shop it appeared that there was a mirror that I hadn’t previously noticed on the wall. It was a large, circular mirror. How come I had not seen it earlier as I walked in? And then it struck me, when I walked in, it was not a mirror but another framed map. It seemed as if it had changed its appearance because, from my location sitting towards the back of the cafe, the light was being reflected at a very shallow angle and so I was not able to see any of the ‘information’ behind the glass, only the reflections from the street. What appeared to my eyes as a mirror was in fact a map.

What do maps need to convey? A visual idea of the geography? Or perhaps, the way of getting from A to B. If it is the latter, there is no reason that the map should be geographically accurate and moreover, it could appear as a cartoon like strip of information so that you can ‘read’ your directions as you go along. We came across one such map a few years ago at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (see picture). Or, perhaps a more famous example of a geographically inaccurate but perfectly useful map is that of the London Underground. But then, the map may not be about getting from A to B at all but instead, should give an idea of the physical surroundings of a place or indeed could be intended to convey deeper  information such as the poverty maps of Charles Booth. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Booth walked London mapping the levels of poverty (or affluence) in an area. You can access the maps here. In addition to seeing how some things have changed (or have not), the maps reveal how in London areas of relative wealth so often exist side by side with areas of relative poverty.
what information do we want a map to provide
A map at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall offers an alternative depiction of the journey from A to B.

Booth apparently come up with the idea of the maps as he had disagreed with the suggestion that 25% of Londoners lived in poverty. And so he’d set out to conduct a statistical survey for himself. Categorising neighbourhoods into different groups according to relative income or wealth, he discovered that, in fact, 35% of Londoners were living in abject poverty, a worse result than he’d anticipated. His findings led to reforms such as the implementation of noncontributory state pensions and to the development of social surveys.

The work of Charles Booth somehow fits together with the research of John Snow who had similarly mapped the cases in the cholera outbreak of 1854 and so traced the source of the problem to the Broad Street pump. New fields of social research were being developed that relied on maps as a base for seeing the world. How we choose which information to include in the map (and by implication which to omit) and the way we choose to display that information, will affect how quickly our audience, or indeed ourselves, can understand the data presented. Some of our decisions are hidden but may affect how the data is later reported in the media. For example, did Booth define “abject poverty” for his maps in the same way as the previous efforts had shown “poverty” levels of around 25%?

In a world with ever growing amounts of data and eye-catching (click-bait) headlines, it is a problem that affects us still. What are the graphs and maps really telling us? Does the data really confirm our existing beliefs or is the devil in the detail of the display? If we find that our preconceived ideas are refuted (or perhaps worse confirmed), do we have the intellectual honesty to sit back, perhaps with a coffee, and question once more both our beliefs and the data that has challenged them? A cafe such as the Swallow, full of maps and prints, with plenty of seating and a light and friendly environment would be a great place to start.

The Swallow Coffee Shop is at 75 Goldhawk Road, W12 8EH

Coffee and a horse box at Blue Tin, Oxfordshire

coffee Nuffield Oxfordshire Blue Tin

The cafe is in here. The new farm shop at Blue Tin.

Blue Tin is not an easy café to find, one that you can wander into just off the street. In fact, although it serves coffee and cake, Blue Tin is not really a café at all but a friendly place for a drink attached to a farm shop. Open to walkers and passing cyclists, horse riders and drivers, Blue Tin seems to be almost in the middle of nowhere. Approximately 4km by road from Nuffield, Blue Tin can be found just off a single lane country road. You will know when you actually arrive at the farm because of the sign and the box advertising fresh eggs (complete with honesty box for when the shop is closed).

We first came across Blue Tin (when it was a shop in a shed rather than a shop/café in a building) while walking in the area. There are some good walks in the area which can be very pretty when the bluebells are out and so it is well worth combining a visit to the café with a walk in the Oxfordshire countryside. Despite only opening in December 2017, the café associated with Blue Tin has put a lot of effort into ensuring that their coffee is ethically sourced, great tasting and locally roasted. The coffee is roasted by Horsebox Coffee and is of course also available to purchase in the shop. The espresso based drinks use the Dark Horse espresso blend (though I wasn’t sure whether this was occasionally rotated when the seasonal espresso is available). We had an Americano and a latte. The Americano indeed had the chocolate notes described on the coffee bag, while the milk of the latte really complemented the espresso base. Cakes are also available though we didn’t try on this occasion.

Provenance Information Blue Tin, old board, no coffee info

On the wall of the cafe is a schematic showing where each product sold in the shop originates. Seen here is the earlier version that does not include the coffee (roasted within 5 miles). Everything is local and the meat is particularly local having been brought up in the farm next to the shop.

There is plenty of space to sit down inside and contemplate the shop while enjoying your coffee in this welcoming environment. The arrangement also gives you time to consider the farm and space for your mind to wander. One place my mind was wandering that day was to the importance of our beliefs in our decision making, even while they are informed by science.

For example, it is often said that we could significantly help climate change by becoming vegetarian or including one meat free day per week in our diet. In a 2013 paper, the authors calculated the emissions associated with farming, producing, packaging and storing 66 categories of food item that were sold in a (modelled) medium sized supermarket. In order to calculate this various assumptions about the produce had to be made¹.

To summarise the paper (though it is well worth taking the time to read it), the study suggested that avoiding meat altogether could reduce our individual carbon footprint due to food by 35%. However even introducing a meat free day (combined with a switch to poultry rather than beef and significant reduction in the amount of food we waste/packaging used) could introduce a reduction of 26%.

Horsebox coffee Oxfordshire

Americano, Latte and shop. The coffee-space at Blue Tin farm shop, Oxfordshire

Does the science therefore “say” that we should all go vegetarian? It is worth looking more closely at the paper and considering our own belief systems. In the report, beef had a total CO2 equivalent emissions of 25.13 Kg per kg of food¹. One suggestion of the authors was to swap beef for poultry. Poultry has a total emissions of 4.05 Kg CO2 equivalent per Kg. But looking through the table of calculated emissions for each food type, “spirits and liqueurs” had a total emissions of 3.16 Kg CO2e per Kg. Perhaps (hopefully) you could say you would take a long time to drink a kg of spirits, but even wine has 2.41 Kg CO2e per Kg. As a rough estimate, 1 bottle of wine (750 ml) is 3/4 Kg, so the bottle of wine with dinner is contributing roughly equivalently to the shared roast chicken. There are nutritional arguments for eating meat. Can we say the same of drinking wine? What of coffee? (not included in the table I’m relieved to say!)

The study shows the quantity of emissions associated with each type of food stuff. It does not show us how to act. Each decision we make (eliminate meat/go teetotal/all things in moderation) is based on what we believe about the world. Even the idea that it would be a good thing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order to try to limit climate change is a moral one, not a scientific one. These decisions depend on what we think is ‘good’, what is ‘bad’, what life is about. In short it depends on our beliefs about the world and our place in it rather than purely the facts. These are philosophical, or dare I say it, even religious questions. Science can inform us of the damage that we are doing but it cannot help us to decide whether that matters, nor even if it does matter, what we should do about it.

Interior of Blue Tin with flower

You won’t need the sugar. Another view of the cafe at Blue Tin.

Whether we decide to buy better quality² meat less frequently, go vegan or even do nothing are not decisions that we are making entirely based on the science. Although informed by the science they are nonetheless based also on our existing beliefs about the way the world is and the way the world should be. We may decide for example that, while we should reduce our consumption of “cheap” beef/imported lamb, we should take care to buy more expensive meat from somewhere that takes care of their animals throughout the farming (and slaughtering) process but eat it less often. Depending on the rest of our diet, this could similarly reduce our food-related greenhouse gas emissions (if for example we mostly ate vegetarian with occasional meat consumption). We may similarly decide that eating meat is intrinsically wrong and so go entirely vegetarian.

These are choices we make, informed by the science but based on our ideas of morality. They are not easy choices nor are they choices we will necessarily agree with each other about. To make these choices requires time set aside to think about what matters to us, about what we believe in. And this means that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and religious belief any more than there is a conflict between science and the decisions we make in general. We need science to inform our beliefs but we need also to recognise the role of our beliefs (conscious or subconscious) in our decision making.

In short, we need to slow down, pause and really think about things. And where better to do so than in quiet and comfortable places with good coffee (and cake) such as Blue Tin?


¹Interestingly, the authors assumed that for beef, the effective emissions were increased owing to deforestation and land clearance that is associated with beef production in some places. If this is not accounted for, the effective emissions from beef are still calculated to dwarf much of the other food stuffs but not by quite so much. The footprint would therefore be less for beef raised on an existing local form, slaughtered and purchased locally. Similarly, the ‘vegetarian’ diet that was modelled by the authors contained dairy (with similarly high emissions as beef).

²Again ‘quality’ is a subjective term that cannot be easily ‘scientifically’ quantified, instead it is argued based on what we believe ‘good’ means. Do I mean that the animal had healthy conditions during life? Was well cared for? That it tastes good? That I could speak to the people who farmed the animals? I’ve left it deliberately slightly ambiguous here.

Blue Tin Produce is at Garsons Farm, Ipsden, OX10 6QU