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Bone of contention

17/03/2014  •  1025 words

Pick a contentious issue about which you care deeply – it could be the same-sex marriage debate, or just a disagreement you’re having with a friend. Write a post defending the opposite position, and the reflect on what it was like to do that.


The question is, when making tea, ought the milk to go into the mug before the water or after the water? Thankfully, science has answered once and for all this most fractious of topics.

The milk, according to the men and women in long white coats, should go first, and the water second. This is because of the reaction that takes place when milk comes into contact with boiling water. Cold milk poured into a mug of hot water will be drippy, each droplet having a relatively large surface area. The more cold that is in contact with the warm, the more funky the milk goes. The taste of the tea is sent off balance and the cuppa is ruined.

The most commonly given reason for putting milk in afterwards is so that one can better judge how much is needed. George Orwell famously articulated this in his 1946 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea”. (This was his tenth point, immediately prompting puzzlement about what could possibly have occupied him for the preceding nine items.)

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Orwell and his milk-after ilk assume that it is difficult to judge how much milk one needs for a cup of tea. It isn’t. All factors are the same every time. The tea bag is the same size, filled by a machine with the same quantity of tea. The mug is, for most of us most of the time, the same size as the other mugs we regularly drink from. The kettle is boiled to the same temperature and poured to the same level in the mug. But when it comes to adding milk, are we to believe that everything suddenly goes to pot? This is the only part of the process open to human error, and consequently the only task requiring particular attention. Was Orwell, great mind that he was, really incapable of judging the same small quantity of liquid that he had judged several times a day for several years? Are you?

Even accounting for this strange habit people seem to have for absent-mindedly misjudging their actions during the most basic of domestic tasks, it is difficult to see how it presents itself as a problem at the beginning of the tea-making process but not at the end. If anything the reverse should be true: if one over-pours at the start, the opportunity exists to pour any excess milk back into the bottle or to discard it. With the milk-after technique, once you’ve overdone it your tea is ruined.

A clever-cloggs will at this stage circumvent the scientists’ conclusion not by moving the milk-adding to a different part of the tea-making process but my altering the temperature of the milk to match that of the water to which it is being added. All you need is a second receptacle and a microwave oven. This may work in principle, but it will not catch on for one very simple reason to do with the near-universal laziness of man: it will generate excess washing up. Washing up, it goes without saying, is undoubtedly a bad thing. It simply isn’t practical to expect people to go to anything like this kind of extra effort when there is a more sensible option available to them: pay attention when you’re pouring the milk.

So, for the avoidance of any doubt, we can comfortably conclude that the scientists are right, George Orwell is wrong, and people are lazy.


I used to do debating. I learned how to think on my feet, argue a case well, argue a bad case convincingly, and trash people who annoyed me. (Who, in debate club, were in plentiful supply.)

So for as long as I have been making arguments, I have been making them for causes I believe in and causes I don’t with little distinction in the way I approach them. It is almost always instructive to try your hardest to make an opposite case to the one you are naturally drawn to because you tend to learn more from refuting your own best arguments than advancing a cause you feel close to.

This way of approaching things also helps when it comes time to advance cases towards which you’re thoroughly ambivalent. It’s very useful to have the flexibility to adopt a point of view at will and make it your own for as long as you have a job to do or a deadline to meet. It frees one up to explore an issue without being becoming too involved in it.

I think debating should be encouraged for these reasons and others. What I learned doing that in my lunchtimes sharpened me up for life at least as much as all the homework I did at school – and probably most of the lessons, too. Rarely has my time been better spent.


Proper tea shouldn’t be taken with milk. Sadly, bad tea is undrinkable without it; in such circumstances as it is necessary to do so, it should be added to the mug after the tea has brewed. Otherwise the tea is brewing in a lukewarm milky mess rather than water, which is what it should be brewing in.


For the record, I considered other controversies before settling on tea. Should cyclists wear helmets? How often should one change one’s bedsheets? Should one sleep on one’s back, side, or curled up like a baby in the womb? Should one brush one’s teeth before or after eating breakfast? Etc. But I went for tea because I wanted to call George Orwell incapable.