Book Report: How to Lie with Maps

How to Lie with MapsA good map tells a multitude of little white lies; it suppresses truth to help the user see what needs to be seen. But the value of a map depends on how well its generalized geometry and generalized content reflect a chosen aspect of reality. Like guns and lacrosse sticks, maps can be good or bad, depending on who’s holding them, who they’re aimed at, how they’re used, and why. The wise map user is thus a skeptic, ever wary of confusing or misleading distortions conceived by ignorant or diabolical map authors.” (How to Lie with Maps – various pages)

Title: How to Lie with Maps

Author: Mark Monmonier

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Publication Date: 1996 (1991)

Origin: Page 15 of Tubes made reference to “the cult favorite” How to Lie with Maps, and teased that “The sly joke of the title is that maps never just show places; they express and reinforce interests”. The premise sounded interesting so I opened a browser, went to Amazon, and added it to my cart.

Summary: In Monmonier’s words, “The purpose of this book is to promote a healthy skepticism about maps, not to foster either cynicism or deliberate dishonesty. In showing how to lie with maps, I want to make readers aware that maps, like speeches and paintings, are authored collections of information and also are subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice.” (p2)

What follows is an introduction to the elements of a maps (scale, projection, symbols) and an examination of how conscious or ignorant manipulation of these elements can tell different stories. Monmonier shows the reader the necessities of abstraction and removing detail, mistakes that can happen during printing, and the impact of poor or ignorant choices by the mapmaker. He then provides many examples to drive the points home, including chapters on map use in advertising, maps prepared by property developers, political and propaganda maps, and the perils of poor presentation of census information.

My Take: I’ve noticed that I have a bit of an interest in maps.  Perhaps not a fascination, but a more-than-the-average-person level of interest.  To wit, I have a reproduction of Cook’s original map of Hawai’i up in my dining room, I’ve sent probably a dozen people this link to an excellent xkcd, I passionately decry the use of the Mercator projection whenever I see one, and I rely on printed satellite imagery rather than put my trust in a GPS device. I also have to create maps (network diagrams) from time-to-time at work, and I hoped to be able to improve my work by learning to avoid some of the common blunders.

So not surprisingly, I was quite excited to read How to Lie with Maps. I came away with a much better developed sense for and appreciation of cartography, and an understanding of the selective representations that all maps actually are. It’s not in my nature to gloss things over, but I recognize how it is impossible to include perfect detail in a map; now, thanks to Monmonier, I’ll view maps much more critically.

That said, I wouldn’t describe the book as being exciting, although Monmonier has peppered it with jokes and witticisms here and there.  I’m glad I read it, but it won’t be for everyone.

Read This Book If: You want to be able to critically examine maps, in all their forms. Do you watch or read the news? Then no doubt you’ve seen maps representing unemployment, political polling, impacts of weather, and so on.  Are you on a town council?  Then understanding maps will help you avoid being hoodwinked by property or infrastructure developers. If you keep your eyes open, I think you’ll find that you’re presented with maps far more than you might initially suspect.

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Notes and Quotes:

 

  • pxi: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a map can be worth a million – but beware. All maps distort reality. All mapmakers use generalization and symbolization to highlight critical information and to suppress detail of lower priority. All cartography seeks to portray the complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or on a television or video screen. In short, the author warns, all maps must tell white lies.”
  • pxi: “And sometimes these lies are not so little. Maps are informative, but they can also be deceptive, even threatening. It probably is safe to say that all of us have been misled, at one time or another, by a map designed to hide something the mapmaker did not want us to know, or drawn in such a way that we jump to false conclusions from it.”
  • p25: “A good map tells a multitude of little white lies; it suppresses truth to help the user see what needs to be seen. Reality is three-dimensional, rich in detail, and far too factual to allow a complete yet uncluttered two-dimensional graphic scale model. Indeed, a map that did not generalized would be useless. But the value of a map depends on how well its generalized geometry and generalized content reflect a chosen aspect of reality.”
  • p42, something of which to be wary, in particular: “…the white lies of map generalization might also mask the real lies of the political propagandist.”
  • p44 has quite a funny example of a mapping blunder, a tourist map of Canada that neglected to include Ottawa, (Canada’s capital, for all you non-geographers)

“What do advertising and cartography have in common? Without doubt the best answer is their shared need to communicate a limited version of the truth. An advertisement must create an image that’s appealing and a map must present an image that’s clear, but neither can meet its goal by telling or showing everything.” (p58)

  • p59-60 have a fantastic example to illustrate the dubiousness of maps in advertising: in this case, the mapmaker has taken certain…geographic liberties…when representing two railroads.
  • p70, I hope this to be the case, but I don’t share the author’s optimism: “Like other artwork in commercial advertising, maps can be clever and catchy as well as contrived and deceptive. In most cases, though, the consumer recognizes the map as a playful put-on and appreciates being in on the joke.”
  • p78-80 present a list of Eleven Rules for Polishing the Cartographic Image. One in particular stands out to me as having applicability far beyond cartography: “6. Dazzle with Detail. After al, a detailed map is a technically accurate map, right? Details are useful distractions.”
  • p81-86 give a “how to” guide on lowering your property tax; maybe file that one in the back pocket: “Like words and numbers, maps are anybody’s weapon, and they can also help the homeowner appeal an unfairly high tax assessment”
  • p86 gives a reminder to think twice about those wonderful artist’s impressions of new shopping malls, stadia, subdivisions, etc: “Understanding cartographic manipulation is important to being an informed citizen able to evaluate a wide range of proposals for altering the landscape and the environment. In viewing maps it is essential to remember that a particular view of reality (or a future reality) is not the only view and is not necessarily a good approximation of truth.”
  • p87, maybe keep this in mind the next time you see coverage on Fox News! OK, I guess it applies to any news organization.  Except PBS…they rock: “A good propagandist knows how to shape opinion by manipulating maps…Naive citizens willingly accept as truth maps based on a biased and sometimes fraudulent selection of facts.”
  • p88: “Because propaganda maps are more likely to be global or continental rather than local, the political propagandist has a greater opportunity than either the advertiser or the real-estate developer to distort reality by manipulating the projection and framing of the map.”
  • p112, in reference to figures showing a selective and sensationalized interpretation/presentation of information: “Figures 7.19 and 7.20 both demonstrate that cartographic propaganda can be an effective intellectual weapon against an unresponsive, biased, or corrupt local bureaucracy. Like guns and lacrosse sticks, maps can be good or bad, depending on who’s holding them, who they’re aimed at, how they’re used, and why.”

“Like guns and lacrosse sticks, maps can be good or bad, depending on who’s holding them, who they’re aimed at, how they’re used, and why.” (p112)

  • p115-118 show some great examples of Soviet map manipulation back in the day
  • Lest we think that map manipulation is limited to wartime or other regions, p121 shows the Love Canal, Niagara Falls cover-up that led to many citizens becoming ill
  • p139: “In addition to the ill-conceived charts of hacker-cartographers, wary map users must watch out for statistical maps carefully contrived to prove the points of self-promoting scientists, manipulating politicians, misleading advertisers, and other propagandists.”
  • p180, technology doesn’t solve the problem: “By seducing viewers into believing that the data are reliable, relevant, and essentially complete, a geographic information system can become a dangerous instrument of self-deception.”
  • p184: “The wise map user is thus a skeptic, ever wary of confusing or misleading distortions conceived by ignorant or diabolical map authors.”
  • p185: “The skeptical map viewer will assess the map author’s motives and ask how the need to impress might have subverted the need to inform.”

“White lies are an essential element of cartographic language, an abstraction with enormous benefits for analysis and communication. Like verbal language and mathematics, though, cartographic abstraction has costs as well as benefits. If not harnessed by knowledge and honest intent, the power of maps can get out of control.” (p186)

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Posted in Advertising, Books, Leadership
One comment on “Book Report: How to Lie with Maps
  1. […] I remember correctly, I found out about How to Lie with Statistics when I was purchasing How to Lie with Maps online: the “you liked this so you might like that” engine suggested it.  As it […]

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