SHiPS Resource Center ||   BOOK BRIEF

reviewed: 3/97 Maps Are Territories: Science is an Atlas. David Turnbull. Univ. of Chicago Pr. (1993). ISBN 0-226-81705-9. $12.95 pb. 66pp.
How to Lie With Maps, 2d ed. Mark Monmonier. Univ. of Chicago Pr. (1996). ISBN 0-226-53421-4. $14.95 pb. 208pp.

Philosophers and sociologists have come to appreciate in the past several decades that scientific theories are not pure, objective representations of reality. They bear the marks of their makers, their culture, the tools of the time, and the inherent limits of representation. Such lessons are critical for a more human perspective of science, especially for preparing individuals to assess public policies based in part on scientific knowledge. Yet it is a challenge to teach the balance between the power of scientific theories and their limitations. No better strategy is available, I think, than to understand maps as efforts at "perfect" representation.

In one view, nothing could be simpler than simply transferring geographic features, point by point, onto a map. But the actual task is not so simple--as anyone who tries to flatten an orange peel "globe" will soon discover. As Turnbull points out in his conclusion, maps (and scientific theoires) are "conventional, selective, indexical, embedded in forms of life, dependent on the understanding of a cognitive schema and practical mastery" (p. 61).

David Turnbull's volume is invaluable for teaching about maps and science. Arranged as a series of "exhibits," this richly illustrated volume guides the reader through its "argument" mostly through visuals and questions. This makes it especially attractive for classroom use. Turnbull addresses the conventional nature of maps, maps and pictures, maps and power, maps as a way of ordering our environment, etc.

We are introduced to projections--most notably the Peters equal area projection that reveals the distortion inherent in the common Mercator projection. When one then inverts and recenters the Peters map, the world begins to look very different—and far less Eurocentric. We are also asked to regard other diagrams as maps, as well: the engraving on the Pioneer 10 space craft, a diagram of the London underground train routes.

Turnbull gives particular attention to indigenous maps. There are stick charts from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific (shells representing islands, and sticks representing currents and lines of swell) maps that allow the informed "reader" to navigate between islands across the open ocean. An Ojibway Indian chart from a birchbark drawing 2.6 meters long, uses various animals and designs to correspond to significant geological features along a migration route. Another map presented by Non Chi Ning Ga, an Iowa Indian chief, as part of land claim in 1837, records the Mississippi River system from St. Louis to Minneapolis, and Chicago to Omaha--faithful to nearly every major tributary. All these "primitive" maps document the essential features, though not always in the consistent scale of modern maps. Always the question: what does the map need to represent or convey? How well does it function?

One important chapter examines aboriginal-Australian maps and is specially credited on the title page as "a contribution from Helen Watson with the Yolngu community at Yirrkala." Here an "insider" decodes what might appear to the naive observer as native art, combining stylized animals and geometric forms. When properly interpreted, however, these "drawings" come alive as maps conveying a wealth of encoded geographical information.

Throughout the book, Turnbull poses provocative questions--which are not "conveniently" answered in the next paragraph: "How do you know this is a map? ... What is the difference between a map and a photograph? Which is more real? ... Why can't we replace maps with photographs?" (p.37). We are led to Turnbull's claim that "science is an atlas": a collection of theories that "provide practical opportunities for making connections whenever and wherever it is socially and politically strategic" (p. 62).

The book was produced for courses at Deakin University and thus carries a distinctively Australian flavor or bias. Still, the examples easily transcend cultural contexts.

Monmonier's book clearly frames its title image in tribute to Darrell Huff's landmark How to Lie with Statistics. The present volume is a complete primer on how to critique maps. The author hopes to "promote a healthy skepticism" and show that maps, like other forms of discourse, are "subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice" (p. 2).

But more than that, this is a provocative discussion of the philosophy of maps and, indirectly—keeping in mind Turnbull's book—a philosophy of science and representation. Monmonier opens with his striking thesis that "lying" is an inherent element of any map. Furthermore, it marks the virtue of a good map. His opening line advises us, "Not only is it easy to lie with maps, it's essential. . . . To avoid hiding critical information in a fog of detail, the map must offer a selective, incomplete view of reality. There's no escape from the cartographic paradox: to present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell white lies" (p. 1).

As Monmonier notes in Chapter 3, however, there are "little white lies" and there are "lots of them." Here, he offers the analytical tools for the novice to recognize the lies--and even to use them effectively. For example, there are several types of highlighting/distorting: selection, simplification, displacement, smoothing, enhancement. These all allow us to sort prominent features from the background— that is, to read a map clearly. Various chapters that follow then address maps in the context of advertising, development, political propaganda, defense (fooling the enemy), and census data. Another chapter focuses on the consequences of sheer cartographic carelessness.

By the end, the reader is well prepared to appreciate the cover image: a shadow of Pinnochio's profile cast across the arcadian "Meadowdale Estates," surrounded by poisionous sites.

--Douglas Allchin

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