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How to lie with maps

In one of my favorite map books, How to Lie With Maps, Mark Monmonier suggests that Americans are taught from an early age to analyze and understand the meaning and manipulation of words in areas such as advertising, political campaigns, and the news. He calls it being “cautious consumers of words.” I’m not entirely convinced that we actually do a very good job of this (though I think we are getting better at having kids close read text and recognize bias.)

But I do agree with his statement that we rarely teach the same skills about maps. Many social studies teachers seem unsure of what and how to teach geography thinking skills and so kids often leave our classrooms without the tools they need to be successful.

A recent article by Andrew Wiseman titled When Maps Lie: Tips from a Geographer on How to Avoid Being Fooled can help.

Maps are big these days. Blogs and news sites frequently post maps and those maps often go viral – 40 maps that explain the world, the favorite TV shows of each U.S. state, and so on. They’re all over Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and news organizations are understandably capitalizing on the power that maps clearly have in digital space: they can visualize a lot of data quickly and effectively. But they can also visualize a lot of data inaccurately and misleadingly.

A map is not just a picture—it’s also the data behind the map, the methodology used to collect and parse that data, the people doing that work, the choices made in terms of visualization and the software used to make them. A map is also a representation of the world, which in some ways must always be a little inaccurate—most maps, after all, show the roughly spherical world on a flat surface. Certain things are always left off or highlighted while others are altered, as no map can show everything at once. All of those choices and biases, conscious or not, can have important effects on the map itself. We may be looking at something inaccurate, misleading, or incorrect without realizing it.

It’s no surprise then that people often assume maps are accurate, because it’s so often unclear how they are made—maps are “arcane images afforded undue respect and credibility” that are “entrusted to a priesthood of technically competent designers and drafters,” as Monmonier puts it. Almost everybody can write, but not everyone can make a map.

Go over and get all of his examples and commentary but basically Wiseman shares a variety of ways that we and our students need to look at maps with a critical eye.

  • Don’t trust the title
  • The source is important
  • Heat and density maps can confusing
  • What is the cartographer trying to show? What are they trying to hide?
  • The way the data is distributed is important
    A good example of this are these maps of the Hispanic population in Florida:
    While they all use the exact same data, the different choices for classes in each map make the number of Hispanic people appear vastly different.
  • Choropleth maps can be tricky
  • Base data (boundaries, locations, etc) is important
    A funny example of this comes from the West Wing.
  • But maps are still good

None of this means that all maps are bad or that we should always be suspicious of them or that only experts should make maps. Maps and geography are inherently interesting and fun, but a little bit of thought and increased awareness of how they can manipulate or obscure is a good thing, too. Just like advertisements and political campaigns, we shouldn’t trust maps or the data behind them inherently but they can still be powerful, interesting and amusing.

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