How to Lie with Maps

How to Lie with Maps

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by Mark Monmonier

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Originally published to wide acclaim, this lively, cleverly illustrated essay on the use and abuse of maps teaches us how to evaluate maps critically and promotes a healthy skepticism about these easy-to-manipulate models of reality. Monmonier shows that, despite their immense value, maps lie. In fact, they must.

The second edition is updated with the… See more details below


Originally published to wide acclaim, this lively, cleverly illustrated essay on the use and abuse of maps teaches us how to evaluate maps critically and promotes a healthy skepticism about these easy-to-manipulate models of reality. Monmonier shows that, despite their immense value, maps lie. In fact, they must.

The second edition is updated with the addition of two new chapters, 10 color plates, and a new foreword by renowned geographer H. J. de Blij. One new chapter examines the role of national interest and cultural values in national mapping organizations, including the United States Geological Survey, while the other explores the new breed of multimedia, computer-based maps.

To show how maps distort, Monmonier introduces basic principles of mapmaking, gives entertaining examples of the misuse of maps in situations from zoning disputes to census reports, and covers all the typical kinds of distortions from deliberate oversimplifications to the misleading use of color.

"Professor Monmonier himself knows how to gain our attention; it is not in fact the lies in maps but their truth, if always approximate and incomplete, that he wants us to admire and use, even to draw for ourselves on the facile screen. His is an artful and funny book, which like any good map, packs plenty in little space."—Scientific American

"A useful guide to a subject most people probably take too much for granted. It shows how map makers translate abstract data into eye-catching cartograms, as they are called. It combats cartographic illiteracy. It fights cartophobia. It may even teach you to find your way. For that alone, it seems worthwhile."—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

". . . witty examination of how and why maps lie. [The book] conveys an important message about how statistics of any kind can be manipulated. But it also communicates much of the challenge, aesthetic appeal, and sheer fun of maps. Even those who hated geography in grammar school might well find a new enthusiasm for the subject after reading Monmonier's lively and surprising book."—Wilson Library Bulletin

"A reading of this book will leave you much better defended against cheap atlases, shoddy journalism, unscrupulous advertisers, predatory special-interest groups, and others who may use or abuse maps at your expense."—John Van Pelt, Christian Science Monitor

"Monmonier meets his goal admirably. . . . [His] book should be put on every map user's 'must read' list. It is informative and readable . . . a big step forward in helping us to understand how maps can mislead their readers."—Jeffrey S. Murray, Canadian Geographic

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An updated edition covering the use and abuse of maps, from basic principles of mapmaking to distortions such as deliberate oversimplification and the misleading use of symbols. Ample illustrations, with four pages in color. First published in 1991. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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How to Lie with Maps

By Mark Monmonier

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-53421-3



Not only is it easy to lie with maps, it's essential. To portray meaningful relationships for a complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or a video screen, a map must distort reality. As a scale model, the map must use symbols that almost always are proportionally much bigger or thicker than the features they represent. 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.

Because most map users willingly tolerate white lies on maps, it's not difficult for maps also to tell more serious lies. Map users generally are a trusting lot: they understand the need to distort geometry and suppress features, and they believe the cartographer really does know where to draw the line, figuratively as well as literally. As with many things beyond their full understanding, they readily entrust map-making to a priesthood of technically competent designers and drafters working for government agencies and commercial firms. Yet cartographers are not licensed, and many map- makers competent in commercial art or the use of computer workstations have never studied cartography. Map users seldom, if ever, question these authorities, and they often fail to appreciate the map's power as a tool of deliberate falsification or subtle propaganda.

Because of personal computers and electronic publishing, map users can now easily lie to themselves—and be unaware of it. Before the personal computer, folk cartography consisted largely of hand-drawn maps giving directions. The direction giver had full control over pencil and paper and usually had no difficulty transferring routes, landmarks, and other relevant recollections from mind to map. The computer allows programmers, marketing experts, and other anonymous middlemen without cartographic savvy to strongly influence the look of the map and gives modern-day folk maps the crisp type, uniform symbols, and verisimilitude of maps from the cartographic priesthood. Yet software developers commonly have made it easy for the lay cartographer to select an inappropriate projection or a misleading set of symbols. Because of advances in low-cost computer graphics, inadvertent yet serious cartographic lies can appear respectable and accurate.

The potential for cartographic mischief extends well beyond the deliberate suppression used by some cartographer-politicians and the electronic blunders made by the cartographically ignorant. If any single caveat can alert map users to their unhealthy but widespread naïveté, it is that a single map is but one of an indefinitely large number of maps that might be produced for the same situation or from the same data. The italics reflect an academic lifetime of browbeating undergraduates with this obvious but readily ignored warning. How easy it is to forget, and how revealing to recall, that map authors can experiment freely with features, measurements, area of coverage, and symbols and can pick the map that best presents their case or supports their unconscious bias. Map users must be aware that cartographic license is enormously broad.

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.

Examining the misuses of maps also provides an interesting introduction to the nature of maps and their range of appropriate uses. Chapter 2 considers as potential sources of distortion the map's main elements: scale, projection, and symbolization. Chapter 3 further pursues the effects of scale by examining the various white lies cartographers justify as necessary generalization, and chapter 4 looks at common blunders resulting from the mapmaker's ignorance or oversight. Chapter 5 treats the seductive use of symbols in advertising maps, and chapter 6 explores exaggeration and suppression in maps prepared for development plans and environmental impact statements. Chapters 7 and 8 examine distorted maps used by governments as political propaganda and as "disinformation" for military opponents. Government mapping is also central to Chapter 9, which investigates the effects of national culture and bureaucratic inertia on detailed topographic maps. The next two chapters are particularly relevant to users of mapping software and electronic publishing: chapter 10 addresses distortion and self-deception in statistical maps made from census data and other quantitative information, and chapter 11 looks at how a careless or Machiavellian choice of colors can confuse or mislead the map viewer. Chapter 12 peers ahead toward a future in which dynamic, highly customized maps promote exploration and interpretation. Chapter 13 concludes by noting maps' dual and sometimes conflicting roles and by recommending a skeptical assessment of the map author's motives.

A book about how to lie with maps can be more useful than a book about how to lie with words. After all, everyone is familiar with verbal lies, nefarious as well as white, and is wary about how words can be manipulated. Our schools teach their pupils to be cautious consumers who read the fine print and between the lines, and the public has a guarded respect for advertising, law, marketing, politics, public relations, writing, and other occupations requiring skill in verbal manipulation. Yet education in the use of maps and diagrams is spotty and limited, and many otherwise educated people are graphically and cartographically illiterate. Maps, like numbers, are often arcane images accorded undue respect and credibility. This book's principal goal is to dispel this cartographic mystique and promote a more informed use of maps based upon an understanding and appreciation of their flexibility as a medium of communication.

The book's insights can be especially useful for those who might more effectively use maps in their work or as citizens fighting environmental deterioration or social ills. The informed skeptic becomes a perceptive map author, better able to describe locational characters and explain geographic relationships as well as better equipped to recognize and counter the self-serving arguments of biased or dishonest mapmakers.

Where a deep mistrust of maps reflects either ignorance of how maps work or a bad personal experience with maps, this book can help overcome an unhealthy skepticism called cartophobia. Maps need be no more threatening or less reliable than words, and rejecting or avoiding or ignoring maps is akin to the mindless fears of illiterates who regard books as evil or dangerous. This book's revelations about how maps must be white lies but may sometimes become real lies should provide the same sort of reassuring knowledge that allows humans to control and exploit fire and electricity.



Maps have three basic attributes: scale, projection, and symbolization. Each element is a source of distortion. As a group, they describe the essence of the map's possibilities and limitations. No one can use maps or make maps safely and effectively without understanding map scales, map projections, and map symbols.


Most maps are smaller than the reality they represent, and map scales tell us how much smaller. Maps can state their scale in three ways: as a ratio, as a short sentence, and as a simple graph. Figure 2.1 shows some typical statements of map scale.

Ratio scales relate one unit of distance on the map to a specific distance on the ground. The units must be the same, so that a ratio of 1:10,000 means that a 1-inch line on the map represents a 10,000-inch stretch of road—or that 1 centimeter represents 10,000 centimeters or 1 foot stands for 10,000 feet. As long as they are the same, the units don't matter and need not be stated; the ratio scale is a dimensionless number. By convention, the part of the ratio to the left of the colon is always 1.

Some maps state the ratio scale as a fraction, but both forms have the same meaning. Whether the mapmaker uses 1:24,000 or 1/24,000 is solely a matter of style.

Fractional statements help the user compare map scales. A scale of 1/10,000 (or 1:10,000) is larger than a scale of 1/250,000 (or 1:250,000) because 1/10,000 is a larger fraction than 1/250,000. Recall that small fractions have big denominators and big fractions have small denominators, or that half (1/2) a pie is more than a quarter (1/4) of the pie. In general, "large-scale" maps have scales of 1:24,000 or larger, whereas "small-scale" maps have scales of 1:500,000 or smaller. But these distinctions are relative: in a city planning office where the largest map scale is 1:50,000, "small-scale" might refer to maps at 1:24,000 or smaller and "large-scale" to maps at 1:4,800 or larger.

Large-scale maps tend to be more detailed than small-scale maps. Consider two maps, one at 1:10,000 and the other at 1:10,000,000. A 1-inch line at 1:10,000 represents 10,000 inches, which is 8331/3 feet, or roughly 0.16 miles. At this scale a square measuring 1 inch on each side represents an area of .025 mi2, or roughly 16 acres. In contrast, at 1:10,000,000 the 1-inch line on the map represents almost 158 miles, and the square inch would represent an area slightly over 24,900 mi2, or nearly 16 million acres. In this example the square inch on the large-scale map could show features on the ground in far greater detail than the square inch on the small-scale map. Both maps would have to suppress some details, but the designer of the 1:10,000,000- scale map must be far more selective than the cartographer producing the 1:10,000-scale map. In the sense that all maps tell white lies about the planet, small-scale maps have a smaller capacity for truth than large-scale maps.

Verbal statements such as "one inch represents one mile" relate units convenient for measuring distances on the map to units commonly used for estimating and thinking about distances on the ground. For most users this simple sentence is more meaningful than the corresponding ratio scale of 1:63, 360, or its close approximation, 1:62,500. British map users commonly identify various map series with adjective phrases such as "inch to the mile" or "four miles to the inch" (a close approximation for 1:250,000).

Sometimes a mapmaker might say "equals" instead of "represents." Although technically absurd, "equals" in these cases might more kindly be considered a shorthand for "is the equivalent of." Yet the skeptic rightly warns of cartographic seduction, for "one inch equals one mile" not only robs the user of a subtle reminder that the map is merely a symbolic model but also falsely suggests that the mapped image is reality. As later chapters show, this delusion can be dangerous.

Metric units make verbal scales less necessary. Persons familiar with centimeters and kilometers have little need for sentences to tell them that at 1:100,000, one centimeter represents one kilometer, or that at 1:25,000 four centimeters represent one kilometer. In Europe, where metric units are standard, round-number map scales of 1:10,000, 1:25,000, 1:50,000, and 1:100,000 are common. In the United States, where the metric system's most prominent inroads have been in the liquor and drug businesses, large- scale maps typically represent reality at scales of 1:9,600 ("one inch represents 800 feet"), 1:24,000 ("one inch represents 2,000 feet"), and 1:62,500 ("one inch represents [slightly less than] one mile").

Graphic scales are not only the most helpful means of communicating map scale but also the safest. An alternative to blind trust in the user's sense of distance and skill in mental arithmetic, the simple bar scale typically portrays a series of conveniently rounded distances appropriate to the map's function and the area covered. Graphic scales are particularly safe when a newspaper or magazine publisher might reduce or enlarge the map without consulting the mapmaker. For example, a five-inch-wide map labeled "1:50,000" would have a scale less than 1:80,000 if reduced to fit a newspaper columnthree inches wide, whereas a scale bar representing a half-mile would shrink along with the map's other symbols and distances. Ratio and verbal scales are useless on video maps, since television screens and thus the map scales vary widely and unpredictably.

Map Projections

Map projections, which transform the curved, three-dimensional surface of the planet into a flat, two-dimensional plane, can greatly distort map scale. Although the globe can be a true scale model of the earth, with a constant scale at all points and in all directions, the flat map stretches some distances and shortens others, so that scale varies from point to point. Moreover, scale at a point tends to vary with direction as well.

The world map projection in figure 2.2 illustrates the often severe scale differences found on maps portraying large areas. In this instance map scale is constant along the equator and the meridians, shown as straight lines perpendicular to the equator and running from the North Pole to the South Pole. (If the terms parallel, meridian, latitude, and longitude seem puzzling, the quick review of basic world geography found in the Appendix might be helpful.) Because the meridians have the same scale as the equator, each meridian (if we assume the earth is a perfect sphere) is half the length of the equator. Because scale is constant along the meridians, the map preserves the even spacing of parallels separated by 30° of latitude. But on this map all parallels are the same length, even though on the earth or a globe parallels decrease in length from the equator to the poles. Moreover, the map projection has stretched the poles from points with no length to lines as long as the equator. North-south scale is constant, but east-west scale increases to twice the north-south scale at 60° N and 60° S, and to infinity at the poles.

Ratio scales commonly describe a world map's capacity for detail. But the scale is strictly valid for just a few lines on the map—in the case of figure 2.2, only for the equator and the meridians. Most world maps don't warn that using the scale ratio to convert distances between map symbols to distances between real places almost always yields an erroneous result. Figure 2.2, for instance, would greatly inflate the distance between Chicago and Stockholm, which are far apart and both well north of the equator. Cartographers wisely avoid decorating world maps with graphic scales, which might encourage this type of abuse. In contrast, scale distortion of distance usually is negligible on large-scale maps, where the area covered is comparatively small.

Figure 2.3 helps explain the meaning and limitations of ratio scales on world maps by treating map projection as a two-stage process. Stage one shrinks the earth to a globe, for which the ratio scale is valid everywhere and in all directions. Stage two projects symbols from the globe onto a flattenable surface, such as a plane, a cone, or a cylinder, which is attached to the globe at a point or at one or two standard lines. On flat maps, the scale usually is constant only along these standard lines. In figure 2.2, a type of cylindrical projection called the plane chart, the equator is a standard line and the meridians show true scale as well.

In general, scale distortion increases with distance from the standard line. The common developable surfaces—plane, cone, and cylinder—allow the mapmaker to minimize distortion by centering the projection in or near the region featured on the map. World maps commonly use a cylindrical projection, centered on the equator. Figure 2.4 shows that a secant cylindrical projection, which cuts through the globe, yields two standard lines, whereas a tangent cylindrical projection, which merely touches the globe, has only one. Average distortion is less for a secant projection because the average place is closerto one of the two standard lines. Conic projections are well suited to large mid-latitude areas, such as North America, Europe, and the Soviet Union, and secant conic projections offer less average distortion than tangent conic projections. Azimuthal projections, which use the plane as their developable surface, are used most commonly for maps of polar regions.


Excerpted from How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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