Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (est.1894)

Book review: How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

Andrew Harter, Footpath Inspector and Taylor House Volunteer

This article is from Signpost 60, Summer 2019

A book title like this seems apt in a world where terms such as fake news, post-truth, and alternative facts are commonly used. But is the author trying to teach the reader how to lie - or spot other peoples’ lies? After reading this book you will be well equipped to do both. In fact this is a new edition of a book first published in 1991 by American academic Mark Monmonier though it is aimed at a lay audience.

The author starts with the basic issue that any map is selective in what detail it shows and there are often geographical distortions. Think of the London Underground map - scale, direction, and position have all been manipulated (and almost all ground level features omitted) in order to illustrate the Underground network efficiently. Provided this is understood no harm is done and the map user can successfully navigate the system. However the same map would be useless for finding one’s way around at street level. The careful choice and presentation of information to accurately convey a message are what Monmonier calls the “white lies” of mapping.

The author then goes on to explain how maps can be used to give a partial, biased, or even totally misleading impression to the unwary - particularly when someone is trying to deliver an advertising or political message. He illustrates his arguments with numerous examples such as how developers use cartographic embellishment to promote their projects, to the use of maps in political and military propaganda.

This new 2018 edition has been updated to take into account the digital revolution. While this has brought huge benefits Monmonier highlights the dangers inherent in having vast data sources and powerful mapping tools available to so many people untrained in cartography and/or with an opaque agenda. Therefore map users must be ever more cautious about taking maps at face value. Although written from an American perspective this is an accessible account of how maps can be used - sometimes with benign intentions, sometimes with malevolent intentions, and with a huge grey area in between.

Here in Britain we may feel safe from any cartographic manipulation - after all we are in the reliable hands of Ordnance Survey. However the OS Greenspaces Map was heavily critised when it was first published. Click here to read what the Open Spaces Society thought about it.

Did OS deliberately set out to deceive us? Surely not! More likely the rush to respond to a Government election manifesto commitment resulted in a poorly thought out map.

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Page title:Book review: How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier
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