Not Always a Lie

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The first chapter of a book about cartography a good friend gave me some time back begins with the following passage.

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.
And it ends with this.
Where a deep distrust 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.
Based on the rest of the chapter and on the quality of past recommendations from this friend, I am sure this book will be quite good on balance. Nevertheless, it is worth considering several dictionary definitions of the word, "lie." I'll go ahead and present them for both the noun and the verb.

1. a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture: His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.
3. an inaccurate or false statement.
4. the charge or accusation of lying: He flung the lie back at his accusers.

verb (used without object)

5. to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.
6. to express what is false; convey a false impression. [minor format edits]
Author Mark Monmonier clearly distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate "lies," but the real question is why he feels compelled to call the legitimate abstraction and the (equally legitimate) selective re-creation of the cartographer "lies" at all.

As Monmonier himself indicates (and rightly likens to other forms of communication that we all use), an informed context on the part of the map reader will include the knowledge that such abstraction and re-creation had to occur, as well as some idea of what other information one should acquire or summon from memory in order to understand what the map is intended to convey, as well as to judge its veracity. To the point, the relevant distinction isn't between "white" and "black" lies, but between truth and falsehood -- and I don't think Monmonier is so enamored with his clever book title to want to carry such trite word play through his entire book. Nor do I think he completely endorses the notion that the standard for truth is some obviously impossible criterion like, "Reproduction of reality in every single, minute respect."

The paragraphs remind me of the following critique of the widespread and nefarious influence of a certain German philosopher:
The "phenomenal" world, said [Immanuel] Kant, is not real: reality, as perceived by man's mind, is a distortion. The distorting mechanism is man's conceptual faculty: man's basic concepts (such as time, space, existence) are not derived from experience or reality, but come from an automatic system of filters in his consciousness (labeled "categories" and "forms of perception") which impose their own design on his perception of the external world and make him incapable of perceiving it in any manner other than the one in which he does perceive it. This proves, said Kant, that man's concepts are only a delusion, but a collective delusion which no one has the power to escape. Thus reason and science are "limited," said Kant; they are valid only so long as they deal with this world, with a permanent, pre-determined collective delusion (and thus the criterion of reason's validity was switched from the objective to the collective), but they are impotent to deal with the fundamental, metaphysical issues of existence, which belong to the "noumenal" world. The "noumenal" world is unknowable; it is the world of "real" reality, "superior" truth and "things in themselves" or "things as they are" -- which means: things as they are not perceived by man.

Even apart from the fact that Kant's theory of the "categories" as the source of man's concepts was a preposterous invention, his argument amounted to a negation, not only of man's consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes -- deaf, because he has ears -- deluded, because he has a mind -- and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (Ayn Rand, "For the New Intellectual," For the New Intellectual, 30.)
I took a look for Kant's name in the index. It doesn't appear, but that doesn't mean that Monmonier's peculiar use of the term "lie" isn't an example of Kant's pervasive cultural influence, either.
You might claim -- as most people do -- that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? "Don't be so sure -- nobody can be certain of anything." You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: "This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." You got that from Plato. Or: "That was a rotten thing to do, but it's only human, nobody is perfect in this world." You got that from Augustine. Or: "It may be true for you, but it's not true for me." You got it from William James. Or: "I couldn't help it! Nobody can help anything he does." You got it from Hegel. Or: "I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's evil, because it's selfish." You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: "Act first, think afterward"? They got it from John Dewey. (Ayn Rand, in "Philosophy: Who Needs It?")
It is, of course, too early for me to tell whether Monmonier really regards the practice of his profession as "lying," and it is quite possible that I won't be able to tell definitively even after I have read the entire book. But it would not surprise me, given some of the bizarre philosophical ideas I have seen espoused by -- or holding sway over -- other people of similar educational and professional attainment.

As, perhaps, a further example of the pervasiveness of the influence of modern philosophy, a commenter yesterday reminded me that many people, scrupulously rational in their professional lives, can accept the most outlandish notions without question when they fall beyond their area of expertise. Does Monmonier rebel against the idea that mapping is lying -- and yet at the same time fail to challenge the notions that thought is delusion and communication is deception?

And so it is that my already-interesting book has the bonus of a philosophical "subplot."

-- CAV


: Minor edit.

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