Maps are false

by Neil Rickert

This is intended as a companion to my recent post “Kepler’s laws are false.”

I have, in front of me, a Rand McNally road atlas of the Chicago area.  It is a few years old, so a tad out of date.  But it is not that “out of date” aspect that I will be discussing.

I am currently looking at the part of the map that covers near where I live.  I see that some of the roads are red in the map.  But when I drive on those roads, they are the same gray/black color as most of the other roads (such as the ones shown as yellow or white in the map).

Rte 38 (State Street in Geneva) is shown as wider than the street where I live.  And perhaps that is true in downtown Geneva.  But it is shown as just as wide farther west (at the intersection with Brundige Road), when in fact it is significantly narrower there than is the street where I live.

None of this matters, of course.  We do not expect maps to be true pictorial descriptions.  We expect them to be somewhat idealized and exaggerated and somewhat over simplified.  We use such maps as guides, and the idealization, exaggeration and simplification make them more useful as guides.

We value maps for their usefulness, not for their pictorial accuracy.

And that is pretty much the same point that I was making about scientific laws in that earlier post.

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One Comment to “Maps are false”

  1. “We value maps for their usefulness, not for their pictorial accuracy. And that is pretty much the same point that I was making about scientific laws in that earlier post.”

    And likewise, I see maps as a type of description of the world as well. They may not be pictorially accurate (“true pictorial descriptions” as you put it) or even up-to-date, but they do approximately describe the roads, landmarks, etc. in a 2-D representation. They are a description and are just as true or not true (for all practical purposes) as any other type of description. Some descriptions are more useful than others, but they all describe the world in the form of data or relations between that data in some way or another.

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