How to Lie with Maps

I just finished reading Mark Monmonier‘s enjoyable book on “How to Lie with Maps” and thought I’d share some tidbits. Mark is the distinguished Professor of Geography at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in New York.

In writing this book, Mark wanted to “make readers aware that maps, like speeches and paintings, are authored collections of information and also are also subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice.” Note that this second edition was published in 1996.



Mark uses some terms that made me chuckle at times. Take “cartographic priesthood,” for example, or “cartographic license.” Other terms of note include “cartopropaganda,” “cartographic disinformation and censorship,” and “cartographic security.”


  • “The map is the perfect symbol of the state.”
  • “Maps can even make nuclear war appear survivable.”
  • “A legend might make a bad map useful, but it can’t make it efficient.”
  • “Maps are like milk: their information is perishable, and it is wise to check the date.”
  • “People trust maps, and intriguing maps attract the eye as well as connote authority.”
  • “Circles bring to the map a geometric purity easily mistaken for accuracy and authority.”
  • “Like guns and crosses, maps can be good or bad, depending on who’s holding them, who they’re aimed at, how they’re used, and why.”
  • “No other group has exploited the map as an intellectual weapon so blatantly, so intensely, so persistently, and with such variety [as the Nazis].”
  • “That maps drawn up by diplomats and generals became a political reality lends an unintended irony to the aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword.”


“Even tiny maps on postage stamps can broadcast political propaganda. Useful both on domestic mail to keep aspirations alive and on international mail to suggest national unity and determination, postage stamps afford a small but numerous means for asserting territorial claims.”

“In 1668, Louis XIV of France commissioned three-dimensional scale models of eastern border towns, so that his generals in Paris and Versailles could plan realistic maneuvers. […] As late as World War II, the French government guarded them as military secrets with the highest security classification.” See picture.


“Government maps have for centuries been ideological statements rather than fully objective scientific representations of geographic reality. […] Governments practice two kinds of cartographic censorship—a censorship of secrecy to serve military defense and a censorship of  silence to enforce social and political values” (citing historian Brian Harley).

“Few maps symbols are as forceful and suggestive as the arrow. A bold, solid line might make the map viewer infer a well-defined, generally accepted border separating nations with homogeneous populations, but an arrow or a set of arrows can dramatize an attack across the border, exaggerate a concentration of troops, and perhaps even justify a ‘pre-emptive strike’.”

“Faulty map reading almost led to an international incident in 1988, when the Manila press reported the Malaysian annexation of the Turtle Islands.” The faulty map was “later traced to the erroneous reading of an American navigation chart by a Philippines naval officer who mistook a line representing the recommended deepwater route for ships passing the Turtle Islands for the boundary of Malaysia’s newly declared exclusive economic zone.”


“As display systems become more flexible, and more like video games, users must be wary that maps, however realistic, are merely representations, vulnerable to bias in both what they show and what they ignore.”

“Skepticism is especially warranted when a dynamic map supporting a simulation model pretends to describe the future.”

“Although electronic cartography may make complex simulations easier to understand, no one should trust blindly a map that acts like a crystal ball.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

24 responses to “How to Lie with Maps

  1. Really intersting! Recently came across some great research from Kai Chi Leung, University of Minnesota on cartographic differences between and Chinese based
    It seems like online maps will online make the struggle over maps more intense.

  2. I like the post, it’s amusing and gives food for thought. It’s especially relevant with the current Migingo crisis. It is easily solvable by simply using a map, but the reluctance of all involved to study said map says a lot. Made me smile this morning, thanks 🙂

  3. Hi Patrick, glad you brought the topic up. I also wrote a post around ethical issues about mapping here: and it triggered already an interesting discussion. Would be curious to hear what you think! Best Christian

  4. Jamie Lundine

    Thanks for posting this Patrick! Reminds me I need to read the book. My supervisor had mentioned that I should pick up a copy. I will scour the Nb bookstores to see if I can find one! My favourite quote from your post:

    “Maps are like milk: their information is perishable, and it is wise to check the date.”

    So true. Accuracy on a map can be defined in many ways – temporal being just one of them.

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  9. hi. Was doing a lit review for my dissertation – which includes community mapping – and came across this book. I am doing work currently with Mikel and map kibera. looking forward to reading the book, and your blog posts!


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  11. Nice post Patrick, and good food for thought for live maps… You’ve read Bateson’s reflections on the difference between territory and map, right?

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  15. “There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.” A. Korzybski
    & “The map is not the territory (coined by Alfred Korzybski), and the name is not the thing named.” Gregory Bateson ..

    additions to your comments on Mark’s ‘deconstruction’ of cartography, although it follows “How to Lie with Statistics (1954) by Darrell Huff (July 15, 1913 — June 27, 2001)” another excellent undergraduate warning …rg/wiki/How_to_Lie_with_Statistics

    … but for more theoretical work, if you have not already delved into Jaques
    Bertain —

    … while if you are really adventurous … for a rich trove of highly evolved speculative theoretical explorations ..


    Jamil Brownson (PhD & Prof — semi-retired)

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