For some reason, a great number of people tend to equate geography with trivia; i.e., they perceive geography not as a science, but as an exercise in the memorization of facts, something that everyone can understand and do.  Once they realize that geographic analysis is actually much more complex—difficult for them to fully grasp even when informally illustrated by an expert—they opt for one of the following:

  1. Accept that they need to learn very important concepts, which takes time and effort, but can result in great long-term analytical benefits.
  2. Arrogantly ignore it and denigrate its value to anything beyond memorization and map making.

In many instances people choose to embrace the latter option. I believe that the rationale behind such action is their unwillingness to admit that the former option is a conceptually difficult endeavor.  People do not like to feel intellectually powerless.  As a result, they try to denigrate what they cannot quickly intellectually digest (a reaction similar to that of drivers unable to drive a manual transmission vehicle).

Exhibit A: The Finger Test with Little Distortion

A colleague of mine was working on a Somalia-related project for the Military, building an educational and pre-deployment type of a training brief.  She asked a resident graphic designer (we had no cartographers on the staff) to create a slide with outlines of Somalia overlapping the United States.  When he finished it, she was dissatisfied.  The distance between Somalia’s northern (with Djibouti) and southernmost (with Kenya) boundaries appeared to her as incorrect.  Somalia could not possibly stretch from Omaha to Chicago, then to near the border with Mexico south of San Antonio.  There was no explanation why, just a statement that it was not correct.

The designer called me for confirmation.  I asked him if he transferred the outlines of both countries from the same map projection and at the same scale. He said “Yes” and showed me the map with a Mercator projection.  I confirmed that he was correct and went about my business.  When my colleague returned, and heard from the designer, she remained unconvinced about our accuracy.  I was called to help again.

“This is a Mercator projection, which, below the 45 degrees of north latitude does not create a distortion for you to worry about in this context,” I explained and continued with “Let me quickly show it to you.” The three of us walked across the office floor to a map attached to the wall.  This one, too, was a Mercator projection.  I spread my fingers across the Horn of Africa, measuring rough distance the way my mentor in graduate school would often do in the classroom, and compared it with the United States.  It was almost identical to that of the designer’s project.  Then I explained more about map projections, distortions, and their relation to scale in the map’s legend followed by a couple of examples.

Figure 1. A finger test of Somalia’s size I conducted today, this time using a Robinson projection in my atlas.

My colleague stood there mentally struggling, unwilling to concede to herself that what I just showed her made sense. I went on with my business, satisfied that I had helped them with professional expertise.

Later that afternoon I received an email from my colleague addressed to the graphic designer and me.  The first sentence began with “OK, I am still not buying your finger test, but….”  She proceeded indicating that she needed more convincing (etc.).  She did not receive any more free help.  After being asked to help and happily contributing my time and energy, she questioned my expertise without being able to articulate why.  I was evidently the one who was “selling” what my colleague did not bother to learn in high school.

Figure 2 (Source). Various websites offer assistance in learning Somalia’s true size as it relates to the United States.

Figure 3. Google Maps is also a rather useful tool to measure distance between locations. Here, the two latitudinal extremes in Somalia are roughly 900 miles from each other.

Figure 4. Distance from southern Texas to Omaha, Nebraska; an equivalent distance to that depicted in the previous figure.

Exhibit B: I Blame the Afghans

Late one evening I was in my office in Kabul City when the phone rang.  The call was from the boss, who was working on a brief for the Generals in charge of something important.  The boss was in need of a reference map of a province in Afghanistan with all its districts outlined and labeled with a specific font size.

“OK, that can be done. What size of the map would you like?” I asked.

“A quarter of a page,” the boss replied.

“That cannot be done.”

“Why not?”

“Unless you are using a very small unreadable font, it is impossible to add the labels depicting district names on such a small map, for the labels to fall within the districts’ boundaries.  If we use an appropriate font then the map would have to be larger.”

“How come?”

The conversation continued for a while and my frustrated boss eventually decided not to have the map made, but never really understood why.  In my mind I sarcastically blamed the Afghans for creating too many provincial districts.

Serious Consequences of Ignoring the “Trivial” Science

Each day every person on this planet has to employ the concept of scale and distance—to think spatially—in order to function properly.  We cannot function in society without moving through space.  This daily effort should be enough to make us understand the complexity of space and the benefits we can harvest by studying and learning essential geographical concepts.

We also live in uncertain times from a geopolitical perspective.  It is now more imperative than ever before to truly know what is going on in the world (on a Mercator projection map Russia looks even larger—and scarier—than it is realistically) and thoughtfully analyze it.  It can make a significant difference for the future.

“Unless the student has a sound grounding in geography, the study of history and geopolitics in high school and college is almost pointless.  The decline in teaching this fundamental subject throughout the U.S. has left us with a population pitifully unaware of `where it is at’ on the earth’s surface.”

Richard Helms (Former Director, C.I.A.)

Politicians, statesmen, and world leaders, too, who make decisions affecting lives of millions of people, are not necessarily immune from not comprehending the geographic concepts described above.  Unlike most of us, however, their actions have much greater magnitude: voting for deploying military and starting wars, or making major economic and social changes that will be felt for generations to come, are just two examples.  The public believes them on a premise that they understand outcomes of their actions.  I would argue that the public is overly optimistic in this regard.

As the short clip below from the TV series, The West Wing illustrates, even the fictional staffers and advisors may experience a bit of uneasiness when confronted with different map projections.  And no president, real or fictional, would ever appreciate a geographic finger testing if he cannot relate to it, regardless of its accuracy and minimal spatial distortion.

Finger-Testing Somalia’s Size With Minimal Spatial Distortion
Tagged on: