Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Liars, Damned Liars and Cartographers

Liars, Damned Liars and Cartographers

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Maps. I love them. Old ones, new ones, crisp ones, tattered ones. Maps are incomparable. No matter the user interface or available screen resolution, nothing computer-ish yet beats a printed map for understanding what you’re looking at. And, because I love maps, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for cartographers. But, a recent event may change that a bit.

Maybe my love of maps ties into my education as an engineer. Perhaps the same inclinations and personality profile that led to one also led to the other.

In engineering, I also learned to enjoy and appreciate statistical math. And that’s been quite helpful. Knowing a few true things about stats seems to be more useful every day, given their current use as Weapons of Mass Deception. Knowing about the math behind statistics and being able to tell what amounts to proof and what does not sure saves a lot of time and silly hand-wringing over the latest scary ‘study’.

It’s easy to see the origins of that old slam on honest statisticians: “lies, damned lies and statistics.” These three things are supposed to be ever worse levels of falsehood. But, it seems to me that it’s far less the stasticians and far more the reporters and users of statistics who make the saying so valid so often. Apparently, there are an endless number of axes to grind. Or re-grind. Or re-re-grind

Except recently, when even some trusted keepers of raw data sets have worked so hard in dimly-lit back rooms to make them “more correct” but far less accurate. Sorta like making the Orwellian pigs “more equal” than other animals. And, what’s even more sad is that this sleight of hand often flies right over the heads of a population and media who have become almost innumerate.

Perhaps the counting system of the Australian Aborigines will come back in vogue. They had three numbers: one, two and many. That sure would ease a lot of people’s anxiety over the difference between billions and trillions. To the Aborigines, they were both the same: ‘many’.

So, given the ax-grinders’ slavering need to distort things, I wasn’t all that surprised recently to see my treasured subject of cartography swept into the silliness that afflicts statistics.

It seems that the Times of London has been up to a little cartographic ax modification. Their new atlas shows Greenland as having lost 15% of its ice volume over the past ten years, with bare ground now running miles inland.

Or, as a friend who often comes up with a clever turn of phrase put it: “I, the Holy Times of London, give you the new, revised and incontestable Word of Gaia, Peace be Upon Her and Death to Deniers.”

Wow! 15%%. Even though it was an Incontestable Truth, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of arithmetic anyway. Fifteen percent converts to about 125,000 cubic miles of ice. That’s enough to have raised sea levels worldwide by more than three feet.

It’s easy to figure. Just multiply 125,000 by 5,280 (feet per mile) and divide the result by ¾ of the earth’s surface (the watery part). You don’t even have to worry about increased evaporation, or more freezing from more cloud cover to get a pretty clear answer: the Times just hurtled well past the ‘damned liars’ point on the Badness Scale.

In the end, you don’t really need math at all to tell. With millions of homes in Bangladesh alone waist-deep in sea water, surely someone would have noticed something!

And, then there’s that quaint, old-timey foolishness called fact-checking. The Times own note says that the source data was from the top authority on Greenlandish ice, a scientific institute in Colorado. But no one there was contacted. And, in fact, the institute says the real melt number is at least 150 times less than 15%, if that—well within normal historical rates for either increase or decrease.

But, the Times’ spokeswoman’s immediate response to questions was to the effect that they were the best in the world at this stuff, so, go away, ignorant peasant. Later, after the Colorado folks went public, she backed off a tiny notch to say in effect that the Times may look into it. Sometime. But they’re still right, so nyaah!

Over coffee, my clever friend chimed in with another observation: “It’s always a shame when cargo cult fanatics hijack another world-famous institution. If this keeps up, they’ll be giving Nobel Prizes to Elmer Gantry and Steve Erkel for Heaven’s sake!”

Nah, it won’t get that bad, I’m sure.

According to a famous English historian, Edward Gibbon, the Roman Empire in the West ended not with a bang but a whimper. I think, perhaps, the British Empire was not nearly so lucky.


In an earlier post, I told ‘The Sad Legend of Twainless Brits‘. In that story, the word ‘Brits’ wasn’t describing a nationality. Is it time to reconsider?

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