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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 24, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Maps, Collapse, and Blindness

My love of maps is well known and of long standing, so it's no surprise that I was drawn to Simon Garfield's book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks.

Along the way, however, I also picked up the same author's book Just My Type, a history of typography -- a field about which I know considerably less, but about which I wanted to know a great deal more.

I was frustrated, however, by the haphazard way that Garfield approached the history of typefaces. While the individual anecdotes were often quite entertaining, the author seemed grimly determined to be clever about how he said things.

This is forgivable if, and only if, accuracy is not sacrificed and the cleverness is actually clever. Let us only say that Garfield was hit and miss in the latter category.

I could not judge the accuracy of his statements because the book failed to do the obvious thing: Provide a full alphabet of each typeface as it was discussed. Where samples were given, I was suspicious of some of the statements made about them.

But I had not given up; it was simply a matter of coincidence and convenience that I found myself in a hotel room, beginning to read On the Map while Just My Type languished at home beside my bed.

I was scarcely thirty pages into On the Map when I had to thumb back and forth to be sure I had not misread. Did he really say that Herodotus "saw the Caspian Sea -- accurately -- as a vast inlet, unlike many of his successors"?

Yes, that's what he said, right there on page 25.

The Caspian Sea is definitely not an inlet, vast or otherwise, but rather an inland sea with no connection to any ocean. Was it possible that Garfield simply didn't know what "inlet" meant?

The question became completely baffling on page 28, when Garfield spoke of the map of Eratosthenes: "There are giant inlets of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, both of which erroneously flow into the oceans."

While the version of the map of Eratosthenes shown on pages 30 and 31 does have a narrow connection between the Caspian Sea and the northern ocean (perhaps an error drawn from reports of the mouth of the Volga), it is not "erroneous" to show the Persian Gulf as a "giant inlet" of the Indian Ocean.

Our fleets sail through the straits of Hormuz into and out of the Persian Gulf whenever policy requires. It is a hard thing to charge Eratosthenes with an "error" that sailors have made, without running aground, for thousands of years.

Since Garfield is touted as a wonderful writer, I am puzzled by his statement that Stravo "was born in 63 BC in Amasia by the Black Sea, and survived long enough to straddle the Common Era."

I think he meant to say "survived into the Common Era." Since the Common Era is not yet over, and by our system of reckoning cannot ever end, it is impossible to straddle it. To "straddle" means to be on both sides of something at the same time. One can only straddle the division between the negative dating of the years BC and the years ...

Wait. Not only does Garfield not know what straddle means, he mixes his nomenclature. "BC" means "before Christ," and the time on our side of the boundary is tagged "AD," meaning "Anno Domini," or "year of our Lord."

However, since this annoys non-Christians, most scholars now speak of our time as the "Common Era." But then the term for the years before is not "BC," but "BCE" -- "Before Common Era."

Then there's the head-scratcher on page 27, where Garfield says Eratosthenes' map shows "three recognizable continents -- Europe to the northeast, Africa ... beneath it and Asia occupying the eastern half of the map."

But ... but ... Eratosthenes shows Europe to the northwest.

Does Garfield's publisher not have any editors on staff to catch errors like these? Apparently not. But you don't even have to be an expert on cartography to catch these mistakes.

You only have to pay attention, which neither Garfield nor his publisher seem to have done.

These may seem small things, mere annoyances. But I don't think so. This carelessness and/or ignorance, so obvious in the first chapter, completely destroys any idea I might have of believing anything Garfield has to say.

So muddy is his thinking that, even though he gives Eratosthenes full credit for a very good attempt at a measured estimate of the size of the Earth as a sphere, he is still capable of writing that his grid lines "affirmed the common belief that the earth's length from west to east was more than double its breadth from north to south."

I think what he meant was that it was a common belief that the land mass of Europe, Asia, and Africa was wider from west to east than from north to south (which is actually truish, if you are measuring only "habitable lands" as defined by the Greeks).

But Eratosthenes, who believed -- and demonstrated -- that the Earth is an orb, could hardly have believed that the earth was longer from west to east than north to south.

When you're writing about something as precise as map-making -- and commenting on accuracies and inaccuracies in ancient maps -- don't you then have a responsibility to make sure your writing is precisely accurate?

I don't usually review books that I don't read all the way through. But, just as I sometimes write a review explaining why I walked out of a movie, I write this view to explain why I am setting this book aside -- and Just My Type as well.

I don't insist on rigid accuracy -- in my own work or in the works of others. People make mistakes all the time. But Garfield purports to be informing us of facts, and to be commenting about two fields in which fine distinctions matter very, very much.

After all, it was for want of complete, precise maps that Lee failed to destroy McClellan's army during the Peninsula campaign in the Civil War. And we've all had our GPS glitches when a tool we relied on gave us false information.

Garfield's sins are not those of vagueness or approximation. Rather he makes statements that are false, misleading, or completely incoherent.

Life is short. Brainspace is precious. Why should I spend any more of my time putting the language and ideas of such a careless or ignorant writer into my head?

I think of books of pseudo-scholarship like Garfield's to be only just a little shy of being hoaxes and frauds. People buy such books thinking they're going to learn something.

*

Contrast Garfield with a serious writer like Jared Diamond. Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is a valuable work of historical analysis -- a very long essay with examples.

Diamond's point, in that essay, is that when you step back from the particulars of history, you discover that great empires and great civilizations, while they are certainly the product of human choices and human endeavors, only arise in places where there are resources enough to support a sufficient population, with surpluses enough to support a leisure class.

In a way, the point is obvious -- I was taught this, more or less, in junior high. But Diamond gives the facts in a way that illuminates and expands our understanding of history.

He asks us to include whole new ranges of geographical and other knowledge in our attempts to explain why civilization throve here and withered there.

Now, that doesn't mean that his work is error-free, or that his conclusions are completely correct. And in that Guns, Germs, and Steel he is careful to point out that his thesis does not replace history and does not explain everything.

Rather he is merely asserting that certain physical conditions must be met before a great civilization can arise. These conditions don't guarantee the rise of a civilization and they don't, except in the broadest sense, determine the form that civilization will take.

Guns, Germs, and Steel was a great book.

Unfortunately, Jared Diamond is also a true believer in the religion of environmentalism, an apocalyptic belief system in which humans always seem to foul not only their own nest, but the nests of every other creature.

So he followed up Guns, Germs, and Steel with his testamentary book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

The subtitle suggested a discussion of the many ways that individual nations and empires, or the broader civilizations they may represent, make choices that determine the duration, resilience, and dominance of their culture and of their polity.

But the book is not that at all. Instead, it's a bit of a screed limited solely to discussion of the ecological mistakes that can lead a society to defeat itself.

Alas, this is almost a trivial topic, unless you're a True Believer. Why? Most societies, cultures, and polities fail, when they fail, for reasons having nothing at all to do with ecological mistakes.

It is true that some societies have collapsed because of ecological disasters, but most of these are not human induced. And over the vast sweep of history, the persistence of this or that culture rarely has anything at all to do with how they treat their local environment.

Even Jared Diamond's own examples are actually proof of the opposite of what he believes they prove.

For instance, in Collapse he talks about the fact that the statue-building Easter Island culture "ended" when their misuse of the fragile ecosystem of their tiny island eliminated the surpluses that gave them time to build their statues.

But what he fails to recognize is that the people did not die out. The statue-building culture continued with only one difference: They stopped building statues.

That culture was not replaced by another one; new people did not come in and drive out the old; there was no genetic discontinuity. In other words, all that happened was that they adapted to environmental change -- just as cultures everywhere adapt to environmental change.

There was no "collapse," just change. This is precisely the area of history that Guns, Germs, and Steel did not address.

The inexplicable thing about Easter Island is not that they stopped building statues -- it's that they ever started. Because they never had enough surpluses to make the building of stone monuments an obvious thing to do.

I've found that most criticisms of Guns, Germs, and Steel are either nit-picking that doesn't undermine his thesis, or straw-man arguments that attack Diamond for saying things that he does not say.

However, Collapse, being a religious tract, is wide open for serious criticism at almost every level, mostly because Diamond's philosophy is faith-based: He starts from the premise that human beings foul things up, and then proceeds to provide only the information that will support that premise.

In other words, he's doing exactly what Creationists and Intelligent Designists do: He bears witness to the faith through which he filters all his data, and thinks he has proven something.

It doesn't mean he's wrong; it just means he hasn't actually said anything scholarly or scientific.

Which brings me to the interesting but imperfect anti-book Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (ed. McAnanay & Yoffee).

The book consists of a series of essays refuting, or trying to refute, the examples that Diamond uses in Collapse.

Some of the essays are closely reasoned critiques or scientific corrections that leave Diamond's arguments -- never very strong -- in tatters.

The articles on Easter Island, the Andean Indians, and Mesopotamia, for instance, make it obvious that the religion of environmentalism is hopelessly inadequate as an explanation of human history -- unless you know nothing about that history, or are willing to overlook all the inconvenient truths that don't bear out the eco-apocalyptic theme.

Other essays, however, are by believers in competing religions; Michael Wilcox's answer to Diamond's assertions about the collapse of Southwest Indian cultures is more petulant than scholarly.

Wilcox has a couple of valid points, but mostly he makes equally specious claims about the continuity of Indian cultures and the rectitude of Native American claims to ownership of all artifacts found in "their" territory, even though all genuine evidence indicates that the artifacts have nothing to do with the tribes that happened to occupy the ground when Europeans came.

When two faith-based groups argue over points of doctrine, those of us who care about the actual scholarship must politely close the door and let them have their little quarrels.

Truth is so elusive and complicated. So are individual human beings. Jared Diamond made a valuable contribution to our present way of thinking about the past with Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I still recommend it -- and the way of thinking it represents -- as part of the basic education of anyone who wants to go into history, fiction, or any related story-telling art.

But often the author of a Great Book goes on to write books of a very different caliber. Just as Stephen Pinker went on from the fascinating and valuable Language Instinct to write books of absurd overclaiming about the science of mind, which fall completely over the line into faith rather than science, so also Jared Diamond went from his Great Book to a heartfelt diatribe about his passionate faith.

And yet the critics of both are often just as guilty of letting their own unprovable beliefs take the place of scientific or scholarly reasoning in their counter-arguments.

No one is immune to having core beliefs influence the way they reason about the world. Everyone has undiscovered beliefs that they don't even know they have because it does not occur to them that anyone could believe otherwise.

But when you claim that you're writing scholarly or scientific works, the value of your work will depend, not just on the beliefs of others that you challenge, but also your willingness to question or doubt your own conclusions.

Diamond and Pinker both adhere to that standard in the Great Books; both plummet from that standard to obvious ignorance of their own biases in subsequent works.

I do not doubt their sincerity; I merely question the value of those later works as science or scholarship. Both fall into the error of overclaiming; both commit the scientific crime of treating as proven that which has not even been tested.

Yet both have proven themselves perfectly capable of brilliant, rigorous examination of ideas.

The truth is that their Great Books aren't perfect, and their faith-based works aren't stupid, just under-questioned. And their critics are susceptible to all the same flaws.

What can we do, then, if we want to learn as much as we can, yet haven't lifetime enough to become experts in every field?

First, don't put your faith in any individual writer or thinker -- just because Machiavelli or Nietzsche or Kant is right or wise or illuminating about this doesn't mean he's right about everything.

Instead, read widely. As you read many views, you'll begin to build up your own world view -- one that will have its own flaws, of course, but one which you constantly correct by checking it against more and more sources.

But all of this is worthless if you don't also think deeply. Analyze. Question everything, but don't ever get confused and think that your questions are answers, that your doubts are facts. Everything can be questioned -- so what?

It always comes down to causality, and that's the one unknowable thing. Why are things the way they are? Nothing ever has just one cause; nothing ever has just one result. No answer is final.

Even in matters of faith, your own individual understanding grows and changes through the same process. Regardless of your faith, it profits from analysis and exploration, questioning and rethinking.

Truth is truth: things as they were, are, and will be, regardless of observation and explanation.

But our understanding of truth, though never even close to perfect, can get better and better.

And the happy result is that the better our understanding, the better our ability to make sense of the world around us and make successful predictions and preparations and decisions.

At worst, it allows us to bear misfortune and disaster, not stoically, but with a sense of perspective. Not the mantra "this too shall pass," but the knowledge of how these events fit within the many currents of life and time.

Nothing is more productive of better understanding than to watch the wise argue with the wise, the well-informed with the well-informed, and then to think and analyze and compare their views with your own experiences and conclusions.

But the more you know, the less patient you are with the under-informed, the ideologue, the demagogue. I tune out, for instance, the pointless arguments about gun control, because each side sustains its arguments only by ignoring the arguments of the other: people with blindfolds shouting at each other over which way to turn at a nonexistent crossroads.

They miss the point that on this, as so many issues, cultures and polities are free to choose, and then live with the consequences of their choices; and that there is no choice without negative as well as positive consequences.

This doesn't mean that the choice doesn't matter. Civilizations really do destroy themselves by their choices -- just not the ones Diamond thinks.

I think of how the Brits argued about whether King Edward VIII could marry a divorced woman -- while their own government was allowing Hitler to break treaties and prepare for the war the would kill millions and millions of people.

People are so easily distracted. So easily fooled. And I don't mean other people -- I mean everybody. We're all blind about something; about many things.

All we can do is try to see whatever we can think of to see, and then share our vision with others as best we can.

And, collectively, over the long haul, pointing out pitfalls to each other, taking each other by the hand, maybe we can muddle through for another generation.


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