Maps and Scientific Theory



Scientific Theory

Both are objective pictures of realityReality is "out there"; maps just report itReality is out there, and science provides the best picture of it.

Both explain and predictTell you the outcome of actions (if you go east, you will get here)If you do this, you will get that result. (cause and effect)

Both based on observationMaps usually are visual representationsScience has been "ocularcentric", privileging visual knowledge

Both are regarded as universalMaps are neutral - any place, and all places (including imaginary ones) can be mapped. All the world can be equally mapped.Science applies everywhere. It is "placeless" - scientific knowledge does not vary depending on where you are or where you are from.

Both regarded as a-temporalReality that is reflected is a "snapshot" - time is inferred, but not containedScientific "truth" does not change

Both regarded as ahistoricalMaps do not reflect a historical processScience tends not to look at its past as significant.

Both seen as dispassionateThere is no particular point of view; maps are "universal"Science is the view that any rational person would hold

Both seen as a-politicalWhile maps chart political boundaries, they are assumed to report on that reality, not contribute to it.Science is seen as outside of politics. Scientists also report on reality, and the political issues are all located in the applications and uses of scientific discoveries, not in the discoveries themselves.

Both are mathematically regularizedThe rationality of maps lies outside of the influence of most people. Maps tend to reflect the demands of mathematical structure, not of human existence.Science uses mathematics as the chief modelling tool. The result is that anything that is not captured by that tool is assumed to be irrelevant or not exist.

Both link the "territory" with what comes with itIn the case of maps, we represent rate of rainfall, bird migration, political influence, or whatever, with the geography. The geography becomes the metaphor for the social or natural phenomena.In science, we relate the real world to particular purposes. The world is "seen as" something -- the Amazon is seen as grazing land or medical laboratory, the genome is seen as controller of human development.

Modern maps and modern science emerge at the same time for a reason - they are part of a similar logic, and a similar view about how we know the world.

Are these ways of representing space of the world true? Perhaps partly, but not completely

1. Neither maps nor science are simply pictures of reality. Instead, both create reality, in the sense that they give particular metaphors to reality. This is not right or wrong; it is just the way it is. The problem comes when we believe that there is a kind of necessity about the picture.

2. Both may be based on observation - the question is, who is observing, and for what purpose?

3. Neither is really a-temporal, either. The reality portrayed has a temporal element to it. That does not make it simply relative, but it does suggest that ways of understanding the world at one time are not necessarily wrong; they may just be asking different questions. The mediaeval religious view is just asking about a world in which we can be safe by finding our place in the order of things.

4. Neither is a-historical at all. Both have histories, and these histories do not always reflect a purely rational pursuit. In many cases, one map or theory has won because it has been most useful to whomever is in power.

5. Neither is dispassionate. Each embodies interests, in terms of what is included and (even more) what is not, in terms of metaphors used for the knowledge of the world.

6. Neither is a-political, either, if by politics we mean the influence power interests have on the process. The question of who has the money and the influence does influence the kind of picture we get of the world, as well as the historical version of the world we get.

7. The link of territory with what comes with it is true. The question, though, has to be -- why this link, and not another?

Do we just get rid of maps (or for that matter, science)? That's not what I'm saying. The point is that there is a strong parallel between the two, and that our sense of space and place is structured in the same way as our sense of what counts as "real knowledge" in the modern age.