geographical ignorance

Geographical Illiteracy and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment

As I have tried to show over the course of many years of writing and teaching, the standard world political map is a misleading and seductive document, depicting global political organization as far more straightforward than it actually is. But the real problem is far more basic: as simplistic as the world map is, students are seldom asked to learn anything about it. The pedagogical consensus seems to be that world geography is unworthy of focused instruction. All that most students learn is that the globe is divided into fundamental units called either countries or nation-states, few of which have much significance. Beyond that, geographical knowledge is considered worthwhile mostly for game shows or trivia nights at local pubs. The result is not merely widespread gaps in public knowledge but rather pervasive geographical illiteracy that has damaging real-world consequences

The evidence of ubiquitous geo-illiteracy in the United States is overwhelming, attested by multiple studies. Suffice it here to provide one telling example. In 2014, just after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a Washington Post survey found that only 16 percent of the 2,066 Americans queried could locate Ukraine on a world map.[1]Several dozen respondents placed it in Greenland, around 40 favored Canada, and 15 opted for some part of the United States. The median response was off by about 1,800 miles. Many could not even tell the difference between land and water, putting Ukraine somewhere at sea. Most distressing, the Post discovered in 2014 that the “the less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want the U.S. to intervene.” As is so often the case, ignorance and arrogance go together.

The extent of our collective geo-witlessness is well understood. Periodic news articles demonstrating its depth gather brief notice and elicit some cringing mirth, yet they never generate any momentum for educational reform. In academia, merely drawing attention to the problem can bring retribution. David Helgren, an assistant professor at the University of Miami, lost his job and was threatened with a lawsuit after he revealed the geographical ignorance of his students, thereby embarrassing school officials.[2] For some educators, the problem is evidently not geographical illiteracy but rather regarding geographical illiteracy a problem worth acknowledging.

Those engaged in high-level international pursuits are of course professionally obligated to learn something about how the world is put together. Many know the political map quite well, and more than a few delve below its surface to discover how power actually plays out on the ground. But to the extent that they gain such knowledge, it is through their own efforts, guided by their personal appreciation of what is important. Unfortunately, not everyone in such positions has such an understanding. As a result, geographical illiteracy extends into the uppermost levels of governmental service.

The dearth of knowledge at the pinnacle of America power is abundantly evident in recent presidential pronouncements. George W. Bush’s geopolitical miscues were legendary, ranging from confusing Slovenia with Slovakia to a gobsmacking characterization of Africa as a nation.[3] Donald Trump’s cluelessness is so extensive that it took a sizable portion of a recent book to document it. As Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig recount in A Very Stable Genius,[4] Trump flabbergasted Indian prime minister Narendra Modi by dismissively telling him that “It’s not like you’ve got China on your border.” (The India-China border stretches over two thousand miles.) Barack Obama’s geographical errors merited an entire article, memorably entitled (with a hat-tip to Sam Cooke) “Don’t Know Much About Geography.”[5] I could go on, but the point has been made.

It might be objected that the global awareness of any American president is of no great importance, as staffers can be expected to carry the weight. But presidential gaffes are deeply embarrassing and can have damaging diplomatic consequences. According to one State Department aide, “the Indians took a step back” in their relations with the United States after Trump denied the existence of their border with China.[6] More to the point, even State Department officials cannot be assumed to have mastered the map, and as a result they sometimes lead their superiors astray. As telling instance comes from the Nixon administration. The president had been prepared for a meeting with the prime minister of Mauretania in northwestern Africa but spoke instead with the leader of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean. As Ken Jennings recounts:[7]

President Nixon led off the discussion by suggesting that the Prime Minister of a valued American ally restore diplomatic relations with the United States! That way, he said, he could offer American expertise in dry farming. The flummoxed Mauritian, hailing as he did from a lush jungle nation, had little interest in desert farming, so he tried to change the subject, asking Nixon about a space tracking station that the United States operated in his country. The bewildered Nixon scrawled something down on a yellow legal pad and handed it to [Henry] Kissinger. The note read, “Why the hell do we have a space tracking station in a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations?”

It is not as if State Department officials are poorly educated. Almost all are graduates of fine universities, and many have been through demanding post-graduate programs in International Relations (IR), International Policy, or related fields. The coursework in these programs is generally multidisciplinary but anchored in political science and economics. Valuable knowledge of international issues and institutions is acquired, as are powerful analytical skills. Graduates of the top-tier IR programs tend to be highly intelligent, hard-working, and adept at networking. Most aim high in the career choices, and, unsurprisingly, many go far.

But for all of that, major knowledge gaps go unaddressed. Although political history is a component of most IR programs, it is seldom required and never emphasized, whereas political geography hardly figures at all. Instead, the received map and model of the world provide the essential framework, conveying a clear-cut geopolitical system that can be taken as given and then by-passed. The system’s knotted history is typically reduced to a few key events, most notably the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Instruction in the actual architecture of political power across the world and its historical development is sidelined if not ignored.

What is reasonably required in most International Relations programs is a deep dive into IR theory. Classes on this topic seek to provide an understanding of how polities interact, usually by contrasting the views of several distinct schools of thought. Simplifying greatly, here one finds “realism,” which emphasizes competition among states, vying against softer-edged “liberalism,” which foregrounds institutional arrangements and non-state actors, as well as “constructivism,” which puts more stress on ideas, values, and cultural conditions. Adherents of critical IR theory, in contrast, critique both the geopolitical status quo and the above-mentioned modes of analyzing it, generally from a leftist perspective. These schools, along with several others, provide useful perspectives and need to be tackled by anyone seeking a deep understanding of the international arena.[8]

But insightful though they may be, none of these schools of thought has been able to generate accurate predictions or even falsifiable explanations of geopolitical change, and thus fail to reach scientific standing. Such theories also fall short because they tend to reflect the political hopes and leanings of those who advocate them. More important, none acknowledges the need for comprehensive global knowledge.

Most top-tier programs in international relations and related fields also require deep grounding in quantitative methods, usually through extensive coursework in economics and statistics. At Stanford University, the Ford Dorsey Master’s program in International Policy – “designed to produce leaders”[9] – stresses the quantitatively rigorous nature of its core curriculum.[10] Its mandatory methodologies, such as “logit and problt regression analysis,”[11] are important for doctoral work in some social-science fields and can yield significant findings. But it is questionable whether they should be required for foreign-policy experts. Professionals in the field seldom use them, and their mastery confers few practical advantages. Supporters sometimes claim that advanced statistics classes must be mandatory so that policy makers can fully understand cutting-edge articles in economics and political science journals that might influence their decisions.[12] I have seen little evidence, however, of that actually happening.

World history and geography, on the other hand, are essentially bypassed in this prestigious program. No coursework in political history is required, and no classes on political geography are offered. When one weights the curriculum’s requirements against its omissions, it is difficult to avoid seeing an insinuation that knowledge of the world is essentially extraneous, whereas complex mathematics holds the key for understanding and effective action. These are dubious ideas, especially when taken together.

History and geography are slighted in IR circles in part because they are regarded as simple subjects that students can easily pick up on their own. This assertion is far from true. For almost all students, prolonged instruction is necessary. And if a few self-motivated and intellectually gifted learners can acquire adequate geo-historical comprehension through their own efforts, the same is true of IR theory, economics, and even advanced statistics.

What the completion of required classes in advanced statistics and econometrics do is signal the quantitative abilities and diligence of those who have mastered them. Anyone who can get through the necessary mathematics must be smart and hardworking, important qualities for any high-level position. But as the iconoclastic economist Bryan Caplan more generally argues,[13] university coursework is an inefficient means of confirming such attributes, much less of ensuring competence on the job. Unfortunately, similarly inefficient means of selecting high-level civil servants have been common in global comparative terms. As David Graeber and David Wengrow note, “qualifications to enter bureaucracies are typically based on some form of knowledge that has virtually nothing to do with actual administration. It’s only important because it is obscure.”[14] This may not be the best way to educate our leaders.

While intelligence and assiduousness may be necessary traits for foreign-policy experts, they are not sufficient. Knowledge of the world is also essential. Yet for some reason it seldom considered important. To be sure, the Foreign Service Officer Test, employed to winnow candidates for diplomatic employment, formerly emphasized general and global knowledge. In 2006, however, most of the pertinent material was eliminated. The New York Times celebrated the change by noting that one no longer needs to be good at “Trivial Pursuits” to pursue a diplomatic career.[15] When knowledge of the world is casually dismissed by America’s “newspaper of record” as mere trivia, it is hardly surprising that global ignorance has become the national norm.

None of this is to suggest that the accumulation of empirical knowledge is of a higher intellectual order than theorization, or that advanced statistical techniques are not necessary in many fields of inquiry. But when it comes to multifaceted issues of human history and social organization, productive theory must rest a massive and constantly changing empirical foundation. These domains are too involved to be pared down to any simple, reductive models, such the one that is reflected in the standard political map of the world. Doing so generates a conceptual straightjacket, often leading to unrealistic expectations and wildly off-target predictions.

[1] “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene,” by Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff. Washington Post, April 7, 2014.

[2] Cited in Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.

  1. Scribner.

[3] “The Case of Bush II,” by Ira Kay. Counterpunch. November 2, 2004.

[4] Rucker, Philip, and Carol Leonnig. A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America. 2020. Penguin Press.


[5] “Don’t Know Much About Geography,” By Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, August 15, 2013.

[6] Rucker and Leonnig, 2020.

[7] Jennings 2012, p. 37.

[8] As Jack Snyder aptly summarizes, “The study of international relations is supposed to tell us how the world works. It’s a tall order, and even the best theories fall short. But they can puncture illusions. … Even in a radically changing world, the classic theories have a lot to say. “One World, Rival Theories” by Jack Snyder. Foreign Policy, October 26, 2009.

[9] This is from the program’s website:

[10] This is from the description of the program in the Stanford University Bulletin:

[11] Its core sequence, “Research Methods and Policy Applications I and II” considers the “statistical formulation and practical applications of linear regression analysis, the assumptions of OLS models, and how to check and address violations of these assumptions,” while also looking at “models for dichotomous and categorical dependent variables including logit and problt regression.” From the Stanford Bulletin “Explore Courses” website:

[12] I often heard this argument while serving as interim director of Stanford’s program in International Policy Studies in the early 2000s

[13] Caplan, Bryan. The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. 2019. Princeton University Press. Caplan’s radical arguments entail a significant amount of hyperbole, but nonetheless must be taken seriously.

[14] Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. 2021. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Page 474..

[15] “Rarely Win at Trivial Pursuit? An Embassy Door Opens,” by Tamar Lewis. New York Times, December 17, 2006.


Geographical Illiteracy and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment Read More »

American Geographical Illiteracy and (Perhaps) the World’s Worst Atlas

Ukraine's Location MapGeoCurrents has long been concerned with geographical illiteracy. The depth of ignorance continues to be revealed, most recently in a Washington Post piece that indicates that only 16 percent of Americans can locate Ukraine on a world map. Most distressingly, a significant number of respondents placed Ukraine in central Greenland. Other reports indicate that geographical ignorance is widespread even at the highest levels of political leadership in the United States. Both president Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush have made a number of particularly egregious blunders. Intriguingly, the Washington Post article referred to above indicates that Democrats and Republicans are equally clueless about Ukraine, with only 14 and 15 percent of respondents respectively able to locate the country. Political independents, however, performed much better, with a 29 percent success rate.

Geographical illiteracy is by no means limited to the United States. It rather seems to be a common problem the world over, although it is more pronounced in some places than in others. A 2002 National Geographic Survey, for example, found higher levels of global knowledge in Sweden, Germany, and Italy than in the United States. These results are showcased in Ken Jennings’ charming book Maphead. Jennings devotes an entire chapter to charges of geographical illiteracy, a scandalous lapse of knowledge that has a long history. Here he recounts the shocking story of David Helgren, a former assistant professor at the University of Miami who lost his job in the early 1980 and was threatened with a lawsuit merely for revealing the depth of ignorance of his students, thereby embarrassing his university. An even more embarrassing story outlined in Jennings’ book concerns the time when the U.S. State Department had had confused Mauritius with Mauretania when briefing president Richard Nixon before a visit by the Mauritian prime minister. As a result:

President Nixon led off the discussion by suggesting that the Prime Minister of a valued American ally restore diplomatic relations with the United States! That way, he said, he could offer America expertise in dry farming. The flummoxed Mauritian, hailing as he did from a lush jungle nation, had little interest in desert farming, so he tried to change the subject, asking Nixon about a space tracking station that the United States operated in his country. The bewildered Nixon scrawled something down on a yellow legal pad and handed it to [Henry] Kissinger. The note read, “Why the hell do we have a space tracking station in a country with which we don’t have diplomatic relations?” (Jennings 2011, P. 37).

North America Bad MapBut if geographical ignorance is pronounced in the United States, even at the highest circles of diplomacy, the problem does seem to be even more extreme in some other parts of the world. The most extraordinary example that I have encountered comes from Pakistan, where it would seem that the problem extends to the country’s highest level of geographical scholarship! I am referring to the 2012 edition of the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, discussed briefly in a recent GeoCurrents post. As noted there, the atlas has an official status, as its copyright is marked as “Government of Pakistan” and as it was printed by the Survey of Pakistan and published under the direction of Surveyor-General of Pakistan. This atlas also has a relatively high production value, and most of its maps of Pakistan seem to be adequate. But its global and world-regional maps are disastrous. A subsequent post will examine the mapping of religion found in the atlas. For the remained of this post we will consider its political map of North America.

California Bad MapAs a detail taken from the map and posted here reveal, the cartographers who produced this map have little understanding of basic cartographic conventions, do not know the most essential distributional patterns of the cities, states, and road networks of the United States, and apparently do not even fully grasp how transportation systems function (note how many of the railroads on the map are depicted as discontiguous). I have expanded the map’s coverage of California to highlight some of its more amusing errors. Note that the city of “San” is shown as substantially larger than the city of “San Francisco,” both of which have been placed offshore. A quick comparison with a decent map of the region, reproduced here, shows how deep its problems run.

Map of CaliforniaI have a difficult time understanding how such a worthless map could have been be produced. Evidently, the cartographers simply did not bother to do the most basic work, and apparently no one who examined the atlas in the production process knew enough to notice the extraordinary degree of inaccuracy. (Or if they did, they either did not care enough to report such errors or were too intimidated to make such a report.) In conclusion, I can only state that I feel sorry for students of geography in Pakistan. They deserve much better than this.

American Geographical Illiteracy and (Perhaps) the World’s Worst Atlas Read More »

103 Errors in Mapping Indo-European Languages in Bouckaert et al., Part I

As our criticisms of Bouckaert et al. have been extremely harsh, we must justify them in some detail. I have accused the authors of erring “at every turn,” a charge that reeks of hyperbole. But even if that claim is exaggerated, it is still not too far from the mark. To demonstrate the extraordinary density of error in the Science article, the next few posts will dissect the authors’ base map of Indo-European languages (Figure S6 in their Supplementary Materials). This map, depicting the distribution of both modern and ancient Indo-European languages, forms a key input for their “explicit geographic model of language expansion” (Bouckaert et al., p. 957), as the locations of the sampled languages shown on this map are fed into the model in order to calculate the location of the PIE homeland. Many of the errors and inconsistencies found on their other maps stem from mistakes made in this initial figure.

The map in question shows the location of the 103 Indo-European languages analyzed. The brief caption notes that “colored polygons represent the geographic area assigned to each language based on Ethnologue.” This assertion is misleading at best. The Ethnologue does not consistently map modern languages, and it pays little attention to long-extinct ones such as Hittite. And where the Ethnologue does map, it typically does so in vastly greater detail than Bouckaert et al. Compare, for example, how the two sources depict the languages of what is now southern and central Pakistan in the paired figures to the left.

Regardless of the source (or sources) used, the map is highly inaccurate. To illustrate the cavalcade of error found in Bouckaert et al., I have isolated 103 miscues, some admittedly rather minor, but others highly significant. As recounting all of them would be tedious, I will simply note them in call-outs on expanded details from their “master map.” I have prepared twelve such enlarged maps, each focusing on a different part of the historically Indo-European-speaking world. I will post these maps sequentially over the next few days, discussing in the accompanying posts some of their more egregious errors. Today’s post will conclude with a consideration of South Asia; subsequent ones will move in a westward direction, terminating in the British Isles.

Before examining the portrayal of the Indian Subcontinent in Bouckaert et al., a few words are in order about their general approach to mapping. Analyzing their base-map is no easy matter, as they do not follow conventional cartographic procedures. Their all-important polygons are often impossible to trace, obscured by the large, numbered circles used to label the 103 languages. Another perceptual problem stems from their use of overlays, with multiple extinct languages (in red) layered upon extant languages (in blue). The resulting color blends yield confusing intermediate shades. Note on the detail posted to the left the depictions of Luvian, Hittite, Classical Armenian, Kurdish, and modern Armenian. Determining which language is indicated in which places takes some patience.

A more intractable problem concerns the map’s temporal framing. The short explanation provided in the caption makes the issue seem simple: “Red areas indicate ancient languages and blue areas indicate modern languages.” Left unanswered is the time frame of “linguistic modernity.” In some places, the term is defined broadly, extending back hundreds of years. Cornwall, for example, is shown as inhabited by speakers of modern Cornish. Such a view is anachronistic, as Cornish had disappeared from most of the peninsula by 1700, and was essentially extinct before the modern revival movement began in the 20th century. (Today Cornish is estimated to have only “a few” native speakers.) Elsewhere, the mapping of “modern languages” refers to the late 20th century. The German zone, for example, fits only the post-WWII period, after millions of German speakers had been expelled from Pomerania, Silesia, and Sudetenland. The map, to put it simply, plays fast and loose with time and space.

Even more problematic is the mapping of many languages on the basis of political rather than linguistic features. As was noted in an earlier post, all of the maps used in the study show signs of what I called “geopolitical contamination,” in which the boundaries of modern-day states incorrectly determine those of language groups, following Max Weinreich’s dictum that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy.” I was puzzled, for example, by the fact that Moldova was placed outside of the Indo-European realm in Figure S4, showcased on Quentin Atkinson’s website. The reason is readily apparent when one considers the map of the 103 language polygons (Figure S6). Here Romanian is depicted as almost exactly coincident with Romania. Moldova is fully excluded from this realm, even though the official “Moldovan Language” is differentiated from Romanian solely on political grounds. One can indeed identify a Moldovan subdialect of Romanian, but it spans the Romanian-Moldovan border. Moldova should thus have been placed within the Romanian polygon, yet it is instead depicted in the same manner as Hungary, giving the impression that it lies outside the Indo-European realm. The consequences of such a strategy are troubling for the contemporary world, but become positively pernicious when retroactively extended into the past, which is precisely what the Bouckaert model does. As a result, almost all of Moldova is ludicrously mapped as most likely never having been occupied by Indo-European speakers in Figure S4.








Such geopolitical contamination is clearly evident in the depiction of the languages of South Asia, posted here. Note that Bengali, often regarded as the world’s sixth most widely spoken language, is essentially limited to Bangladesh, its 80+ million speakers in the Indian state of West Bengal written out of the linguistic community. Even more unreasonably, Vedic Sanskrit is given the polygon of a modern political unit. The supposed territory of this ancient language is outlined and shaded in red in the map posted here. This area, it turns out, precisely fits the territorial extent of Punjab before it was partitioned by the British. That colonial-era Punjab would have no bearing on the distribution of Vedic Sanskrit, spoken some 3,000 years ago, should go without saying. It is also worth noting that the former Punjab included what is now the Indian Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, which features peaks 22,000 feet above sea level. It is safe to assume that such areas were never part of the Vedic Sanskrit realm.


Mapping Vedic Sanskrit is no easy task, but that is no excuse for using a modern geopolitical proxy. Careful studies show that the world of the Rig Veda was largely limited to what are now the Indian and Pakistani states of Punjab along with the Vale of Peshawar and Swat Valley. “Vedic India” in the larger sense extended from this region down the Ganges Valley through Bihar and southward to encompass Gujarat, as can be seen in the second map posted here. Either of these two areas could easily have been used for the Vedic Sanskrit polygon.


I will not comment further on the remaining errors and infelicities on the Bouckaert et al. portrayal of South Asia, as a number of them are noted on the map itself. I have also posted a fine Wikipedia map of the current distribution of the Indo-European languages of South Asia for comparative purposes. (Note that this Wikipedia map lumps a number if disparate dialects into single languages, such as Bihari.)

As we shall see in forthcoming posts, similar errors litter all other portions of the original language map employed by Bouckaert et al. As a result, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the authors simply do not have the level of geo-linguistic comprehension necessary for carrying out their task. I have taught the geography of modern languages at leading universities for twenty-five years, and I can peg the level of understanding demonstrated by students fairly accurately. That of Bouckaert et al. would clearly fall into the “B” range. Given the unfortunate realities of grade inflation, that means that more than half of my undergraduate students finish their terms with a better understanding of the distribution of languages than the authors of a supposedly path-breaking article on the origin and spread of the world’s largest language family published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals.



103 Errors in Mapping Indo-European Languages in Bouckaert et al., Part I Read More »

Misleading Language Maps on the Internet

Although the internet allows easy access to manifold cartographic treasures, it provides even more rapid access to misleading, poorly constructed, and laughably inaccurate maps. Consider, for example, language maps at the global scale. A simple Google image search of “world language map” yields over 600 million results, although only the top hits, and by no means all of them, actually show linguistic maps of the world. Those that do can in general be divided into two categories: maps that depict language families, and maps focused on the most widely spoken individual languages. Today’s post considers the latter category, analyzing Google’s eight most highly ranked “world language maps” that portray the distribution of specific languages.

All of these maps are actually best described as “political linguistic maps,” as they organize their depiction of language distribution in accordance with the territories of internationally recognized states. As a result, multilingual states—which constitute the majority of the world’s countries—tend to be mapped as monolingual. Canada is divided into English- and French-speaking zones in roughly half of these maps, but few other countries are treated in such a manner. In almost all cases, official languages are highlighted regardless of whether they are actually spoken by the majority of the population; as a result, Mali appears to be as much a French-speaking country as France. The criteria for language selection generally go unmentioned and in most cases seem inconsistent, but it does appear in general that the “number of native speakers” outweighs the “total number of speakers.”  As a result, one of the world’s most widely spoken and politically significant languages, Indonesian/Malaysian (“Malay”), is usually ignored, often in favor of much less widely used European languages.

Such problems, however, are difficult to avoid. Multilingualism alone—both on the individual and on communal level—makes language mapping a frustrating exercise. But in all of the maps analyzed, the flaws run much deeper. Most are riddled with errors, many at a quite elementary level. As a result, the use of such readily accessible maps risks undermining knowledge of the world by delivering misinformation. To substantiate such harsh allegations, the remainder of the post will examine in some detail each of top eight world language maps that depict individual languages.

The first map has relatively few obvious blunders, although portraying Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland as French-speaking is a howler. Mapping Djibouti as an Arabic-speaking country is also problematic; although Arabic has official status—as does French—relatively few Djiboutians speak it, as Somali and Afar are the main vehicles of communication. Map 1 does divide a few countries into separate languages, and does so with a degree of accuracy. Not only is Canada split at the provincial level into Anglophone and Francophone areas, but so too is Cameroon, while Chad is divided into Arabic- and French-speaking zones. Nowhere else, however, do language boundaries deviate from those of states. Only Kenya and Tanzania are portrayed (through diagonal stippling) as containing multiple languages in the same locations, but the effort is flubbed ; presumably the intention was to show English intermixed with Swahili, but Swahili does not appear in the key. As is true of almost all maps of this kind, official languages of European origin in sub-Saharan Africa are exaggerated; curiously, however, Botswana, Malawi, and South Africa—where English has official status and is widely used—are not included in the English-speaking set. The portrayal of India as uniformly Hindi-speaking is also problematic, as is the mapping of China as completely Chinese-speaking—especially considering the fact that  “Chinese” is not exactly a spoken language, but rather a group of related languages that are, with the exception of Mandarin, locally conceptualized as mere dialects.

Map 2 is a far more comprehensive effort, depicting 23 separate languages. Most are limited to a single country, sometimes incorrectly so (Austria, for example, is not depicted as German-speaking). Outrageous errors here include the depiction of Sakhalin as Japanese speaking, Mali, Cyprus, and Azerbaijan as Arabic speaking, and Belgium as speaking some uncertain language (the color used for Belgium does not appear in the key). The criteria for inclusion in this map seem particularly odd; why, for example, are relatively major languages such as Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesia, Italian, and Polish, ignored while Finnish and Norwegian are mapped? India is depicted accurately here as “multilingual,” but it is the only country so classified!  The text-box labeled “other major languages spoken in the world” is confusing; how can “French and English” be classified here as “other languages” when both are extensively mapped? In actuality, it appears that the numbers in the box were designed to have been placed on specific countries: “1: French and Sango,” for example, pertains to Central African Republic. Unfortunately, that step was neglected.

Map 3 at least attempts to show areas of language overlap and multilingualism, although it does so in a crude manner. Note, for example, the extension of the North American French-speaking zone well out of Quebec into Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine. The map’s reduction of the vast majority of languages in the key to “local dialects, misc.” is risible. One also finds the Inuit language (actually, “languages”), spoken by fewer than 100,000 people, depicted as more significant than languages spoken by more than 100 million, such as Hindi, Bengali, and Indonesian. Yet the map simultaneously puts one of the main Inuit-speaking areas, the coastal strip of southern Greenland, in the “local dialects and miscellaneous” category.

Map 4—probably the worst of the lot—strictly depicts all sovereign states as linguistically uniform—except Canada. Switzerland and Belgium are simply mapped as French speaking—as, absurdly, are Romania, Vietnam, and even Albania. Equally egregious is the depiction of Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia as Mandarin speaking.  The portrayal of the entire former Soviet Union as Russian speaking is also misleading, as is the mapping of Somalia and Eritrea as Arabic speaking (although Arabic is a co-official language of both countries). Note that Israel is also mapped as Arabic speaking. The Portuguese language is oddly ignored, and Portuguese-using Guinea Bissau has been colored as a Francophone state. Francophone Burundi and Rwanda* have in contrast been depicted Anglophone, whereas Anglophone Malawi and Swaziland have been excluded from the same category.

On first glance, Map 5 appears to be comprehensive and sophisticated than the others—but it is not.  This map violates basic protocols by placing individual languages and language families at the same level of analysis. Here, for example, one finds “German” rather than “Germanic” but at the same time “Turkic” rather than “Turkish.” Yet the Turkic language family is severely misconstrued, as Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan is placed in the non-existent “Caucasian” language family, whereas non-Turkic-speaking Mongolia is included. Dividing the Slavic family on the basis of script rather than linguistic relationship is inexcusable,** as is the use of imaginary language categories, such as “West African.” The depiction of Ethiopia as entirely Amharic speaking is problematic enough, but the placing of Somalia in the same category is indefensible. Belize, Haiti, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana are all incorrectly mapped as Spanish speaking. For India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka—as well as Mainland Southeast Asia—cop-out categories of geographical rather than linguistic reference are employed. Bizarrely, the “languages of [Mainland] SE Asia” class is extended to Madagascar and Melanesia. And in Europe, while the relatively minor language of Albanian is mapped, Albanian-speaking Kosovo is incorrectly depicted as Slavic speaking.

One might think that the Wikipedia map (#6) of world languages would be reasonably accurate—but one would again be mistaken. Although it is difficult to see, the map severely misconstrues the Caribbean, where neither Guadeloupe not Martinique are depicted as French speaking, but Dominica—where the official language is English—is. (In the Pacific, Fiji and Samoa are also mapped as French speaking.) Dutch- and Papiamento-speaking Curaçao and Aruba, however, are portrayed as English speaking. All of Timor is depicted as Portuguese speaking, even the Indonesian half of the island.  For both India and Pakistan, the archaic term “Hindustani” is employed, which is depicted as uniformly extending across India. Kyrgyzstan is shown as Russian speaking; although Russian is an official language, it is by no means the country’s major tongue. As with many other maps of this type, the extent of Arabic is exaggerated by including Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan. By the same token, the extent of French in Africa is overplayed, yet that of English in the same region is ignored altogether. And while Swahili is indeed an official language of Uganda, the country can hardly be regarded as Swahili speaking; English also has official status, and is more widely used. The mapping of Afghanistan as Persian speaking is justifiable, but the exclusion of Tajikistan from the same category is not. One might also ask why Italian merits depiction, but not Japanese, Turkish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indonesian/Malaysian.

Map 7 does a better job than the others in depicting multilingualism. Yet it oddly depicts Guinea, Gabon, and Senegal as entirely French speaking, unlike the other Francophone countries of sub-Saharan Africa; compare also the divergent mapping of Mozambique and Angola in Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) Africa, and note the depiction of southern Africa as entirely English speaking. This map also mixes individual languages with language families (Turkic and Slavic), yet it manages to misconstrue its own categories.  Note that Azerbaijan is incorrectly mapped as non-Turkic, just as Bosnia and Macedonia are incorrectly mapped as non-Slavic. Finnic-speaking Estonia, however, is put in the Slavic category.

Map 8 is the odd one out in this series, as it does not actually map languages, but rather merely provides information on the percentage of people who speak certain languages over five continent-like divisions of the world. I cannot imagine how this information could be useful to anyone in any circumstance. Note also that it also makes errors in categorization, as it lists individual languages along with a language family of uncertain coherence (“Kwa”) and a certain type of language (“Creole”).

It is of course one thing to harshly criticize such maps and another to produce something better. Stay tuned for a GeoCurrents map of the world’s main languages later this summer.


*Rwanda is admittedly tending in an Anglophone direction—much to the consternation of France—but French is still more important than English.

**This distinction is also incorrectly applied, as Montenegro actually favors the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet.


Misleading Language Maps on the Internet Read More »

Global Economic Convergence? The Economist’s Unfortunate GDP Map

Map of global GDP from The Economist MagazineLast week’s (Sept. 24, 2011) issue of The Economist magazine featured a special report on the world economy, the central thesis of which is that the globe is currently undergoing a “great convergence in living standards,” pushed forward as “poorer countries speedily adopt the technology, know-how, and policies that made the West rich” (page 3). The thesis is debatable. Certainly China and India are quickly gaining ground, as are many other historically underdeveloped countries. It is also true that most long-developed countries are experiencing slow growth if not stagnation. Yet many poor parts of the world continue to lag, showing no signs of convergence with the zone of wealth and power. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Haitian economy shrank over the past year by more than five percent, the lowest “growth rate” in the world. At the same time, wealthy Singapore and Taiwan grew faster than either India or China, while hyper-wealthy Qatar topped the list, with a growth rate of 16.2 percent. “Convergence” may be a general trend, but it is clearly not the global norm.

Accompanying The Economist article is a world map of per capita GDP (in PPP for 2010), which includes as well population figures and forecasts of economic growth for 2011. The map is designed to drive home the article’s main point, that of global economic convergence. It does so, however, in a misleading, confusing, and, in places, erroneous manner. As such, in does not inspire confidence in the article’s central thesis.

The map’s initial flaw is its simplistic bifurcation of the globe into two zones: the “rich world,” composed of places with per capita GDP figures above $30,000, and the “emerging world,” with figures below $16,000. Each of these groups is in turn split into three subdivisions and mapped accordingly. The middle ground—places with GDP figures between $16,000 and $30,00—is unmarked. An unwary reader might assume that the grey countries unlabeled on the map constitute the missing middle, but that is not the case. In actuality, some of the world’s richest states (Norway, Switzerland, Singapore) and some of the poorest (Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh) fall into this unmarked non-category. Alternatively, one might conclude that the middle position is actually unfilled, yet according to the IMF, twenty-six countries report per capita GDP figures between $16,000 and $30,000. Equally problematic is the map’s pairing of the “rich world” not with the “poor world” but rather with the “emerging world,” which seemingly assumes that the entire globe is automatically heading into prosperity. Yet what exactly, one might ask, are Somalia and DR Congo “emerging” into? These countries, after all, were more highly developed by most conventional measurements thirty years ago than they are today. It is of course possible that they will recover and forge ahead, but continuing chaos seems more likely, at least for the next few decades. Classifying such countries as “emerging” is thus little more than an exercise in unwarranted, if not mindless, optimism.

The Economist’s map manages to portray the poor parts of the world as rapidly developing by taking a single-year snapshot of economic growth and then engaging in a little cartographic sleight-of-hand. By grouping all sub-Saharan African countries together, for example, the region as a whole can be shown to be economically expanding at the rapid clip of 5.8 percent, easily besting the 1.8 percent growth rate of the United States. Africa’s per capita economic expansion, however, is not actually so high, as the region is also experiencing rapid population growth. The figures given, moreover, pertain only to the present year, and are thus not necessarily representative of recent trends, let alone future trajectories; if the Chinese economy were to stumble, many African countries would follow suit. Grouping all sub-Saharan countries together also hides the areas that are not currently growing. And even the growth that is occurring can be deceptive. Zimbabwe notched up a very impressive nine percent expansion rate last year, but that was largely due to its very partial recovery from its much more spectacular collapse during the first decade of the century.

The hazards of predicting future trends from current figures are best exemplified by Yemen. In 2010, Yemen’s economy reportedly grew at the sizzling rate of eight percent. Yet as local papers noted, precious few Yemenis benefitted from such expansion, which was based more on pricy oil exports than on genuine economic development. Considering the fact that Yemen’s oil is running out, as is its water, the country’s economic future looks far from bright—and that is not even taking into account its two major rebellions, its fractious tribal politics, its massive and brutally repressed anti-government demonstrations, and its entrenched networks of radical Islamists. The Economist’s map may classify Yemen as mid-level emerging economy, but I wonder if the magazine’s editors would be willing to invest any of their own money in such an envisaged emergence.

It might seem disingenuous to criticize The Economist for lumping together the economies of separate countries when that is exactly what I did in the Demic Atlas. But if one is going to aggregate data in such a manner, one has the obligation to do so in a consistent and justified manner, which is hardly the case here. Instead, some countries stand alone, others are grouped together in conventional categories, others in unconventional categories, and others are simply ignored. Some of the categories employed, moreover, overlap; Russia, for example, is portrayed as one entity and the rather insignificant Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as another, yet Russia is by far the largest and most important member of the CIS. The cartographer also seems to place Georgia, Turkmenistan and Ukraine within the CIS; in actuality, Georgia does not belong at all, Turkmenistan is an unofficial associate member, and Ukraine is a “de facto participant.”

The map’s depiction of Latin America and the Caribbean is even more problematic. To begin with, it excludes the region’s largest components, Mexico and Brazil, even though these countries are always placed within Latin America. More egregious is the placement of the rump Latin America in the lowest GDP category, with an aggregate GDP figure below $5,000 per person. In actuality, only a few of the demographically smaller countries of the region fall below that threshold, while all of the larger ones rank well above (Argentina $15,900; Chile $15,000; Peru $9,300; Colombia $9,600; Venezuela $12,000). To classify Latin America, with or without Mexico and Brazil, in the world’s lowest economic grouping, alongside sub-Saharan Africa and India, is absurd, reflecting a lack of familiarity with basic patterns of global economic geography.

Similar problems are encountered in the map’s portrayal both Europe and the Middle East & North Africa. The cartographer implicitly divides Europe into four regions, mapping separately the Euro area, Britain, and Central & Eastern Europe, while leaving the rest of the region in the unmarked grey category. But the map gets its own classification system wrong, as it neglects to include Euro-using Slovenia and Slovakia in the “Euro Area.” The “Central and Eastern Europe” bracket, moreover, seems to be a relict of Cold War geography with no contemporary significance, yet it oddly leaves out the Czech Republic. The map follows a more conventional definition of the Middle East & North Africa, although it excludes Turkey and Sudan, countries that are usually appended to the region. Although Turkey is correctly mapped as having a per capita GDP figure in the $10,000-16,000 range, it is unclear whether it is classified on its own or, unconventionally, as part of Central and Eastern Europe (articles on Turkey in The Economist are placed under the “Europe” heading, which seems increasingly inappropriate). The general portrayal of the Middle East & North Africa as an “emerging region,” with a per capita GDP figure below $16,000, is also misleading, as the Persian/Arabian Gulf sub-region boasts some of the highest per capita economic figures in the world.

The mapping of East Asia is also off-base. It is unclear if Mongolia is depicted on its own or as part of the CIS, but in either event the information given is incorrect. Mongolia has never been a member of the CIS, as it was never part of the Soviet Union. Its per capita GDP figure, however, falls well short of the $5,000-10,000 range in which it is mapped. Finally, the portrayal of Taiwan is nothing less than bizarre. At first glance, it looks as if the island is mapped as part of China, a maneuver that might curry favor with Beijing at the cost of ignoring reality. Close inspection, however, shows that the Taiwan is actually mapped as poorer than mainland China, placed in the same category as sub-Saharan Africa and India. In actuality, it belongs in the second highest category, with a per capita GDP figure above $35,000.

I am a fan of The Economist, valuing its depth, global coverage, and witty captions. I even use it as a basic text in my courses on current events. But the magazine’s incessant editorializing, habitual use of crude British slang, and sloppy cartography sometimes make me question that decision.

Global Economic Convergence? The Economist’s Unfortunate GDP Map Read More »

Beyond Economic Development: The So-Called Happy Planet Index

Most measurements of development rely heavily on per capita economic output. While the U.N.’s Human Development Index (HDI) considers education and longevity as well, Gross National Income remains an essential component. The use of such economic data as a proxy for overall development is controversial. Some find it unduly materialistic, focusing on the raw production of goods and services, hence deemphasizing human relations or spiritual values. Environmentalists criticize such indicators for ignoring ecological degradation. High levels of economic production, they argue, are not necessarily sustainable, and may even undermine human civilization by generating a runaway greenhouse effect through excess carbon dioxide emissions.

Several alternatives to economically based measurements of development have thus been proposed. A few years ago, the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan announced that it would seek to maximize “gross national happiness” rather than “gross national product.” Although the concept has proved difficult to put into operation, a number of scholars, developmental agencies, and even national governments have expressed interest. Within the last week, discussions of using a “gross national happiness” indicator have appeared in the Times of India, the Otago Daily Times of New Zealand, and the Inquirer, one of the Philippines’ main newspapers. In Britain the conversation has gone further, with the government announcing that it will “follow through on Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign pledge to gauge national happiness and use the findings to help shape policy.” In Bhutan itself, however, the pursuit of happiness has by no means eclipsed the quest for conventional develoment. The country’s GDP expanded by 9.8 percent in 2007, 2.7 percent in 2008, and 5.7 percent in 2009, its economic growth heavily underwritten by the building of dams in order to export electricity to India. Whether such projects increase the happiness of the Bhutanese people remains open to debate.

The most carefully constructed scheme for measuring ecologically sustainable development along with human contentment is probably the Happy Planet Index (HPI), devised by Britain’s New Economics Foundation. As the official website puts it, “the index combines environmental impact with human well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which, country by country, people live long and happy lives.” Happy Planet figures are statistically derived from measurements of longevity, perceived happiness, and environmental sustainability. The use of the HPI is spreading, as showcased earlier this year by Time Magazine. The author of the Time article concluded that “in terms of the world wants measured, it seems that the … HPI [has] it over the GDP.”

But does the Happy Planet Index provide a reliable guide to either human happiness or environmental health? I do not think so. Although Costa Rica’s top ranking is no surprise, it difficult to credit Jamaica’s third-place showing, Guatemala’s fourth, or Colombia’s sixth, as these countries are afflicted with high levels of violence, class and ethnic conflict, and social disruption. In terms of murder rates, they rank third, fourth, and seventh respectively. The index, moreover, implicitly contends that such factors as freedom and gender equity are little account in determining human wellbeing, with such an authoritarian and male-dominated country as Saudi Arabia receiving an extremely high ranking. Environmentally as well, Saudi Arabia’s elevated standing makes no sense, nor do those of a number of other countries, including Indonesia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Indonesia, after all, could be the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide if deforestation and the burning of peat-lands are taken into account.

The more I contemplate the Happy Planet Index, the more bizarre it seems. Could the authors of the index really believe that Pakistan is much better off, socially and environmentally, than Norway, or that Yemen outranks the Finland? Do they really believe that the earth would be a happier planet if all countries were to follow the developmental pathways of Egypt, Pakistan, and the Philippines, rather than those of Canada, New Zealand, and Denmark? Pakistan, already at the edge of social and political chaos, suffers extreme deforestation and soil salinization, yet its population of 170 million is expected to reach almost 300 million by 2050. Yemen is on the verge or running out of water, yet its average woman can be expected to bear roughly five children, an utterly unsustainable level of fertility. But we are expected to believe that both environmentally and socially, Pakistan and Yemen solidly outrank Iceland and Norway? The mind boggles.

The infelicities of the Happy Planet Index stem in part from its component indicators, as subsequent Geocurrents posts will explore. But I suspect they also derive from a desire to castigate wealthy countries, particularly the United States. The U.S. ranks high in conventional measures of development, especially those that stress per capita GDP. But as the U.S. also has extremely high per capita carbon dioxide output, it is widely seen as undermining overall planetary sustainability. The HPI thus appeals to many by putting the United States in a low position.

But one must wonder whether the scholars at the New Economics Foundation actually take their own findings seriously. Do they really view Saudi Arabia as a social and environmental model, ranking thirteenth in the world? If so, the real problem is one of gross geographical ignorance.

Beyond Economic Development: The So-Called Happy Planet Index Read More »