Saturday, November 24, 2012

sandy island (cognitive outsourcing revisited)

You may be familiar with the story of The Mountains of Kong.

They were a non-existent mountain range charted on most English maps of Africa from 1798 through the late 1880s, following their 'discovery' by an English cartographer.

Some cartographers stopped including the mountains on maps after some French explorers noticed their 'disappearance' in expedition to chart the Niger River but the mysterious mountains continued to appear on maps until late in that century and even in the 20th century, when they appeared in a Goode's World Atlas in 1995.

Mark Earls uses the story as an example in his book 'I'll Have what she's Having' to describe the way in which we rely on and use the brains of others in our decision making, a kind of cognitive outsourcing.

We can all very well have a chuckle at 19th Century cartographers but I was delighted to see that a modern day version of The Mountains of Kong story has emerged this week, and reveals that even the all seeing Google doesn't think as much as we possibly think it thinks..

The Independent reports that a team of Australian scientists, led by Maria Seton, a geologist from the University of Sydney, found themselves sailing straight through what appeared on charts as a large island during a research trip in the South Pacific.

'Sandy Island – according to Google Earth, world maps, marine charts and scientific publications – lies in the Coral Sea, between northern Australia and the French territory of New Caledonia. Except that it doesn’t, as the scientists discovered – or undiscovered – during their recent 25-day voyage. Where the island was marked on maps they found only deep blue ocean – very deep, as it turned out.'

'We sailed over it,' Dr Seton told ABC radio yesterday. 'We’re actually not sure [how it got on the maps]. It must just be that there was some error that was created in one of the coastline data studies, and it’s just propagated through the scientific literature.'

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