THIS week’s title is an old expression that tells us that our descriptions of the world are not the same as the world itself. In other words, reality is a lot more complex and rich with possibilities than our understanding of it.

The implications of this simple idea are far reaching and profound. When we confuse our map (our description of our world) for the territory (i.e. we believe that our ideas about the world equal the world itself) we restrict our choices to actions defined in our maps and ignore choices that could be more effective. This has also been described as ‘eating the menu’ as the reader mistakes the menu for the food itself.

Psychopaths may come to the view that perceptions are more important than reality, or at least try to convince ‘normal’ people of that.

Ron Suskind, former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, wrote:
“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend - but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

This idea assumes that the real world can be safely ignored while we get on with managing perceptions about it. The trouble is that reality is now impinging on our consciousness as real problems start to emerge that we ignore at our peril (e.g. climate change, drought, fuel and food availability, US financial collapse etc).

The US pathocracy is able to ignore anything, it can continue to act as though it’s map of the world is reality no matter what the evidence to the contrary…climate change doesn’t exist, the situation in Iraq is improving, the world must be saved from nuclear weapons by the US using them on Iran, US is the home of real democracy and so on.
When normal people are confronted with other people who state things as fact that are the opposite of what we know, then we start to look for proofs of their claims, no matter how crazed. Hence statements like ‘Iraq is a democracy’ and ‘Industrial forestry is good for the climate’ confuse us and tend to lead many people to imagine that the truth must lie somewhere between what they know to be true (burning millions of tonnes of bush materials produces carbon dioxide and pollutants) and what the other party is claiming (forestry burns are somehow good).

Politicians are exceptionally vulnerable to these fallacies because they are always seeking to compromise so that they upset the smallest number of people and hopefully retain solid majority support. When they compromise between one party telling the truth and someone who lies, then they end up supporting a false position which can threaten the very popularity they seek.

Check for the story of a Tasmanian dying from forestry burn pollutants – the answers this man gets from our politicians basically say ‘sorry that you’re dying but what can we do? Forestry has to burn off and we can’t tell their smoke from other smoke like backyard bonfires so…
It’s a pathetic story of the human condition and our general inability to transcend our own limitations. We’ve seen this particular pattern at work with the world’s greenest pulp mill, climate change and the war on terror.

What’s behind the news

The general patterns that are ‘behind’ the news include dysfunctional government, pathocracies, corruption, linear thinking, failure to recognise error and rigidified methods that leave us exposed to harm.

Linear thinking

Linear thinking is, in part, driven by a belief that the future can be predicted on the basis of the past. Economics consultant Jonathon Stanford used Gunns/Poyry’s figures for his so-called ‘analysis’ in the mill IIS and produced lots of straight line graphs that ‘showed’ future income, profits and taxes from the project – proof positive of the mill’s future benefits. These straight line graphs were the product of a computer program that took the data entered and multiplied it by a bunch of factors to ‘calculate’ what would happen in the future.

What a fantasy!

No matter where we look in our world, we rarely see straight line relationships - except between 2 points. A glance at graphs for oil prices, carbon dioxide in the air, population or global temperatures over time should soon convince us that these computer outputs are extremely unlikely. Apparently not in the consultant’s view – he produced what Gunns/Poyry wanted by relying on their figures and by failing to exercise due diligence in his modelling.

There is simply no way that he could forecast the mill’s income over 20 years without exploring the full range of possible outputs thereby producing an envelope of possibility. Any prudent modeller would model all of the likely variables and their possible range of variation before risking any prediction, solving the model for high and low values of each variable to produce a possible range.

Fuel is one obvious variable since it affects costs of pulp production, water availability is another that affects regrowth rates and the likely price paid for water, chemicals, pulp prices and availability are others that affect income. When I asked John Gay about the mill’s sensitivity to these variables, he was only concerned about the price of pulp – the other variables didn’t bother him.

By delivering exactly what Gunns wanted Mr Stanford exposed his clients to any harm that might come from treating the real world as if it were the same as the outputs from his limited computer program.

Garbage in – garbage out.

Thus do we bring ourselves down when we believe that the map is the territory.

Why the map isn’t the territory

There are various reasons why we humans cannot accurately map reality in our minds.


Our senses are limited. We can only see a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, only hear a narrow range of sounds and only sense feelings according to the part of the body that is affected. Similarly we cannot see what is happening over the horizon, hear what is outside our hearing and so on.

Everything else is left out.

Our models of the world are therefore limited by our ability to experience sensations.


Most of us can only concentrate on a few things at a time. If we try to listen to 3 conversations at once, or hum a tune while we’re speaking, we get all mixed up. The real world presents us with an astonishing array of data at any given moment and our sensory and cultural preferences then dictate which data we actually notice.
We leave everything else out.


Both alone, and in groups, we tend to hold beliefs about our world that focus our minds on particular issues while ignoring everything else. Governments like to attend to economic data while ignoring other issues – like the environment, health or happiness. In this way, when an environmental issue creates economic problems we often cannot recognise the problem for what it is because our maps don’t include how the environment works.

These3 constraints on our knowledge are bad enough, but even when we’ve got the relevant data our brains and language often distort, delete or generalise our descriptions to the extent of making them almost useless.


Statement - 9/11 was a terrorist act. Comment: we don’t know this, it is speculation. There is no proof of why the pilots crashed into those buildings, there may have been a particular motive such as revenge that it may have served us to understand. We’ve generalised the term ‘terrorism’ and ignored any clues or conditions that may have stimulated any particular event. Hence if the parties involved had a legitimate grievance we wouldn’t know it. By generalising the situation we risk blinding ourselves to real opportunities to learn and correct our problems, as well as risking expanding the problem to include populations that were not previously our enemies.

Statement – this is the greenest pulp mill in the world. Comment: There is no mill therefore it cannot qualify for that description until it is built. The assertion that it is environmentally friendly confuses the future with the present. It may be designed to be clean but it can only become so with appropriate regulation and effective management by the operators.

Statement – we need an emissions trading scheme to deal with climate change1. Comment: a classic case of mistaking the map for the territory. By taking this path, politicians show that their most important priority is protecting the economy and, while this may be a worthy aim, it cannot prevent the Greenland ice cap sliding into the sea and raising sea levels by 7 metres, nor will it affect drought, losses of food producing land nor transport people to their places of work.

Trading schemes may affect market behaviour, but it’s going to take a very long time for market behaviour to reverse climate damage, if it ever can. As a consequence governments need to be focussing on how to protect people from the potential disasters, rather than trying to influence future abstractions like ‘market forces’.

It behoves us to be extremely careful about such matters as errors can literally kill us, particularly when whole governments confuse their limited models with the real world.

Watch this space.

Mike Bolan
Mike  is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.


Mike Bolan

It behoves us to be extremely careful about such matters as errors can literally kill us, particularly when whole governments confuse their limited models with the real world.