Lost to progress

I ran across an interesting tidbit about modern cartography while reading a New Yorker article profiling Paul Krugman today (emphasis mine):

Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it. His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography. Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.

It makes me wonder how this phenomena shows up in other disciplines like education, public policy, and healthcare. If the new standard for accuracy includes an idealogical or methodological bias it could forever exclude the re-inclusion of previously held beliefs. As our world becomes more standardized, quantifiable, and testable it will be important to look back to our archives to see what didn’t fit in so nicely and why.