Monday, March 20, 2017

The End For Mercator?

Boston public schools are ditching the familiar world map we all grew up with based on the Mercator projection, in favor of the Gall-Peters projection. The advantage of the latter projection is that it depicts continents with their proper land areas.

The Mercator has been roundly criticized for distorting land areas, making countries in the Northern Hemisphere appear larger than those in the Southern Hemisphere, thus giving the mistaken impression that they are somehow grander and more important.

But, all the political furor notwithstanding, that was not Mercator's intention. Mercator was creating an aid for navigation, and it worked for that purpose for hundreds of years, in fact, it revolutionized navigation in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. He didn't put Europe in the center of the map as a political statement; he did it because the mariners most likely to use his map at the time were departing from and returning to that region.

In short, Mercator has been getting a bad rap.

I'm not saying that Mercator's map deserves it's position as the default depiction of the world, and I don't think Mercator, a brilliant cartographer, would have approved that application. What I am saying is that schools are taking altogether the wrong approach, and very much sending the wrong message.

Instead of arguing over which map is "fairer," they should recognize that any flat map of a spherical Earth is going to be distorted in some way. It's the nature of projection. Instead of teaching the lesson that one world map is better than another, they should be teaching the truth about maps: that they are created for specific purposes, and some maps are better suited to some purposes than are other maps.

The map that's best suited to teaching the proper size and distance relationships of the world's continents is a globe! But because a globe of usable size can't be carried about in the glove compartment, or pasted on a wall, cartographers have come up with different depictions to suit different purposes.

A lesson is geography should be a lesson about how geography is done. It should emphasize that the only way to get a true picture of the Earth is to look at something that's the same shape as the Earth. Maps are useful, but they are all fictions in one way or another.

To present the idea that Gall-Peters is somehow more "right" than Mercator is to propagate a lie in public schools. I hope that we are trying to get away from that.

And on that note, please stop teaching children that Columbus proved that the world is a sphere. Somebody made that up.

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