Cartography and Social Justice to Blow Your Mind!

There are some things that we take for granted as settled truth. I've always assumed that a map of the world is a fairly accurate representation of our planet, for instance, but apparently and under certain conditions, the kind of map we're most familiar with isn't even in the ballpark. Hello again, Plato's allegory of the cave!

This all started last night, when I was looking at a map of the world like the one on the side, and it struck me that Greenland is slightly larger than Africa. 'Wow,' I thought, 'I didn't know that.' Out of curiosity, I started to look at pictures of the globe instead of a map (or you could simply use Google Earth) and I saw something that floored me: the sizes of these two land masses are nowhere close to each other. In fact, as it turns out, Africa is actually 14 times larger than Greenland! That's right, 14 times!

So why do they look so similar in size? Well, we live on a spherical, three-dimensional planet, and maps only come in two dimensions, so any attempt to represent a sphere as a plane, even with the most advanced of mathematics, is going to produce distortions, which is apparently why cartographers refer to world maps as projections (shadows in a cave representing some higher reality, anyone?!?).

Since distortions are inevitable, trying to produce an accurate representation of one variable will produce distortions in another. And the Mercator projection we're all so familiar with (like the picture on top), was invented in 1,569 as a navigational map, which is fine if you want to go sailing, but not so great if you're thinking about how many soldiers you are going to need when you decide to attack your neighbors two doors down, or how to distribute food to a starving population. With the Mercator projection, the closer you get to the poles, the larger that countries start to look, to the point that Greenland looks larger than a place that's actually 14 times larger than it!

Gall-Peters Projection
So, different projections help you visualize different things that you might be interested in. If you're looking for an area-accurate projection, there are a few that can do this, but the one that struck me the most is the Gall-Peters projection to the side. Doesn't it look weird and all stretched out? It may 'look wrong,' but it's actually closer to reality (area-wise) than the Mercator projection we're so accustomed to.

Some of the sensationalistic claims made about maps in the following video animation are... well, sensationalistic (it's not that maps 'lie'; rather, you need to understand what a map is: a two-dimensional representation, i.e. an attempt at an approximation, of a three-dimensional reality, that seeks to capture and display some aspect of the world, but which inevitably ends up distorting other aspects), but the comparison of various bodies relative to each other is pretty eye-opening:



But it's not just a question of mathematical accuracy. Countless lives depend on this! For various psychological reasons, especially cognitive biases, we seem to be wired to believe that bigger is more important, that top matters more than bottom, etc. (I know, total sexual innuendo there), and so when we are thinking of the world's problems, our attention automatically tends to focus on the northern hemisphere first, which leans substantially toward the wealthier end of the economic spectrum, and which, in the Mercator projection looks substantially larger than it actually is, so boom! Double whammy! And so countries in the southern hemisphere, which are usually the ones in greatest need of help, look smaller than they really are, and are the ones that end up getting neglected.

And apparently there are movements out there whose goal it is to raise awareness and standardize a more socially conscious world map that will help reverse this social injustice. Since the question of absolute accuracy is ruled out mathematically, we get to determine what other criteria it might make sense to use. One suggestion is using the Gall-Peters projection above, to produce a more realistic representation of the size of countries relative to others; others have proposed turning the map upside down to reverse the top-bottom bias; etc.

I'm not an expert on the subject, just having become aware of it, so I won't presume to have any particular recommendation, but I do tend to think that this is a conversation worth having. So, if this is news to you, share this interesting idea with your friends.

And if you're curious about this topic, check out the Wikipedia entry on map projections or the Cartography and Geographic Information Society.
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