Hoaxes & Rumors

Have We Been Looking at the Wrong Map for 500 Years?

Have We Been Looking at the Wrong Map for 500 Years?
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Have we been looking at the wrong map for the past 500 years? This question was raised in an episode of The West Wing which aired in February of 2001.

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The Map Shown in the Episode is Real, but it is not Preferred by Cartographers or Geographers.

A video circulating in January 2014 showed a segment from a 2001 episode of The West Wing in which two characters are told that the map we have all known for the past 500 years is wrong. It is further claimed that, although the television show is fictional, the map is not.

The West Wing episode, which originally aired on the 18th of February in 2001, features a discussion of a map projection called the Peters Projection, which is also known as the Gall-Peters Projection in contrast to the more familiar world map known as the Mercator projection.

West Wing Video

Below is a 4 minute video of the West Wing segment. The episode was entitled “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”, and was the 16th episode in the 2nd season of the show.

Select quotes from the clip above:

  • “The Mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries, and created an ethnic bias against the Third World.”
  • “It distorts the relative size of nations and continents”
  • “Look at Greenland… now look at Africa… The two land masses appear to be roughly the same size… Would it blow your mind if I told you that Africa, in reality, is 14 times larger?”
  • “Here we have Europe drawn considerably larger than South America, when at 16.9 million square miles, South America is almost double the size of Europe’s 3.8 million.”
  • “Alaska appears three times as large as Mexico, when Mexico is larger by .1 million square miles.”
  • “Germany appears in the middle of the map when it’s in the Northern most corner of the earth.”
  • “When Third World countries are misrepresented, they’re likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization – when the top of the map is given to the Northern Hemisphere, and the bottom is given to the Southern – then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.”

The presentation in the episode above makes assertions that defenders of the Peters projection, or Gall-Peters projection, have made for years, including a distortion of the size of continents in the Northern Hemisphere, and the true size difference between Greenland and Africa.

Gall-Peters map projection

Peters projection (AKA Gall-Peters projection)

According to a December 2013 article from Business Insider which compares the advantages and disadvantages of various map projections, the Mercator projection has been widely used since 1569 when it was developed by a Flemish mapmaker named Gerardus Mercator. The broad Mercator projection usage since the mid 16th century is the basis for the claim that the world has been looking at the wrong map for nearly 500 years.

Why is the Mercator Map More Popular?

Professional geographer Matt T. Rosenberg points out that the Mercator map “has always been a poor projection for a world map yet due to its rectangular grid and shape, geographically illiterate publishers found it useful for wall maps, atlas maps, and maps in books and newspapers published by non-geographers.” The reason for its popularity, however, dates back to its creation in 1569 as a tool for navigation.

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Rosenberg further writes, “The Mercator map was designed as an aid to navigators since straight lines on the Mercator projection are loxodromes or rhumb lines — representing lines of constant compass bearing — perfect for “true” direction.”

In recent years, however rectangular coordinate maps such as these have fallen into disuse. Both the Mercator and Peters maps have been replaced by more globe-like maps such as the Robinson projection or the Winkel tripel projection (seen below). Other projections such as Goode’s homosline include multiple interruptions in the oceans to present more accurate land masses.

Winkel tripel map projection

Winkel tripel projection

Goode's homosline map projection

Goode’s homosline, with multiple oceanic interruptions.

Developed as alternatives to the popular Mercator map, the Robinson projection,  the Winkel tripel projection, and Goode’s homosline all minimize distortion better than their rectangular counterparts. However, it should be noted that all map projections have arguable pros and cons.

Bottom Line

While The West Wing episode pointed out flaws in the Mercator projection in comparison to the Peters projection, it did not mention that such rectangular world maps are not considered as accurate as other types of maps. Thus, the Mercator projection versus the Peters projection argument has become somewhat of a moot point, as they have both been replaced by more widely-accepted maps.

Updated January 17, 2015
Originally published January 2014

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