The intersection between ideology and science is a serious cause for concern in today’s society. Few issues better exemplify this than the common myth that the Mercator Projection, a world map designed to aid navigators in pursuing straight-line paths across the ocean, is racist. Discrediting this claim requires only minimal knowledge of cartography. The hit TV show The West Wing is partially responsible for reviving this debate. In the show, a group of geographers known as the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality denounce the Mercator Projection for fostering “European imperialist attitudes” because the landmasses of First World nations are overemphasized compared with those of Third World nations, which creates a bias in favour of Europeans and North Americans. They first suggest replacing the Mercator with the Gall-Peters Projection, before finally proposing that the world atlas should be viewed upside down so as to reverse the power dynamic between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Many US schools have opted for the Gall-Peters atlas for these reasons. But the Mercator Projection was never tied to racial supremacy in the first place.
Though the bulk of his fame stems from his career in cartography, Gerardus Mercator was a Renaissance man metaphorically as well as literally, having studied theology, physics, mathematics and Latin. Conceived in 1569, Mercator’s atlas was primarily used as a navigational tool for sailors. In Mercator’s design, the distance between lines of latitude is smallest at the equator and largest at the poles. This makes sense given that most maritime sea travel occurs closer to the equator than to the geographical extremes of Greenland and Antarctica. The spacing between the lines of latitude helped sailors navigate routes that appeared to be straight lines on paper. The mathematical symmetry of the Mercator Projection explains the size disparities between Greenland and Africa—the most common complaint among naysayers.
Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Gerardus Mercator had a racist vision when he mapped out Greenland and Africa. First, Greenland is not a country that harbours many Europeans, nor a hub of western civilization. If Mercator’s vision was to glorify the west, why not inflate the entire continent of Europe as opposed to just the Scandinavian countries?
The map’s rationale for Greenland’s size derives from mathematics. The lines of latitude increase in distance from each other as the viewer’s line of vision approaches the poles. This explains why Greenland and Antarctica appear significantly larger than the equatorial landmasses. Such issues are common when designing cylindrical maps and do not detract from the Mercator Projection’s usefulness as a navigational tool.
The Gall-Peters Projection is just as inaccurate as the Mercator. But, unlike the Mercator, it has no navigational use whatsoever.
The Gall-Peters map was created not to accurately describe world geography but to increase ideological fairness. Arno Peters believed that size on a map “is the first sign of the importance of a country … the base of my world history is the fairness to all peoples.” Peters never explained the reasoning behind this theory. Peters also never explained why creating equally projected geographic landmasses contributes to scientific inquiry, the goal of which is not fairness, but unbiased observation. The Gall-Peters Projection serves no practical purpose and does not accurately reflect objective reality.
So, should maps be altered to suit the viewer? Yes and no.
In 1979, Stuart McArthur put together an atlas in which north and south were inverted. This map, later dubbed the McArthur Universal Corrective Map, proves that our assumptions about north and south are dependent on our location. It makes sense for those in the southern hemisphere to think of the world as upside down with respect to the rest of us.
No projection is perfect. If you are striving for geographical accuracy, then it is best to use a globe. Globes preserve the earth’s circumference and display landmasses in their proper sizes, shapes and locations.
Science aims to discover truth and apply the knowledge for the good of humanity. Cartography is not exempt from this and neither truth nor usefulness is obtained by condemning the Mercator Projection as racist.