Bias in world maps: what does the world look like?


The card you know is probably wrong.

In fact, every map you know is probably wrong in one way or another – especially as 75% of the world’s territories face ongoing international disputes over their borders, according to The Book of World Facts.

You may never hear about some of these disputes, like how Canada and United States have never settled maritime borders in the Northwest Passage. But you will probably never be able to avoid hearing about other disputes, like the conflict between Israel and Palestine that escalated into war last month.

In the event of a dispute, the cards are not neutral. This is exactly why India Twitter is suing for treason. Twitter showed a map of India with the disputed region of Kashmir as a separate country and India is not happy, according to The Guardian.

Lines on a map often take political positions and have social implications both for those who live there and for those who view the map.

While maps are undeniably useful for showing the world around us, they are undeniably biased because cartography is as “subjective as any other artistic endeavor”. writes the art historian Nicole De Armandi. Maps can dimension land masses inaccurately, orient hemispheres arbitrarily, or show boundaries statically. It impacts our understanding of the importance, authority and stability of the places around us.

“Despite their seemingly mundane nature, maps are controversial, often contested documents that affect daily life in tangible ways,” writes anthropology professor Sarah Kurnick in her article. recent paper on the Mayan maps published in the journal Mayan anthropological archeology.

With such important implications, we must consider: What do our maps show us about the world around us? Do we agree with what they show?

The community card you see

In the United States, the most common and popular map for decorating the walls of classrooms is the Mercator projection map, by National Geographic. Developped by Gerard Mercator in 1569, the map revolutionized cartography with a simple idea: wrap a piece of paper around a globe, imagine the land masses projected on the paper and then draw them, Vox Explain.

Mercator’s chart showed lines of longitude and latitude at 90-degree angles – the first to do so – and helped sailors improve navigation. The same method used by Mercator continues today and even underpins Google maps, CNN reported.

And the map looks quite familiar:

However, just because the Mercator map is popular doesn’t mean that it is completely accurate.

“People tend to take maps at face value,” Matthew Edney, professor and researcher in cartographic history at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained to Deseret News.

Mercator’s map distorts the actual size of land masses, inflating those near the North and South Poles, reports National Geographic. On the Mercator map, Greenland and South America appear roughly the same size, but South America is actually eight times bigger. Likewise, North America appears much larger than Africa while the reverse is true. Africa is bigger than the United States, Canada and China put together.

False claims like these have wider and disturbing implications. The way places are presented on a map affects our perception of those places themselves, reports The Borgen Project. This phenomenon is known as “card bias. “

What is “map bias” and why is it important?

Maps are inherently error-prone as they take up three-dimensional space and present it in two dimensions. Mapping forces cartographers to decide how to present the world, which leads to biased maps. For example, if a cartographer finds a larger country, he can place it in the center or draw it larger.

In his research with the History of the mapping project, Edney, professor of cartographic history, declared to have learned “to wonder why the maps (were) made and what cultural, social and instrumental value they have”.

Sometimes the biases in the maps are easy to recognize, like this map of the United States:

This Alaskan perspective of the United States is of little use in navigating the American continent. However, the map is incredibly useful for understanding two common biases in maps: size and centrality.

We intuitively relate size and meaning. We psychologically prefer larger stimuli and, to larger stimuli, we assign greater importance. Alaska looks much larger than the rest of the United States when drawn taller. These size distortions – if left unchecked – can affect our perception of places, says CNN.

Likewise, we intuitively relate centrality and importance, says Global citizen. In the previous map, Alaska is literally the center of the universe. Distortions of centrality occur more than we think. Some American maps even divide Asia in half for put the United States at the center, sparking a confused discussion about Quora.

By distorting size and centrality, maps have the “potential to assert positions of power, to trace certain global networks and to establish hierarchical relationships between nations and continents,” writes the art historian Nicole De Armendi in her essay “Cards as political agents. “

“The way you map the world is based on perspectives,” Edney said. “But there are other ways of thinking and showing what the world is.”

Redesigned Cards

Recent maps have attempted to correct misrepresentations of the Mercator map. A project, the Gall-Peters Projection Map or Peters Projection Map, comes from the German historian Arno peters who, in 1974, republished the work of James gall, a 19th century Scottish cartographer. This map tries to show land masses in actual relative size, CNN says:

This map uses a method that also represents the area of ​​land masses. However, while correcting for biased sizes, the shape continents are deformed.

The Mercator map and the Peters map provide two useful visualizations of the world. But really, the cards don’t have to look like this.

“It comes down to the fact that there are different types of maps and they show the world differently,” Edney said.

What if, arbitrarily, the map centered on New Zealand? This world map might look like this:

If we used this New Zealand-centric map, would we still see the eastern and western hemispheres the same? After all, on this map, East is West and West is East.

Or what would the world be like if the fish drew the map? For a fish – for whom water is central – the world might look like this:

Most likely, neither will replace the Mercator card anytime soon. Yet all of these maps have one thing in common: they show the world without borders.

Do we visualize the world without borders? Probably not.

Focusing on the precise presentation of the physical world, these maps all distort the social and political world. The maps provide more than a visualization of land masses; they also present a segmentation of countries.

Maps draw borders

The cards are not neutral; they are territorial, report NPR. Maps draw borders to divide the land into sovereignties. During the Berlin Conference of 1884, an infamous example of the drawing of borders, European colonialists divided Africa into countries without the contribution of any African.

Sometimes the boundaries drawn on a map mean little or nothing to the people on the ground. In uninhabited or sparsely populated areas, borders have less influence on a daily basis. Like the Belgian farmer who moved the border between Belgium and France when he got angry with the stone marker, as reported The New York Times.

Other times, the boundaries drawn on a map can mean everything to the people on the ground, especially when that boundary is a contested line. As the long distance couple separated by 12 miles and the China-Hong Kong border, reported by CNN.

There are more contested borders than we tend to think and our maps tend to show. Of the 254 territories around the world, 190 currently have some form of territorial dispute, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The maps show “how we use space and organize space; how we welcome other people in space – or do not welcome other people, ”says Edney.

And failing to accommodate others can become messy and violent, even deadly. The most recent war between Israel and Palestine stems from an underlying decades-long conflict over borders. While the conflict has accumulated additional complicated facets, Israel and Palestine still bitterly argue over the city of Jerusalem and which side of the border it belongs to.

The international community’s preferred solution for Israel and Palestine involves the creation of two separate states, reports Deseret News. However, the creation of these states requires an agreement on borders. So far, this has not happened.

Likewise, Ukraine has made headlines at recent international summits as a point of contention between Russia, the United States and other Western countries, reports the Deseret News. The reason? Disputes over the Crimean Peninsula where Russia and Ukraine claim land and refuse to agree on a border.

So how do you draw a map of this region?

“Here’s the basic thing: Cards are made by people. Cards are not something that just happens, ”said Edney. “People make choices about what to put on the cards.” Choosing to draw or not to draw a border has implications that go unnoticed when maps are viewed as something that, as Edney said, “just happens”.

While maps are useful for showing the world around us, they are undeniably biased. Recognizing these biases is the first step in understanding how maps affect our perception of the world.

The next step is to ask questions. “When you’re looking at a map, you have to ask yourself questions about how something is represented,” Edney explained. “What are you mapping?” Why are you mapping this? “

“Cards are made for a purpose,” Edney said. “And you have to understand the purpose of a map because those goals shape the way maps are made – and they should shape the way you read it.”

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