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News Science

Boston Public Schools Map Switch Aims To Amend 500 Years of Distortion (theguardian.com) 319

Students attending Boston public schools are now getting a more accurate depiction of the world after the school district rolled out a new standard map of the world that show North America and Europe much smaller than Africa and South America. From a report on The Guardian: In an age of "fake news" and "alternative facts", city authorities are confident their new map offers something closer to the geographical truth than that of traditional school maps, and hope it can serve an example to schools across the nation and even the world. For almost 500 years, the Mercator projection has been the norm for maps of the world, ubiquitous in atlases, pinned on peeling school walls. Gerardus Mercator, a renowned Flemish cartographer, devised his map in 1569, principally to aid navigation along colonial trade routes by drawing straight lines across the oceans. An exaggeration of the whole northern hemisphere, his depiction made North America and Europe bigger than South America and Africa. He also placed western Europe in the middle of his map. Mercator's distortions affect continents as well as nations. For example, South America is made to look about the same size as Europe, when in fact it is almost twice as large, and Greenland looks roughly the size of Africa when it is actually about 14 times smaller.

Boston Public Schools Map Switch Aims To Amend 500 Years of Distortion

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  • To be fair, Mercator's projection - whether it had any kind of agenda in favor of minimizing Africa or not - ran up against some serious geography and geometry problems. Africa is the largest continent that crosses the equator, and a large amount of its land mass is relatively close to the equator. By comparison, North America does not traverse the equator at all, nor does Europe, Asia, or Australia. As it was pointed out in the summary, Greenland appears near the size of Africa in this projection but that reflects the projection itself more than anything.

    As we were all (hopefully) taught in school, any map projection will be a compromise. After all, we're trying to take the surface of a round object and display it on a flat surface.
    • Projections matter (Score:5, Informative)

      by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @01:02PM (#54074729) Homepage

      I agree; Mercator's projection is not deliberately designed to minimize Africa. That is incidental. But, nevertheless, it is a side effect. As a kid, I was always puzzled as to why Australia is a continent, but Greenland not, when on the map Greenland is clearly larger.

      I'm a fan of the Lambert cylindrical equal-area projection [wikipedia.org], which seems to be geometrically very clear and straightforward, although it has a odd (pi to 1) aspect ratio.

      And, of course, the obligatory xkcd [xkcd.com].

      • by PMuse ( 320639 )

        I'm a fan of the Lambert cylindrical equal-area projection [wikipedia.org], which seems to be geometrically very clear and straightforward . . .

        Demanding both that E-W be horizontal and N-S be vertical buys us into some pretty severe distortion towards the poles (at ~50+ degrees lattitude), where Earth does have some populated land masses. I prefer to sacrifice N-S verticality, along with the unhelpful habit of forcing the world to be rectangular, and go with:
        Eckert IV [wikipedia.org],
        Robinson [wikipedia.org], or even
        Winkel Tripel [wikipedia.org].

      • by skids ( 119237 )

        I have to admit, even though I've seen that projection before, it still always surprises me Australia is as big as it is.

    • by houghi ( 78078 )

      Mercator Projection was used to find direction (not distance) at sea.
      From Wikipedia "It became the standard map projection for nautical purposes because of its ability to represent lines of constant course, known as rhumb lines or loxodromes, as straight segments that conserve the angles with the meridians."

      • The trouble isn't with the Mercator projection, it does what it was designed to do well enough; but the somewhat baffling decision to make a map whose main virtues are for marine navigation the quasi-default for classroom applications mostly focused on what happens on land.

        I've never heard a particularly cogent justification for that one.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by epyT-R ( 613989 )

      This article tries to justify imposing socialist political propaganda as a 'new' lesson in geography. As you said, many of us were taught about the distortions of Mercator (and possibly others) back when we were children too, without the political indoctrination. The implied message is that it is somehow racist/'imperialist' which is insane. If this was strictly about more accurate geography and cartography, there'd be no need to talk about politics or sociology.

      The fact they use a TV show, itself a piece

    • I mostly use maps to see shapes and calculate distances. This one fails at both.

  • oblig xkcd (Score:5, Informative)

    by irussel ( 78667 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @12:45PM (#54074499)
  • by SensitiveMale ( 155605 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @12:47PM (#54074517)

    to lay the reasoning on "fake news" sounds stupid.

  • Distortion is fact. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dishevel ( 1105119 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @12:49PM (#54074551)
    You must have some type of distortion when projecting a map of a globe on a flat plane.
    The school has just decided that it wants one type of distortion instead of another.
    • The school has just decided that it wants one type of distortion instead of another.

      But one with far less distortion than Mercator - which is the point.

  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @12:50PM (#54074565)

    No flat map of the world is more or less accurate than any other. All of them are wrong. And the north hemisphere is distorted in exactly the same way that the south hemisphere is.

    If you're attending a half-decent school, notice the globe, and do use it.

    • by b0bby ( 201198 )

      No flat map of the world is more or less accurate than any other.

      That's not strictly true; they are just more or less accurate in different ways. For example the Peters projection is, as the article states, accurate in terms of area. I think that they would have been better off using something like the Winkel tripel, which tries to strike a balance between the area, direction, and distance distortions.

      • Well, we were taught half a dozen projections when I was in the elementary school and then we used the globe. Regarding paper maps, we mostly worked with regional ones. So I don't feel particularly harmed, but we were definitely taught the drawbacks.
      • I prefer Eckert IV [wikipedia.org] which is an equal-area projection like Peters but with less of the coastline distortion. The trade-off is the border is not quite a rectangle, though it's less circular than Winkel (which wastes a lot of map real estate in the corners). Eckert is what National Geographic use on many of their wall maps. Virtually any of these options is preferable to Mercator though.
    • No flat map of the world is more or less accurate than any other.

      No flat map of the world is perfectly accurate. But some are more accurate than others.

      All of them are wrong.

      Just because all are wrong doesn't mean that some aren't more wrong than others. There's a great Isaac Asimov essay on that subject: http://chem.tufts.edu/answersi... [tufts.edu]

      And the north hemisphere is distorted in exactly the same way that the south hemisphere is.

      Even there, you're mostly wrong. Grab your dictionary and take a look at the Mercator maps (here [mapsofworld.com], for example, or here): they very rarely have the equator in the middle. The reason they don't is that if the map goes all the way north to show Alaska and Sca

      • No flat map of the world is perfectly accurate. But some are more accurate than others.

        They're all a compromise. The best you can say about any of them is that it's more accurate in an aspect you just happen to care about.

        they very rarely have the equator in the middle.

        That's not the projection's fault, though. That's the mapmaker's flawed decision. My Mercator map in my school atlas was symmetrical.

  • In the new map proportions seem to be off again: Asia should be roughly 50% larger than Africa, it certainly is not. I guess everyone has his/her own alternative facts.
  • So what about Asia? Biggest of them all? Is that also smaller on this new, slightly PC-ish projection?

    • by Shimbo ( 100005 )

      So what about Asia? Biggest of them all? Is that also smaller on this new, slightly PC-ish projection?

      The Peters projection should preserve area, so they should all be correct. The problem is that it has other distortions, which is why it's not a huge favourite with cartographers. Unfortunately, given a choice between Mercator and Peters, folks went for the slightly PC Peters.

      As for it being new, it may be new in American schools but the argument has been rumbling for thirty years or more.

  • how about a plain old globe !?
  • Oh please (Score:2, Funny)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 )

    It's so obvious that they're just projecting.

  • Fake news? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by the_skywise ( 189793 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @12:57PM (#54074655)

    This is the problem with the whole definition -

    The Mercator projection is ACCURATE for it's data view (to better display trade routes).

    So long as the information itself isn't false it's just a different view facet of the data set.

    My school system didn't use the Mercator maps but they weren't "accurate" either because they balanced out all the land masses so they were all VISIBLE so the various geographies and cities could be pointed out during lectures.

    • The Mercator projection is ACCURATE for it's data view (to better display trade routes).

      Except no one GAF about trade routes aside from shipping companies. As .000000001% of school kids will work in that industry, the Mercator map is a shitty map for them.

  • So let me get this straight, Africa and South America have that much more land and natural resources than the first world countries - and still can't do nearly as well in terms of development and wealth? That would tend to make one even more dismissive of cultures on those larger landmasses that cannot pull it together.

    The end result over some time is that assumptions will be made that people from those regions are simply not as smart. That's sad because it's more a matter of poor governance than intellig

    • The end result over some time is that assumptions will be made that people from those regions are simply not as smart.

      Incorrect. The only explanation for African underachievement is white oppression. The number of klansmen per square mile in Africa must be astronomical.

    • by Gilgaron ( 575091 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @01:54PM (#54075349)
      I found the ideas about this in Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond to be pretty interesting. His thesis is that flora and fauna played a large role in where civilizations rose when, and how successful they were. South America and Africa each run North/South which inhibits trade in livestock and crops.
    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      I'd say they don't need lectures from you [businessinsider.com] about how to grow an economy.

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

      So let me get this straight, Africa and South America have that much more land and natural resources than the first world countries - and still can't do nearly as well in terms of development and wealth? That would tend to make one even more dismissive of cultures on those larger landmasses that cannot pull it together.

      ...unless one reads Guns, Germs, & Steel [wikipedia.org], or its equivalent content out of a textbook somewhere, which explains all this rather nicely. IMHO its much better to take these questions head-on, rather than ignore them.

      (Executive summary: Having a large amount of land at the same latitude is really important to any agricultural society. This is because the "resources" that matter are ultimately domesticable crops and animals, both of which tend to not do well outside of their home latitudes. So Eurasia win

  • by Diddlbiker ( 1022703 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @12:59PM (#54074683)
    The article ends with:
    “The Mercator projection showed the spread and power of Christianity and is standard,” she said. “But it is not the real world at all. What the Boston public schools are doing is extremely important and should be adopted across the whole of the US and beyond.”
    Beyond the US even! Perhaps beyond the US other maps have already been adopted for this reason? I know that when I was in high school decades ago, our world map was not a Mercator projection for exactly this reason.
    If those educators had been looking over the border they would have implemented this around the turn of this century.
    • by GuB-42 ( 2483988 )

      What projection did you have?
      I remember having mostly Mercator at school in France. We also had a globe and an we were taught the basics of map projection so it wasn't really a problem.

  • Any globe you buy these days is a cardboard or plastic sphere usually with printed strips glued to the sphere. Are these accurate considering they are actually on a sphere and thus shouldn't suffer from spherical to flat distortion?

    And if a physical globe is accurate, why can't they just take all the strips they would normally glue onto the globe and lay them out flat, even if the seams don't line up when flat?

    I saw the projection they are advancing and it looks really distorted compared to an actual globe

    • http://www.progonos.com/furuti/MapProj/Normal/ProjInt/projInt.html [progonos.com] has some examples of this, looks odd and tends to split countries into pieces when flattened out.

      Anything looks distorted when flattened out from a globe, and a globe would be the best thing to use, but having one for each desk for kids to measure and plot on is infeasible. A single flat projection like Gall-Peters is more useful, but the level of distortion is more jarring than some others.

  • by ei4anb ( 625481 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @01:14PM (#54074845)
    Why limit the solution to 2D maps on paper? You can get a much better visualization on a computer, e.g. https://earth.nullschool.net/ [nullschool.net]
  • Just not the ones they set out for
  • by watermark ( 913726 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @01:17PM (#54074889)

    Just watched this scishow the other day. It explains why this type of distortion occurs and the trade-offs when you try to correct it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • I attended middle school in the mid-60s back when it was called "Junior High School". We did study the Mercator projection, but mostly to demonstrate that a flat map was going to be distorted and always pointing out the huge Greenland vs. the tiny southern continents. We also got the example of how the flat projections make polar air routes look longer than more southerly routes. A globe makes this clearly wrong.
  • "Greenland looks roughly the size of Africa when it is actually about 14 times smaller." Actually, if you make something 1 times smaller, it's gone! Nothing left! Perhaps you meant 1/14 the size, instead of "14 times smaller"....
    • "Greenland looks roughly the size of Africa when it is actually about 14 times smaller." Actually, if you make something 1 times smaller, it's gone! Nothing left! Perhaps you meant 1/14 the size, instead of "14 times smaller"....

      I wish this slashdot article was using a font that was 14 times smaller...

  • by GuB-42 ( 2483988 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @01:34PM (#54075085)

    And the reason is not because of Europe itself, you have to look the other side : between Alaska and Russia.
    It is a very convenient place to split the map : it avoids cutting important landmasses in half and the wraparound occurs in the middle of the pacific ocean where there are few things of interest.
    Putting the Americas in the center will split Asia in two, which is a bad thing. We could cut through the Atlantic unless you have good reasons to do so, it is an overall worse solution than cutting through the Pacific..

  • The Behrmann is undistorted at 30deg, where Gall-Peters is undistorted at 45deg. This makes the Gall-Peters have a bit too much vertically stretch distortion at the equator for my taste.

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @02:02PM (#54075453)
    I remember my teacher mentioning the controversy over map projections when I was in elementary school in the 1970s.

    The problem isn't the map projections. The problem is people's insistence on believing there is always one and only one best solution. There isn't. Different map projections are best for different applications. I see the same flawed reasoning all the time when people ask me for help buying a computer - "What's the best laptop?" There isn't a single best laptop. There's a best laptop for you, there's a best laptop for me, there's a best laptop for Fred in accounting. But they are all probably different laptops. You have to prioritize what's important for what you want to do, then pick the best solution based on those priorities.

    The same thing happens with election systems [wikipedia.org]. Turns out all methods of voting are flawed in some way.
    • pick the best solution based on those priorities

      Oh, so there is a best solution for school needs?

  • To quote the film, "Men in Black". "1500 Years ago everybody KNEW the Earth was the centre of the universe, 500 years ago everybody KNEW the Earth was flat. and 15 minutes ago you knew people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll KNOW tomorrow".

    I remember when I was taught that Christopher Columbus was NOT the first European to visit North America. people in my class told me I was crazy/stupid. We have so much misinformation in our school for various political (and even economic reasons). We are
  • by ledow ( 319597 )

    Have your students never heard of Google Earth? You don't need to buy a single thing, it's free for educational users.

    And that gives a damn-near perfect, rotatable, zoomable view of anything you like and you can even get plugins that compare area, measurements, etc. using proper sphere-following routes.

    But, no, let's continue printing things out on 2D paper that is GUARANTEED to be distorted, and then argue about what distortion we prefer.

  • ...and wants their fixed 2D projections back. Except for third world countries, what teacher doesn't have a PC and a projector to show Google Earth? Oh wait, Boston... You don't have to do it every time, just do it once and show that the closer you get the more the paper map looks like the 3D map. For extra fun, hollow out an orange and show the absurdity of trying to make a sphere into a square. Then leave the world map - the old and the new - to collect dust until the power's out - like a third world coun

  • Individual schools in the US have used the Peters maps, Scott said, adding: “We believe we are the first public school district in the US to do this.”

    You have got to be kidding me. C'mon! Somebody prove that statement wrong. It can't possibly have taken this long* to start fixing this, can it?

    *The West Wing, Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail [youtube.com], season 2, episode 16, (February 28, 2001)

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @02:54PM (#54075945) Homepage

    The insinuation that students never saw any map other than the Mercator projection seems unlikely. The implication that the map is some kind of Anglo-Saxon reality distortion field is borderline propaganda. Was there some kind of district-wide rule that teachers had to use the Mercator projection? Was the Boston school district really that screwed-up?

    I went to school in Maryland, and we used Robinson [wikipedia.org] and either Goodes [wikipedia.org] or Boggs [wikipedia.org] (I can't tell the difference). Our social studies teachers had 10 foot tall maps that they could pull down over the chalkboard like a blind. We had a unit where we went over different map projections and had to understand the differences. It is a classic elementary science demonstration to give kids an orange and challenge them to peel it and make it flat, or to take a sheet of paper and wrap it around a ball. Did none of this happen in Boston?

    The article spends several paragraphs slamming the Mercator projection, as though it was news. It has an embedded clip from a fictional television show debating map projections. But this sounds like it is attacking a strawman here. The article presents no evidence to me to indicate that Boston school teachers really only used one horribly stupid map projection, that they didn't use globes, and that they didn't have curriculum to explain map projections. It seems more likely that the school board decided to standardize, and the site is exaggerating it into a civil rights issue to make it newsworthy. The Boston school district official is happy to take credit for a "paradigm shift" which just feeds into the whole exaggeration.

  • I guess we should expect so much more from it.

  • by pz ( 113803 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @03:05PM (#54076091) Journal

    Boston Public Schools Map Switch Aims To Amend 500 Years of Distortion

    ... by adding even greater distortion that is entirely motivated by a petty political agenda, rather than scientific accuracy. I read the article, and the quoted motivations are not well-founded (Europe, for example, is not in the center of the maps used in the US, the United States is). The distortion in the propsed map (which, gallingly, is "an internal decision that will not be put up to public approval" or some words to that effect that make the person behind them sound more like a petty dictator who will shout down any dissenting view) is far worse than the traditional Mercator projection. You can see it: South America and Africa look stretched vertically (because they are).

    There are so many, many projections that are scientifically superior. The only reason to select this one is political. Shame on those educators.

    And I had such hope with the momentum building up behind the STEM movement.

  • Quote from TFA that motivates all this:

    âoeThe Mercator projection is a symbolic representation that put Europe at the center of the world. And when you continue to show images of the places where peopleâ(TM)s heritage is rooted that is not accurate, that has an effect on students.â

    Yes, "has an effect". That's it. Not "bad effect", not "large effect".

  • Think for a second (Score:3, Insightful)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @04:08PM (#54076709) Journal

    The last 50-60 years of education have been committed to presenting 'alternative facts' - white people aren't the most important, the US and Europe aren't the most important and successful, minorities were meaningful to history, Columbus was a fucking asshole, women are important, homosexuals aren't sexual deviants, there is no absolute morality, babies are just chunks of tissue, etc.

    I'm not disputing the accuracy of any of those, but one has to recognize that, as opposed to conventional wisdom at the time, all of those things were being consciously presented as alternative viewpoints to the established narratives.

    So let's not pretend that we haven't been dogmatically acculturated to the presentation and acceptance of alternative truths for most of our lives.

  • by TimMD909 ( 260285 ) on Monday March 20, 2017 @04:11PM (#54076743) Homepage
    When I was a kid, we learned all the different common projections and how they skew portions or shapes. Greenland was used as an example of how distortion can make accurate maps misleading. Seems that school is trying to put a bandaid on a larger problem: their kids don't know geography.

The means-and-ends moralists, or non-doers, always end up on their ends without any means. -- Saul Alinsky

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