What if I Told You the World Map is Wrong?

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Take a look at the map above. After examining it for a few seconds, would you agree that North America is bigger than Africa, that  the state of Alaska is larger than the country of Mexico, that China is smaller than Greenland?  Well, what if I were to tell you that, in real life, Africa is three times bigger than North America, Mexico is larger than Alaska, and China is four times bigger than Greenland?

The map above is one of the most commonly used maps in Canada and the United States. It is known as the Mercator projection which is found anywhere from classrooms to boardrooms. Unfortunately, the Mercator projection map is not precisely accurate. It provides a distorted perception of the real size of continents and countries relative to each other. In 1596 the Mercator projection map was created merely for navigational purposes. The poles were enlarged and continent sizes were distorted to make crossing an ocean easier.

In 1974, Dr. Arno Peters created a new type of map that improves the accuracy of how we see the earth.  He produced a map projection known as the Gall-Peter’s Projection, which he claims to be an area accurate map that displays the true size . The image below shows the Gall-Peters projection and will help you compare between the actual sizes of continents and countries.

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Does size really matter?

I Believe that simple things, such as maps, can truly influence the perceptions individuals might have about certain countries. People usually equate the size of a country to importance and power. By exaggerating the size of western countries and under-sizing developing countries, in the Mercator projection, people further buy into the notion that developed countries are more important. Making developing countries look smaller than they are on a map portrays them as weak and helpless. Using a map that remains true to size is essential for success in the International Development fields, it can help the notion of equality spread further throughout the world, produce better research within the field, and place development issues, such as migration, further into perspective.

*** Keep in mind that, just like every other map projection, both the Mercator and Peters projections are not completely accurate. They both display various forms of distortion and are created to only serve certain objectives. The reason Peters projection was chosen for this blog is because it deals with the size of continents relevant to development.

Please let me know what you guys think.  Do you strongly support one of these two projections? Do you believe that the size of a country can influence the way developing countries are perceived? Is there another projection that you find is more relevant to the field of International Development?

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23 thoughts on “What if I Told You the World Map is Wrong?

  1. Bailey

    This reminds me of the MANY maps we have seen on our INDEV classes, adjusted to emphasize a variety of topics. I think it is important to keep the bigger picture of reality in our minds as we go about ‘doing development’, as this can, probably more subconsciously than consciously, influence our perception of world issues. And so, the second map would be an important reference to reflect this reality.

    You mention in your second last paragraph that people ‘further’ buy into the notion that developed countries are more important when the size of Western countries is exaggerated. By using the term ‘further’, you imply that there are other factors that contribute to people’s views of Western dominance/importance. What other factors did you imply here?

    • Hey Bailey, Great questions. There are some other factors that contribute to people’s views of Western importance over developing countries importance. Throughout most international institutions, Western countries seem to be the most represented and carry the most weight when it comes to making decisions. One of the most obvious examples I can think of is veto power, it is mostly dominated by Western countries with a few exceptions. Giving these countries more weight in making important global decisions increases the belief that they are more important than counterpart developing countries that are excluded.
      Another example is the American population being the most studied population in the world, with statistics, psych evaluations etc. in high numbers explaining the behaviours and lives of Americans. This notions could be attributed to the large population of the country and the levels of education achieved that lead to the creation of research studies. However, many studies were conducted by international researchers about the American population. Various international researches tend to compare their population’s result to that of the population of the U.S.
      These are just a few examples I can think of at the moment.

  2. This is an interesting topic to bring up. I have always been aware of the fact that the maps we usually see in school are typically not accurate, but there are so many different projections and portrayals of maps that, just like anything else that is replicated or portrayed in different ways, they will not always be exact. In fact, as much as we can say that certain maps, such as the two you presented in your post, are incorrect, I doubt anyone would be able to produce a perfectly accurate map.
    I love looking at maps and atlases and I have seen maps used in different parts of the world that have their own country or continent at the centre, or maps that are inverted in the Southern Hemisphere, but I have surprisingly never actually made the link between the size of the countries portrayed and influencing perceptions of power or importance. This could either mean one of two things – the size of the countries or continents did not actually influence my perceptions in any way, or the perceptions are so engrained in me (and anyone else) that I didn’t think twice about there being a problem with portraying the countries in that [incorrect] way.
    Perceptions only occur if we let ourselves believe them without examining the truth, and so far me at this moment I would have to say that the portrayal of the world map is not linked to how I view development.

  3. Excellent post, Rasha! I did not know you held such an interest in maps like I do. I just posted about maps myself the other day! Instead of size, however, I discussed the orientation of north and south and how that can skew perception. Thank you for bringing up the issue of perception!

  4. Hey thanks for the reminder, I forgot about this since first year geography. There’s another interesting map I found on twitter the other week depicting the size of Africa… have a check!

    http://spatialanalysis.co.uk/2011/03/flattening-the-earth/

  5. Seham Khalifeh

    That’s a really interesting topic! It makes me wonder whether the maps we used back when I was in Syria were different, reflecting their focus on their part of the world. It also makes me think back to elementary school in Canada. The few times we ever used a map were to look at North America, so using the first map you mentioned made sense. However, it does mean that we were less focused on the rest of the world, making the rest of the world seem less significant.

    • All maps serve a different purpose. If different maps were used to view different areas of the world then it would be fair. However, as you mentioned, using solely one map made the rest of the world seem less significant.

  6. Another point I would like to point out on the first map is that fact that Europe is placed at the center of the map. This map also gives the impression that Europe is at the center of the world. Why not Americas or Asia?

    • There are other projections where Asia is actually cut in half so that the Americas can be in the middle. i would assume this projection would also be one used in Canada and the United States. The thing is that most countries’ maps do put them at the center of attention, or are distorted to make them bigger. It may be a larger issue when we do it though, because it changes our perceptions of the developing world.

  7. I HAD NO IDEA! I think this is definitely important, especially since it is in classrooms and used as a teaching tool! Size and imagery can influence peoples perceptions of importance, and if Africa appears so small it influences how people view it and its relevance to them and the world. Same with Alaska and Mexico, its almost as if this is subliminal messaging.

    Yuck.

  8. Alex

    Very good post there, Rasha. To be honest, I haven’t thought about this in this way before. I would have to agree with what you said about the distortion possibly done to make the other countries seem less significant, while emphasizing the country of origin.

    Everyone would like to be the center of attention, it is more or less a show of force – read as size does really matter. When the leading world countries, namely the Americas, distribute and emphasize that first version of the map, they are doing so to basically show off. There are political, economical, and psychological gains at stake here, “so why not produce this and distribute it to the world? Want to support education in developing countries? Here, let’s send them our maps and other supplies.”

    I want to also take this opportunity to further to explore what Jordan Vetter said:

    “This could either mean one of two things – the size of the countries or continents did not actually influence my perceptions in any way, or the perceptions are so engrained in me (and anyone else) that I didn’t think twice about there being a problem with portraying the countries in that [incorrect] way.”

    I believe the second part of that sentence about perception to be completely true, conditioning is a very powerful tool. Once you conditioned the first generation and got them to accept a certain idea as the absolute truth, it becomes the norm in society. The second generation, raised by the first, are likely to follow in those footsteps and accept it blindly. This has been done a few times over history, and complete truths have been lost that way.

    I will be looking forward to more of your posts here, keep up the good work!

    • The aspect of conditioning that you and Jordan brought up is quite insightful. It is interesting to notice that we usually do not consider certain aspects of life until they are questioned before us.
      Mentioning the first and second generation link and influence is also a new way of viewing the issues, which I have not thought of previously. I guess people tend to follow their parents or older generations footsteps, which leads me to wonder if the first map in this post is here to stay.

  9. Naj

    Rasha great work….
    By the way we have her in OZ another type of map, we call it the up-side-down map where Australia is in the up-middle of the map
    Check it here
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-U4ynUJCaniM/Tyf7ANNVvgI/AAAAAAAAFCU/irZQjOqGw2w/s1600/upside-down-map.JPG
    so who said that any map is right or wrong … everyone can see it in his/her own way

    • That is a very interesting map you brought up! I agree with you, I guess you can’t really say a certain map is right or wrong, it all depends on how you choose to view the world.

  10. Iman Arab

    What a wonderful start,hopefully your blog would be always an eye-opener. We need more “out of the box thinking” to understand out of the box problems. Excellent approach, I agree with you.

  11. This is from West Wing.

  12. Pingback: » It’s the 21st Century and the World Map is still Wrong? www.APPALACHIANENIGMATA.com

  13. Basti

    Interesting blog rasha! I remember hearing that the reason for the world map not being proportionately correct was because its impossible to form an accurate 2d representation of our 3d planet, but didnt think countries would be portrayed in this way with this bias. Food for thought!

  14. Buckminster Fuller’s map will always have my heart.

  15. Grim

    it is reasonable for an international politics
    i suggest you to compare about the map of the ancient china
    at the earlier year of china kingdom they create map that show china as the biggest land in the world
    they compare to other state that drawn as a small island
    see walter LOGIC OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS chapter China Perspective
    it is important for a state and may be united state to do such a thing to crate a proud and nationalism for their citizen to make those citizen be nationalized and proud of their country to build such understanding of how strong are their state and these kind of understanding could guaranteed of the citizen security
    just my argument

  16. Pingback: Mapping and Its Effect On How We View The World « Ramblings and Thoughts

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