The Politics of Map-making?

Recently a designer wrote about how maps can "mold your understanding of the world around you." He used this clip from the show the West Wing to illustrate his point:


This view represents the confusion of those who believe in social constructivism and political correctness. Thomas Sowell addressed this issue in his book "The Vision of the Annointed". Here is a delightful passage:

"Perhaps nothing so captures the mind-set of the anointed as a tempest in a teapot created over a common map of the world used for centuries and called the Mercator Projection. This map has been objected to, not by professional map-makers or for scientific reasons, but by liberal-left organizations and individuals for ideological reasons...

"In our society," a critic claimed, "we unconsciously equate size with importance and even with power, and if the Third World coun-tries are misrepresented, they are likely to be valued less." The source of this revelation about other people's unconscious was of course not revealed. However, a maverick map-maker in Germany named Arno Peters has denounced the Mercator Projection as an example of "European arrogance," since it makes Europe look relatively larger than Third World countries and this has been taken to imply intentional efforts to foster Eurocentric and even imperialist attitudes. In the United States, the National Council of Churches has endorsed and published Peters' alternative map of the world and some United Nations agencies have likewise switched to the Peters map. Textbook publishers have been forced by the Texas Education Agency to include in their books sold in that state a disclaimer concerning the accuracy of the Mercator Projection and to include comparisons of other maps. The fact that most professional map-makers have been highly critical of the Peters alternative map carries no weight with the anointed. 

"The political implication of this map are true, whereas the political implications of the Mercator map are false," according to a spokesman for the National Council of Churches' publishing organization.' "The question for the church is not primarily one of scientific reliability," he said in defense of the Peters map. We see this map as being very central to establishment of a correct world view." In short, the integrity of yet another profession is to be violated for the sake of "political correctness." 

As with so many other issues involving the vision of the anointed. this ideological uproar turns on a failure to understand the nature of trade-offs and a willingness—or even eagerness—to read malign intentions into others. All maps necessarily distort the globe for the simple reason that there is no way to accurately represent a three-dimensional planet on a two-dimensional piece of paper. Something has to give. Some maps have the areas correct hut the directions wrong, while others have just the reverse, and still others have other problems. 

Choices of map projections, like all other choices, can only be made among the alternatives actually available--and an accurate map of the world has never been one of those alternatives. In map-making, as in other decision-making processes, there are no "solutions" but only trade-offs, which in this case permit one kind of accuracy to be achieved only at the expense of other kinds of accuracy. Finally, to complete the parallel with so many other kinds of misunderstandings by the anointed, maps do not exist for symbolic or ideological purposes but to meet some concrete practical need. One of the most enduring and most important needs met by maps is for finding places, particularly for navigation by ships and later by planes. Given this imperative, which was a matter of life and death to sailors for centuries. the Mercator Projection became a commonly used map because its directions were made accurate—at the expense of distorting the relative size of areas. Given that the users of these maps were far more concerned with arriving alive at their destinations than with comparing real estate, the Mercator Projection reigned supreme as a world map. Enter the anointed. For them, all this history and the scientific principles of map-making have been blithely ignored and yet another opportunity for moral preening created instead."