Mercator’s model of the world, and what we can learn from it

This BBC program—”Gerard Mercator: The man who revolutionised mapmaking“—is highly relevant to an issue that arises in many of the “Human Sciences”: the use of models to depict reality. Mercator’s map is a wonderful tool for navigators traveling by ship, because the parallel lines of latitude allow for accurate calculations of the best way to sail from Point A to Point B.

However, as an image of the world it is highly distorted, and illustrates the prejudices of Europeans. Europe appears to be much larger than it actually is, and is placed right in the centre of the map. Africa appears much smaller than it actually is. China is way off toward the edge. Greenland appears enormous. And so on.

These distortions would not be important if there had been other maps, equally popular and widely used, that put Africa or China or South America, say, at the centre, instead of Europe. But in fact Mercator’s image still dominates the view of the world in the West and because of this dominance, it has become, in effect, a tool of European colonialism.

In this sense, the story of Mercator’s map illustrates how important models can be in determining our view of reality, and perhaps distorting our view of reality. Conclusion? Regard all models critically! Analyze their assumptions, their omissions, the point of view they promote, etc.

In economics, for example, “gross national product” (GNP) is widely used as a measure of the economy. But what is included, and what is excluded, in the GNP? Why? Such questions can lead to a much deeper understanding than we can have if we simply accept the models presented to us.

For a more detailed discussion of Mercator’s map, try this blog post, “Your World Map is Hiding Something,” on the excellent Metrocosm web site created by Max Galka, who teaches “data wrangling and data visualization” at the University of Pennsylvania.

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