Fans of The West Wing might recall the infamous “Big Block of Cheese Day,” a fictitious day in which the show’s White House staffers honor the petitions of small interest groups. In the episode, Press Secretary C.J. Craig and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman enter a meeting fully prepared to dismiss a request from a group of cartographers to put new maps in public schools. But the pair soon becomes fascinated as they learn more about how the map they studied growing up distorts the relative sizes of the continents.
“You’re telling me that Germany isn’t where we think it is?” Lyman asks.
“Nothing is where you think it is,” the cartographer responds.
This scene was more than plot device. It’s reflective of a real-life debate—one that is still going on in today’s public schools. The map familiar to most American students—the Mercator projection—has been a fixture of classrooms and world atlases for nearly 500 years. It is also, by no small coincidence, full of inaccuracies.
When the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator created his projection of the world in 1569, his aim was to develop a guide for marine navigation along colonial trade routes. As a result, areas far from the equator appear dramatically large, while areas closer to the equator are truer to size. This makes Europe and North America seem bigger than South America and Africa—possibly stoking people’s unconscious biases. In reality, South America is about twice as large as Europe. Similarly, Africa appears to be the same size as Greenland on the Mercator map, despite being 14 times larger in real life. Another flaw in the Mercator projection is that it places Europe in the center. Critics say this promotes a Eurocentric worldview and dilutes the importance of the rest of the globe.