Another sad example of self-promotion
disguised as social
In a 1973 speech to the United Nations, historian Arno Peters declared
that the Mercator projection was "racist", and promoted a map projection
that didn't distort areas. Coincidentally, it was called the "Peters
Projection". More about this below.
(What's this? Any ship's captain who wants a map showing his course
as a straight line is a racist?)
He convinced several United Nations agencies (e.g. UNICEF) and the
World Council of Churches to adopt his projection for all uses. I first learned about the Peters Projection from Irving Wallace's fascinating work The People's Almanac.
What's more, in 1983, Mr. Peters somehow convinced the World Council
of Churches' publication arm Friendship Press to publish his book The
New Cartography: A New View of the World. This book revealed
the unsoundness of his reasoning.
Peters took some valid basic points:
The Mercator projection distorts areas.
Maps using the Mercator projection are often used in schools to teach world
Perhaps this is an attempt to inculcate notions of racial superiority
in young minds.
and added a whole lot of anti-intellectual baggage
on top of it:
He realized that most people had better things to do with their time than
learn enough mathematics to understand map projections. He
turned this into a statement that cartographers try to confuse the masses
He invented several properties that a "perfect" map should have.
One of these was a rectangular grid; any map that had a curved grid was
an attempt to "trick" people into believing the earth was flat. (Hello?
Any line you draw on a globe will be curved!) Somehow, only the Peters
projection had all these properties.
Although a conformal projection (such as the Mercator projection) doesn't
distort angles, it does distort distances in a continuous fashion. As a
result, shapes covering a large part of the Earth aren't represented correctly.
Because of this, he dismissed the Mercator projection as "useless".
In general, he threw away the notion of selecting a map projection to suit
a map's purpose, stating that the Peters projection should be used for
all purposes. (We'd never have discovered the ozone hole that way).
If Peters had said "The Mercator projection isn't being used for the purpose
it was designed for, use a better projection", he would be accepted.
Instead his message was, "Use my projection for all purposes. All other
projections are evil.", revealing himself to be either a confidence trickster
or a dangerous fool
In 1985, Arthur H. Robinson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin,
published a scathing denunciation1 of The New Cartography.
In it, he revealed that Peters had received his Ph. D. in 1945 from the
University of Berlin. The topic of Peters' dissertation? Der Film als Mittel der öffentlicher Fürhung, that is, The
use of film as a propaganda medium.
So anyway, what's left of Peters' ideas?
You should try not to distort the sizes of countries when teaching schoolchildren
The Mercator projection distorts areas; don't use it in a classroom setting.
These points are correct. However, cartographers have known this
and have been telling people this for years.
There are many, many types of equal-area map projections (follow
the link for a list). Most of them distort shapes far less than
the Peters projection does. Thus, Mr. Peters invented his spurious
properties to weed out the competition.
Peters' projection is a special case of the Gall Cylindrical Equal-Area
projection with its standard parallels set at 45 degrees. It's
nothing new; in fact, any example of the Cylindrical Equal Area projection
has the "properties" Peters so highly touted.
On the Earth, Africa is extends almost the same distance north-to-south
that it does east-to-west. On Peters' map, it is about twice as high as
it is wide. If you move the standard parallels closer to the Equator,
say to 30 degrees, things begin to look much more realistic. And
areas still aren't distorted.
Robinson, Arthur H. "Arno Peters and his New Cartography."
12 (2 1985): 103-11.