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Published: February 20th 2021
From National Geographic: MOST OF US have a rough map of the world in our minds that we use any time we think about places. But these mental maps aren’t necessarily reliable. In fact, many of the maps in our heads share the same errors, some of which are quite large—and surprisingly resistant to correction. Maps distort four basic characteristics: size (area), distance, direction and shape.For instance, we all know that South America
is south of North America
, of course. But you may be surprised by the fact that virtually the entire South American continent is east of Florida. There are lots of possible reasons for geographical misconceptions like this one, says cartographer John Nelson. Mental maps are necessarily simplifications, and Nelson suspects the misplaced Americas may be partly a result of their names. After all, it’s not called Southeast America.
Another commonly misplaced continent is Africa
. North Americans tend to think of Africa as a located almost entirely in the southern hemisphere, similar to South America. But in reality, around two-thirds of Africa is north of the equator. “Africa actually extends northward to about the same latitude
as Norfolk, Virginia,” the paper’s authors write. Europe
is also often placed much farther south on mental maps than it really is, appearing directly across the Atlantic from the contiguous United States. But it actually lines up better with Canada: Paris is further north than Montreal, Barcelona is at a similar latitude as Chicago, and Venice lines up with Portland, Oregon.
Mercator maps distort the shape and relative size of continents, particularly near the poles. This is why Greenland appears to be similar in size to all of South America on Mercator maps, when in fact South America is more than eight times larger than Greenland.As my erstwhile provocateur and expert dermatologist pointed out, most of India lies north of the Equator. Once you gain the proper map knowledge or perspective, the weather in the major cities and countries seems to make more sense.Thinking about the world in two-dimensions also distorts our ideas about how to get from one place to another, says geographer Anthony Robinson of Penn State University. If you draw a line on a flat map from Washington D.C. to Shanghai, China, the most
direct route appears to be due west over the United States and the Pacific Ocean. But Robinson says he’s been on plenty of flights to Asia where people are surprised to hear the pilot say they’ll be flying over the North Pole. When looking at a globe instead of a flat map, it makes sense. “That's far and away the shortest way to get there,” Robinson says.Whatever the reason, these mental map errors are so pervasive and stubborn that even professionals have them. A 1985 study of mental world maps found that geographers had the same misconceptions of the relative latitude of cities in North America and Europe as everyone else. Cartographers aren’t immune either. The “eastiness” of South America still surprises Nelson sometimes. “I really have to look again at a map and be like, is that really the case?” he says. “And sure enough it is.”Some other common map misconceptions:The Nile is longer than the Amazon (false)Krakatoa is east of Java (false)The Statue of Liberty is located in New Jersey (true)Africa is a country (false, it is a continent)Greenland is bigger than Africa (false)Iceland is covered with ice (false)The Missouri is the longest river in the US (true)Maine is the easternmost state in the US (false) Aleutian Islands of AlaskaFlorida is the southernmost state in the US (false) HawaiiFlorida has the longest coastline in the US (false) AlaskaCanada is the world's largest country (false) RussiaI could go on for days, but I think you get the idea. Try using a globe instead of a Mercator map.
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