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    Distortions in Maps Using a Film Clip from
    The West Wing


    Click here for the film clip from YouTube.

    Subject:     Geography; Maps;

    Ages:          12+: Middle and High School Levels

    Length:       Snippet: Snippet: 4 minutes. This lesson plan is designed to supplement lesson plans relating to the distortions in maps.

    Learner Outcomes/Objectives:    Students will understand that all maps have distortions. They will become acquainted with the difficulties of both the Mercator and the Gall-Peters projections. They will understand that television shows and movies which appear to present facts and which raise valid and interesting questions, may not present the entire truth about a situation.

    Rationale:     This film clip will provide interest to lessons on the accuracy of maps and how to use fictional presentations of matters presented as facts.

    Description of the Snippet:     Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff insists that his assistants take one day and listen to off-the-wall requests by organizations or people with little clout. This film clip shows a presentation of the fictional "Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality" to C.J. Cregg, the White House Press Secretary and Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief of Staff.

    Helpful Background:    
    A map says to you, "Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not." It says, "I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost."1
    In fact, no map is perfect. All maps contain distortions, especially maps which attempt to describe on a rectangular piece of paper an object which is close to a sphere in shape. In 1989 several organizations concerned with cartography and mapping adopted a common resolution stating that:
    WHEREAS the earth is round with a coordinate system composed entirely of circles, and

    . . . flat world maps are more useful than globe maps, but flattening the globe surface necessarily greatly changes the appearance of Earth's features and coordinate systems, and

    . . . world maps have a powerful and lasting effect on people's impressions of the shapes and sizes of lands and seas, their arrangement, and the nature of the coordinate system, and

    . . . frequently seeing a greatly distorted map tends to make it "look right,"

    THEREFORE, we strongly urge book and map publishers, the media and government agencies to cease using rectangular world maps for general purposes or artistic displays. Such maps promote serious, erroneous conceptions by severely distorting large sections of the world, by showing the round Earth as having straight edges and sharp corners, by representing most distances and direct routes incorrectly, and by portraying the circular coordinate system as a squared grid. The most widely displayed rectangular world map is the Mercator (in fact a navigational diagram devised for nautical charts), but other rectangular world maps proposed as replacements for the Mercator also display a greatly distorted image of the spherical Earth.2
    While all the errors of the Mercator Projection described in the clip are accurate, Peters Projection, more accurately called the Gall-Peters projection, has its own serious problems. The best way to look at the earth is with an accurate globe.

    In 1998, three years before the episode of the West Wing from which the clip was taken appeared on the air, the National Geographic Society adoped the Winkel Tripel Projection as the standard for maps of the entire world. Developed in 1921 by Oswald Winkel (1873 - 1953), the Winkel Tripel does not eliminate area, direction and distance distortions; instead it reaches a compromise for all three so that the sum of all three distortions are reduced.

    Thus the episode is accurate in its criticism of the Mercator Projection, accurate in its assessment that the Mercator Projection minimizes the importance of developing countries, inaccurate in the claim the Peters Projection is a "correct" view of the world, inaccurate in its implied claim that the only two alternatives were the Mecator and Peters Projections and inaccurate in its implied claim that in 2001 expert cartographers would approach the Whitehouse seeking to have the Gall-Peters Projection enshrined in a law.
Learner Outcomes/Objectives
Description of the Snippet
Helpful Background
Using the Snippet in Class:
      Supplemental Materials


    Using the Snippet in Class:    


    1. Read the Helpful Background section of this Lesson Plan.

    2. If you have any maps of the world, check out their strength and weaknesses, and then put them up in the classroom.

    3. Decide how to integrate the film clidp into your lesson plan.

    4. ****
    Projects and activities

    Have students pretend that they are lower level White House staffers and an excited C.J. Cregg has just told them to research whether the claims made to her by the "Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality" are true and whether the President should support a bill in Congress mandatng the use of the Gall-Peters Projection in all schools. Set appropriate limits for length and a rubric for grading. Tell students that the paper must contain sections on (1) the question being answered; (2) facts and (3) recommendations.

    Have students write an essay or make short presentations to the class on the following subjects:

    Supplemental Materials    



1   Beryl Markham, West with the Night. New York: North Point Press, 1983. 2   American Cartographer. 1989. 16(3): 222223. Location: Runs from the beginning of the film for 9.5 minutes.

Possible Problems with this Snippet: None.

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