Blindly into the ditch

31st March 1995 at 01:00
The new Order has brought Eckert's map out of obscurity . . . and entirely missed the point. David Wright reports. There is an extraordinary error in the world maps in the new geography national curriculum booklet. The "North" arrow does not point North; it actually points North-east. South points South-west.

This is the geographical equivalent of 2x2=5. If we cannot get North and South correct, everthing else in geography is liable to be distorted as well. These world maps, on the Eckert IV projection, have unwisely been published without lines of longitude, and the North arrow has been printed vertically, without regard to these lines. But the essence of the Eckert IV map is that lines of longitude are increasingly curved towards the edges of the map. The North arrow must follow a line of longitude - but in this case does not do so, with disastrous consequences.

Why was this little-known map projection chosen? It dates from 1906, and lay in well-deserved obscurity for 88 years - even the creator of the map was not enthusiastic about it, preferring his Eckert VI projection which has sinusoidal meridians. But Eckert VI seems to have sunk without trace.

Eckert IV is not a bad projection - at least, not until the spectacular error was added to it for the revised Order. It is equal-area, and is certainly better than its predecessor, the Modified Gall projection. And it is infinitely better than the Peters projection, with its very confusing and distorting shapes.

But Eckert IV has major weaknesses. The main problems are the distortions at the "corners", caused by the curved lines of longitude. There is also considerable elongation in the tropics: enough to make a difference, but not enough to be immediately recognisable. In one sense, therefore, the map is more misleading than Peters. Most people know that shapes on Peters are wrong; most people will assume that Eckert is right. Yet Africa in the real world is as "wide" as it is "long"; on the Eckert map Africa is too long and too narrow.

How strange that there should be a more accurate world map on your Barclaycard bill than in the national curriculum! The Interrupted Sanson-Flamsteed map which Barclaycard uses is equal-area, with correct shapes as well. It is also elegant and easy for children of all ages to understand, because it is the nearest thing to "unpeeling the skin" of a globe.

This is the second major error on national curriculum world maps. In 1992 they described Gall's map, with its huge Greenland, as "equal-area". At the time I wrote: "If they can't get the map right, what can they get right?" (TES 10.4.1992), and I suggested that the Revd James Gall, if he were still alive, would have quoted the Bible: "They be blind leaders of the blind; they shall both fall into the ditch" (Matthew 15, v14).

This time they really have fallen into the ditch - and we will all follow unless we start to make sense of our globe. This suggests that something much more serious than a mere gremlin is wrong. Could it be that Geographers have simply omitted to study the globe as a whole, for the past 20 years or so, and so today's top geographical curriculum experts cannot spot a fundamental error?

If so, I suggest that we need a major focus on globe education - for "experts", for teachers and for children of all ages. A globe focus can be fun and it is not difficult - but it really is vital.

David R Wright is author of Children's Atlas and Environment Atlas (PhilipsWWF), and is a fellow of the University of East Anglia.

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