Can Geometry Be Racist?

[Be warned, this is yet another anti-postmodernist rant.]

I recently stumbled upon this article by the Daily Mail: “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” The article’s main beef is with the Mercator projection, a map which you have definitely seen and which looks like this [from Wikipedia]: Mercator_projection Here is a political map in the style of Mercator [source, with watermark]: MercatorProjection-2 The point of the Mercator projection is to preserve straight lines and compass orientation (i.e. very useful for navigation). For example, Atlanta and Los Angeles have roughly the same latitude, and are separated by 2173 miles. However, if you go up straight north from both cities, the distance starts getting smaller and smaller, until it eventually reaches zero when you’re at the north pole. To account for this change in distance, the Mercator projection exaggerates areas that are far from the equator. Here’s a visualization of this distance getting smaller as you go further from the equator [source; just focus on the triangle on the globe; the picture was demonstrating non-euclidean geometry where the angles of a triangle don’t have to add up to 180 degrees]: triangle-globe So what’s the point? Now that the geometry lesson is out of the way, here is the point of the Daily Mail article. If you look at the Mercator maps, you’ll note that Greenland looks at least as big as Africa, when it is actually 14 times smaller (836,000 sq miles vs 11,670,000 sq miles). It also notes that the Scandinavian countries look bigger than India, when, in fact, India is 3 times larger. These are all great points. However, one statement sounds strange: “It gives the right shapes of countries but at the cost of distorting sizes in favour of the wealthy lands to the north.” Another statement is, “Much of this is due to technical reasons, said Mr Wan, while other inconsistencies are caused by ideological assumptions that can change the way we see the world.” “The wealthy lands to the north”? Ideological assumptions? I’m not sure if the author is just using these phrases sensationally, but there is an issue here. The Mercator projection is not racist or imperialist or north-ist. It is simply a geometric application. In fact, it is physically and mathematically impossible for a 2-dimensional map to accurately portray the globe.

The author even concedes this point in the article: “The biggest challenge is that it is impossible to portray the reality of the spherical world on a flat map – a problem that has haunted cartographers for centuries.” Then hasn’t the author figured out the solution to the title? “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” Answer: because of geometry, it is, has always been, and always will be, impossible. The only way to look at the globe truly accurately is via… a globe. Or Google Earth. So what then is the point of the Mail article? A refresher course on history?

Anyways, it is an interesting topic to think about; I just thought the implied arguments were severely flawed. Namely,  the statement that “other inconsistencies are caused by ideological assumptions that can change the way we see the world” implies that perhaps the Mercator projection causes us to think more of “big” countries far from the equator, which happen to be richer, and less of “little” countries nearer the equator, which happen to be poorer. Also, the fact that this pseudo-explanation is even implied seems to weaken the real answer to the question, why every world map is wrong. Look at the phrasing again: “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” The northern racism explanation (latitude-ism?) makes it seem like we can make accurate maps because of accurate satellite data but we don’t because we want to perpetuate northern superiority and oppress the southerners. (Of course, the Mercator projection equally distorts southern countries, but most of Earth’s landmass is in the Northern hemisphere.)

Thus, the article is extremely misleading and is another example of taking some of the views of postmodernism too far while simultaneously discounting mathematical knowledge. The objective facts—the impossibility of accurately representing a sphere on a plane—are right there and we even see them, but some of us just choose to ignore them. Also, the comment section of the Mail article seems to share this sentiment of critique. Plenty of factors contribute to racism, but geometry is not one of them.

Noam Chomsky on Postmodernism

Since I’ve been thinking about postmodernism recently, I thought to share this fascinating interview from the youtubes. The most unfamiliar point that Chomsky brings up is the story about Bruno Latour and the ancient Egyptian tuberculosis death (read more about it here). Basically, Latour argued that since tuberculosis was not constructed until the era of modern medicine, it could not have existed in ancient Egypt! (Starts at 3:48 in the video.)

The Construction of Social Progress: Can Civilization Move Forward?

International_Space_Station

In the past year, I have used the term “social progress” in 6 different blog posts. It referred to various topics, including LGBT rights, women’s rights, and views on race, not to mention advances in medicine and technology. Implicit were the assumptions that civilization can move forward, and that having having a more equal society does constitute social progress.

Progress and Postmodernism

As it turns out, this type of thinking is not a given. Under postmodernist thought (whatever this phrase means), the idea of social progress is taken skeptically and questioned. Granted, the questioning is done with the noblest intention. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives of progress have, in the past, led to the cruelties of European colonialism, Fascism, and Communism. In each case, those who thought they were more civilized or who thought they could bring about a more civilized society ended up being brutal tyrants. Progress was thus a tool by which the rulers ruled the oppressed. Progress was and is, in the extreme, nothing more than a social construct.

I wonder if this fervent skepticism toward social progress is an overreaction. While I could write an entire post or more specifically about this, I reject postmodernism overall and consider myself under post-postmodernism, remodernism, metamodernism, or whatever word you prefer to describe the cultural state after postmodernism. Admittedly, I recognize that my own thoughts cannot be fully disentangled from postmodernist thought (which is itself a postmodernist way of thinking), but I can try to move forward.

The reason I bring this up is that postmodernism and progress are more intricately tied than just a loose sentiment that progress doesn’t exist. Postmodernism also rejects objective truth (either to some degree or often all-out); if you have been in an English class, you’ve probably learned that all truth is subjective. Herein lies another issue, as the concept of progress entails that society is objectively moving forward, that there is some objective truth, a conflict with postmodernism.

To add one more grain to the heap, there is a modernist vs postmodernist dichotomy between prescription and description. The significance of this is that modernism and progress are inherently compatible: modernism tried not only to describe the world, but also to prescribe that we should try to achieve social progress (even if it did not reveal how). Postmodernism, however, as a purely descriptive framework, is incompatible with the concept of progress; it could not advocate for social progress even if it were not a social construction. (This leads to a chicken and egg problem: Does postmodernism reject progress because it rejects prescription, or does it reject prescription because it rejects progress?)

The Existence of Social Progress

Despite the postmodern rejection of progress, it is very easy to show that progress does exist. Ask any postmodernist if they would rather contract polio or measles or chicken pox right now, or not contract any of them. Clearly, everyone agrees there is some objective truth and an objective scale of progress on health and medicine. “But that’s falling into the technology trap,” one might object, “you cannot tie together technology and progress because of nukes.” But this is like saying Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity was was the cause of the Cold War. This type of thinking misses the big picture, and it misses the fact that technological advancements have made the world a much better place.

Even then, supposing you are still against technology despite medical or other technological advances, say you are not a heterosexual, white male. Would you rather live in the United States of 2014 or 1814? Does your answer not signify the existence of progress?

What about even if you are a heterosexual, white male, would you rather live in the England of 2014 or 1314? That is, would you rather live in a society with the homicide rate of 1314, or in a society with a 95% lower homicide rate? (p. 61 of this book)

Here is the Social Progress Index, which ranks countries based on aggregate scores on Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity:

SocialProgressIndex

Using numerical data is a modernist approach, and a caricature postmodernist might flinch upon seeing the United Kingdom as being considered more “progressed” than Nigeria. Of course, we must be very cautious at how we interpret this data. For instance, the UK’s higher position than Nigeria does not constitute grounds for invasion and colonization as it may have in the modernist era. But these numbers do form grounds for critical analysis.

Yes, much of progress is socially constructed. Many of the earlier (i.e. modern) approaches were naive and led to atrocious results. But the solution is not to forsake progress altogether, but rather, to gain a matured understanding of it. This first step towards true progress requires the acceptance of progress, the rejection of postmodernism.