Honey I Shrunk the Country!
Here’s a teaser. Imagine a helicopter takes off from the most northerly point in the UK and flies in a straight line to the most southerly point. Exactly half way through this flight it stops to refuel. What country is it in? It’s still in Scotland.
It took off from Muckle Flugga on the Shetland island of Unst, headed for Land’s End, and stopped half way, near Lockerbie. Surprising? Now you might say that this is a bit of a cheat, to include such far flung islands. But their very remoteness is a significant factor in Scotland’s natural assets. Their position affects Scotland’s oil and gas resources and fishing grounds, and determines their strategic significance to Europe’s northern defences. But it’s not just Scotland’s geographic reach which is surprising. We have also been trained to underestimate Scotland’s size by the media’s lazy approach to graphics. The map of the UK with Shetland in a little box somewhere off Aberdeen became a recognised cliché. (The T-shirts available in Shetland with those islands in centre position and the UK mainland in a little box to the right of Yell are a splendid response.) But the BBC constantly exposes us to a more blatant misrepresentation. And the insidious nature of this visual deception is totally inappropriate in the lead-up to the independence referendum.
Maps have a power to shape our perceptions. And the maps which we see more than any other are the weather maps on TV. Take a look at those on the BBC.
The virtual camera floats above the north of France, looking down diagonally at the UK. The south of England looms large, while Scotland diminishes in the distance. Surely we can interpret that, you might think. That was the response of the BBC when the maps were first introduced in May 2005. There were over 4000 complaints. Responding in the Scotsman a BBC spokesperson explained why we were all misguided in our objections. That’s how it would really look from space. But I’ve done a bit of 3D graphics modelling over the years, and could see that the underlying issue wasn’t obvious to those debating the perspective. I wrote to the Scotsman pointing out that the BBC was being disingenuous. When you model a virtual 3D scene you have the freedom to put the camera wherever you like, and also to choose the virtual lens. Looking down from a great height with a standard lens would result in a faithful representation of the land masses. But what the BBC’s modellers had done was to use a wide angle lens and move the virtual camera position much closer to the south of England. This has the effect of making the nearer land masses bulge larger, and those further north to taper off rapidly in perspective. The maps changed significantly two weeks later. (Yes – they were even worse at first! Check out the original map here)
There’s a further problem. The land mass is not just seen from an angle. It is also on a sphere, so Scotland, further away from the camera, is also disappearing over the curve of the earth. None of this is evident. We cannot interpret what is happening, because no lines of latitude and longitude are shown. To make matters worse the temperature numbers and place names do not get smaller when they apply to further places, further undermining our ability to understand the perspective and see the true size of Scotland.
Did you know that the mainland of Shetland is 60 miles long, far greater than the distance between Edinburgh and Glasgow? No? But how could you? We’re not shown this in a comprehensible way. Look at the BBC weather map and try to reconcile this with the tiny mark that represents Shetland. Then compare the size of a rectangle over Cornwall with one over the North of Scotland.
Why am I so concerned about what seems a trivial issue, and one which the BBC has already addressed? Well I believe it’s far from trivial – and current depictions are still misleading. This has a profound effect on our understanding of who and where we are in the world. It’s recognised that different countries choose different cartographic projections to reflect their sense of themselves. An American world map might have the US in the centre, with the Atlantic and Europe far off to the right and the Pacific and Far East to the left. America is large, and is the centre of the universe. The Mercator projection of the world which we’re familiar with keeps lines of latitude and longitude horizontal and vertical. As a navigational tool it’s still useful. But we can readily see how it distorts area, with Greenland massively stretched. The Gall-Peters projection is an alternative. James Gall first published this in 1855 in the Scottish Geographical Magazine. Filmmaker Arno Peters independently reinvented it in 1967 and presented it as a way of righting an injustice being perpetrated on less developed countries by under-representing their significance. These maps distort the outlines of countries to some extent, but their depiction of area is correct. Greenland is put back in its place. But the real shocker is just how large Africa is. It is just so much bigger a continent than we ever imagined. In fact the Third World, in areas below the Equator, seems bigger altogether, while Europe and the countries of the north seem in reality to be lesser areas than we have grown to believe. The subtle distortions caused as map-makers attempt to draw the surface of a globe onto a flat surface can have a disproportionate effect on our perceptions.
So back to Scotland, and its place in the BBC animated weather maps. First, forget the fact that the camera swoops over different areas in turn. It’s the big wide shot which creates a false impression. And false it is. Have a look at a less distorted map of Britain. Yes, Scotland is rather more than just a head on England’s body. Slide a map of Scotland on top of one of England and it’s surprising how similar they are. The land area of Scotland is 30,414 square miles, while England has an area of 50,346 square miles.
When it comes to renewables and the natural resources of wave and tide Scotland doesn’t just have faster coastal currents. We have more coast. Scotland has 10,246 miles of coastline. England’s coastline is 1,988 miles. So Scotland’s more than just a wee plot on the northern fringes of England.
In fact Scotland is almost exactly a third of the area of the entire UK. Look at Map 3. It looks positively weird. England is not the familiar bloated mass to the south, with David Cameron’s vaunted ‘broad shoulders’. What is so weird is that this realistic projection seems odd – so conditioned have we become by the BBC to believe that we Scots are less than we truly are.
Is Scotland big enough to make its own way in the world? Our response to that question is based not just on economic statistics, but also on an instinctive assessment of physical size and natural resources. In the coming seven months the BBC needs to make every effort to be seen to be impartial. These weather map animations literally show a south of England perspective. They are biased and misleading. Other networks manage to use simple and accurate graphics. Now it’s time for the BBC to follow – and present a true, fair and accurate image of Scotland and its place within the British Isles.