Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The zero sum game

Just finished the book “the sum of us” by Heather McGhee. It is a fascinating book about the effects of racism and the adverse effects on white people through the razing of community resources (she starts with the example of public pools and how the response to desegregation was to drain the pool rather than share it). Basically racism is why we can’t have nice things. 

The main premise in her analysis of the thinking of white society in the US is the cornerstone of “zero sum”. If “they” (you’d be amazed how people can put additional baggage in this single word) get more then “we” (same) must be getting less. 

This suddenly snapped a whole bunch of things into context for me. 

This got me to thinking how the “zero sum” attitude pervades academia and astronomy. In some cases there looks to be indeed a zero sum (telescope time, tenure track jobs, and grants). But is there? The zero sum attitude is something that rears its head more in times of (artificial) scarcity: only a few high-z galaxies, just a few exoplanets. Yet it’s pretty clear that the sum of all of us produces more and better science. Inclusive collaborations that produce public data for all to enjoy and use. 

But if you are raised in the zero sum thinking (white, male) then such cooperative efforts are at best a learned experience and at worst threatening. 

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