Tipping point: or not?

I purchased the Tipping point by word of mouth… probably. No doubt, the author would say, due to influences covered in his other book “Blink” (more on that in a subsequent blog).

So far, I am unimpressed. What the book consists of is not a compelling argument, but a series of anecdotes, proposed in a form of what I would describe as deep-glibbness: superficial analysis, accompanied by a  gee-wizz  knowing smile, implying that we won’t have any difficulty swallowing these forgone conclusions.

Take the example, provided in the opening chapters, of the “incredible” increase in syphilis in Boston. This is given as an archetypal example of Tipping Point™ – an incredible change based on almost no change in circumstances, and to be explained in terms of agents with special agency and contexts which add to give more than the sum of their parts.

In other words, a typical mystical pre-coil from explanation, couched in rationalistic terms… back to the example.

So… What was to be explained by this incredible new law of the universe? A 5-fold increase in cases of Syphilis over the year in 1996. If this is a tipping point, we expect to see microscopic changes in the environment, changes found elsewhere without a tipping point. So did anything large and obvious and boring happen around the period of this increase in syphilis? You bet! There was  crack epidemic, 70% of the local medical staff were fired, and the ghettos that used to house most of the poorer people in the town were demolished, spreading the population more widely. All this is even explained in the book!

So at this point, posed this way, I think most people would say there’s nothing left to explain… Not so fast Will Rogers: you need to open your eyes and accept. Accept that there is somehow an excess, an increase in syphilis which cannot be explained by simple cause and effect, and instead impels us to a “tipping point” explanation.

Poor old pedestrian linear effects just can’t hack it. But there is zero basis for this claim. no proof that these effects cannot model the change in a simple way. And no testable model for where we should expect to see further tipping points.

And that’s kind of the problem here… if the world really did run on tipping points, then we’d be very unstable, life highly unpredictable, chaotic. but, like the chaos theory boom of the 80s, this reinvention of chaos is toothless.

Existing words are given neologistic meanings (people are now “mavens”, “connectors”, and “salesmen”), but then not defined, we merely get more stories from which these words are supposed to gain meaning. But they don’t.

And the stories are not even compelling: example 2…

Why did people listen to Paul Revere when he said the British are coming? Not because he had a basis for his claim, was known as trustworthy, by people in a position to similarly spread the word in a believable way. No, nothing that simple. Instead, he was a connector, or was that maven? Or maybe a salesman. It doesn’t really matter.

Already we are getting books like “tipping point leadership”, and politician’s speech is infected with this new non-speak.

Go and buy something by Christopher Hitchens, think hard, work hard, sleep well: the old rules still apply.

I’m listening to Siciliano in G Minor from the album “The Best Of Play Bach” by Jacques Loussier


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