A tipping point in the haystack

Posted on July 3, 2012 by

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Wide range of talks yesterday about business, financial products, banking, complexity theory, social trends and mathematical modelling and of course many other topics.  Certainly can’t cover all of the sessions I’ve seen in one post, but it’s fair to say that the tipping point metaphor is capable of drawing a broad interest into how trends rise and fall through time.  What I have gathered from the sessions today is that the definition of tipping point is by no means limited to the disciplines that use it.  Rather it retains some ambiguity which is likely why it became a buzz word in the first place.  Why words spread the way they do?   Is everyone referring to the same thing when they use the word tipping point?

Scientists for example, even within the same respective field, could be talking about entirely different things and this is certainly problematic.  But what was brought up in one of the sessions introducing tipping points in archaeology is that often we construct to some extent what we observe to be a tipping point fostered by the beliefs we project onto it.  “If a tipping point has occurred in the past we decode it in the present, but are at risk of predetermining or negating historical trajectories and modes of adaptation that were present in the past” (from ‘Prehistoric Tipping Points: Fashioning the Past out of the Present in Archaeology, to be available on this blog soon).  The values and beliefs we hold about something influence our interpretation of it and this I think is of wide interest to how research itself is done.

There are biases to be careful of in any kind of research in terms of how and what is prioritised as most important and there is of course also the possibility that tipping point may not be appropriate for the systems it describes today, although it may be fashionable.  Yet for describing social trends, observing the effects of how ideas spread from person to person or population to population or even for example looking at how business gurus package their ideas to managers which can spread quite quickly then die out, tipping point today still seems fitting and works well in describing forms of complexity that are not well understood.  This could explain the ambiguity — tipping point is not well-defined because frankly it is difficult to describe exactly what it means precisely.  And if it is anything it’s certainly not a thing or tangible object, something static, but rather a substantial even non-linear change that affects many things at once, yet appears elusive to any strict methods for modelling its cause(s).  Some of the sessions looked specifically at conformity, how people conform to trends.  Also, the pioneering influences within different trends that catch on influencing a majority.  There has been past work on this that refers to how minority beliefs for example can become the majority (see The spread of minority beliefs).

This is a taste of the ideas presented so far, an appetiser if you like.  Tipping point is in a sense part of an intellectual history of similar such as ‘mutation’ or ‘emergence’ for example as noted by researcher Dr Nick Winder in his talk.  One of the things they do is raise awareness about things that perhaps did not receive attention beforehand or were hidden.  Climate change seems an example of this, although it could be said that the tipping point metaphor has done a great deal of damage to how people perceive climate change causing them to see it merely as another form of environmentalist alarmism, or worse a scientific conspiracy.  The apocalyptic tipping point has not been conducive to bringing together a critical mass movement that leads all parts of the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously, which likely takes something much more than this.  Will tipping point continue to be framed in a negative light in the popular media?  At the moment this seems likely to be the case.  And when people say they’ve found a tipping point, how do they know?

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