The spread of tipping point in academic journals

Posted on August 13, 2014 by


TP climate change

There are many definitions of tipping point in use today, especially in the sciences. In academia tipping point tends to be used in different ways according to the discipline in which it is used, however, there are also some interesting similarities. Below are some examples of how tipping point is used in the physical and social sciences (in a future post we’ll look at examples from the biological sciences).

The term ‘tipping point’ originates from research in the social sciences, mainly sociology. Recently it has been fashionable with physical scientists, particularly those that study climate change. In these examples tipping point is used to refer to a range of different phenomena including the Earth’s climate system, water anomalies, suicide rates and war. Note that in the abstract from a mathematics journal ‘tipping point’ appears indistinguishable from ‘critical transition’, which seems to be preferred by scientists as tipping point is often avoided because it seems too emotive or ambiguous.

In climate science especially tipping point tends to have a negative connotation because it refers to global disaster. Critical transition avoids this and perhaps even sounds a bit more ‘scientific’, although it is also used in the humanities. Work Package 5 of the Tipping Points project which is led by humanities researchers is actually called ‘Critical Transitions’, so even this term seems highly cross-disciplinary.

TP Chart The number of English Language newspaper articles containing tipping point

While ‘tipping point’ started in academia its popularity quickly spread to journalism. This chart shows the number of English language newspaper articles containing the term ‘tipping point’ in LexisNexis database 1993-2013.



‘We will introduce some of the 63 anomalies of water, and will demonstrate some recent progress in solving them using concepts borrowed from various disciplines including chemistry and physics. In particular, we will present evidence from experiments designed to test the hypothesis that water displays a special transition point (which is not unlike the ‘‘tipping point’’ immortalized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same title). The general idea that when water is near this tipping point, it can separate into two distinct liquid phases distinguished by their density. This new concept of a critical point is also proving useful in understanding some of the anomalies of other liquids, such as silicon, silica, and carbon.’

Stanley, HE; Kumar, P; Xu, L, et al., (2007) The puzzling unsolved mysteries of liquid water: Some recent progress, PHYSICA A-STATISTICAL MECHANICS AND ITS APPLICATIONS

Climate Science

‘In discussions of global change, the term tipping point has been used to describe a variety of phenomena, including the appearance of a positive feedback, reversible phase transitions, phase transitions with hysteresis effects, and bifurcations where the transition is smooth but the future path of the system depends on the noise at a critical point.  We offer a formal definition, introducing the term ‘‘tipping element’’ to describe subsystems of the Earth system that are at least subcontinental in scale and can be switched—under certain circumstances—into a qualitatively different state by small perturbations.  The tipping point is the corresponding critical point—in forcing and a feature of the system—at which the future state of the system is qualitatively altered.’

Lenton, TM; Held, H; Kriegler, E, et al., (2008) Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system, PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Political Science

‘The first survey, conducted in June of last year, found that only the war in Iraq had reached the “tipping point”-the moment at which a large portion of the public begins to demand that the government address its concerns.’ P 115.

Yankelovich, D, (2006) The tipping points, FOREIGN AFFAIRS


A critical transition (or tipping point) is a rapid sudden change of a time-dependent system. For the introduction we shall rely on this intuitive notion; the mathematical development starts in Sect. 2. Typical examples of critical transitions are drastic changes in the climate (Lenton et al. 2008; Alley et al. 2003), in ecological systems (Clark et al. 2001; Carpenter et al. 2008), in medical conditions (Elger and Lehnertz 1998; Venegas et al. 2005) or in economics (Hong and Stein 2003; Huang and Wang 2008). Reviews of recent progress to develop early-warning signals for these critical transitions from an applied perspective can be found in (Scheffer et al. 2009; Scheffer 2009). The goal of a mathematical theory should be to provide qualitative and quantitative conditions to check whether a drastic change in a dynamical system can be predicted before it occurs; note that it is obvious that certain transitions are very difficult to predict, for example, due to large noise effects (Ditlevsen and Johnsen 2010) or non-smooth transitions (Hastings and Wysham 2010).’

Kuehn, Christian (2013) A Mathematical Framework for Critical Transitions: Normal Forms, Variance and Applications JOURNAL OF NONLINEAR SCIENCE


One sociological concept that appears worthy of examination in this context is the “tipping point” postulated by Tittle and Rowe (1973).  This concept implies that there is a background base rate of a phenomenon resulting from many factors, and that, once breached, this threshold allows for a dramatic increase in the phenomenon.  The tipping point has been used to explain variations in crime rates, where there have been marked changes over relatively short periods of time, changes otherwise difficult to ascribe to any one intervention (Brown, 1978).  Recently, this has been observed in the dramatic decrease in crime in New York City.

Goldney, R. Variation in suicide rates: the “tipping point”. Crisis  Volume: 19   Issue: 3   Pages: 136-8   Published: 1998

Special thanks to Dr Pojanath Bhatanacharoen for sharing these articles.