Cribsheet: tipping points and margins, etc

This note is intended as a handy guide or cribsheet or starting point for people unfamiliar with tipping points, margins, critical mass, paradigm shifts. (It is a little in the manner of my Right-wing Guide To Nearly Everything – RWG2NE – which I fear never did really reach a critical mass, or a…. etc, etc)

The tipping point concept is easy because we can visualise it. It evokes the see-saw: a playground memory. A see-saw is in balance or not, according the weights on either end. Critical mass has been borrowed from a toughter world: nuclear physics. It comes into play when an entity gains sufficient weight to tip a balance. Sometimes margins come into play when one considers the additional factor which makes the critical mass which makes a tipping point.

These ideas are at work in culture, economics, sociology, politics – everything, really.

The lovely thing about margins is that one sees the “power” of the “marginal unit” which makes the difference (straws and camels’ backs). Whether it’s the penny on a price, or the additional dumb voter in an election, or the mariner hauled into the laden lifeboat – even seeminlgy insignificant units or individuals can make a huge difference. Economists love “diminishing marginal returns”: the idea that each new unit even of a desirable thing may well produce less satisfaction than its predecessor. Such ideas gain perverse traction when considering addictions: each additional instance or dose of a mind-altering drug has a diminishing impact whilst simultaneously increasing the abuser’s longing for it.

These concepts are at work in other important ideas. For instance, a negotiated consensus is usually a compromise (it was no-one’s first choice) which achieves sufficient critical mass because it attracts just enough support to seem to win the argument.

Sometimes, achieving consensus depends on the support of a crucial individual whose coming on board swings it at the margin. It is mute whether a consensus needs universal if reluctant support or merely sufficient support to significantly weaken opposition to it. People (and wisdom) can be crushed by consensus, as by orthodoxy or conventional wisdom. The latter pair may be no more than a view which seems commonsensical through habit, or – like many paradigms (see below) – a view which has outworn its possible utility.

Tipping points are often invoked as the moment when stabilty turns to chaos or peace to violence. Perhaps that is because balance or equipoise can be advertised as attractive and safe. But stability can be stasis or sclerosis. All the same, it is at least curious that modern digital entrepreneurs advertise themselves as disruptors, as though AI and robots were bound to be a good thing which spelled discomfiture only for an unloved elite.

Paradigm Shift fits into much of the above. Thomas Kuhn proposed that scientific and cultural theories often grip people’s minds and imaginations not least because they offer a grand explanation – a grand narrative – of many things. These consensus views – or paradigns – often amount to a comfort zone. They also often amount to orthodoxies which interest groups or individuals with vested interests cling to with varying degrees of self-deception, for their own convenience. Disruptive thinkers who then come along with new theories often have a hard job shifting opinion. But – if they are lucky or have better evidence – their new views sometimes acquire critical mass and at achieve a tipping point at which a new grand narrative takes the field. Many issues outside science proceed along these switchbacks: epecially in history, and in matters of artistic “good taste”, as a conventional wisdom gains ground and is then subject to revision. In Soviet thought “revisionism” was a sin: fresh thought was redundant in that creed.


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Publication date

11 May 2019


Mind & body