The Book Club

The Tipping Point

Dear Ed,

Almost four years ago, an esteemed science journalist–OK, it was me–suggested that the days of truly momentous scientific discovery might be over. One symptom of science’s plight, I predicted, would be that my fellow science writers would become increasingly desperate for and willing to invent “revolutionary” theories. To my delight, Malcolm Gladwell has provided the most spectacular confirmation of my hypothesis to date.

His book’s title refers to the fact that cultural phenomena often behave like epidemics. They propagate in a more or less steady fashion until they reach a “tipping point.” Then, Hush Puppies suddenly become hip, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood rockets to bestsellerdom, crime in New York City plummets. Tipping points, Gladwell asserts, are the key to understanding and controlling, well, almost everything.

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Gladwell is a clever idea packager. He’s good at explaining abstract ideas and at fleshing them out with engaging case histories and characters. But even he cannot conceal the fatuousness of his core conclusions. For example, his “Law of the Few” declares that when it comes to triggering cultural epidemics, “some people matter more than others.” Yes. Jesus, Marx, Hitler, and Oprah come to mind.

Equally vapid is the book’s central theme: “Little things can make a big difference.” Gladwell assures us that this revelation will flabbergast us, because we are all “gradualists” conditioned to believe that little causes yield only small effects; large effects require large causes. To illustrate how wrong our worldview is, Gladwell notes that when the temperature falls only a couple of degrees, rain turns to snow! He recalls a childhood puppy that was “overwhelmed” by its first encounter with snow. Well, I’m sure the puppy was dumbfounded, but was Gladwell?

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Who is Gladwell kidding? Scientists have been harping on so-called nonlinear effects for decades. Nonlinearity is the basis of catastrophe theory, chaos, complexity, self-organized criticality, punctuated equilibrium, and other scientific fads. Everyone knows about the butterfly effect, which holds that a butterfly flitting through Iowa can trigger a cascade of meteorological events culminating in a monsoon in India.

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Gladwell cites none of this work, and understandably so. His utopian message is that by manipulating tipping points we can cut down on crime, reduce teen-age smoking, and sell lots of sneakers without massive efforts. But the lesson of nonlinear research is that many phenomena are unpredictable, and especially the complex social phenomena upon which Gladwell focuses. Our culture is awash in potential tipping points. When we try to tip events in one direction, they activate other tipping points and careen down the wrong path. This is the law of unintended consequences, about which you have written so eloquently, Ed.

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What The Tipping Point inadvertently reveals is the importance–and limitations–of empiricism in social science. Sesame Street succeeded because its producers showed kids lots of pilot programs, kept what the kids liked, and threw out the rest. Similarly, the founder of Gore-Tex discovered through trial and error that his divisions performed more efficiently when they had no more than 150 employees.

The limits of empiricism are hinted at by another of Gladwell’s axioms. Called “the Power of Context,” it merely says that people behave differently in different situations. Gladwell puts a positive spin on this truism, seeing it as an environmental counterweight to genetic determinism. New York City actually made criminals less criminal just by washing graffiti off subway cars and fixing broken windows!

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What “the Power of Context” really suggests is that what works in one situation may not work in another. New York’s strategy for reducing crime (which really involved a massive crackdown on petty, street-level infractions) might not transfer to Houston. Gore-Tex’s “Rule of 150” might not work for Microsoft.

Gladwell is obviously smart enough to have realized all these objections to his thesis. If he had addressed them honestly, he might have written an interesting and substantive book, but he couldn’t have called it “revolutionary.” Ed, am I missing something, or does this book ring false to you, too?

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