Identifying and describing critical factors is a key step toward problem-solving, but it's only the first step. Next, one has to link those factors together and gingerly start to hook some numbers to them --- relative weights, speeds, probabilities, and so forth. That's how to turn a handwaving exercise into a testable theory.

Malcolm Gladwell's recent book The Tipping Point: Why Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference is a good example. It's an engagingly fast read, smoothly-written, full of striking metaphors and case studies. (Some pieces of the book were published earlier as essays in the New Yorker.) In brief, Gladwell argues that many social phenomena --- crime waves, fashion fads, teen suicides, success and failure of businesses --- are (like the spread of disease) governed by nonlinear relationships, and so they can be profoundly affected by slight shifts in a few parameters. (Hard to disagree with that!) The book describes several elements which may be key to understanding social epidemics:

Good concepts, all.

But The Tipping Point never quite gets past storytelling to the essential next stage of knowledge. To build a theory, one must:

This process doesn't have to be arcane or even very mathematical. But it does need to be done if there's going to be progress in understanding a situation. That's the difference between natural philosophy and philately.

Tuesday, June 20, 2000 at 20:36:35 (EDT) = 2000-06-20

TopicThinking - TopicScience - TopicPhilosophy - TopicSociety

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