Well, Malcolm Gladwell was at least right about tipping points


Malcolm Gladwell wants you to know that everything you think you know about how the world works is probably wrong.

Gladwell lives to explode the conventional wisdom.

His shtick, repeated in best-seller after best-seller, has made Gladwell one of America’s best-known writers of serious nonfiction, up there with David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose.

Here’s how you know he’s big: A whole website is devoted to parodying his work.

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Gladwell has received a barrage of critiques from scientists and social scientists who say that his provocative romps routinely misstate research, mistake correlation for causation, and hang glib generalizations on slim anecdotes.

Mere envy, say his defenders.   Gladwellians insist that if those pedantic scholars were better at explaining what they’ve learned through research, we wouldn’t need Malcolm Gladwell to connect the dots.  But because most academic researchers have no idea how to explain things in plain English, nor much interest in doing so, Gladwell fills a void.

I have to admit Gladwell’s routine has been wearing thin for me. But I still cherish insights gleaned from his first blockbuster, The Tipping Point.

The tipping point theory seems to prove out again and again in contemporary life. The idea of the tipping point is that momentum behind an idea, trend or social change can build slowly over time, out of sight to most observers. Then some small act or actor can make the situation “tip,” releasing that momentum in ways that seem sudden and dramatic.

Theory into real-life practice

Where can you see the tipping point in action? Well … gay marriage is one. I’ve always been sure, that as the arc of history bends towards justice, that gay marriage would someday be legal and commonplace in this land. I was equally sure that it would NOT be in my lifetime. But now, the pace of change on this issue has become breathtaking. We are living through, right now, a societal tipping point.

You can glimpse a tipping point in action in Pennsylvania as well.

Political polls can change in an instant, but right now they show Pennsylvania’s incumbent governor, Tom Corbett, to be in deep trouble.

What’s going on there, most of all, I believe, is a quiet revolt of the soccer moms. That famous political constituency is usually open to moderate Republicans. But soccer moms care above all about kids, their own first, but also other people’s.

The effects of Pennsylvania’s massive cuts in state support for education, both K-12 and colleges, are hitting home in even the most comfortable suburbs. Soccer moms do not like the image that drilling companies get more TLC from Harrisburg than the state’s own kids.

This, along with the backwash from the Penn State-Sandusky mess, is what has been eroding Corbett’s support.

Whether this revote of the soccer moms really portends an overdue sea change in Pennsylvania’s conversation about public education remains to be seen. The damage done to school equity is huge, and the money and political will to repair will be devilishly hard to find.

We can only live in hope.

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