Tipping point on tipping-point hyperbole?

Sometimes you feel like a nut. And sometimes that’s because the same pseudo-science hyperbole is really getting under your skin.

Before getting to today’s complaint, here’s the context — an outburst from the past:

A “tipping point” is the point at which something suddenly accelerates or becomes more significant. A “milestone” is the point at which something is labeled in a remarkable way. A milestone is symbolic; a tipping point is significant for the trend itself. –Philip Cohen, New York Times, Feb. 7, 2007.

The occasion of this admonishment was a page 1 article in the Times, about some demographic proportion reaching the milestone of 51%:

The article quoted the demographer William H. Frey twice misusing the term ”tipping point” to mean milestone or ”culmination” of a trend. This misuse had the effect of pumping up the importance of the story, making the 51 percent milestone seem like news.

The story there was something that would be shocking to a 1950s time traveler (majority of women not married for the first time). And here we are again, in the April 6 Times — different trend, same shocked time traveler:

Once again, 50% is offered as a dramatic “tipping point” in a story quoting William Frey. This time, I determined the journalistic etiology. Frey planted the term “tipping point” in a February report (let’s just agree to call these “blog posts” from now on, OK?) on the Brookings web site. The Times story, by experienced foreign correspondent Sabrina Tavernise, was actually less dramatic than Frey’s post. Rather than wait until 2019 for the “tipping point” to arrive, Frey had dialed the analysis down to three-year olds:

It is interesting and worth reporting that “non-Hispanic Whites” are heading toward non-numerical-majority status, and that the trend is out-pacing previous projections. Good story. But this framing is pure hype. In case you missed the hype in the small print, here’s the Tweet version:

Without having even read The Tipping Point, I will try to clarify: A tipping point is the point at which a trend accelerates, or gains irreversible momentum. In that book, Malcolm Gladwell talked about social tipping points as epidemics, where a few infections can be just a few infections, but a few more can suddenly spark a disastrous plague — as may occur in fashion. Consider a relevant example from race relations from 1971:

Note that, first, the tipping point is not assumed to be 50%. And second that it is an empirical question, something to be discovered through study, not declared in advance. If and when we can accurately predict tipping points — for example, in climate change — they are a very powerful concept. How else could we know which one of these potential trends must be stopped before we’re all wearing them?

But as a tool for trend-spotting hyperbole, the tipping point is a weapon of mass distraction.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of demographic-science news reporting that news organizations are so susceptible to such manipulations, creating incentives for publicity-hungry entities to sex up their blogs (including calling them “reports”). The problem lies in the political economy of information, I think, in which competition among instant-content creators, operating without peer-review checks, collides with under-staffing in financially strapped news reporting organizations, sending us careening toward the tipping point of scientific illiteracy.

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