Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas: Or Math-turbation?

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute think they have come up with an experimental model that demonstrates how viral marketing works. Although there may be a kernel of truth here (at a certain point, a small group of true believers can influence the majority opinion), this particular study may not actually prove much.

According to a July 26th, 2011 article in Science Daily the Rensselaer scientists think they have data that shows that a minority opinion can become a majority opinion when just 10 percent of the population holds "an unshakable belief" in that minority opinion. Basically, a core group of true believers can have their belief adopted by the majority of the society - once the minority opinion becomes a firm belief in just 10% of the population.

But wouldn't that make the former majority opinion a minority opinion? What if over 10% of the former majority hold "an unshakable belief?" Will their opinion revert to being the majority opinion?

According to researcher Prof. Boleslaw Szymanski here's how it works: "If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief."

But what if people aren't listening? What if a purveyor of an idea can't reach anyone in the majority because they aren't already Facebook friends? What if the majority gets all their info from Fox News or MSNBC - and the minority view can't get airtime there?

According to Prof. Boleslaw Szymanski that's not a problem: "An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society."

I'm deeply skeptical.

The findings were published in the July 22, 2011, online edition of the journal Physical Review E in an article titled "Social Consensus Through the Influence of Committed Minorities." It requires a subscription and (although I realize it isn't collegial of me) I'm not paying for it.

If, like me, you're already worried about junk science on public opinion, it won't comfort you to know that the research was funded by the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) through SCNARC, part of the Network Science Collaborative Technology Alliance (NS-CTA), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

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