A paper recently published in Physical Review Letters E is stirring some attention on the web.  The citation and abstract are below.  The work was funded by the Army Research laboratory.

J. Xie1, S. Sreenivasan1,2,*, G. Korniss2, W. Zhang3, C. Lim3, and B. K. Szymanski1
1Department of Computer Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th Street, Troy, New York 12180, USA
2Department of Physics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th Street, Troy, New York 12180, USA
3Department of Mathematics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th Street, Troy, New York 12180, USA

Received 17 February 2011; revised 25 April 2011; published 22 July 2011

We show how the prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction p of randomly distributed committed agents who consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence. Specifically, we show that when the committed fraction grows beyond a critical value pc≈10%, there is a dramatic decrease in the time Tc taken for the entire population to adopt the committed opinion. In particular, for complete graphs we show that when p<pc, Tc~exp[α(p)N], whereas for p>pc, Tc~lnN. We conclude with simulation results for Erdős-Rényi random graphs and scale-free networks which show qualitatively similar behavior.

I’ll confess that I have not paid for a download nor have I been to the local university library to look at the paper.  There is an RPI website that details the highlights of the paper. 

The results of the work seem very intriguing, though. And making a tie to current events is all too easy, so I’ll attempt to restrain myself.

If you have ever done simulation work, you know not to confuse simulation with reality.  However, the great value of simulation is that it forces one to think hard about the parameters of a system and to develop quantatative relationships. This is especially useful in iterative or non-linear processes where intuition easily breaks down.  Even if you do not succeed making a bullet proof model, you have almost certainly come to understand the system better.

Thr RPI article goes on to say-

Once the networks were built, the scientists then “sprinkled” in some true believers throughout each of the networks. These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. 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.

This seems to connect quite naturally with Chomsky’s notion of the “Manufacture of Consent” by the ever burgeoning political-media complex in operation today.  My guess is that the backers of conservative media have had an intuitive grasp of the benefits of repetition and existential certainty for a long while.  When you claim to have the “founders” and a deity on your side, logic and reasoning becomes distinctly non-linear.