The boiled-frog myth: stop the lying now!

More

A twelve-hour flight from Shanghai to San Francisco has its drawbacks, but one of the plusses is the chance to catch up on a whole slew of movies. Oddly enough, it was under these circumstances that I finally saw Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. Since I found him persuasive on the big points, let me mention only a small one: the "frog in boiling water" myth that simply won't go away.

Everyone who has heard a political speech knows this story: You put a frog into a pot of boiling water, and it jumps right out. But if you put it in a pot of nice comfortable water and then turn on the heat, the frog will complacently let himself be boiled. One standard version of the story is here. The reason it's so popular in politics is that it's an easy way to warn about the slow erosion of liberties or any other slow threat you want to talk about.

Here's the problem. It just isn't true. If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will (unfortunately) be hurt pretty badly before it manages to get out -- if it can. And if you put it into a pot of tepid water and then turn on the heat, it will scramble out as soon as it gets uncomfortably warm.

How do I know? Let's just say that, as with global warming, the scientific evidence is all on one side of this one. Fast Company magazine did an admirable early myth-busting story on the topic in its very first issue, more than a decade ago. The best quote (of many good ones) in the article was from the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, who when asked about the boiled-frog story said: "Well that's, may I say, bullshit." There is much more to the same effect, eg here. The most interesting scientific report is on Google Answers, in response to a request for a "biologically valid" example of animal behavior that would illustrate the same point.

Why bother mentioning this moment in Gore's film? From a politician like, say, former Rep. Tom DeLay, with his novel interpretations of Terry Schiavo's medical condition, it would barely noticeable. But from our scientist-statesman, Al Gore??? In fairness, his case is not as embarrassing as that of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which used the parable of the frog in a recent editorial.

Frogs have a hard enough time as it is, what with diminishing swampland and polluted waters. Political rhetoric has its problems too. For the frogs' sake, and that of less-idiotic public discourse, let's retire this stupid canard, or grenouille.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In