The boiled-frog myth: stop the lying now!

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2006/09/the-boiled-frog-myth-stop-the-lying-now/7446/