Et Tu, QZ? The Boiled-Frog Watch Returns

You don’t often have a chance to use the word “decerebrated.” But it applies here.

Tom Toles cartoon from the Washington Post six years ago

Long ago I resolved to limit my campaign against the boiled-frog cliché to no more than one post per year. And in fact I’ve let it lie for several years! You remember our old friend the boiled frog: It’s the staple of any political or business-management speech, used to show that problems that build up slowly can be explained-away or ignored, while ones that happen all of a sudden are more likely to be addressed.

Conservatives use it to talk about the expansion of the socialist state. Liberals use it to talk about climate change. Business managers use it to talk about a slide toward mediocrity. Everyone can use it to talk about something.

And that’s the problem with boiled-frogism. The minor issue is that the metaphor is flat wrong. If you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it up, the frog will stay there — until things get uncomfortably warm, at which point it will climb out. But if you drop a frog into a boil of already-boiling water, the poor creature will be so badly hurt and scalded that it will stay there and die.

Exception: If the frog you put in the lukewarm water has already had its brain removed, it will sit there unresponsive as the temperature goes up. It was a scientist from Germany who thought to try this experiment, back in the 1800s.

The bogusness of the image is, again, the minor problem. The major problem is that it is such a damned cliché. If you’re relying on boiled frogs to make your point, you might as well be using the trick familiar from every high school oratory contest: “What is ‘loyalty’? Webster’s defines ‘loyalty’ as  …”

Thus I lament seeing our fellow Atlantic Media publication Quartz featuring an item on mindfulness at work that begins with this very cliché:

To understand how being constantly connected through computers and mobile devices has encroached on our working lives, consider the experiment about the frog in a pan of boiling water.

Oddly the article links to a compendium of scientific papers about frogs in hot water but doesn’t mention that they have been either decapitated or decerebrated with their brains removed.

On mindfulness, I agree with the article. But please please please! Let us be done with this cliché. If you’re trying to explain the concept of habituation, or incrementally becoming desensitized, why not try the cat litter-box problem? (You’re a cat lover, with five or six of the little felines in your house. You don’t notice that the house has begun to smell. But someone comes to the front door and … My God! What is that smell?)

For further reading:

  • Tod Kelly a year and a half ago in The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, pleading mainly on cliche grounds “Can we please throw the boiling frog metaphor into some boiling water?”
  • Joe Romm two years ago in Climate Progress on the “you have to remove the frog’s brain first” point.
  • Our own Atlantic archives on this all-important theme.
  • And, perhaps best of all, the compendium of scientific research on the (appallingly rich) scientific literature on when frogs will and will not jump out of dangerously hot pots. Sample:
Studies from the Biological Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, 1888.

Thanks to David Colby Reed for the tip.