Doc Hopper’s Boiling Frog Metaphor And How It Irritates James Fallows

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Here’s the tagged posts at James Fallow’s joint about the boiling frog metaphor. From these archives:

Paul Krugman:

Is America on its way to becoming a boiled frog?

I’m referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it’s in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.


Fallows response:

If this becomes a “hypothetical” frog, a “proverbial” frog, a “useful metaphor” to get across a point, then it enters the company of “the streets were paved with gold” or “his eyes were bigger than his stomach” in being a useful way of conveying an idea, although no one thinks the image itself is literally true. At it can exit the realm of the “cautionary revelation from the world of science” that it typically occupies in political speeches or, sigh, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It’s still a cliche, but you can’t have everything. I had not previously thought of Paul Krugman as a peacemaker or placater, as opposed to a provocateur, but he may now have shown a new field of achievement.

Eugene Volokh & David Newman at Legal Affairs:

PEOPLE SOMETIMES CALL THIS “DESENSITIZATION,” or repeat the parable of the boiling frog: A frog that’s dropped into boiling water will jump out, but a frog that’s put into cold water which is gradually warmed supposedly won’t notice the temperature change�and will get cooked. Likewise, people will let their liberty be taken away slowly, though they would have resisted the changes to their freedom had they been proposed all at once.

But desensitization, boiling frogs, and slippery slopes are metaphors. While metaphors can be helpful, they often start by enriching our vision and end by clouding it. Metaphor, after all, is a term for a figure of speech (“All the world’s a stage”) that’s literally false. The trick is to look beyond the metaphor to the actual mechanism by which the “slippage” or “desensitization” happens. By identifying this concrete mechanism (for instance, people’s often-rational desire not to devote their time to considering seemingly small policy changes) we can better evaluate the actual likelihood of slippage�the probability that by supporting an appealing decision now, we will make a dangerous one later.



Volokh unfortunately lards his argument with specious boiled-frog references, but at least in the Harvard Law Review version he redeems himself by admitting — as Paul Krugman recently did — that he’s referring only to fictional figure-of-speech frogs, since real ones would probably try to save themselves.

A new one that Fallows hasn’t commented on. Spencer Aland at The Adam Smith Institute:

A frog will most certainly jump out of a pot of boiling water, but put him in the same pot and slowly heat the water until it boils and the frog will never notice until he is dead. Are we simply enjoying the warm waters so much that we don’t realize what is happening? Communism is a parasite. The system is designed to benefit all, but it cannot function with being able to drain the wealth out of those that produce it. If you remove the wealth it feeds on then it will die. We have a parasite problem, and it is killing capitalism with progressive taxes and over regulation. But no one will do anything about it because they are too busy swimming.

The clip from “Inconvenient Truth”

A song titled “Boiled Frogs”

Kevin Drum:

But here’s the thing: Fallows issued a worldwide call for good substitute metaphors two years ago.  Four days later he promised that winners would be announced in a couple of days.  And then….nothing.

So here’s what I’m interested in.  The boiling frog cliche is untrue.  But it stays alive because, as Krugman says, it’s a useful metaphor.  So why aren’t there any good substitutes?

This is very strange.  Most useful adages and metaphors not only have substitutes, they have multiple substitutes.  “Look before you leap” and “Curiosity killed the cat.”  “Fast as lightning” and “Faster than a speeding bullet.”  Etc.  Usually you have lots of choices.

But in this case we don’t seem to have a single one aside from the boiling frog.  Why?  Is it because it’s not really all that useful a metaphor after all?  Because the frog has ruthlessly killed off every competitor?  Because it’s not actually true in any circumstance, let alone with frogs in pots of water?  What accounts for this linguistic failure?

UPDATE: Glenn Beck makes this the meme of the day:

UPDATE #2: Chris Orr on Beck:

If Glenn Beck were a regular reader of Jim Fallows, he’d be well aware of the “if you put a frog in boiling water” fallacy. But he’s not, evidently, and this is the sorry result. I imagine a strongly worded letter from PETA is in the offing. Worse, from Beck’s perspective, he’s just metaphorically informed his viewers that their populist rebellions are about to, well, expire

UPDATE #3: Language Log

James Fallows

UPDATE #4: Julian Sanchez


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One response to “Doc Hopper’s Boiling Frog Metaphor And How It Irritates James Fallows

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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