LEGEND OF THE BOILING FROG IS JUST A LEGEND
by Whit Gibbons
December 23, 2007
are perennial, that is they arise again and again. The question of the
boiling frog is one of them.
Q: I am a
Ph.D. student in the Netherlands working in the field of experimental
economics. I am doing laboratory tests on human behavioral responses to
gradual economic changes. The behavior is connected to the "boiling
frog" syndrome. I have heard that the metaphor itself is a hoax,
but that assessment seems to depend on just a few articles, one by your
hand. Is it true or a hoax?
A: I first
received an inquiry about the boiling frog phenomenon several years ago
from Joseph Pechmann, a noted amphibian conservation biologist. He himself
had received a query from someone in Hamburg, Germany, who said, "I
write a weekly column on scientific urban legends that my readers ask
me about. This one is often told by consultants or activists: If you put
a frog in boiling water, he will try to escape. If you put him in cold
water and heat it gradually, the frog will remain in place until he's
boiled. The lesson, to him (and consequently to us) is that gradual change
is imperceptible. Frankly, I don't buy this. But I am looking for professional
advice (and I don't want to boil frogs). Can you help me with this question?"
Joe was not
sure what the answer was, so he referred the question to me. I made a
few comments before passing the buck myself: "I have heard the anecdote
many times, including in a sermon by a Southern Baptist preacher. In that
case, the big bullfrog in a bucket of water that was being heated was
a metaphor for how gradual habituation to a devilish situation leads to
acceptance of an even worse one.
equate the oblivious frog with people who refuse, for whatever reason,
to recognize that the earth is under increasingly severe environmental
stress. Although an answer that destroys an urban myth or a commonly held
belief may disappoint some people, we are better off knowing the truth.
With a real frog in real water, my bet is that as soon as it began to
get uncomfortable the frog would jump out if it could.
have boiled no frogs, so I have no empirical evidence as to a frog's response
to gradually heated water. But I am aware of experiments on responses
of amphibians to high temperatures, so I feel certain someone familiar
with those studies would have an impression of what a frog would do as
the water warmed up. I am sending your question to Dr. Victor Hutchison
at the University of Oklahoma to see what he says. I too am interested
in his response."
was as follows: "The legend is entirely incorrect! The 'critical
thermal maxima' of many species of frogs have been determined by several
investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged
is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature
of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more
and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container
size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so." Naturally,
if the frog were not allowed to escape it would eventually begin to show
signs of heat stress, muscular spasms, heat rigor, and then death.
does that leave us with the boiling frog as a metaphor for the human response
to economic change or environmental degradation? Well, it's not true that
you can induce a frog to willingly remain in boiling water by starting
it off in cold water. But that does not diminish the truth of the message
that the accumulation of imperceptible changes can have a significant
effect on the economy and the environment. We need to be aware of what
changes are occurring and to respond to them in a timely fashion. The
metaphor lies in the frog's ability to escape from the container: if there's
no way out, then the frog's fate is a foregone conclusion.
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