Monday, July 13, 2009

Pet peeve: this metaphor sucks

Today's Paul Krugman column says:

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.

Why? Why is it a useful analogy? It only confuses the issue to spread the urban legend that frogs won't jump out of boiling water, and then say "Okay actually they will, but the analogy stands."

At least Krugman has the presence of mind to point out that it's an urban legend... most people quote the frog legend as if it were true. But frankly, by repeating the urban legend you're reinforcing the false story and increasing the likelihood of cementing it as a true story, by people who miss the instant retraction.

Here's a better idea: somebody ought to find a new metaphor to describe a person who doesn't notice they're in trouble as their situation gradually changes. If you can't think of one, then maybe metaphors just aren't the way to go here, because they muddle the issue rather than clarify it.


  1. Is America on its way to becoming

    ...a planet with melting polar ice caps?

    ...the Bush administration with its respect for civil liberties?

    ...your sanity while watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?

  2. Watch a cow feeding on grass. With head down, it will nibble on a patch of grass, then move a bit over to nibble on another patch of grass, then take a few more steps to the next patch, etc.

    After a long while, the cow will lift its head, look around . . . and be completely lost.

  3. "
    After a long while, the cow will lift its head, look around . . . and be completely lost."

    Fortunately by then he'll be on the slaughter house killing floor so it doesn't' really matter!

  4. "To rest on one's laurels" maybe is to anachronistic.

    "Having faith in self-worth, Who is Selfworth?" maybe is to obtuse.

    "Reality is self-induced hallucination." is (I think) about right. Globally we are all phuckin nuts, propagating public resources, and raising proxy-truth/rhetoric/dogma... as spin-feed and dogma-feed for cannibalistic public consumption.

    A possible (maybe probable) future reality of robot factories, weapons, and servants controlled by megalomaniacal plutocrat posterity, of the present privileged/entitled classes, will exterminate the public resource excess, live free of slave revolts... all is eventually lost.

    Are we at a revolution nexus for culture, economy, life?
    Are we at another fork in the road of haves and have-nots?
    Is our species headed for a greater galactic destiny, or eventual irrelevancy and extinction on planet earth?

    So, GTFU or DDMF (Grow The Phuck Up or Drop Dead Mother Phucker), that is the question what is nobler?

  5. @oh21:

    What does any of that have to do with this post?

  6. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Is there any peer-reviewed evidence that the metaphor is false?

    Someone did the experiment (, however, it hasn't been written up in a peer-reviewed journal.

    Similarly, the Snopes and Wikipedia articles rely on a single expert (Prof Victor Hutchinson), who whilst no doubt eminently qualified, has not published his opinion in a scientific journal.

    So, my question boils down to, if we accept that the metaphor is false based on the word of one expert and one un-written up experiment, are we setting a dangerous precedent?

    (For the record, I don't believe the metaphor to be true.)

  7. I mean a few things..., how does it relate...?

    All metaphors suck, and reality bite.

    Most folks like things that don't bite. Metaphors are just sound-bite rhetoric providing a proxy explanation of ...?

  8. Michael Kingsford Gray2:00 AM

    Instead of the fake boiling toad, how about "like a fundy"?

    After all, they never change their stance no matter how evident it is that they are in hot water.

    Or maybe "like a Comfort"?