Boiling Frogs, Sheep and Lemmings…

boiling frogsPeople who accept and welcome change are always frustrated by those who oppose and condemn it. Somewhat understandably, they tend to make unattractive comparisons between the stasis people and dumb animals, such as calling them lemmings, sheep or, boiling frogs. And while these comparisons may not be without some basis, they are less than useful.

After all, if you call someone a lemming, they are not likely to consider your arguments very warmly. Instead, they will reflexively and vigorously defend their current position. So, fitting or not, animal comparisons don’t help much.

It is also true that such comparisons are often untrue. Ostriches, for example, do not hide their heads in the sand. The image is evocative, but it is fictional.

One such image that has become popular in our time is that of the boiling frog. You must have encountered it by now. The story goes that if you drop a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out of it. But, if you put him in a pan of water and raise the temperature slowly, he will stay where he is and eventually boil to death. Then, it is said that some people act like the slowly boiling frog.

Leaving behind the question of utility (is calling someone a boiling frog helpful?), the next question is this:

Is it really true that a real frog will let itself boil to death if cooked slowly enough?

How Fast do Boiling Frogs Boil?

Several European scientists in the late 1800s did experiments to answer this question, which did show that with a slow enough temperature rise, a frog will stay in a pot and die of heat. Some modern scientists have vehemently claimed that this is false, but I’ve not been able to find any more proof than “I’m a famous biologist and I say so.” So, while further experiments would be necessary to close the debate (and I certainly don’t want to do them), the weight of experiment says that the boiling frog story is true.

Just for the record, here are a few of the details:

In 1872, an experimenter by the name of Heinzmann demonstrated that a frog would not attempt to escape if seated in water that was heated slowly enough. Heinzmann heated his frogs at a rate of less than 0.2°C per minute to get this effect. His work was replicated and verified in 1875 by a man named Fratscher. The author of a psychology text in 1897, Edward Scripture, says that “in one experiment the temperature was raised at a rate of 0.002°C per second, and the frog was found dead at the end of 2.5 hours without having moved.”

One experiment to the contrary was done by a man named Goltz, who raised the temperature of the water at 3.8°C per minute, during which the frogs attempted to escape.

In 1888, a professor at MIT named William Thompson Sedgwick commented on these experimental results:

The truth appears to be that if the heating be sufficiently gradual, no reflex movements will be produced even in the normal frog; if it be more rapid, yet take place at such a rate as to be fairly called “gradual,” it will not secure the repose of the normal frog under any circumstances.

The comment on “the normal frog” is a response to still other experiments, performed on altered frogs. I have not mentioned those experiments above.

Modern authorities have disputed the boiling frog theory with comments such as “If a frog had a means of getting out, it certainly would get out,” and “The legend is entirely incorrect!” They have not, however, produced experimental results; instead, they quote theoretical maximums. (Which end up not contradicting the 1872 and 1875 experiments, though it seems that no one bothered to check those numbers.)

Remember that experiment always trumps authority. Here’s how the great physicist Richard Feynman explained it:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

Of Frogs and Humans

A frog fails to jump out of hot water when the change in temperature fails to reach what is called a reflex response level. If the change in its surroundings is too slow, no response is triggered.

A similar effect shows up in humans when slow changes lead to no response in them. For whatever reasons, they have trained themselves not to respond, and they don’t.

For example, a very gradual rise in government tyrannycombined with no reference to an independent standard – generates zero response in many people. Then, because humans are intelligent, they understand that to respond after putting it off would contradict their previous choices and set themselves up to be shamed. So, such people tend to defend their position and to numb themselves as required with television, booze and drugs.

The reference to an outside standard mentioned above is important. If people judge themselves only by other people and the norms in their area, and if they’ve been trained that morality doesn’t matter, they will go along with the crowd quite readily. On the other hand, if they can refer to a separate set of ideas and other ways of deciding, they are often able to stand up to tyranny and say, “this is wrong.”

Scarily enough, people who stay inside of one frame of reference, and who experience slow change, can be brought to accept horrible things without rebellion. Indeed, the boiling frog metaphor, no matter how disturbing, sometimes seems to be the right one for the world we live in.

Paul Rosenberg

2 thoughts on “Boiling Frogs, Sheep and Lemmings…”

  1. Perhaps that is why just a small number of impassioned persons who light brush fires in people… evoke change. They activate frog jumping reflexes in the masses by their own fire by rapid increase in heat in the society through the flame of their passion.

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