Monday, 5 May 2008

The definition of boiling frogs

The boiling frog story states that a frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough — it is said that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out.

The story is generally told in a figurative context, with the upshot being that people should make themselves aware of gradual change lest they suffer a catastrophic loss. Often it is used to illustrate a slippery-slope argument. For example, many civil libertarians argue that even minor increases in government authority, which may seem less noteworthy, make future increases in that authority more likely: what would once have seemed a huge power grab, the argument goes, now becomes seen as just another incremental increase, and thus appears more palatable. In the boiling-frog allegory, the frog represents the citizenry, whilst the gradual heating of the water represents the incremental encroachment of government. Others have used it as an analogy with the growth of the offshore-world over decades, and how ordinary citizens have accepted the presence of abusive tax havens.

In the UK railway industry, "boiling frog syndrome" has been adopted as shorthand for the unnoticed escalation in infrastructure and maintenance costs under Railtrack. The phrase was first coined by Roger Ford, columnist for Modern Railways magazine.[1]

The story has been reprinted many times and used to illustrate many different points, including:

  • warning against people sympathetic to the Soviet Union ("The frog dropped into boiling water has sense to leap out, but the frog dropped into cold water can be cooked to death before he realizes he is in serious trouble. So it is with us Americans and our civilization in this mounting crisis. We must beware of those who want to thaw the cold war out at any cost. We may be cooked before we realize what has happened.")[2]
  • warning against inaction in response to climate change ("This is not an experiment I wish to commend, but it has lessons for another animal—ourselves. If drastic change takes place abruptly, we notice and react to it. If it takes place gradually, over a few generations, we are hardly aware of it, and by the time that we are ready to react, it can be too late.")[3]
  • warning about the impending collapse of civilization ("That's what's happening to us. Things are getting worse and worse, so we don't really notice what's happening. Whatever happens will happen slowly, and we won't have time to jump out.")[4]
  • as a way of understanding the Sorites paradox ("The art of frog-boiling is an ancient one, and the correct procedure will emerge in the course of considering an ancient puzzle, the so-called 'Paradox of the Heap' or Sorites.")[5]
  • warning against being in abusive relationships ("We are not inclined to notice gradual changes. This is how most partners adapt to verbal abuse. They slowly adapt until, like frog number two, they are living in an environment which is killing to their spirit.")[6]

Al Gore uses the analogy in his presentations and the movie An Inconvenient Truth to describe people's ignorance towards the issue of global warming. It is extremely common in books about business, economics, and marketing to illustrate the idea that change needs to be gradual if it is to be accepted, and as a warning against being slowly "boiled" in one's job.

In the book The Story of B, author Daniel Quinn uses the story of the boiling frog as metaphor for humans of our culture (defined by the practice of totalitarian agriculture). The boiling water in this case is the population growth that food surpluses make possible, combined with the belief that all resources in the world exist solely for the purpose of growing human food.

The boiling frog story should not be used to justify a rational argument. A slippery slope argument that does not prove each step is a logical fallacy