Boiling Frogs

January 23, 2005 | 27 comments
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You undoubtedly have heard this metaphor: if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out, but if you place the frog into cold water and turn up the heat, it will become accustomed to the increasing heat and eventually get cooked. Gross! This metaphor is used not only by Mormon missionaries and Gospel Doctrine teachers, but by all sorts of religious teachers and political commentators. And I find it sickening.

Is it true that frogs will be complacent in the face of rising heat? Apparently not. But aside from the veracity of the underlying facts, why would we want to conjure an image of someone experimenting like this on live frogs? For me the whole thing sounds like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy in training.

[Editor’s Note: Gordon heard this metaphor again in Church today, and that set him off. He is expected to be back to his usual even-tempered self by tomorrow.]

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27 Responses to Boiling Frogs

  1. Kelly Knight on January 23, 2005 at 9:49 pm

    Gordon-

    I’m with you on this one. Perhaps there could be a collaboration on this thread to come up with replacements for the old and tired metaphors.

    For instance, my wife taught in Relief Society today the topic of Securing our Testimonies. She used the metaphor of checking that the load on one’s trailer is secure at the beginning of the journey, and that every so often, one must get out and make sure that the tie-downs have not loosened, allowing the load to shift or fall. Likewise, one must take stock of one’s testimony from time to time, ensuring that the tie-downs of personal and family prayer, personal and family scripture study, and FHE are secure, holding in place our testimony of the gospel.

    Anyway, just my thoughts.

  2. Shelby on January 23, 2005 at 10:04 pm

    First time posting. One of my mission companions and I had an unspoken rule going for months, which was that we would never use the same example twice. I’m not sure how it got started, but it got pretty tough after a few weeks. On the other hand, it opened our eyes up to how many things in this world can serve as great types for gospel principles. Priesthood authority? How about “whom would you allow to enter and run your family business?” Faith? Something about eggs, though I can’t remember now just what. Usually, the examples came from whatever we say sititng around us during the discussion, just as the Savior gleaned his allegories from everyday life. It’s time the rest of us looked around for teaching moments and stopped regurgitating the same tired object lessons over and over.

  3. Kaimi on January 23, 2005 at 11:03 pm

    I got on Matt’s case in a comments thread several months back about this urban legend. As I recall, his argument was that the urban legend is sufficiently illustrative that it’s worth using it, even if it isn’t true.

    By the way, there’s an interesting discussion of jurisprudence and frog catching, for those interested in that intersection, at http://www.tutissima.com/archives/000630.html .

  4. Derek on January 23, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    “That’s all very interesting, but I’m not cold-blooded and I don’t think anybody’s planning to boil me. But I’ll ask around.”

    Might I suggest replacing the topic analogy with Martin Niemöller’s famous poem? It doesn’t need quite as many frogs:

    “…Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

  5. Sheri Lynn on January 24, 2005 at 12:07 am

    This past year I came across an article in a chemistry journal. They were testing an herb, maca, used to increase energy and stamina. I do not remember the chemical of interest, but it did seem to affect the rate of anaerobic metabolism in muscle cells. They took mice of uniform genetic heritage, force-fed some of them an extract of this herb, attached weights to their little tails, and after a few hours, dropped them into cylinders of water. Then they timed how long it took the mice to drown. I’m serious! The mice who had been fed the maca lasted about thirty percent longer, across the board, especially in colder water.

    I’ve had nightmares about this, I truly have…some poor graduate student had to stand there day in and day out and slowly drown hundreds of little white mice for this obscure article in an obscure journal. But yes, there’s some maca extract in my medicine cabinet now. Looks like someone put vacuum cleaner dirt in clear gelatin capsules to sell. Can’t say I noticed any difference while I was taking it, but then, I’m not literally drowning.

  6. Sheri Lynn on January 24, 2005 at 12:09 am

    (At any rate, I’m not sure that I could or would bring up the lesson of the white mice force-fed maca extract in my Primary class.)

  7. Jim F. on January 24, 2005 at 12:47 am

    Sheri Lynn, who was doing this work? None of the university or other research institutions that I know about will allow experiments of this kind. There are strict guidelines for what one can and cannot do to experimental subjects, whether animal or human.

  8. Jim F. on January 24, 2005 at 12:52 am

    But I don’t want to hijack this thread and turn it into a discussion of the ethics of animal experimentation. If any reader feels inclined to do so, please resist the urge. Gordon’s question is a good one and deserves good discussion.

    I hear tired metaphors and analogies frequently in LDS talks, but most of the time they are used by people for whom they aren’t yet tired, namely young men and young women giving some of their first talks. That doesn’t change the problem, but it does mean that perhaps those of us who work with young women and men have a responsibility to help them more as they think about and prepare their talks. And we certainly have a greater responsibility to use better metaphors an analogies ourselves.

  9. An Investigator on January 24, 2005 at 1:51 am

    It’s a good thing Moroni ended his epistles when he did. If the specter of boiling frogs is usavory to you, these new insights into the goings on in the land of Zarahemla post-Moroni will be particularly repulsive. http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/americas/01/22/human.sacrifice.ap/index.html

  10. Sheri Lynn on January 24, 2005 at 4:13 am

    It was not done in the U.S. but in China I think…? I Xeroxed the article and have it around somewhere…if I find it while cleaning my office this week I’ll post the information here. But I do think of it whenever I hear the boiling frog story….

    I know my mentor did lots of research on enzymes in mouse brains. I don’t want to know if anything so unkind had to be done to his mice. Though what my kitties do to the occasional mouse they’ve managed to catch is probably far crueler, really.

    End of highjack unless I find the article.

  11. Ben S. on January 24, 2005 at 8:06 am

    During our itme at BYU, my wife worked in a lab doing research on a certain chemical found in the brain, and how the amount of the chemical in the mother affected offspring. This meant that the brains had to be extracted, sliced thinly, and examined. Circumstances conspired to bring about a fateful day- It happened to be a Sunday (there was strict time control on the experiment) that she had to go in to the lab, guillotine the newly born mice AND the mother, and make the appropriate cuts in the brain. Did I mention that “the custom of women was upon” her (Gen 31:19), and it also happened to be her birthday? She came home quite traumatized….

  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) on January 24, 2005 at 8:21 am

    Sorry to threadjack, but Jan Shipps will be in Plano, Texas at a fireside in February. We ought to have a Texas end of the bloggernacle meeting then.

  13. Kristine on January 24, 2005 at 8:51 am

    The first thing my brothers did when they heard this analogy for the first time at Standards Night was to run down to the creek behind our house to see if they could catch some frogs. Fortunately, they couldn’t get enough to do what they considered a well-designed experiment. (Having an experimental physicist for a dad is a mixed blessing.)

  14. Jordan Fowles on January 24, 2005 at 8:53 am

    Stephen-

    Missed you at both JRCLS events this week…

    Well, back to Texas Real Property law for the bar.

  15. MDS on January 24, 2005 at 11:35 am

    Next snopes.com is going to tell me that the story of the father and the bridge is false, too. What am I to build my testimony on, if not these meaningful metaphors?

  16. Mark Martin on January 24, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Another tired and unseemly metaphor: “teaching” the importance of sexual purity by having a group pass around and each handle a rose (or a stick of gum, or whatever). We’ve got to have better ways of teaching this important topic! No wonder so many mistakenly say “I don’t want used goods” when referring to a divorcee, or a widow/widower.

  17. Julie in Austin on January 24, 2005 at 5:52 pm

    I’ve got a chastity metaphor I’ve always wanted to try out: let me know what you think. Being unchaste is like writing on a white board with a regular marker. You can fix it (i’m imagining some poor beehive rubbing at it forr the entire lesson to show that it would eventually come of), but it is a lot of work. I think it nicely shows that repentence is possible, but not easy.

  18. Kristine on January 24, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    Julie, that’s not bad. The best one I ever heard though, was from Clayton Christensen, who was my bishop when I was in college (lucky me!!). He took a wire hanger up to the pulpit, and showed how bending it would weaken the metal in the place where it had been bent, that even though you could bend it back into shape, eventually, the metal might break in that place where it had been weakened by bending. He explained that it could be fixed, but that the metal had to be melted down and poured into a new wire to be evenly strong again. I can’t remember, actually, if he was specifically talking about chastity–it works for sin and atonement more generally, I think.

  19. marta on January 24, 2005 at 6:56 pm

    Julie, Interestingly, regular marker wipes off readily and completely with alcohol. Repentance and the atonement?

  20. Steve Evans on January 24, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    Marta, I guess the lesson from that would be that with a little alcohol, all is forgotten.

  21. Mark Martin on January 24, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    Julie, I think that’s quite an improvement. Nothing in your methaphor implies that a girl (or a boy) is something to be handled. Actually, in my workplace I’ve rescued a few permanent marker mistakes on the conference room whiteboards. An ethanol solution (e.g. rubbing alcohol) works well if you want to demonstrate cleansing after that poor beehive rubs away for half an hour! We could explain that only through Christ, and the guidance of our priesthood leader in the repentance process, can we become clean again after transgressing the moral law. We can’t do it on our own, and it’s “better to prepare and prevent, than to repair and repent.” (Ezra Taft Benson’s words) Thanks for sharing your idea.

  22. Ann on January 25, 2005 at 11:04 pm

    The last online issue of The Sugar Beet (may it rest in peace) had an article about the frog metaphor.

  23. Dustin on January 26, 2005 at 11:35 am

    Looking at some of the quotes in that sugar beet article, it sounds like an onion radio report… Is that the idea?

  24. Dustin on January 26, 2005 at 11:37 am

    Has anyone heard the metaphor about the fleas – that if you put a bunch of fleas in a jar, put a lid on it, and heat up the bottom of the jar you can hear them jumping and hitting the lid. Eventually they will adjust how high they jump so they don’t hit the lid. Then you can take the lid off and no flea will ever jump out. I wonder… :D

  25. Sheri Lynn on January 28, 2005 at 9:46 am

    CHEAP SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT! Hold the Advantage, honey! Kitties will have to keep scratching awhile longer!

  26. greenfrog on January 28, 2005 at 10:04 am

    ahem

    There are many reasons not to use the frog story.

  27. ron dean on January 28, 2005 at 2:34 pm

    very interesting discussion – I’ve also seen the ink in the water demonstration. It goes like this – you put some kind of dark
    liquid in clear water which, obviously, discolors the water and then you add another potion (the atonement) and voila! the water is clear. I’ve seen this about once every other year for as long as I can remember. I even remember my mother doing it during a sacrament meeting talk. Her hands were trembling from nervousness and she ended up spilling water all over the pulpit.