False metaphors should be retired

Good metaphors can be powerful things, bringing a dull and difficult concept to vivid life by comparing it to something else that is believed to be true and can be easily visualized. But if a once powerful metaphor is found to be based on a false premise, should we continue to use it? This has become the case with the ‘boiling frog’ metaphor frequently used to discuss how we can be oblivious to major and potentially disastrous changes if those changes occur slowly. The metaphor is based on the belief that “a frog immersed in gradually heating water will fail to notice the creeping change in its circumstances, even as it’s literally being boiled alive.”

The linked article says that although that idea is false, it is ok to continue to use it in the context of climate change.

Contemporary scientists no longer subscribe to this now discredited observation, but as a metaphor for the way in which humans are sailing unfazed into a dire-looking future of irreversible climate change, it’s perfectly apt.

“This is a true boiling-frog effect,” says climate scientist Frances C. Moore from the University of California, Davis.

“People seem to be getting used to changes they’d prefer to avoid. But just because they’re not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not making them worse off.”

The article goes on to describe what researchers have found about people’s response to climate change.

What the team found was that people were generally more likely to tweet about the weather if it was unusual for the season where they lived – for example, warm conditions in winter, or cool temperatures in summer.

But this unsurprising tendency also depends on past experience, in terms of people’s memories of weather in recent years – and in a world that’s slowly getting hotter all the time, we’re actually noticing this extreme weather less (much, in a sense, like that fateful frog).

“Temperatures initially considered remarkable rapidly become unremarkable with repeated exposure over a roughly [five-year] timescale,” the authors write in their paper.

“Since expectation adjustment is rapid relative to the pace of anthropogenic climate change, this shifting subjective baseline has large implications for the notability of temperature anomalies as climate change progresses.”

I think if a metaphor is no longer valid, it should be retired, however powerful it may once have been. Critics can focus on the falseness of the metaphor as if it were an argument against the underlying phenomenon. It is like when you argue with biblical literalists and say that the story of Jonah and the whale is preposterous. They will quickly respond triumphantly that the Bible only says ‘great fish’ and not ‘whale’ and think that they have won the argument.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    But if a once powerful metaphor is found to be based on a false premise, should we continue to use it?

    Lemmings and ostriches say “No!”

  2. Mark Dowd says

    I nominate “like a growing puppy” as its replacement. Everyone that’s ever cared for an infant animal (including a human!) should know that feeling of not realizing how much the adorable little thing is growing right under your nose. Then you look at a photo and it just smacks you “she was only this big six months ago, when did she grow so much?”

  3. Mark Dowd says

    That’s “…of not realizing…”. POS phone keyboard.

    [Mark: I corrected the error, if you don’t mind -- MS]

  4. file thirteen says

    I’m in favour of searching for better metaphors, but don’t bin the old ones if it comes at the cost of dry or turgidly written scientific prose.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    I propose “vacuum polarization” for immediate retirement, while knowing it will never happen. A boy can dream…

    This would kill two false metaphors with one blow; the fanciful link to classical charge screening in dielectric polarization, and the silly “electron-positron pairs popping in and out of the vacuum” picture*.

    *Well, it would kill this particular use of the silly picture.

  6. John Morales says


    Leaving aside whether it is truly a metaphor or functionally an idiom, the purpose of a metaphor is to convey an idea; if the metaphor does that, it is successful whether or not it represents a veridical fact or not.

  7. Holms says

    Good luck retiring it, “the pot calling the kettle black” has been retained, despite that those items are typically no longer made of black iron, and have not for many generations.

  8. mnb0 says

    “I think if a metaphor is no longer valid, it should be retired.”
    A typical non-problem. It’s possible to add a disclaimer to the false metaphor that makes it even more powerful.

    -- Humans are sailing unfazed into a dire-looking future of irreversible climate change; they act like frogs in water that’s gradually heated up. Except that frogs are smarter; they actually do notice the gradual change and do react, unlike humans.”

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