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I think if a metaphor is no longer valid, it should be retired, however powerful it may once have been.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.