Classic lesson from a frog applies to modern politics
By Don Bachmann Stops Along the Way
Many know the classic frog in boiling water experiment. If you place a frog into a pan of boiling water, it perceives its danger and immediately jumps out. But, if you place a frog in a gradually warming pan until it boils, it just stays there because it becomes acclimatized to the changing water temperature.
In truth, this 19th century experiment is misleading and basically false according to contemporary scientists. The tendency is for the frog to jump out regardless of how gradually the water is heated unless somehow enticed to stay there. Today, it is regarded more as a fable and primarily used as a metaphor.
With this as background, let me tell you of my high school introduction to this quasi-fable by Mr. Grabowski. A World War II immigrant, Mr. Grabowski spoke with an accent and taught in unconventional ways. In his version, it was basically the same as described above; but, as enticement, a plastic lily was floated on top of the water before inserting the frog for the second time. He said the tendency was for the frog to still jump out – but not quite so often.
He then asked, “If this observation is true, why would a fake flower entice a frog to remain in the water as the temperature rose?”
No one offered an answer.
Mr. Grabowski explained, “The frog was more likely to remain in the water because it was waiting for something it wanted – waiting for an insect to land on the lily. And, while focused on its next meal, it got distracted and failed to perceive the rising water temperature. In the end, its perceptions became distorted, and it simply couldn’t perceive its danger.”
Mr. Grabowski then said, “Now, I want you to take this observation and apply it to human behavior?”
We tried, but we failed in the analogy.
He sighed, “Not to worry, someday you may yet profit from the lesson.” The class was over; he packed his briefcase and left the room. Though disappointed in the resolution, we still had a good laugh about Mr. Grabowski’s crazy ways.
Now one may ask, “Did the inserted lily really induce the frog to remain in the water?” Possibly, but I don’t know; I doubt that Mr. Grabowski knew.
You see, he wasn’t a biology teacher; he was a sociology teacher, and I believe he was just trying, as mentioned above, to make a metaphorical point – a point we failed to realize.
For most, the lesson remained unlearned and was soon forgotten, but not by me. It nagged at me; but, I just put it to the back of my mind until relevant events would bring it to the fore. I believe I now understand Mr. Grabowski’s fable and realize its worth.
You see, the frog relies on its instincts to protect itself and, if endangered, it jumps away. We have instincts as well but also rely upon a value system to protect us; we know the difference between right and wrong. If someone tried to make us commit a heinous act, we would instinctually jump away.
But, as in the frog’s case, if awareness is dulled while you await hopes to be fulfilled, your reality can become distorted. The frog was focused on the fake flower hoping to catch an insect. We were focused on a fake messiah hoping his promises would fulfill our needs and address our grievances.
The frog didn’t realize when the ever-warming water temperature began to affect its senses. We didn’t realize when the ever-warming political temperature began to affect our values. In the end, the frog would have unknowingly sacrificed its life to the fake flower; on January 6, many of us would have unknowingly sacrificed the life of our democracy to a demagogue.
The demagogue gains popularity by exploiting people’s emotions, prejudices and false perceptions. Rather than rational argument, he distorts reality through misinformation and false claims. He brings out the worst in us by eroding our value system and justifying nefarious conduct. The demagogue foments disharmony, conquers by division, demands loyalty through fear and corrupts by his very nature.
I pray the day of the demagogue is over but fear it is not. There are simply too many political wannabees who see the demagogic playbook as their path to power. I pray that people can see these wannabees for who they really are.
I pray that the body politic will realize the tremendous harm being done through partisanship, that they will lower the temperature of the discourse and government will again function as intended by our founders.
And, most of all, I pray that America has learned its lesson and is the wiser for it.
The columnist lives near Orlean
PS: When Mr. Grabowski was telling us his metaphorical fable, I now realize he was relating it to his experience with the authoritarian rise of pre-World War II despots. Little could he imagine that anything similar could ever happen in America.