Thursday, September 6, 2007

616 The Myth of the Boiling Frog and how it relates to environmental crises (like Global Warming)

Message no. 616[Branch from no. 494] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 5:06pm Subject: Re: Relational Summary - Varshawn

Right on Varshawn - You tie the reading in the text to a couple of nice personal observations -- particularly the one about chemical smell. I thought I had replied to your summary before, talking about the Weber Fechner function and the myth about being able to boil a frog in water by raising the water one degree every few minutes.

Perhaps my post got lost!

Anyway, this is a good time to talk about the frog myth. Environmental groups use it constantly (as in this website on global warming:

As the theory goes, the frog's nervous system can't distinguish temperatures 1 degree apart, so supposedly it never knows to jump out of the water until it is boiled alive. We hear this example all the time, but I doubt it's veracity -- there are certain threshholds beyond which nerve impulses fire. In the case of frogs there is a classic 1943 study by Honigmann (see that proved that Toads do recognize stationary objects. Previously it was thought that they only see movement (i.e. a fly moving). Amphibians turn out to be far more complex than we give them credit for!

Anyway, I searched around and found this website on which a biologist explains that the boiling frog legend is just that - a LEGEND. Check it out:

"The `critical thermal maxima' of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so." Naturally, if the frog were not allowed to escape it would eventually begin to show signs of heat stress, muscular spasms, heat rigor, and death.

So where does that leave us with the metaphor for the human response to environmental degradation? Well the idea that you can induce a frog to remain in boiling water if you start it off in cold water is not true biologically. But that does not diminish the need to keep an eye out for the gradual relaxation of environmental laws and regulations. The metaphor lies in the frog's ability to escape from the container: if there's no way out, then the frog's fate is a foregone conclusion."

I think the key insight here is that, although the Weber Fechner function is certainly true, I they we can safely say that most people are NOT unaware of the pollution in their environment, but like frogs in a sealed container, we are not given OPTIONS to get out of this mess, so we try to cope and adapt. The number of deaths due to cancer, to respiratory illness, stress related diseases and suicide, however, show us that people are not doing a great job of coping. They are dying.

Here in Cairo there are over 10,000 deaths every year (official statistic) from the "black cloud" of pollution that descends on this city during the thermal inversion time of September. Nonetheless, people keep burning garbage and driving dirty cars and trucks and busses and burn agricultural waste. Why? Because they are not given any options and have to make hard choices. Cairo shows me that no matter how bad conditions get and no matter how aware people become about the problems, if they are not given a way to act productively to eliminate the problem they will tolerate it UNTIL THEY DIE.

The proof for me that the Weber Fechner function doesn't explain Cairo behavior is that Egyptians constantly travel to cleaner areas of Egypt and return to Cairo and still do nothing, even though the contrast is not incremental but MANY ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE! We are dealing not with Weber Fechner in Cairo, but with large scale learned helplessness.

I do agree that when pollution is invisible (as with radioactivity) it is very hard for people to mobilize against it. But when you visit the "third world" you may discover, as I have, that even where it is absolutely terrible and life threatening, the oppressed, given no chance to mobilize, simply accept their fate.

Sad isn't it? So, what do we do?

Anyway, thanks for stimulating these thoughts with your post! If I had any comment, it would be to write more!! And more!! And more!!


No comments: