Bartlett is driven by a mission to satisfy his curiosity about human nature and has built up a substantial international fan base thanks to his warmth and innate curiosity about every subject and individual he talks to.
Not everyone is a fan and that’s okay, you cannot possibly be everything to everyone, so it is inevitable that he will have detractors. He doesn’t let it get to him. He not only blocks out negative criticism but also does not allow himself to be distracted by the praise-singing of the growing fan-base.
It’s an interesting strategy – but I think he is missing out.
Filtering and navigating noise and unwarranted clutter is an essential skill which all of the highly successful founders and CEO’s I have studied over more than two decades possess. Those that have built up long careers don’t ignore bad news, or the information that doesn’t suit them, they weigh it, measure it and navigate it effectively. Simply blocking the feedback loop is dangerous as it excludes the occasional bit of feedback that can make all the difference to your performance.
The trick is knowing what is and is not useful.
Over the years I have received hundreds of pieces of correspondence, most of it affirming and supportive; occasionally spiteful and vindictive; a few times even malicious and threatening. Each one of those has provided an element of distraction which either comes in the form of a warm and fuzzy ego boost or undermines your mission through creating unhelpful self-doubt. It is seldom instructive and that’s why I get Steven’s wish to block it all out, but he may be missing out after a recent note from an animal rights charity sent me down the rabbit hole of introspection.
To spare you time, I have edited it.
“We recently (heard you make) an analogy relating global warming to placing a frog in (a pot of slowly heating) water, and we feel compelled to bring a matter of concern to your attention. While we appreciate discussions on critical topics such as climate change, we wish to express our concern about the analogy used during the broadcast. The analogy involving a frog in water, as it heats up, and the frog’s eventual attempt to escape, has historically been associated with a troubling experiment known as the “boiling frog” experiment. The 19th century science experiment has been widely criticised as inhumane and unethical…we understand that the analogy was likely intended to create a powerful image related to global warming, but it inadvertently evokes a disturbing image associated with animal cruelty….as a reputable radio presenter, we believe that Mr. Whitfield has a significant influence on public opinion, and we kindly request that, in the future, careful consideration is given to the language and analogies used, especially those that may inadvertently endorse or inspire ideas related to cruelty to animals.”
A colleague forwarded the message to me: “Is this an April Fools joke?” she asked in all sincerity.
I had several choices, the most obvious was to simply dismiss it as an overly sensitive critique of a phrase regularly used to graphically demonstrate the risk of ignoring the longer-term risks of climate change. I felt comfortable with using the analogy and would ordinarily have got on with my day.
But I had a moment, so let me share what I learned.
It is widely accepted that if you put a frog into a pan of cool water on a stove and gradually increase the heat, the amphibian will swim around blissfully unaware that its environment is becoming unsustainable. By the time the animal realizes that it is being boiled alive it will somehow be incapable of escaping the pot and will boil to death. It’s a metaphor used in businesses every day cautioning people to be wary of the acceptance of creeping change which can have undesirable outcomes. It is designed to warn against complacency about a creeping normality.
It’s a perfect analogy to describe climate change.
Turns out though, it’s absolute rubbish.
In 1869 German physiologist Frederich Goltz showed how a frog with its brain removed would remain in a pot of slowly warming water, but one with it’s faculties intact would try to escape, sometimes successfully, when the water reached 25 degrees.
It led to a flurry of similar experiments which concluded that a frog would not seek to escape until uncomfortable, hence the birth of the analogy.
In 1897 “The New Psychology” reported: “a live frog can actually be boiled without a movement if the water is heated slowly enough; in one experiment the temperature was raised at a rate of 0.002°C per second, and the frog was found dead at the end of 2½ hours without having moved.”
You would think such experiments were confined to an age before television when there was considerably less to do, but scientists have remained fascinated by this phenomenon and in 1995 a biologist at Harvard by the name of Douglas Melton made a more logical conclusion although it’s not clear if he applied basic logic or spent time tossing frogs into varying degrees of boiling water. “If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot—they don’t sit still for you.”
The curator of reptiles at the National Museum of Natural History George Zug pointed out: “If a frog had a means of getting out, it certainly would get out, while retired zoologist Victor Hutchison who clearly had seen the experiments in action wrote: “as the water is heated by about 2 °F (about 1 °C), per minute, the frog becomes increasingly active as it tries to escape, and eventually jumps out if it can.
So, the constraint is not the gradually heating water, but the vessel in which the frog is being warmed, and the level of the water relative to the rim of the pot, which either makes it possible for the frog to escape or not. Therefore a frog, once uncomfortable, will try to escape, putting paid to the 19th century experiments which suggested that they are lulled into a false sense of security and will die before affecting an exit.
So on that basis, and that basis alone, we should not use the “boiling frog” analogy. It has been debunked.
Here is the problem with useful analogies though. They grab the public imagination and become accepted as true because they help us relate to complex information more easily than might otherwise be the case.
It’s one of the reasons why we harbour strongly held beliefs about almost every aspect of our lives and why it is so difficult to shift beliefs once they become widely accepted. Once ingrained they are very hard to shift, even when the evidence points to that belief being based on false information. This is manna from heaven for propogandists who will repeat a lie until it becomes accepted as fact by a large group of people.
I put the conundrum to my audience. What is a better analogy to describe humanity accepting gradual change to its own detriment and will only come to the realization that it has passed a point of no return when it is too late?
The best one: “It is like an ice block in lukewarm water. It melts before you realise what is happening.”
But it’s boring and unevocative, which is precisely why the image of the frog in the pan of water is so powerful and why it will persist, regardless of the concerns of animal welfare or facts.
Will I stop using the analogy? I hope so. It would be lazy to keep doing so, knowing now what I have learned.
In that lies the problem with evocative imagery, and why in a year where a large proportion of the world’s population is headed to the polls to vote, we will be deluged with propaganda and misinformation. It’s incumbent on us to challenge and not simply accept as gospel the information with which we are presented.
Gospel? Now that is a whole different rabbit hole…