Saucers of Mud

January 7, 2008

Out with the frog, in with the orange man

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:16 am

James Fallows complains about Hillary Clinton’s use of the boiled-frog myth here. When making the point that “people can get used to slowly worsening circumstances that would shock them if confronted all at once” (Fallows), people often claim that if you put a frog in hot water it will jump out, but if you raise the temperature of the water gradually you can boil it. The problem with this vivid metaphor is that it isn’t true. So we need a new metaphor to describe the real underlying phenomenon.

I’m surely too late for Fallows’ contest, but I thought of an image: the orange man. A man ate so many carrots and tomatoes that, over a period of years, he turned orange. This was the first thing that the doctor noticed when he saw him. But when he told the patient that he was orange, the man looked down at his skin and said “I’ve always been ruddy.” A change that was remarkable when you’re confronted with it all at once went unnoticed because it happened gradually.

[The analogy with the sorites paradox is obvious; maybe I should post this at my philosophy blog.]

Some of you may remember this as a subplot in the premiere of House, M.D. House’s conclusion there is wrong — in real life the man’s wife was perfectly faithful, but the change was every bit as gradual for her as it was for him, so she didn’t notice either. That episode raised the question of why, given that House is known for being abrasive, the director of the hospital would have the first patient he talks to be an important donor. The whole series made me think that having Hugh Laurie play an American is like having Charlie Chaplin do voice-overs; he may be very good at it but it doesn’t play to his strengths.



  1. The story of the orange man is told in Berton Roueche’s The Medical Detectives (Plume), a wonderful book.

    Comment by Matt's mom — January 7, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  2. The Orange Man is the grown-up Modesto Kid.

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — January 7, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

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