The New Duck Metaphor

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Sept. 26, 2012, 9:32 p.m.

Most of us have heard about the Stanford Duck Syndrome. For those who haven’t, it goes like this: Stanford students are like ducks, seemingly calm on the surface, but paddling furiously to stay afloat.  It’s a quick way to characterize our student body with a familiar image. And it’s nice to think that our lifestyle on the Farm has at least one non-human analogue.

The duck metaphor, however, is wrong. Ducks don’t paddle to stay afloat; they float because their bodies are naturally stable in water and they weigh less than the weight of the water they displace. To achieve this buoyancy, the duck has, among other features, hollow bones and air sacs within its body. It also has a special adaptation to help it float; the uropygial gland, located near the tail, secretes an oil that the duck then manually spreads over its feathers. Without this oil, the feathers would collect water, increasing the duck’s mass and potentially causing it to drown. The duck, in fact, only needs to paddle to move or resist water currents.  If you’re still doubtful, check out this YouTube video.

What does this mean? First off, by using a scientifically incorrect metaphor, we belittle the duck.  After millions of years in the water, ducks are surely more efficient than, say, humans at staying afloat. And by using an inaccurate metaphor, we may also mischaracterize ourselves; there must be a few Stanford students who are not paddling furiously yet are doing just fine, after all. Can we, then, adopt a new duck metaphor, one more aligned with the science and our lifestyles?  I argue yes.

Under the old duck metaphor, one remained afloat by paddling, an external act done on the environment. Under the new duck metaphor, one would stay afloat through reflexive actions- the duck spreads the oil over its own feathers, just as Stanford students might exercise or meditate to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, under the old duck metaphor, intense action (the paddling) was necessary for life. Under the new duck metaphor, said actions are only necessary in certain environments; if the duck lands in a calm pond and is content with its general location, it need not paddle constantly.

If we want to be more like the duck, we must devote time and energy into sustaining the body and mind. And we should realize that we have some control over how much external work we do. Of course, this freedom may be limited: sometimes there is no calm pond, or maybe all the duck’s friends crossed the pond and created a pressure for said duck to follow suit.
Stanford students may paddle furiously, but that is because we also have a knack for landing in turbulent waters. And we may believe constant paddling is necessary because it is what everyone else seems to be doing. But I wonder: is it possible to have a student body that can better recognize and seek out calm waters? Is it possible to have more students who don’t feel compelled to cross the pond when things are just fine where they are? Can we not only be calm on the surface, but calm underneath?

I realize many will disagree with the lifestyle I am endorsing, especially here in the heart of Silicon Valley. That’s fine- we each have our own vision of what is good in this world.  But I hope we can at least agree on one thing: in the name of science, the current duck metaphor needs to go.


Share your duck experiences with Adam at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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