The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

There’s a dragon in my garage!

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 14, 2009

I wanted to do a brief follow up to yesterday’s post – Why Science Matters – because I felt I left something out. Namely, while I mentioned the process of scientific investigation & thinking, I never really outlined it.

I know, we’ve all been told repeatedly about the scientific method – yadda, yadda – but I’ve got a neat way to get you to understand it and the thinking behind it. But I can’t claim credit for this story, as I stole the idea for it from Carl Sagan – it’s called “There’s a dragon in my garage!”

Dragon

Imagine that one day you are working in your yard and your neighbor runs over to you, panting heavily and out of breath. You ask them what’s wrong, and they excitedly state, “There’s a dragon in my garage!” You figure that you have to see this for yourself, so you grab your camera and head over to your neighbor’s garage.

Once there, you see the usual garage stuff: parked car, workbench and tools, pile of rags, boxes against the wall, some sawdust in a bucket, etc. But no dragon.

“I don’t see any dragon,” you tell your neighbor.

“Oh, I forgot to mention the dragon’s invisible,” comes the response.

Willing to give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt (after all, plenty of invisible things – such as ultraviolet light and radio waves – exist), and you decide to find a different way to detect the dragon. You pick up the bucket-full of sawdust and spread it on the garage floor, thinking that the dragon would leave footprints. After a while, no footprints.

Looking at your neighbor for an explanation, they say (flapping their hands for effect), “Silly me. I neglected to mention the dragon floats above the ground – little wings.”

Growing a little suspicious, you opt for a third test: you decide to throw some of the rags in the air so they’ll flutter down and drape over the dragon, outlining it like a kid dressed as a ghost on Halloween. You toss the rags in the air… and they fall to the ground every single time. Still no dragon.

“Well, the dragon must also be non-corporeal, so that solid objects pass right through it!” comes the frantic response from your neighbor.

Growing frustrated, you decide to attempt one final method of dragon-detection. You set your camera to “infrared” [work with me on this, we are talking about dragons, after all] and set out to see the heat signature of the dragon’s fiery exhalations. You sweep the garage, again and again, with your infrared camera and see no sign of any dragon breath.

Turning an increasingly skeptical gaze upon your neighbor, you ask, “What gives?”

After staring blankly for a moment, snapping their fingers as if receiving a revelation, your neighbor exclaims, “I know! The dragon’s fiery breath must not give off any heat!!!”

At this point, if you’re anything like me, you are likely to head back to your yard work, wondering if your neighbor has been taking too many liberties with their medication.

So what’s the point of this story? It’s simple, actually. The process of science (often called methodological naturalism) is concerned about dealing with ideas that can be tested for validity. You claim there’s a dragon in your garage (an extraordinary claim, I’d say), so in order for the neighborhood to treat you at least a little bit seriously there should be some way in which to test your claim. Otherwise, people start looking at you… that way.

After all, what’s the difference between an invisible, floating, non-corporeal, and completely undetectable dragon… and no dragon at all?

Good question.

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7 Responses to “There’s a dragon in my garage!”

  1. [...] concept of chi is more of a philosophical concept than anything else, and it is little more than a “dragon-in-the-garage” (an untestable notion that cannot be verified through scientific [...]

  2. [...] explanations) – the debate is DOA.  Otherwise their claims amount to little more than a dragon in the garage. This silliness reminds me of a joke: A man is strolling down the street, completely naked.  A cop [...]

  3. [...] en algunos casos inesperadamente imaginativas, como pueden ser el Invisible Unicorno Rosa o el Dragón del Garaje de Sagan (que resulta ser invisible, flotante, incorpóreo y no despide [...]

  4. [...] how on the very first day of every class I teach, I make reference to Carl Sagan’s famous “Dragon in My Garage!” story; I then shared a demonstration of a magic trick I perform on the first day of my classes using [...]

  5. [...] Comments Teacher Workshop … on There’s a dragon in my…Spoony on “Mysteries of the Explai…John B. Westbrook on Keep Your Feet on the Ground: [...]

  6. [...] such is the case, then many physicists & critics of string theory have equated the idea with a dragon in the garage, an unfalsifiable notion which isn’t subject to scientific investigation.  I have placed [...]

  7. I love this analogy by sagan

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