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!”
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?