Monday, 30 April 2012

Sagan's Dragon in the Garage

This was kindly provided in the comments on a post last year by Luke Scientiae who would quite rightly like to promote a passage from Carl Sagan's wonderful book "The Demon-Haunted World". This is from a chapter called 

"The Dragon in My Garage"

A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.

Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

'Show me,' you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle - but no dragon.

'Where's the dragon?' you ask.

'Oh, she's right here,' I reply, waving vaguely.

'I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon.'

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

'Good idea,' I say, 'but this dragon floats in the air.'

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

'Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.'

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

'Good idea, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick.'

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work. Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?

If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.

Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there is a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.

Well - you can see where he is going from here, can't you.

Carl Sagan's "A Demon Haunted World" is one of the classic books of skeptical and critical thinking.  It is out of print but readily available.  I ordered a copy from the States a year or two ago and it arrived looking as though it was absolutely brand new.  Yes he rambles on a bit about alien abductions, but each case is used as a comparison with other ancient phenomena.  The book also includes the classic and famous chapter "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" which was part of the inspiration for my own single page Delusional Logic.

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