The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
If you’re into the literature of skeptics and atheists, you’ll already know that few books come as highly recommended as Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.” It’s a great how-to guide for critical thinking (even if he does spend way too much time on alien abductions, in my opinion).
One of the chapters is titled “The Dragon In My Garage.” It’s a funny way of explaining the life of a skeptic. His original version is a little short, but I love the analogy, so I’ve decided to expand it out a bit and have some fun with it. Here goes:
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”
Imagine I just said this to you. You and I are friends, and you can see that I’m not joking. I seem to be telling you this with the utmost seriousness, as though sharing a deep and meaningful secret.
“Would you like to check it out for yourself?”
Let’s also suppose you’ve got the afternoon free and nothing better to do.
“Sure,” you say, and follow me back to my garage.
As we get closer, I start to get visibly nervous and excited. I seem very concerned about how you’ll react to the dragon. A great deal seems to be riding on this.
When we finally arrive and I throw open the garage door, you see a ladder, paint cans, an old bicycle, toolboxes… but no dragon.
“Well, what do you think?” I ask.
“Um… has it gone?” you ask, trying to humor me.
“No, no, it’s there. Oh! I’m so stupid. I forgot to mention it’s an invisible dragon.”
“Oh. Well, how do you know it’s there?”
“It’s there, all right. I’m sure of it.” I don’t volunteer any further explanation.
“Well… how about I kick over this paint can. That way I can see it’s footprints.”
“Good idea, but the dragon flys. It’s one of those… wing-a-ling dragons.”
“Uh, ok. I don’t just want to go trying to feel up a dragon. What else… are there any droppings around?”
“Nope. No droppings. Dragons are magical beings, you see, and magical beings don’t leave droppings.”
“What about smell? Or sound? I don’t hear or smell anything.”
“It’s silent and odorless.”
“What about spray-paint? Then at least I could see its outline.”
“Good idea, but the dragon is incorporeal. The paint would pass right through.”
You’re really giving me the benefit of the doubt here, aren’t you? But it’s time to pull out the big guns.
“I’ve got an infrared sensor here. Let’s use that!”
“But dragons are cold-blooded,” I counter.
“Yeah, but you said it’s a fire-breathing dragon! Surely we can detect the fire.”
“That’s a good idea, too, except the fire is room temperature.”
On and on this goes. For every test you propose, I come up with a reason why it won’t work. So why should you believe it? Without some kind of test, some kind of evidence, the only rational thing to do is reject the notion that there’s a dragon in my garage. You’ve got no reason to believe it.
Graciously, you thank me for the invitation, say you’re sorry but you don’t buy into the whole dragon thing, and leave. I look totally dejected as you start to walk away.
But something gnaws at you. You just can’t leave it alone. You think this dragon thing is total nonsense, but you’re worried about me. So, knowing it’ll cause an argument, you turn around, walk back up the driveway, and ask me that crucial follow-up question.
“Look, nothing you shared with me was very convincing. In fact, it seems extremely unlikely. So, unless you’ve got some secret evidence you haven’t shared with me, I’ve got to ask: Why do you believe in the dragon?”
I actually seem quite delighted that you asked me. I enthusiastically begin to list my reasons.
“Well, you see, I’ve seen belief in the dragon change the lives of many of my friends and family members. My cousin used to be a drunk before he believed in the dragon. Now he’s sober and spends his days spreading the word.
“The dragon has also made a huge change in my life. I feel like I get such direction from the dragon. There have been a few times, when I was stressed, sleep-deprived and desperate, that I honestly begged the dragon for guidance, and he actually spoke to me! When I lost my job and my wife left me on the same day, the dragon told me it would all be ok! And look, I found another job and have started seeing someone else: I didn’t shrivel up and die! It did turn out ok!
“That’s why when the dragon told me I couldn’t talk to my oldest son anymore, because he became a firefighter, I trusted the dragon’s plan and cut off all contact. It’s hard, but I know the dragon will bless me for it in the end.
“The same goes with my campaign to get on the public school board. I’m trying to combat the lies taught to our children about rapid oxidation. I think teachers should give equal time to the theory of intelligent crisping. So, even though campaigning is expensive and I don’t know much about education, I trust the dragon will take care of me.
“My faith in the dragon has carried me through so many trials in my life. I just wish you would try believing in the dragon, just once. Maybe he’ll answer you!”
You’re a little stunned by all this. I’m way more into this dragon thing than you had bet on.
“But none of those things prove that it’s true. People hear voices when they’re stressed and tired all the time! People change behaviors drastically based on a shift in their outlook on life. None of that actually proves the dragon exists.”
“You mean radical life transformations aren’t enough for you?”
“And my faith doesn’t convince you?”
“Not really, no.”
“But you’re so blind! You totally ignored all of the physical evidence!”
“What evidence? All you’ve shown me is an empty garage?”
“Exactly! Look, do you see a dragon?”
“Do you hear or smell a dragon?”
“Do you see any droppings or footprints?”
“Can you touch the dragon?” I’m really starting to get animated here.
“What about that fancy detector? Does it pick up anything that might indicate a dragon?”
“Well what more evidence do you need of an invisible, silent, odorless, incontinent, incorporeal, cold-blooded, hovering, room-temperature-fire-breathing dragon! The proof is right there!”
“But you could say that about any garage!”
“Yes,” I say, folding my hands in front of me. “The dragon is all around us.”
You’re speechless for a moment, stunned by idiocy. You spend a few seconds starting and cutting off sentences, before finally latching onto something.
“What’s the difference between an invisible, silent, odorless, incontinent, incorporeal, cold-blooded, hovering, room-temperature-fire-breathing-dragon and no dragon at all? I could prove the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the Flying Spaghetti Monster using the same logic.”
“How dare you speak of those false beings in the presence of the dragon! Get out of my driveway! I would have thought you’d have more respect than this!”
This is why skeptics drink.
I hope you enjoyed it. I should have a more smartypants post next week.