I say there is a
monster in my basement – can
you prove its not there?
Completely and entirely ripped off from Carl Sagan’s essay, “The Dragon In My Garage” in Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
I changed garage to basement because I was thinking of the basement in the house where I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I changed dragon to monster because of the monster that lived in that basement.
The basement in this house was huge.
No other way to describe it.
It had five rooms.
It had a professional billiard parlor pool table in one room and a full size regulation shuffle board court in the linoleum floor of another room.
Do not ask me how I knew it was a regulation size shuffle board court as I have no idea what the regulations for shuffle board are but this was the full floor length deal.
We played more floor hockey in that room than shuffle board but I remember seeing those shuffle board poles and pucks among the clutter of the basement for most of my life in that house.
There was also a back stairs that went up and out to garage.
The door did not close super tight and there was a small space at one of the door.
This small space created the monster that lived in the basement.
With the lights off that basement was dark.
And I mean DARK.
Dark and scary just by the dark alone.
The space under the door let in just a dot of light.
You had to be down there in the dark for a bit and let your eyes adjust and suddenly the dot would appear.
It was the eye of the monster.
Or the eye of the ghost.
Or the scary eye.
We called it a lot of names.
Every once in a while I or one of my brothers or sisters would say, “let’s go see the ghost.”
For some reason, though we knew all about the mechanics of the setup AND we knew what would happen, a bunch of us would go down to the basement.
Someone would stand by the lights and the rest of us would huddle in the big room.
Then the lights would go off and that person would make their way over to the huddle.
Sometimes that person had a flashlight which was really cool.
We had a bad habit of taking my Dad’s flashlights and leaving them where we happened to be when we were done using them.
We also usually left the flashlights on.
But I digress.
Then it would all go dark.
Dark and silent.
Slowly and slowly and slowly our eyes would adjust to the dark.
Someone would catch sight of the dot and yell, “there it is!”
We would all scream.
We would grab at each other.
As I said, this was a linoleum floor and we were mostly always in stocking feet and we would slip and slide and fall and scream some more.
As an aside it was on this slippery floor on Thanksgiving Day in 1969 that I was running from my brother Timmy and slipped and fell as he dove on me and I hit the floor screaming with my mouth wide open.
The force of the impact was taken by my front tooth which snapped in half and I have had a gold front tooth ever since.
I must add I didn’t know a gold front tooth was a fashion statement until I moved to the south.
Anyway, we would slip and slide and fall and make our back to the lights switch and stairs and safety.
Our hearts would be pounding.
I am not sure of my brothers and sisters, but I was really scared.
I knew nothing was there in the dark that wasn’t there in the light.
I knew what was in the basement.
But in the back of my mind I was saying to myself maybe this time …
I do know that it was difficult if not downright impossible to be in that basement by myself even with the lights on.
I could be down there by myself and hear an odd basement noise.
The hair on my neck would stand up.
I would turn and in way not be able to stop myself and look up those back stairs and if I could make out that dot, and even if I couldn’t, I would get out of the basement and back upstairs as fast as I could.
I understood the use of the phrase, “he bolted from the room,” quite well.
Sometimes I would even claim that I knew there really WAS a monster in the basement.
My brothers and sisters were used to me making all sorts of ‘claims.’
But these were the same kids who told me that we had a big can of dehydrated water in the garage.
I would demand to see it and they just said its out there in the garage.
Just put some in a bucket and add water and you’ll have a bucket of water.
I would still demand to see the stuff.
Things like that, when I didn’t get it, drove me nuts.
So I was never entirely convinced there WASN’T a monster in the basement.
It was hard to prove to me there wasn’t.
Better safe than sorry I guess.
We would stand there for a second or two.
Then someone would say, “lets do it again.”
Here is Dr. Carl Sagan’s Essay:
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
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, but 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’s 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. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”
Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons — to say nothing about invisible ones — you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.
Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages — but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.
Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence” — no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it — is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.