“A Fire-Breathing Dragon Lives In My Garage” by Carl Sagan

Note:  I have always enjoyed this parable by Carl Sagan.  He wrote it with religion in mind, but the more I try to work with people who believe there is a way to mathematically beat the odds in games such as roulette, baccarat, and craps, the more I realize their belief is exactly like that of the religious.  Indeed, both the Holy Rollers and the Holy Grailers live by faith alone.  The former can almost be excused, because what they believe by definition cannot be falsified, but the latter have no excuse:  mathematics, reasoning, and computer simulations all objectively and conclusively disprove their assertions.  But the irrational cannot be convinced by what’s rational.  The Cool-Aid they have drunk must indeed be potent, for even when presented with clear evidence which unequivocally dismisses their claims as pure delusions, they react like the dragon owner in Sagan’s brilliant parable …

A Fire-Breathing Dragon Lives In My Garage

by Carl Sagan

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, 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.


24 Responses to ““A Fire-Breathing Dragon Lives In My Garage” by Carl Sagan”

  1. Hey Virtouid, leave Fire Breathing Dragons out of this ! My 7 year old daughter believes in them so they must be true !!! (Curiously, she also believes in the green slimy monster that lives under the house that only surfaces when children are naughty. To be a child again.
    I enjoyed Sagan’s parable and it reminds me of an oft quoted line that goes something like “there are 4,000 religions in the world, you only believe in one of them, so you’re almost as atheist as I am”
    But bringing it back to gambling, the same logic seems to apply. The seasoned system follower intuitively knows most systems are rubbish and no doubt has spent much money proving that true, “BUT THIS TIME IT’S DIFFERENT” they say – it is the ruin of many a poor fellow and I see exactly the same behavior in the financial markets.
    If no amount of statistical evidence will sway your opinion then it’s only a matter of time until the the fool and his money are parted.

    • Thanks, Andrew …

      Loved your quote!

      Yeah, to be a child again and have the luxury of believing in Santa Claus and dragons.

      I guess it’s a deep part of being human, the need to believe in something beyond our reality. After all, Hollywood is all about feeding us fantasies.

      • Carl Sagan’s dragon tale fits the evidence/absence argument about god and intelligent design quite well, but is not so effectively applied to progressive betting versus games of chance.
        The gambling industry has seen the footsteps in the flour and every day does all it can to barricade the garage door and sprinkle dragon poison throughout the neighborhood.
        It does this by enforcing strict tight-spread table limits and by barring players who repeatedly hop from low-rent layouts to those at the top end of the scale.
        You, on the other hand, pull a bag over your head and plug your ears so you won’t see the footsteps, feel the heat or hear the dragon’s roar.
        You do that by inventing your own set of parameters and ignoring published betting rules so that you can “prove” that a specific variation of progressive betting doesn’t work.
        And then there’s your insistence that the same method must prevail against billions and billions of outcomes (a phrase Carl Sagan never used, by the way!).
        You could as fairly and reasonably dismiss the safest car in the world as a death trap because you can’t drive it the same way down a winding, icy mountain road as you do on an open straightaway in warm sunshine.
        Your one and only anti-footsteps scenario requires a player/driver to bet/drive like a total idiot in spite of numerous warning signs and (to abandon cute analogies for a moment) also demands that your casino permit bets from the minimum to the house maximum at the same layout.
        Sagan was a stickler for facts and accurate analysis and you are not, so please let the poor guy (and his godless dragon) rest in peace!

      • If it isn’t one of the dragon-keepers himself! … Please go back to the tables making your fortunes, Seth.

        If I’m such an inconsequential, biased, incompetent tool of the industry, why are you so attached to what I post on my blog?

        Take your own advice and please leave us blind, lost souls in peace already!

  2. […]What motivated me to post Carl Sagan’s parable about fire-breathing dragons in the garage was dealing with a retired lawyer who had spent the last 25 years chasing the Holy Grail of mathematically beating randomness. He had contacted me out of the blue, since a friend had recommended me as someone who might be interested in helping him perform computer simulations of his approach. He was ready to release his Grail to the world out of the goodness of his heart. He had even sent it to the Nevada Gaming Commission to warn them of the coming revolution of the geometric probabilities of his gravity bet, to convince them to fund him to research how to counter his Grail and thus save the gambling industry. What a nice guy! (Note: Needless to say, the Gaming Commission did not regarded him as enough of a threat to motivate them to fund his proposed research.)[…]

    • The Nevada Gaming Commission and the industry it pretends to regulate are both fully aware that betting methods exist that are a threat to their bottom line, and are astute enough to know that their interests are best served by promoting the notion that games of chance cannot be beaten.

      • … which begs the question, Seth, why do you continuously choose to waste your time here and not at the tables making your fortunes?

  3. I spend as much time at the tables as casinos in my Nevada neighborhood permit.
    I “waste time” responding to your derivative drivel because it seems possible that there are one or two readers out there who are taken in by your “wishing to be just” motto and actually believe you.
    Just what, Dave?
    All I seek to do is to convince people who actually gamble (as opposed to people who only write about it) that progressive betting is the only way to beat negative expectation in the long run.
    Fixed/flat or random betting must always fail in the end, and your repeated assertion that progressive betting is ultimately the same as random betting is mathematically insupportable.
    I’m not greedy, by the way — one fortune is enough for me.

    • As I say to Ellis, I sincerely hope you’re genuinely helping people.

      In my own way, I am doing the same, though clearly you don’t see it that way. The difference is, I have sound reasoning and evidence on my side, though most people would gladly prefer sugar-coated lies than hard-cold truth. But I’m not burdened by the messiah complex you appear to enjoy.

      Nevertheless, you’re the one who’s subscribed to my blog’s “derivative drivel,” not the other way around.

      You should really work on curbing your acrimonious and acidic attitude. It reflects very poorly on you and is reason enough why someone should choose to have nothing to do with you.

      Enjoy your fortune! I am enjoying mine.

    • By the way, you need not worry that I’m corrupting the souls of many would-be gamblers. No one reads my blog anyway. No one but you. 😉

  4. There’s actually nothing acidic or acrimonious about my attitude, much as I admire the alliteration…ask anyone who knows me. But I do bridle at people like you and Rush Limbaugh who present arguments as if they are truth and offer up imperfect and biased research as fact.
    I have spent the last few months working on a horse-race betting method that has proved to consistently make money against a negative expectation that sits somewhere between 15% and 35% and according to self-styled experts like yourself, that’s impossible. I could prove it to you, but it’s ingrained in your nature (and your copycat posts that don’t offer a single original idea!) to reject them on the basis that I must be faking the footprints in the flour.
    There are many, many people who make an excellent living beating games/propositions that you insist cannot be beaten. Call them all liars if you want, but that won’t make you right, or original either. I’m looking forward to the post where you prove beyond a doubt that unplugged bathwater circles the drain clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise south of the equator. It will, I’m sure, be every bit as fascinating (and relevant) as all the other second-hand nonsense that you offer up with such commitment and generosity.

    • Seth, you must really be desperate for attention to be spending so much time talking to yourself here.

      But I’m glad you’re enjoying entertaining yourself. 😉

      • I’m just happy to have an intelligent audience.

      • Yes, your pathological obsession over such an unoriginal, nonsensical, inconsequential blog as mine speaks volumes about your intelligence. Crystal 😉

      • Hi Seth, I have some questions for you.

        You wrote –
        “It does this by enforcing strict tight-spread table limits and by barring players who repeatedly hop from low-rent layouts to those at the top end of the scale”

        How does this affect players outcomes?

        You wrote –
        “The Nevada Gaming Commission and the industry it pretends to regulate are both fully aware that betting methods exist that are a threat to their bottom line, and are astute enough to know that their interests are best served by promoting the notion that games of chance cannot be beaten. ”

        I would have thought their interests would best be served by promoting the notion that games of chance COULD be beaten.

        You wrote –
        “All I seek to do is to convince people who actually gamble (as opposed to people who only write about it) that progressive betting is the only way to beat negative expectation in the long run.”

        Would you like to set up an FX account with our firm? We would love to have you onboard.

        You wrote –
        “But I do bridle at people like you and Rush Limbaugh who present arguments as if they are truth and offer up imperfect and biased research as fact.”

        From a cursory read of Virtuoids postings he appears to be stating commonly accepted maths/stats/probability. The same answers can be found anywhere on the web, including “Wizard of Odds”, a particular favourite of mine. Anyway, where exactly has Virtuoid posted “imperfect and biased results”?

        You wrote –
        ” have spent the last few months working on a horse-race betting method that has proved to consistently make money against a negative expectation that sits somewhere between 15% and 35% and according to self-styled experts like yourself, that’s impossible”

        Yep, you said it, it’s impossible.
        And I do genuinely feel sorry for you. Millions of people are “working on a gambling, racing, FX system – and they are always “perfecting it, tweaking it, honing it – in fact doing everything but letting it loose – because that’s when the gamblers fallacy comes up against the laws of probability.
        Having said that, I don’t for a moment doubt you are currently beating the odds but what must be understood is that in the long run, you won’t. There are countless stories of people like you making millions at the track, and some (but not most) have the smarts to retire. What is generally not understood is that it’s statistically likely that such people WILL experience career long wins. What is not understood is that for every millionaire gambler there are a thousand who did the same thing (they are all variations on a theme) and who bit the dust. But who reads about them?
        As to your current winning streak, you’re still losing.
        Yes, I just said that.
        What? Run that by me again.
        Ok, here goes. Even though your “Ahead” you have actually lost, you just don’t realise it. At the moment you are beating the odds but in the end the spread will get you. All you have done is actually taken on too much risk and received less reward than what that risk entailed – and that’s why your behind. And in the end your account will be physically behind as well, it’s only a matter of time. At the casino it’s called the grind and in FX/racing its called the spread.
        Having said all of that, and I’m loathe to give you ammunition, there is a way to “beat the bookie”. But that is for another post. We shall see how you reply.

  5. Answers to all your questions can be found in my blog at http://targetbetting.blogspot.com/ where I pay proper respect to mathematical principles as well as grammar, spelling and syntax, none of which concern you, it would seem.

  6. Apparently the gate-keeper didn’t like my response, so when I can spare the time, I’ll answer your questions one by one on my Target Betting blog.

    A little context here: A year or so ago, Dave undertook to test one of my versions of progressive betting (they vary according to the depth of the hole I’m in but the principle is always the same) and for some reason chose not to live up to his “wishing to be just” motto and did not check the rules with me first.

    Imspirit’s subsequent dismissal of Target as a viable means of winning consistently was based on rules that Dave arbitrarily changed, ignoring the ones he didn’t like, presumably. He also widened the permissible spread (to a maximum bet of $100,000!) and then refused to let me see his results so that I could check them for accuracy.

    At that point, the “bare bones” Target rules set had beaten not only millions of RNG outcomes, but also (more importantly) verifiable outcomes in the two Zumma Publishing books and both the 1,000-shoe data sets posted on line by the Buzzard of Bovada.

    So, naturally, I persisted in my polite requests that Dave let me see the results upon which he had based his “debunking” of Target.

    After several weeks, he provided a link to an online file of data and — surprise! — the set of Target rules that I had published for all to see on a baccarat forum that now seems to be defunct delivered a hard-won but crystal clear profit. No further data were forthcoming from Dave, and he pronounced himself “not interested” in revising his unfair and inaccurate evaluation.

    So…I’m not a huge Imspirit fan. And Dave is right in saying that I shouldn’t waste my time reading his “little blog” — and given his unexacting standards of accuracy, probably no one should. Let me just say that he “started it” when he tried to torpedo my work without acting honorably.

    • Right …

      The moment I realized that Seth actually had the Holy Grail, my heart stopped, and I had to be rushed to the emergency room, where it took hours to revive and stabilize me.

      Upon release, I hurried to the hospital’s helipad and boarded the waiting Bell Jet Ranger chopper, and we turbo-jetted to Reno, where the top brass at the Casinolati, the ultra-top-secret cabal of the Casino Consortium of the Universe, (which, by the way, is still ruled by the Mafia), had convened for a code-red emergency meeting. (Mind you, it was 2:30 A.M. by this time.) Everyone was in deep dismay and denial at the situation. They almost shot me on the spot for having allowed it to get this far. We knew we were ruined!

      After much discussion and debate (during which we had to prevent several board members from attempting suicide), I had a flash of inspiration and proposed an ingeniously devious scheme to defuse the situation: Discredit Seth on my blog as a post (Target Betting Bare Bones’ Core Rules Results), since everyone in the universe officially reveres my ImSpirit blog as the premiere authority and gospel truth on gambling.

      Yes, by a 25-0 vote, everyone agreed this was definitely the right way to go! We would thus save our precious scam against humanity and keep our million dollar paychecks rolling in every month. Last Christmas, they even sent me a nice 9-figure bonus for doing such an awesome job.

      Ah, but all that money could not drown the crushing guilt I suffered for willingly being a part of such a scandalous cover-up against pure, innocent Seth. Each of his kind, gentle, loving nudges and encouragements to repent from my dishonesty pierced my plagued soul. Alas, to come clean about the truth and live free again. And so, I have finally made the huge leap to do the right thing and tell the truth, and I feel so relieved. My conscience is clear again; Hallelujah, Praise you, Seth!

      Well, I won’t be enjoying those nice, fat paychecks from the Casinolati anymore, but not to worry, I’ll be able to use Seth’s Holy Grail to easily make up for them in no time at all! I urge everyone to do the same, too! Rush to his site and blog, inhale his sweet Holy Grail incense, perform genuflexion to the Gambling Master Seth, crush the evil Casinolati, and reap your heavenly bounty! And see you at the tables!

      Transformed and Born Again by Messiah Seth,

  7. Now you’re getting it, although genuflex is not a verb (genuflect is, but I know from our brief encounters that you’re not big on details, especially those that matter).

    • Almighty Seth, thank thee for thine kind and merciful blessings! Forgive us our transgressions, as they mightily offend thee. Thank thee for permitting our humble genuflexion in thine holy presence for all eternity. Amen.

  8. John Yovovich Says:

    Virtuoid, I am RMAO! Bravo!!

  9. […] Unbelievably, after weeks of voluntarily trying to help and reason with him, the crackpot who inspired me to post “A Fire-Breathing Dragon Lives In My Garage” by Carl Sagan is now threatening legal action against me. If he does, it would be entirely frivolous and meritless. In his characteristically warped manner, he is trying to use the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) as a contract of work between us, demanding that I continue to do more computational work for him, even after he had already denounced computer simulations to be completely inadequate since they clearly proved his theory wrong! He claims I have breached the NDA by refusing to continue to work for him (all for free, I might add). Legal counsel advises me that, indeed, anyone can sue anyone else for anything in the great legal system of ours. […]

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