Saturday, July 10, 2010

The World vs. Paul the Psychic German Octopus

The purportedly psychic (actually “prophetic” would seem to be the more apt adjective) octopus in Berlin who has been half-jokingly watched by the press, due to his thus-far-accurate “picks” for World Cup game victors, is a classic example of how people dupe themselves, with substantial help from irresponsible media.

It’s not that Paul picking winners is a complete fabrication, but the press conveniently drops the context that would deflate the whole phenomenon (and I realize more and more as I age that this is the case with almost everything in the press — few outright lies, but more confusion than information, due to all the essential nuances being pared away, sort of like doing a propaganda story headlined, with technical accuracy, “Norwegians Are Committing Crimes”).

As I type this, there are about twenty-four hours to go before Spain plays the Netherlands to determine the World Cup recipient, and, due to the strange communist/metric rules of soccer, there are about five minutes to go before Germany plays Uruguay to determine who’s in third place. Slightly less confusing, though, is the weeding-out process by which Paul became a prophet and an instant global celebrity.

What’s rarely mentioned in the latest round of “psychic octopus” reports is that he began as part of an entire Berlin zoo of animals engaged in (merely random) “prediction” activities (picking either of two markers, etc.) regarding the World Cup, including a hay-bale-picking hippo. All the other animals have proven to be “failures” at “predicting” the winners, but there was always a very good chance that one, simply by random chance, would keep picking winners. Presto, “psychic octopus,” aided by the quiet dropping of that hippo (if it’s possible to quietly drop a hippo) and all its compatriots from more recent stories.

Paul’s odds of picking the right team in tomorrow’s game remain fifty-fifty — slightly worse than yours, which are at least informed by information about the teams. But you’re not psychic either.

I am persuaded that all supernatural claims — all, I say — similarly unravel under careful examination, as do many stock-picking plans, most predictions of economic downturn, retroactive claims of successful government action, “prophecies” from the Book of Daniel (or Nostradamus or what have you), most news “trend” stories, and tales of “dreams that foretell the future.” We watch the hits and weed out/forget the misses, and then the gullible construct illusory causal narratives that emphasize the hits. Skepticism is not just a matter of saying “These things cannot be!” but of watching more carefully what is occurring (in the world and in our lazy brains) instead of willingly treating life like a stage magic show, in which the audience strives to be fooled.

I may need to get back to pointing out these basics more instead of focusing on later, derivative observations such as the failings of organized religion or government. Critical thinking is, as the skeptical movement increasingly stresses, the first step, regardless of what phenomena we end up accepting as proven or disproved. Keep your eye on the ball at all times or you’re liable to be fooled, especially by prestidigitators with eight arms.

P.S. Drudge nicely undermined the psychic octopus stories by simply juxtaposing them with a headline about a “psychic parakeet” who predicts a different game outcome. Helen suggests a plan that would eliminate the soccer player middlemen: Just have the octopus fight the parakeet tomorrow.

P.P.S. A friend of ours in turn suggests that if Helen’s answer to problems is usually combat, she should be accompanied at all times by the sound of the “fight music” from the legendary “Gamesters of Triskelion” episode of Star Trek. Sounds good to me.


jenny said...

obviously you need to get this for Helen:

Todd Seavey said...

Or the Star Trek Fight Music Box that I’ve now linked to in the P.P.S. above. How much would I be willing to pay for one of those? All I can say, of course, is:

Fifty quatloos on the newcomer!

Todd Seavey said...

Two final thoughts:

Gotta love the fact the music box is advertised with the observation that in today’s world, you never know when you might have to fight a friend to the death.

And has someone with more spare time than me written a thoughtful essay about how the defining characteristic of the new Star Trek timeline is the absence of parents (Kirk’s dad, Spock’s everybody)? And how hard does it suck to be Spock and spend decades trying to reunite Vulcans and Romulans only to end up with two timelines, one with no Romulus and one with no Vulcan? Spock, in the end, is the biggest, most tragic failure in the history of sci-fi.

Todd Seavey said...

And inevitably, this headline now occurs:

PETA demands release of psychic ‘Octopus Paul’

Tim Watson said...

He’s demonstrated a high level of awareness, after


aronjon said...

We all have a third eye, the question is whether or not yours is active. Generally if it is third-eye psychic ability there is a buzzing sensation just between and above the eyes, but not all psychic impressions come in through the third eye.

Dan Hand said...

Just out of curiosity, Aronjon, how did evolution select for a trait that is inactive even in the vast majority of people who supposedly possess it?

Corsello said...

Wait, the third eye is for psychic perception? I wish someone had told me before now. I’ve been employing it as a sexual orifice since I entered puberty.