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.