Now that the 2010 world cup has concluded, the only victor to receive as much praise as Spain is an oracle octopus – Paul the octopus to be exact. But is it all too much? What were the chances that he would make eight correct predictions? And is it possible that Paul might in fact be a fraudulent ‘oracle’, a mere poser?
According to Professor Chris Budd from the University of Bath, Paul’s world cup predictions can all be explained by mathematics. On the other hand, animal communications expert, Michelle Childerley, believes that Paul, like all animals (and humans) have a certain psychic ability, a telepathy that allows different species to communicate. So basically she finds the idea of an oracle octopus to be plausible. Perhaps it’s just the realist in me – but I’ll go with the maths guy before I’ve even heard his theory.
Yes, so they say the octopus is the most intelligent of all invertebrates – so what? He was given two choices each time, not thirty-two. It’s not like Paul the octopus was presented with all 32 qualified teams and asked to pick out who would be the world cup winner.
In a nutshell, Professor Budd has said that mathematics can seem to be ‘spooky’ in the way that it can appear to predict things. Wow, I never thought I’d read ‘mathematics’ and ‘spooky’ in the same sentence. Budd compares Paul’s so-called prophesy to tossing a coin. It is unlikely that a coin will come down heads first eight times in a row, but not as unlikely as predicting the UK lottery numbers – which is apparently only a 1 in 14 million chance! It’s funny how we believe the likelihood of us winning is so much greater as we clutch onto our ‘lucky’ numbers.
Anyway, let me not get off point here. Another professor from Cambridge believes that it all comes down to our skewed perception of chance. Prof Spiegelharter wants to take some of Paul the octopus’ mysterious allure away by reminding us that there have been many other animals that have attempted to predict the outcome of matches but have failed. In other words, Paul isn’t all that special when seen in this context. Footage of a golfer hitting a hole in one may seem amazing, but we’re not seeing all the times he missed. It’s called the mathematics of chance.
So is Paul the octopus a fraudulent oracle? I’m afraid so. He’s more like a lucky charm who was in line to benefit from the mathematics of chance. Mental telepathy? Hmmmm …. well I wanted Spain to win, and I’m guessing many others out there were also supporting Spain in the end, so perhaps Paul picked up on the worldwide majority consensus.