Monday, July 19, 2010

Octopus Beats Vulture Brains

With the World Cup over, it looks like the vulture brains were completely unnecessary. As it turned out all that gamblers really needed to do was listen to Paul, Germany's psychic octopus.

The eight-legged oracle has become a FIFA World Cup sensation by correctly forecasting all seven Germany games in South Africa and he finished the tournament in style by predicting a Spanish victory in the Soccer City sign-off.

As Paul foretold last week, Spain won their first world title after Andres Iniesta's 116th-minute strike broke the Netherlands' hearts. The tentacled tipster also correctly predicted Germany would beat Uruguay in Saturday's third place play-off.

In the now familiar routine, two boxes were lowered into his tank last week, each containing a mussel and the flags of the two opposing teams. Paul went straight to the correct box both times, wrenched open the lid and gobbled the tasty morsel.

So how does he do it? Luck or paranormal powers? Octopi are highly intelligent, so I don't find it impossible that one could have some sort of low-level psychic ability. When I first heard about this I wondered if it had something to do with the colors on the flags of the various countries since octopi also have highly developed color vision, but what are the odds that in every match the team with the flag that looked most aesthetically pleasing to an octopus would win?

It could just be chance, remarkable as that may seem. In fact, it sounds like a lot of folks were using animals to predict the World Cup and if there are enough of them out there at least one was bound to guess all the matches correctly. For example, a man in Singapore claimed that his psychic parakeet had also racked up an impressive record of predictions and picked the Netherlands to win the final, whereas Paul picked Spain. Paul proved right, but no matter what the outcome was one of the two was going to be correct.

Some fans seemed to believe that the octopus was influencing the games in some way.

But the art of football predicting has become a dangerous job for the English-born clairvoyant. He fell offside with bitter German fans who threatened to turn him into sushi after he predicted a semi-final defeat for the Mannschaft against Spain.

Paul's home, an aquarium in western Germany, has received death-threat emails saying "we want Paul for the pan," said entertainment supervisor Daniel Fey. No less an authority than Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero has called for octopus bodyguards. Spanish Industry Minister Miguel Sebastian has called for the creature to be given an "immediate" free transfer to Spain to "ensure his protection."

Stung by Paul's "treachery" at picking Spain over Germany in last Wednesday's semi-final, some sections of the 350,000-strong crowd watching the game on giant screens in Berlin sang anti-octopus songs.

While I doubt the cephalopod is sitting in its tank casting spells, fans might have a point. Professional sports is played by athletes who are so good that there's barely any difference in ability between them. In that world an elite player is only a tiny fraction of a percent better than a mediocre one. With the amount of media attention Paul got as his predictions proved correct there's no way that the players wouldn't have heard of his picks. If that undermined the confidence of the team picked to lose by even a minuscule amount it may have been enough to change the outcome of at least some of the matches.

A better method for testing the octopus' psychic powers would have been to set up some sort of double-blind test where the prediction was made but not announced until after the match was played. But unfortunately with the short lifespan of an octopus Paul won't get that chance, at least not at next year's World Cup.

His prediction of a Spanish victory is expected to be the last for Paul, who in octopus terms is a pensioner, at the grand old age of two-and-a-half. Octopuses generally live three years at the latest.

Maybe next year scientists could try testing that parakeet from Singapore. Birds live a lot longer.

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