Psychic octopus scores again

octopusI’ve just watched Spain beat Germany 1-0 in the World Cup semi-final in Durban. The result was no surprise: it was what Paul the psychic octopus predicted. He has apparently been a keen supporter of the German team, having predicted the team’s results with 100 per cent accuracy over their past five fixtures.

He was right again tonight, but this time he predicted defeat for Germany – a very brave thing to do for an octopus living in the Oberhausen Sea Life Centre, Germany. Spain now go through to the final against Netherlands on Sunday.

It says much about the quality of this World Cup’s matches that Paul the psychic octopus has been in the news more than some of the top players.

So, let’s get real and answer a few simple questions about this undoubtedly talented cephalopod mollusk.

Is Paul really predicting the future?

Of course, not: he’s an octopus. They are clever creatures, of course, capable of unscrewing bottle tops and collecting shells for protection, but predicting the outcome of football matches is not likely to be a talent an underwater mollusk is likely to develop. Water polo matches, perhaps, but not

How does he do it?
First, let’s accept that he doesn’t know he’s answering a question on the outcome of a future event about which he has no knowledge. He has no crystal ball and he can’t see into the future.

What he does have are two plastic boxes, containing mussels and adorned with the flags of opposing teams, that are lowered into his aquarium by keeper Oliver Walenciak. Paul slides over the boxes and drops a tentacle into one of them to retrieve the food.

Whichever box he raids first is regarded by the Oberhausen centre as Paul’s prediction for the next match. Paul doesn’t know this, of course, he’s just looking for his dinner.

So, how is he right so often?
There are a number of possible explanations. Perhaps his keeper or one of his helpers is a football fan with a talent for deciding in advance who will win a match. If that is the case, the food in the plastic boxes could be slightly different, so that Paul enters the box that contains the tastiest food first.

Another possibility is that Paul is somehow attracted to the colours or shapes of the flags on the plastic boxes. The German flag was his favourite for a time, then he switched to Spain.

But the likeliest explanation is the simplest: it’s all down to chance. A bit like a football match, really.

I’ve no idea what his “prediction” for Sunday’s final will be but my prediction is that he’ll get it wrong. That’s assuming he survives until Sunday. Apparently, he received death threats and one German newspaper published a picture of a Spanish paella … generously loaded with cooked octopus.

PHOTO CREDIT: Our picture is not of Paul, but of an octopus vulgaris off the French coast, taken in 2007 by Matthieu Sontag (CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons). We have no reason to believe he is a psychic octopus, but he does have a penetrating gaze that just might extend into the future.


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