I did an hour-long phone interview with CNN last night. They were looking for an alternate explanation for the "psychic octopus" named Paul. Paul lives in a German aquarium and has become famous for correctly picking the winners of World Cup games.
There's no doubt octopuses are intelligent, easily as smart as dogs and even two-year-old children. But they aren't psychic. No living thing is. If his handlers think so they should hurry up and claim James Randi's million dollar prize.
I'll post the article when it comes up, but my arguments basically included:
- Statistics. We're not taking about an awful lot of trials here. Flip a coin ten times and the chances of coming up heads 80% of the time (Paul's numbers) aren't all that bad. Toss the coin a thousand times and, well, not so much. Plus, Germany's not really a very bad team. They're going to win a few games even without a cephalopod's help.
- Hans Effect. Like the horse that could count, add and multiply, an intelligent animal can pick up on subtle cues from its owner that we can't even detect. If you own a dog you've seen this happen a hundred times.
- Bias. Without even realizing it, we can influence an outcome based on our own biases and wishes. Expecting, or hoping for, a certain result can influence how we perceive the results.
- Fraud. This is by far the most likely explanation of Paul's ability. The aquarium staff is fudging both the trials and the results to make it look like the animal is producing results. This is so easy, and trust me, I've owned dozens of these animals.
I'm going with fraud, for several reasons. The handlers have both monetary and patriotic reasons for his successes. First, look at the results for games involving Germany. And from what I understand, aquarium attendance has skyrocketed.
Some critics have claimed that the octopus is responding to flag colors, but the CNN guy said that he was told by aquarium staff that octopuses can't see color. I've seen this other places too. They can. Their eyes are nearly identical to ours ( as I showed in this essay.)
It should also be noted that the common octopus (Paul is the same species as all of mine were) has a life span of only one year. The German sea-life aquarium claims he is a two-year-old octopus, hatched in Britain in 2008. All octopuses are born in the spring, so this makes Paul well over two years old. This isn't possible, so this is the second, or even third, "Paul". Most commercial aquariums keep multiple octopuses in reserve and switch them out when the exhibit animal dies, keeping the name for continuity or innocent deception. Paul's not only a fraud, he's surely not even the original "Paul".
Of course, leave it to sports fans to blame their losses on the bogus oracle and call for his grilling.
Here's my octopus, Ruby. He wasn't psychic, and he died at the age of 12 months 3 weeks, just like he should have.
[Update]: The insanity never ends.