Tuesday, July 13, 2010

That damnable octopus

It’s impossible for you not to have heard of Paul the psychic octopus who has correctly predicted the winners of all world cup games involving Germany, the world cup final and 4 out of 6 Euro 2008 Germany games.

I won’t talk too much about the fact that the odds of this occurring at random are a lot less impressive than they might seem.  I won’t talk too much about the potential for bias (cheating, the Clever Hans effect, Paul’s possible attraction to certain flags, the fact that he almost always chose the right hand box).  I’ll gloss over the prosecutor’s fallacy and total lack of proper experimental design (it didn’t even account for draws, for goodness’ sake).  I’ll even grit my teeth and not complain too much about the fact that even if Paul’s abilities were genuinely paranormal, he wouldn’t be psychic.  He’d be precognitive.

I’m not even all that irritated by the few people who placed bets based on Paul’s ‘predictions’; it’s no particular surprise that people are idiots.

What bothers me is the silliness of the media’s coverage.  It’s all a bit of fun, of course, and there’s no particular harm in it.  I’d have been happy enough to see it mentioned as a tidbit at the end of the proper news to cheer people up a bit.  It could have been reported as what it was - a publicity stunt by the aquarium – and we could have all moved on.  It would have been cute and fun.

What we got was rather different.  I didn’t see a single world cup story on the web or on TV that didn’t mention Paul.  On the BBC, quite a lot of stories that had nothing to do with the world cup mentioned Paul.  Practically every weather forecast included a quip about Paul probably doing a better job.  This sustained banality, with nothing new to say and faux credulity is not a responsible attitude for a trusted source of public information.  Indulging in a little bit of nonsense now and again is fine, but when it’s sustained, I think it becomes harmful.  It’s a bit like horoscopes in newspapers.  It’s often argued that these are harmless and nobody really believes them.  This is demonstrably untrue on both counts: I personally know several people who believe newspaper horoscopes and some of them have been led by newspaper horoscopes to spend quite large sums of money on astrology and to turn down opportunities because of the results. 

Does the casual repetition of Paul as an unquestioned psychic – even though we all know that nobody really believes it – encourage people to waste money and opportunities on psychics?  Well I don’t know, but I think it probably does.  I think it probably blinds people to the idea of critical thinking and damages people’s intuitive grasp of statistics.  These are both hallmarks of woo thinking.

If the BBC and other news sources want to keep mentioning Paul, I think they have a responsibility to explain very clearly that there are no such things as psychic octopuses.  They could do a segment on the Breakfast programme, for example, which investigated how to calculate the odds and comparing them with commonly understood odds.  It could feature a mathematician explaining this and a biologist talking about how amazing octopuses are.  People would learn something.  People might get interested in maths or in biology or just in octopuses.  Isn’t this the BBC’s primary mission?  But we don’t have any of this.  Some of the stories on the BBC website talk about the odds.  In most cases, they’ve calculated them wrongly or misunderstood the results.  In no case I’ve seen have they compared the odds to anything useful to give people a sense of how likely it is that Paul is choosing entirely by chance.  In no case I’ve seen do they examine the story critically, suggesting methods by which bias could be introduced or cheating occur.  In fact, they seem almost to go out of their way to avoid this.  Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

I’m probably being too harsh.  Everyone will have forgotten about Paul soon enough.  But I’m disgruntled by the laziness of missing an opportunity to educate, entertain and amaze in favour of banal repetition of idiocy.

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