What the World Cup octopus tells us about life

The laws of nature often don’t see any reason to conform to logic.

In case you missed out on the most popular non-footballing story of the World Cup, an octopus called Paul, from Germany, became world famous for predicting Germany's results and the result of the final with a 100 per cent accuracy rate. The talented mollusc carried out his predictions by eating a mussel placed in a box decorated with the flag of the team he thought would win. Using his method, he foresaw a remarkable series of results, including a couple (Germany's freak loss to Serbia, for example) that very few humans would have predicted. Indeed, had the octopus been involved in the Watson Prediction World Cup alongside my siblings and Emily's, I would not now be sitting here as champion.

It was announced the other day that the visionary octopus would now be retiring, which means we can't have the fun ruined by him starting to get them wrong, but also robs us of the chance to see even more bizarre statistics unfold. I was thinking about the whole business while shopping for fruit. Here is what I thought.

First, not one of us believes that an octopus can possess psychic powers, and very few of us, I should think, even believe a human can. Without wanting to insult the prescient cephalopod, I doubt that he followed the competition with full understanding. Anyone who tried to make a case that this funny little story is evidence of supernatural goings-on would be laughed out of town. We're all well-trained rationalists these days and we don't think there are acts of God or telepathic beings in the sea. However, the world is a very odd place and what we should learn in the light of the octopus's performance is that although blatantly unscientific things shouldn't be believed in, the world quite often behaves in a way so bonkers that it is close to being unscientific itself, if you see what I mean.

The chances of the octopus getting it right were 50/50 each time, so the chance of him calling all seven matches accurately was, I reckon, 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 and so on. I could be wrong about this (I got a B at GSCE -- couldn't do graphs). But expressed as a percentage I imagine the statistical possibility would be somewhere the wrong side of 0.1%. Now, most things which had a 0.1% chance of happening, you would be virtually certain you could dismiss as impossible. I've had operations where there was a 0.1% chance of something going wrong, and not lost any sleep to the idea at all. If someone told you that your train would run on time provided that an octopus was able to forecast the results of seven football matches in a row, you would immediately start making alternative travel arrangements. If someone bet you a million quid that seven 50/50 events would fall into place consecutively, you'd most likely take the bet.

And more relevantly to me -- if the plot of a novel depended on a less-than-one-in-a-hundred chance, people would accuse you of contrivance. They'd say it was "unrealistic". The fact is, life is fairly often unrealistic. Science can't measure the tendency of the universe to throw you a genuine curveball.

How can this help us be optimistic? Quite simply, next time you're hoping for something highly unlikely to happen, think of the octopus and remember that logic is all very well but the laws of nature often don't see any reason to conform to it.

And on that note: after my boast of having eaten a Chomp bar with Dawn French, against any of my expectations, one commenter suggested that we set other doing-things-with-celebs targets, and I see if I can stretch my new-found optimism to imagine them happening, and then try to actually do them. His idea was "juggling with Alexei Sayle". I'm going to come out and say I think I can do that at some point over the next ten years. I'm also going to nominate a handful of similar targets:

- Singing with Paula Radcliffe

- Eating sandwiches with Steve Coogan

- Playing a board game with Adrian and Christine, formerly of the One Show.

Suggest similar doing-stuff achievements and I'll decide which of them are within the reach of my optimism, while still being just about as realistic. And feel free to set them for yourself as well. Anything is possible, if I can eat cheap chocolate with Dawn and a creature without the power of speech can know more about football than me, my brother and my dad put together.

This post originally appeared on Mark Watson's blog.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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Quiz: Can you identify fake news?

The furore around "fake" news shows no sign of abating. Can you spot what's real and what's not?

Hillary Clinton has spoken out today to warn about the fake news epidemic sweeping the world. Clinton went as far as to say that "lives are at risk" from fake news, the day after Pope Francis compared reading fake news to eating poop. (Side note: with real news like that, who needs the fake stuff?)

The sweeping distrust in fake news has caused some confusion, however, as many are unsure about how to actually tell the reals and the fakes apart. Short from seeing whether the logo will scratch off and asking the man from the market where he got it from, how can you really identify fake news? Take our test to see whether you have all the answers.

 

 

In all seriousness, many claim that identifying fake news is a simple matter of checking the source and disbelieving anything "too good to be true". Unfortunately, however, fake news outlets post real stories too, and real news outlets often slip up and publish the fakes. Use fact-checking websites like Snopes to really get to the bottom of a story, and always do a quick Google before you share anything. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.