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.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.