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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA