Psychic tentacles of truth

July 8, 2010

There is a mini media frenzy over Paul, the “psychic” octopus, who successfully predicted Spain’s World Cup victory over Germany last night.

As the comments on the Guardian article makes clear, there is clearly nothing psychic about it – for every Paul, there are hundreds of other cephalopods, invertebrates, mammals, dowsers, New Age gurus and assorted fruitcakes making similar predictions … it’s simply that the ones who get it wrong don’t make it onto the news.

Derren Brown exploited this principle in a TV show where he appeared to show a viewer successfully predicting the winners of a series of horse races. What he did in reality was follow several hundred viewers, but only show footage of the one viewer who by chance correctly guessed all the results.

It’s why we shouldn’t be impressed by anecdotes “proving” the existence of the spirit world or the power of dreams – you know, those “I dreamed he was dead and in the morning found out he’d been run over” type tales. We have dreams all the time, but only record those which coincide with actual events. No one tells us, “I had this dream about Aunty Mabel snuffing it last night, and when I woke she was right as rain” – never happens.

There’s a good section on this in the amusing and thought-provoking Why Do Buses Come in Threes? (Easyaway and Wyndham, 2005), where they stress the difference between the chance of a specific unlikely event occuring and the chance of any unlikely event occuring (and which touches on the fascinating topic of Bayesian statistics). For instance, if you have a class of 23 children, then the chance of a pair of them having the same birthday is about 1 in 2 – but if you pick two of the children out of that class at random, the chance of them having the same birthday is 1 in 365 (assuming they weren’t born in a leap year!).

But back to Paul – more interesting than his dubious predictive prowess is the question: what’s the plural of “octopus”? My Cassells dictionary says “octopuses”, although Guardian readers commenting on the article claim it ought to be “occtupym” or “octopussies”. The OED lists “octopi” and “octopodes” as variants, although Urdang’s Dictonary of Misunderstood, Misused and Mispronounced Words (1972) has only “octopuses”. The Guardian and Daily Telegraph style guides are silent on the matter, although the Times’ style guide (thankfully not behind the Murdoch paywall!) declares it is “octopuses (plural of octopus, not octopi)”.

Anyone have any other contenders? …

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