How did Paul the octopus really predict the results?
Let’s talk about a marvel of the universe called ‘probability’. Probability is what we use to predict the future. Probability is what a gambler would use when they want to make a calculated bet and how an online slot guide will describe odds and outcomes. Probability tells us that it is quite likely that a married couple with brown eyes will produce a brown eyed child. However, probability also tells is that there is an incredibly slim chance that there is an accountant called Richard living on Jupiter. While highly unlikely, it is still possible. This is because, rather than being based on rational logic, probability is based on mathematics. Mathematics tells us that everything is possible but not necessarily probable. So, in regards to Paul the octopus, who managed to correctly predict the winning team of the World Cup by eating food from boxes labelled with national flags, what was the probability of him making the correct predictions?
Let us consider for a moment – with no offence to Paul the octopus – that Paul was an animal that didn’t possess psychic abilities, had no idea what a “world cup” is, and was merely ‘making predictions’ in accordance with whims and the food he happened to see first. In this hypothetical scenario, every prediction that Paul ever made was mutually exclusive. In which case, for every prediction that he made he had a 50% chance of getting it right. Much like tossing a coin 100 times in a row, even if a coin landed on head 99 times when you flipped it there is still a 50% chance that it will land on heads when you flip it for the 100th time. So, by this logic, there was always a 50% chance that Paul would predict the winning team. He could predict the correct outcomes of hundreds of matches and still have a 50% chance of getting it right the next time. Also, considering how many times he predicted Germany to be the victors of their matches, it’s also very likely that the German football team are just very good at what they do and that Paul just happened to be more familiar with the German flag and therefore more comfortable with eating the food from that particular box.
Now, as fantastic as it would be to be able to calculate to probability of Paul the octopus being actually psychic, the mathematics that would likely be involved in doing so are probably too complex for one person to address alone without spending years collecting evidence and calculating variables. So, instead, we can make the safe assumption that it’s probably very unlikely that Paul had psychic powers. If this probability was summarised we can conclude with reasonable certainty that it is less than 50%, which means that it is already more likely that Paul made random predictions rather than calculated ones.
So, when we think about the process by which Paul made is predictions and put this scenario in context with our chaotic universe, it is probably quite likely that he didn’t ‘predicted’ the results as much as randomly eat one out of two pieces of food that were given to him. Or, it is at least that is more likely to be the case than it is that a psychic octopus dedicated his gift of clairvoyance to predicting football results rather than using it to escape his tank.