Predictions: The oracle octopus who won the World Cup

THE PUNCH Newspaper-Abimbola Adelakun

While the recently concluded World Cup tournament in South Africa was going on, different issues came up that became subjects of intense debates, sarcasm and light-hearted humour. One was the Jabulani balls that became a viable excuse for ill-prepared teams; the vuvuzela with all its noise and buzz; the referees with their human errors.

Close to the end of the tournament, one particularly stole the show. Interestingly it was not human. It was an octopus; one believed to be endowed with psychic powers. The animal oracle attained worldwide fame when it began to predict results of matches mostly ones in which Germany featured.

Eight times, the eight legged animal got it correct.

To divine, Paul would be presented with two boxes containing food in the form of a mussel. Each box marked with the flag of a national football team in an upcoming match, Paul on its own accord would choose the box with the flag of the winning team. It did correctly predict four of Germany‘s six Euro 2008 matches, and in all seven of their matches in the 2010 World Cup.

Finally, it predicted that Spain would defeat Netherlands at the finals. Another psychic animal oracle, Mani, a Singaporean parakeet, countered Paul‘s prediction by saying Netherlands would emerge winner. Paul won the contest when Spain scored the winning goal in the final minutes of extra time.

In 2008, four out of Paul‘s six predictions turned out to be a success. Mathematicians say the probability of guessing the correct result six times consecutively is less than 0.5 per cent.

The Head of Department, Psychology, Chemistry of Lagos, Prof. Kayode Oguntuase explains that there is a primitive past to every human being even for those who claim to be modern and civilised.

”That is why it is making millions because of the myth and magic that reside in the human mind. It can‘t be true. How can an octopus without 1/20 of human intelligence be correct? It is fascinating anyway. The mind of man has several components: primitive, magical, intuitive, rational, logical, scientific. They co-exist and one is not necessarily superior. You can see the parts that reflected in the interest men showed in the octopus,” Prof. Oguntuase said.

David Brillinger of the statistics department at the University of California, Berkeley, described the Paul phenomenon as ”nonsense correlations” such as the one that said the candidate with the longer name never lost the race for the U.S. Presidency.

”That worked from 1932, when Roosevelt beat Hoover, to 1960, when Kennedy beat Nixon, but came apart when Goldwater lost to Johnson in 1964. That‘s eight elections, of course, exactly the number of matches Paul predicted,” said Brillinger.

”The pleasure of storytelling makes people seek the magic of the supernatural even in a world suffocating with scientific inventions; enter Paul, the mystique octopus, complete with its spell-binders. Nothing else matters but the spirit level,” says Nduka Otiono, a journalist and a poet currently living in Canada.

“I believe for many in the Western world, Paul the mystique octopus fills a certain spiritual void in a globalised world with dizzying scientific flows and invention. As many in the advanced world distance themselves more and more from God and the spiritual essence of our humanity – there are increasing number of atheists and advocates against God in public places who clamour for separation of state and religion – they are finding a spiritual sterility that needs to be filled. So, belief in the supernatural becomes a way of getting to terms with those inscrutable aspects of existence to which science cannot provide answers. You may say it worked but it is the same way all bets work or prophecies like Godswill Oluwole‘s annual predictions including, as I had read, his prediction on Umaru Musa Yar‘Adua‘s demise. So, the point really is the contradiction in terms – why a highly scientific society would believe in this kind of animist realism associated with less advanced societies like Africa?

Why would these so called advanced people believe a full-fledged African oracle complete with all of its totems of worship by African traditional religion faithful? If this had happened in Africa, they would have called it savagery.

We all cherish the fantastic in the depths of our hearts and that‘s the stuff storytelling is made of,” Otiono said.

Another Nigerian who described himself as a public spirited individual, Monday Nwachukwu, pooh-poohed the whole affair.

”Don‘t mind those Western nations,” he said. ”The thing is supposed to be entertainment but they are thereby taking football to new heights. It is a mere freak occurrence and it is not something to be taken serious. Isn‘t it more about the ability of the team and the level of preparedness than which box the octopus climbs? It is ridiculous and unwarranted.”

Experts think that Paul‘s choices are based more on mere conjectures than real powers. There are explanations that experiments have shown that octopus vulgaris can distinguish brightness, size, shape, and horizontal or vertical shape of objects. They are therefore more drawn to horizontal shapes. Scientific studies have also shown that there is little evidence that octopuses can recognise colours. Besides, ten feet under water, the colour red disappears and becomes an indistinct hue. So, what must have influenced Paul‘s choice must have been bold distinct shapes and not colours.

The German, Spanish and Serbian flags are bold and horizontal. The German flag with three feisty colours is quite bold while the Spanish flag has a bolder yellow horizontal stripe. That might explain the choice of Spanish over Germany.

Matthew Fuller, the senior aquarist at the Weymouth Park, says the flag-shape theory is plausible: ”Octopuses are the most intelligent of all the invertebrates and studies have shown they are able to distinguish shapes and patterns so maybe he‘s able to recognise flags.” Vyacheslav Bisikov, a Russian biologist, agrees that it is possible for an octopus to become attracted to a striped flag. However, Pascal Coutant, director of the La Rochelle Aquarium states: ”It‘s complete chance that guides his choices.”

Paul‘s talents have not only brought it fame. It has also brought death threat Japanese have called for it to be made into sushi. German fans who were disappointed in its prediction of their losses hosted a website with various recipes of how to cook Paul. Here is a recipe:

Paul the Psychic Octopus Stewed

Ingredients: Paul the Psychic Octopus, two onions, two cloves of garlic crushed, two tomatoes chopped, tablespoon of tomato puree, cup of red wine, olive oil, oregano, basil and lemon juice.

Method: Season the tenderised pieces of Paul with the lemon juice. Slice the onions and fry in the olive oil until golden. Add Paul. Cook for two minutes and add the chopped tomatoes, oregano, basil and garlic. Cook for another two minutes and add the wine. Let this simmer for about five minutes and add the tomato puree. Add enough hot water to cover and simmer for ninety minutes. Serve with rice and bread.

There are jests that the Spanish may want to ordain it as the patron saint of football. Among Bollywood‘s superstition- ridden filmy frat, the oracle octopus might have found a new set of fans.

”I am desperate to send scripts to him now!” said Karan Johar, a Bollywood director.

Ajay Devgn, known for his intense image on screen, has joined the Paul fan club. ”It would be fun to have him in Bollywood. That way I would consult him before signing a film if it will become a hit or not!” Ajay said, perhaps in jest.

Since Paul became an international celebrity, everyone has been reaching for a piece of it - both literally and figuratively. Italy is trying to claim that it was caught in Italian waters and Spanish businessmen are trying to buy it for €30,000 ($38,000).

Due to accusations of betrayal by the German newspaper Westfälische Rundschau, the Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promised to send a team of bodyguards to protect Paul, while the environment minister Elena Espinosa promised to file Paul under the endangered species status so that Germans do not eat it.

Other animal oracles were not so lucky in their predictions during the tournament. The animals at the Chemnitz Zoo in Germany were wrong on all of Germany‘s group-stage games. Leon the porcupine picked Australia, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus spurned Serbia‘s apple-topped pile of hay and Anton the tamarin chose a raisin representing Ghana.

For whoever is looking to paul for the UEFA Euro 2012, Paul might not be around as octopuses live an average of not more than two years, Paul has lived for four already. Its owners said there would be no more predictions and that Paul is retired. Paul will get back to his former job, namely making children laugh. As a reward for its accurate predictions, aquarium staff presented it with its very own replica World Cup trophy garnished with its favourite food - mussels.


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