Friday, July 9, 2010

Tentacled prophet and four-legged oracles for World Cup 2010

Paul predicts Spain’s victory against Germany, at the Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen July 6, 2010. — Reuters pic

In a World Cup of droning vuvuzelas, dodgy balls and substandard favourites, nothing has fascinated the public as much as the octopus named Paul.

So far, the seemingly precognitive Paul has correctly predicted the results of all German matches during the tournament, even their losses to Serbia and Spain.

Tomorrow, according to his handlers, Paul will predict the winner of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. If he is not tired.

Residing in the Oberhausen Sea Life Aquarium in Germany, the two-year-old cephalopod “predicts” the results of matches by picking one of two clear boxes bearing the flags of the competing countries. The boxes are arranged according to Fifa’s arrangement of flags for each match, and filled with food like mussels or oysters.

Previously, he has correctly predicted five out of six results from Germany’s campaign in Euro 2008.

After predicting Germany’s exit at the hands of Spain in the semi-final, Paul has since received death threats from many Germans who wish to see him served on their dinner tables.

Some punters and booking agencies have made money from following his advice, while animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) is urging for his release from his “imprisonment”.

Paul might be the first octopus to have done so, but he is surely not the first animal to tell fortunes or read minds. In 1927, a horse in Virginia, US named Lady Wonder was claimed to possess psychic powers and extra-sensory perception (ESP), and communicated by pushing toy letter blocks.

For the price of a dollar, one could ask the horse three questions, and over 150,000 people had taken up the offer. The horse also supposedly predicted the result of a boxing match, discovered oil, and solved a missing person case.

Another horse in 1900 in Germany, Clever Hans, was shown as having the ability to solve arithmetical and intellectual problems. Having a multi-talented owner who was a mathematics teacher, amateur horse trainer and phrenologist bestowed Hans with various abilities such as telling time, differentiating musical tones and understanding German.

In the 1980s, a dog called Harass II was purported by its handler, John Prestons, to be psychic. Harass II could supposedly find cold trails and human scent — even months or years later. He could also track underwater and after hurricanes, using his psychic powers.

Historically, humans have relied on observing animals for divination since thousands of years ago. Alectryomancy, practised by Etruscans in ancient Italy 2,400 years ago, enables people to tell fortunes by seeing roosters pecking at scattered grains.

The ancient Romans practised augury, divination by studying the flight of birds: whether any noise was made, whether they flew alone, their directions, etc. These duties were held by a special order of priests whose role was interpreting the gods’ messages.

This divination by observation extends to various other animals such as cats (felidomancy), horse (hippomancy), fish (ichthyomancy), spider and snakes (ophiomancy).

In the cases of Lady Wonder, Clever Hans and Harass II, it has been proven that the animals were unconsciously or unintentionally cued by their owners. In fact, this observer effect has been called the “Clever Hans Effect” and has been used to debunk many “intelligent” or “talented” pets over the years.

As for Paul, it is still not proven if he reacts to his trainer Oliver Walenciak’s cues or the expectant German fans. Although he has predicted 11 out of 12 matches correctly so far, it is noted that Paul chose Germany nine times out of 12. Considering Germany was the favourites in those nine matches, Paul had consequently better odds to be correct.

Being a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), it has also been suggested that Paul has a preference for flags with bright horizontal stripes like Germany and Spain, instead of England or Argentina, despite not being able to see in colour.

The species is naturally found in shallow tropical and semi-tropical seas around the world and can grow up to 25cm, with tentacles up to a metre.

Common octopi are well-known for being highly intelligent and responsive. They have been observed to unscrew bottle caps and manipulating other tools.

Whether Paul really possesses supernatural abilities or is just extremely lucky, there is no doubt that he or his owners should capitalise on his popularity quick.

Even if he does not end up in furious Germans’ tummies, Paul is nearing the end of his life —his species has a life expectancy of just two years.

For now, Paul has been immortalised in the minds of many World Cup watchers, even garnering two Twitter accounts for himself, which you can find here and here.

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