World Cup, Media Bias, & “Paul the Octopus”

This big news today is that 1) Spain won the 2010 FIFI World Cup, and 2) Paul the Octopus knew it all along. Paul is an “animal oracle” living at the Sea Life Centre in Germany who correctly predicted the outcomes of 8 consecutive World Cup matches, including Spain’s defeat of the Netherlands in Sunday’s final match.   The probability of 8 successful predictions out of 8 attempts is p = 0.0039 (~0.39%), which makes Paul either incredibly lucky or a clear genius. Paul the Octopus Predictions As humans, we have a hard time discriminating between luck and genius.  In fact, a poll in a Huffington Post article shows that, as of the time of this blog post, 59.81% of readers consider Paul ‘a genius’ vs. 40.19% that consider him ‘lucky.’  Although my vote was for lucky, I can see why the majority of readers attribute Paul’s success to cephalopodial brilliance.  I mean, even though he’s an octopus, those are some pretty impressive results! Where others see a brilliant invertebrate, I see a combination of luck and media bias. Media bias is defined as:

…the bias of journalists and news producers within the mass media, in the selection of which events and stories are reported and how they are covered.

The media doesn’t report the news, they report the news that gets ratings.  Sensational headlines like “Paul the octopus outsmarts banking’s brightest quants” and “Octopus oracle got it all right” attract more eyeballs and advertising dollars than would “Leon the porcupine proves no smarter than a porcupine.” We don’t hear about all of the animal oracles that were wrong in their World Cup predictions, we only hear about those that were right.  Paul found himself in the public spotlight because he happened to select the winning World Cup team 8 of out 8 times.  Had his track record been poorer and another animal’s track record more stellar, then the other animal would have been in the news, not Paul.  Out of the countless animal oracles “competing” for World Cup prediction greatness, we would expect one or two to emerge as successes. We should be no more impressed by this than if someone told us, “someone will win the lottery jackpot this year but I’m telling you who.” Hanlon’s razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” My version might read, “Never attribute to genius that which can be adequately explained by luck, nor attribute to luck that which can be adequately explained by statistics.”

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