• Once upon a time in history, citizens were presented with soothsayers whose duty it was to predict the results of athletic events. Some say that the prognosticators were so pure in their perceptions that they did not need to know anything about the subject matter of their postulations. Even more impressive, it has been speculated that the predictors weren’t aware that they were making predictions! Apparently, you see, these Nostradamus impersonators were populated by animals, such as monkeys, elephants and octopi, who were provided references to competing groups so that they could, somehow in their behaviour, indicate the more likely victor.

    I’m hoping I’ve tricked you into imagining that I’m referring to an ancient time where animals were sometimes elevated to the status of deities who could apparently see all. In fact, the omniscient creatures that I refer to have existed in our recent history on our televisions, where various broadcasters have competed to provide us with the most endearing animal pundit.

    Most recently, I witnessed a local-to-me television station employing a divine critter of their own to anticipate the results of my Vancouver Canucks. Is this continuing ritual meant to be merely adorable, or, in those cases where the animal “selections” prove accurate, are we also supposed to be intrigued as well? When Paul the Octopus selected food from the logo of the team that would win particular football/soccer matches eight out of eight times during the 2010 World Cup, some seemed genuinely amazed and apparently wondered if the animal actually had some extra sensory understanding of the sport.

    (I have no idea whether any of these animal surveys are conducted scientifically, but let us assume that there was no accidental or intentional biasing of the subject: it won’t affect the ire of this rant.)

    If it’s true that some people believe that the only reason the sea creature could have chosen his food so consistently with the results of the matches is because he was powered by some greater force or perception, I think it’s worth pointing out that, when it comes to chance, every unlikely possibility is obligated to come true now and then. “Improbable,” that is, simply means that something is less likely than all the other options combined: it doesn’t mean that it can only happen with the assistance of magic. If, for instance, you flip a coin twice in a row, the chance of getting heads both times is 25%. Thus it “probably” won’t happen, but it certainly might. In fact, it is one of only four possibilities for what could happen:

    (A) Two heads in a row
    (B) First heads, then tails
    (C) First tails, then heads
    (D) Two tails in a row

    Each of these combinations has exactly a 25% chance of happening, so each possibility is, in fact, improbable, and yet we know that 100% of the times that we successfully flip a coin two times in a row one of these improbabilities will come true. Thus the improbable is to be expected (we just don’t know which improbable is going to occur).

    Similarly, each individual who buys a ticket has a tiny chance of winning the lottery, and yet, with every draw, it is likely that someone will come up big. That doesn’t demonstrate that the winning ticket holder was psychic: it simply means that, if you throw a ball into a crowd, it’s probably going to land in someone’s hand even though every person in there had a small chance of getting it.

    When it comes to individual animal predictors, then, it is not actually surprising that they are sometimes “right” many times in a row. The law of probability demands it! (25% of the time in the case of two coin flips, 12.5% in the case of three flips, and 0.39% for eight guesses.) Paul feeding “accurately” eights times in a row is to be expected occasionally. After all, every possible combination of eight coin flips had an equal 0.39% chance, and yet one of them had to come true: and Paul’s 1 in 256 prediction had just as good a shot as any other.

    It may still seem surprising that Paul would win the lottery right while the cameras were watching him, but how much failed animal predictor footage was thrown away before Paul’s accuracy was brought to the public’s attention?

    Sometimes, the coin-flip combination you guess for will be the one that comes up, but once again, that doesn’t make you, nor any confused animal, a psychic. It just means that you and chance were in the same place at the same time. My bet is that, on average, when any of us make predictions that have a 1/256 chance of coming true, we’re probably right approximately every 256th time, so don’t be surprised when your wild guess does come true.

    Perhaps, most people aren’t actually impressed when the animal nudges their nose at the right prediction, but are instead pleased to see a cute creature on stage, and so are happy to play along with the prediction game that justifies the non-human appearance. Fair enough, but in that case, instead of imposing psychic behaviours on our animal neighbours maybe the broadcasters could spend the time studying the creatures’ natural behaviours and tendencies.

    Unless you genuinely believe there is something more than the standard workings of chance contained in an animal-logo-nudging exhibition, I submit the display provides us with no nutritional content other than the animals’ natural charisma. The spectacle is not even original any more! So, instead of spending animals’ rare time on screen forced to pretend that they care about our sports, maybe we could let them teach us about their genuine interests.

    I look forward to the day that the sports announcer says, “We were going to take this time to show you the basketball game predictions of Humphrey the Hippo, but we realized that we could let you flip your own coins at home, and so, in lieu of such artificially constructed animal behaviour, we would now like to spend one genuine minute with this Hippopotamus and Dr. Henrietta the Hippo Scientist.”

    Go Canucks, Go!

    Posted by SethBlog @ 9:05 AM

  • 3 Responses

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    • Natalie Says:

      So you would not object to an interruption in a sports cast to focus on an animal as long as it’s zoological as opposed to prophetical in motivation?

    • v Says:

      I agree, don’t waste an animal’s time on sports…even humans should be spending time on more interesting topics (like watching animal shows instead). There are plenty of great animal shows to watch that have nothing to do with sports…Big Cat Diary, Wild Kingdom, Be the Creature, Whale Wars, Lemur Streer & Meerkat Manor just to name a few highly entertaining displays of animals in the natural habitats.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks for the list, v. Who knew animals had so much star power?!
      Well played, Natalie: nay, I’m not suggesting that sports broadcasts include zoological components (just as I don’t think the zoological shows v mentions would benefit from images of athletes frolicking). If the animals feel they need more time on screen, then instead of doing such crossover broadcasts, maybe we could simply end the sports highlights sooner and start the animalcast earlier? (They would both have the same time on screen, but wouldn’t be muddying each others’ waters in the process.)

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