Science reporting officially dead at CNN


Given a 50/50 random chance choice of flag-labeled food boxes, Paul the Octopus has "picked" winners in the six World Cup games played by the German national soccer team.

CNN reporter Paul Armstrong thinks this means Paul the Octopus is psychic.

To quote Dave Barry, "I am not making this up."

Can an octopus really be psychic?

Michelle Childerley, who describes herself as an animal communications expert, told CNN that all animals -- as well as humans -- possess a psychic ability, with telepathy the main way of communicating among many species. She says dogs can often sense what an owner wants before they vocalize it.

As for as Paul's ability to predict a football result, Childerley claims the octopus is perfectly aware of what he is being asked. "He's picking up on what everyone around him is thinking," she said. "He knows there are two boxes which represent two sides, so he's basically tuned in to the more positive team at the moment he makes his choice."

Seriously. A professional journalist at a publication that was not The Weekly World News wrote that. And professional editors published it. If you're in a Starbucks in Killeen, Texas today and your coffee drinking is interrupted by frantic sobbing and/or manic screaming...well, I apologize in advance.


    1. I was *hoping* at first that the octopus reporting was tongue-in-cheekness, the same sort of thing that happens whenever a particularly amusing North Korean press release about a miracle nutrition drink or something is reported by the Western press without the obvious fact that it is batshit insane being explicitly stated.

      But lately reports about the octopus *are* treating as somewhat serious, and that’s worrying. I mean, it is cute, but so is Punxsutawney Phil.

  1. The expert is confusing her psuedoscience – Paul is exhibiting precognition, not (just) telepathy.

    1. Or mind control, effecting all of the soccer teams.

      Reminds me of the scam, where someone call you, identifies himself as a financial consultant, tells you to watch a stock that he says is going to go up. It does. The next week he tells you it’s going down. It does. So on for 5 weeks. You think he’s a genius. The other 31 people he called with all combinations of up and down where he got more than one guess wrong don’t think so, but his business model is based on faking you out. In your mind he must be as psychic as the octopus. His next call will have you signed up to invest in his service for a small fee…

  2. This is so idiotic. Especially when it’s obvious an undetectable unicorn is feeding the octopus the answers.

    Undetectable unicorn chaser, please.

  3. This seems more of a cutesy sports piece than a scientific claim, and sports reporters rarely try to oblige key tenets of Science, but yeah, coming from CNN makes this article one magnificent pile of awkwardness. Does this mean we have to watch Fox New now?

  4. This is not the death of science reporting. This is a general subjects reporter accurately (if misleadingly) reporting on the claims of a self-professed animal communication expert. The world isn’t ending just because CNN has a different editorial slant than Skeptic magazine.

  5. Killeen?

    I’m must be missing some reference here.

    In fact, in good ole Texas, our dear State Board of Education is probably using the CNN report as proof that they need to do yet more stupid things to an already stupid cirriculum. (Maybe the octopus is actually in contact with St. Ronnie?)

  6. Not commenting on this particular story, but in general, the people who study this sort of thing often comment that critics haven’t read the research, and I’ll bet none of the homemade cynics who’ve posted so far have.

    If you haven’t, you should; there’s plenty of it out there, both good and bad, as with most things called science. The good science, and you really don’t have to look far to find it, paints a picture very different from what uninformed skeptics say.

    Here’s one of the more interesting studies:

    1. My powers of precognition told me that the pseudoscientific study in question was bunk before I read it.

    2. …there’s plenty of it out there, both good and bad, as with most things called science…
      …Here’s one of the more interesting studies:

      I’ll lump this one in with the “bad” science, thank you.

      Anticipation effect seems to be a very, very (very) strong likelihood here–though the person conducting the study goes to great lengths to obfuscate that fact. Good discussion on the subject here (on the inimitable Amazing Randi’s site):

      1. “Anticipation effect seems to be a very, very (very) strong likelihood here–though the person conducting the study goes to great lengths to obfuscate that fact. Good discussion on the subject here (on the inimitable Amazing Randi’s site). . .”

        Radin has replied to this:

        Of course if you don’t like that study, there are plenty of others.

  7. For all the fabulous philoctopoidia on this page, it’s sad to discover that you’re just another bunch of anti-molluscites. Or maybe you’re still mad that the efficient German football machine finally threw a gear.

    If you’ve ever been diving by moonlight off the rocky reefs around the Straits of Georgia you will have seen the spectacle of the Pacific Giant Octopus poring over a soggy copy of the Daily Racing Form with multiple tentacle tips dipping into its organic inkpot and dotting the page with surefire winners.

    They have the largest brains in the invertebrate world, evolved over aeons of precarious life without a protective exoskeleton. The denizens of BoingBoing can be forgiven for thinking that snark and good taste were viable alternatives to tooth and claw but our squidgy tentacular buddies don’t have the luxury; out there it’s just your wits, your eight-to-ten arms, your spacetime-folding supercerebellum, and a reliable bookmaker standing between you and the ravening hordes of anti-intellectual dogfish.

    So give us all a break, relax, and realize for a moment that you simply don’t know what you don’t know. Only the octopus knows.

    1. So give us all a break, relax, and realize for a moment that you simply don’t know what you don’t know. Only the octopus knows.

      These are the most soothing words I have encountered all day. I’m a go get some beers and ponder on them at length.

    2. “Only the octopus knows”

      …this has meme potential. Quick, someone make a few thousand t-shirts!

  8. Lassie was psychic and Benjie too. Alas Old Yeller wasn’t and he paid for it.

    1. The original Rin Tin Tin was also psychic, but his warnings about the stock market crash of ’29 went completely unheeded.

  9. Really it’s not the octopus who is being studied under scrutiny, it is in fact the scientists! And it is not game outcomes he is predicting, but in fact, the countries that will be destroyed first by the coming invasion. All hail our psychic cephalopod leaders!

  10. Paul Armstrong never says he believes that the octopus is psychic, writes psychic ability in quotation marks, doesn’t say that Childerley is an expert, and uses words like “claims”. He never states that this is The Truth. There might be a language barrier for me here as english isn’t my native language, but I didn’t get the feeling that Armstrong is trying to tell us this is true

  11. FTA: “Six winners in a row: what are the chances?”
    Making the wild assumption that the octopus has no precognitive abilities: 1 in 64.

    1. FTA: “Six winners in a row: what are the chances?”
      Making the wild assumption that the octopus has no precognitive abilities: 1 in 64.

      err, no.

      Suppose there were six games between say, the Pittsburgh Steelers and your local pee-wee football team. Still think it’s 1 in 64?

      1. But those odds are taking into account the ability of the teams playing. Since the octopus is picking randomly without knowing any team ability, it’s chances are 1 in 64.

      2. >> Suppose there were six games between say, the Pittsburgh Steelers and your local pee-wee football team. Still think it’s 1 in 64?

        Hmmm…am I missing something?

        Say there was just one game between those two, and heads represented the Steelers, tails the Pee Wee team.

        Are you saying that I have some kind of different odds than 50/50 of picking the winner if I call the coin in the air?

        1. I think you are right, at least if your coin toss is independent of the winning team. Say you call heads for the steelers and tails for pee-wee football. Then your probability of being correct is P(Heads)*P(Steelers)+P(Tails)*P(pee-wee) (since everything there is independent and exclusive). But P(Heads)=P(Tails)= 1/2 and P(Steelers)+P(pee-wee)=1. So the probability of being right is 1/2. (Realistically, your correct guesses are almost always going to be when you pick the Steelers.)

          Now, on the other hand, we wouldn’t have heard about the octopus if it was wrong so there is some selection bias on the “us hearing about it” front.

      3. “Suppose there were six games between say, the Pittsburgh Steelers and your local pee-wee football team. Still think it’s 1 in 64?”

        Yes. If the guesses are made at random, then it does not matter whether the teams are equally matched. The probability is still 1 in 64.

      4. 64 is for all the possible outcomes, 1 is the specific outcome for winning six matches in a row. Therefore chances are 1/64. Saying that is not the same as saying that outcome is the more likely to happen…

    2. Actually, it’s not 1 in 64 (or any other measurable odds). The fact that this story wouldn’t have been reported had the octopus failed means that the test is faulty due to selection bias. People try to prove psychic stuff all the time. The fact that you end up with some coincidences proves nothing.

      1. What does selection bias, or who played, have to do with this very simple odds calculation?

        How many combinations of unique results are there in 6 binary trials?

        2 X 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 = 64

        What the hell is there to argue with here? Dear God, have I wandered into the CNN comment section by mistake?

        1. You’re right that there are 64 possible results. For the octopus, each of those 64 results are equally likely. For actual game results, each of those 64 results are not equally likely.

          I think that’s the source of the disagreement above. The octopus had exactly a 1 in 64 chance of picking the winners. According to the article, only 1 out of 408 people would have agreed with those choices. However, in answering the question “6 in a row, what are the odds”, the 1 in 408 is pretty irrelevant.

        2. First off, determining the odds based on the number of unique results of 6 binary trials assumes that all of the results are equally likely. Imagine that you went to a horse race and you asked the bookie the odds on a particular horse, and (s)he replied that it was 6 to 1 because there are 7 horses in the race. Kinda silly.

          That would indicate that the odds are much lower than 63 to 1 (and yes, this is the way odds are expressed). Despite this, the test isn’t significant. Maybe I wasn’t clear what I meant when I said that the test was faulty. For all we know, there were 1000 other groups testing 1000 other animals for psychic powers. The fact that the octopus overcame the odds really isn’t all that significant. Almost nobody knew about this octopus until after the fact. A news service that reports coincidences, but never when coincidences fail to appear, is performing a form of selection bias known as ‘data dredging’. This reminds me of a great Richard Feynman quote:

          “You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!”

          Oh, and about comparing my comment to the ones made in the CNN comments section… you’re kind of a mean person, aren’t you?

          1. I should clarify that you’re right in saying that the odds that an octopus, picking randomly, would get the correct result would be 1 to 63. I’m guessing that the odds mentioned in the article are the betting odds that the particular combination of wins/losses that occurred, would occur before the games were played (the odds mentioned in my previous comment). Those odds really aren’t applicable if you’re trying to prove that an octopus is doing something more than picking randomly.

            that being said, my original comment wasn’t about the odds. It was about selection bias in the reporting of the test.

  12. The reporter isn’t stating the octopus is psychic, but rather quoting/paraphrasing Childerley. Seems like the reporter took a very strange claim someone has made and wrote it up totally straight without judging the validity of the claim or the evidence. Sounds like something I do… er, *might have done* in a similar circumstance.

    1. Yeah, I get that he was quoting her, but from my perspective, it’s spectacularly bad journalism.

      I’d have been totally up for story about “Hey, wacky octopus correctly guesses World Cup winners! Awesome!”

      But to credulously go with the psychic claim, to the point of asking “Can octopuses be psychic” and choosing an “expert” mouthpiece to answer, “YES”…that’s off the deep end. It’s something editors should have spiked. And, in my opinion, shows some serious disregard for accuracy in the CNN newsroom.

      This stuff matters because people believe it. Months from now, I’m going to have random relatives telling me that they read someplace that animals really are psychic.

      1. Yes, I see what you mean, Maggie.

        In any case, I once went to a psychic. To warn her.

      2. Maggie,
        I can understand that, but it seems like you’re just fighting hyperbole with larger hyperbole. It is a lot more correct to say that “an expert thinks animals are telepathic” than it is to say “Science reporting is dead at CNN”. This post could easily cause a quick reader to say “CNN fired all of their science reporters! I read it on Boing Boing!”

  13. I will advocate myself and say that if this is a new growing direction (Thanks for starting it FOX News) for the news to report nonsense, then I welcome it.
    Anyone smart and worth their salt will run from these discredited sources and toward more credible sources. The masses on the other hand, will remain trapped in a growing bubble of ignorance, become more vulnerable to con jobs (e.g. iPad and iPhone4 buyers, Facebook users, youtube blog posters), and therefore remain a more docile tax base unlikely to revolt or even become aware of encroachments on their rights and interests by those in the know.

  14. Tarvu tarvooti,
    Oboonoo cTooti,
    Mimmin O’tibbi noonah,
    Mdfitty fitty noonah,
    Arvu immentiBarvu,

  15. i’m with kingfelix…
    Ph’nglui Dutch… Spain fhtagn

    now if CNN cited Paul as evidence of cold one interference in the great game…

  16. Science reporting on MSM has always made me want to smoke crack… but its not just science they misreport, its everything.

  17. If Paul’s prediction for the final turns out to be wrong, I want someone to check all the betting shops near the aquarium and see if they’ve had any big bets placed on the actual winners by unusual-looking customers. I wouldn’t put it past an octopus to slip out of its tank and place a crafty side bet, especially after softening everyone up with a string of correct predictions. They’re cunning little critters.

  18. What kind of animal communications expert dares to claim telepathy is the main form of communication amongst animals… what happened to good ole body language?

  19. If the octopus in question was truly psychic or had precognition, he would have picked Germany to win… it’s better to be wrong than to be threatened with being killed and eaten!

    Of course- he might have picked Spain just to watch the bastards that locked him in a tank cry…

  20. Well, I knew Mister Ed was not psychic, but I recently had a surprising discovery.

    Did you know that Mr. Ed was dubbed!

    That’s right. Ed was a pure blooded Arabian. Fluent in Arabic but couldn’t speak a word of English.

    So they had to dub his dialog in.

    1. You know, I’ve always kind of suspected that. I mean, sometimes the words didn’t exactly match the movement of his lips. :^D

  21. CNN has been going to crap ever since Turner merged with Time-Warner back in 1996. You don’t need a psychic octopus to see that.

  22. Can’t we have some kind of culling to take care of this? I mean, I don’t want to play God or anything but we’re pretty much slipping back as a species. We shouldn’t have to share the world with people this stupid. They’re breeding. If we just eliminated, say, the bottom 30%, and I’m not talking IQ or knowledge here, just common fucking sense.

  23. Oh, come on now. Armstrong’s article was a light-hearted puff-piece in the sports section, not the science & tech section. Armstrong didn’t rigorously question Childerley’s claim because he knows most people will automatically understand her field to be kinda kooky, just as they’ll understand the article to be light-hearted. What’s more damaging to the cause of critical thinking in 2010: CNN goofing about a ‘psychic’ octopus picking the winner of the World Cup; or my second favorite contributor at one of the most read blogs on the planet saying certain orthodoxies (i.e., Science!) can’t ever be disregarded, not even for funnsies? ;)

  24. I more surprised that anyone that write for Boing Boing lives in Killeen.

    Get to Austin, pronto!

  25. What I want to know is why a creature with eight arms would show any interest in a sport played almost entirely with feet.

    1. I think he just likes the particular shade of yellow used in the Spanish flag (as most cephalopods use chromatophores to communicate/camoflage… maybe the particular pattern in the Spanish flag contains an unknown-to-humans accidental message for octos: “I think you are hot”, or something like that?)

      1. Actually he does, at least that’s how biologists classify his appendages. (Many people use “tentacles” but apparently that is a misnomer.)

        1. I stand corrected, then. Apparently, it’s arms when it has suckers all the way up.

          Nake sense, though, once I thought about it, since it certainly aren’t legs.

  26. Are you really in Killeen? I ask because I’m a Texas writer…and I’m intrigued that you just added a new word to my vocabulary: the facepalm.

  27. I flipped a coin ten times and it came up heads all times but one … its a magic coin. Its a coin that can read my mind – NAY the future! I say we shall all pray to my magic coin and its psychic abilities…


    Wait how is that octopus psychic and reading peoples minds if he now predicts football results? I mean isnt that more like being procognent or some kind of sooth sayer or oracle? It doesnt do any good to read peoples minds since they dont know the results – youd have to be able to see the future. Also you need to enjoy eating molluscs under water from a see through box while humans are staring at you.

  28. Oh, I don’t live in Killeen. I’m here doing some research on military investment in energy efficient buildings. I head out for Oklahoma City later today.

  29. For everybody posting links of pseudoscience “experts” talking about the potential validity of things like being able to sense future events, you’ve been duped and need to take some basic physics classes. There is a fundamental principle called causality that no respectable experiment has ever found anything wrong with. People like Einstein thought it was pretty important. It’s this cooky idea that things happen because other things happen. Psychic powers require information to flow backwards in time. That happening invalidates the entire concept of time. If people can sense the future, then things can travel backwards in time and you can tie the entire Universe into such complicated knots with the most mind-bendingly unsolvable paradoxes imaginable. An octopus can’t tell the future. Nobody can. You may die tomorrow and nobody and nothing can warn you about it. Don’t let your fear of uncertainty kill your ability to use logic.

  30. As a dog owner I can say dogs can be amazingly perceptive. It often does seem that they can read your mind.

    Like, for instance, when I’m chatting on the computer and I type, “Gotta go. Dog walk time’.” his head pops up and his tail starts waging like crazy. I look at him and “WOOF!”

    He knows. He Knows what I typed!

    Really, we go for a walk about the same time every evening and he lives for that. He seems to be just laying there snoozing but actually he’s tuned in to any sign that it’s walk time.
    Taking off my reading glasses is a dead giveaway, for one instance. Getting up to go pee, which I often do before a walk, at the right time, is a sure sign also.

    Even so, it does seem spooky at times. I often find my self asking, “How did he know that?”

  31. An octopus song, sung in korean:

    You would have to have been psychic to have predicted that that would be coming to you today, eh?

  32. >>They said the probability of this happening was 0.245 percent, or a 1 in 408 chance.

    The above quote from the story is another of the reasons that Maggie is absolutely right in calling CNN out about this. The average reader would read the above and think it’s 6 or times less likely than it really is. The odds are 1 in 64 when selecting randomly. I bet there’s easily 63 other cases worldwide of people having their octopus, panda, or parrot try to predict the world cup. It would be surprising if we didn’t get a story of one having a successful run.

    Fluff piece or not, shoveling yet more bullshit magic-think into the minds of a society where more people believe in a zombie carpenter than evolution just helps to ensure that stupidity and non-critical thinking stays the norm.

  33. I’m sorry but where in the article does it say anything about the octopus being able to tell the future. All it really states is

    “He’s picking up on what everyone around him is thinking,” she said. “He knows there are two boxes …. so he’s basically tuned in to the more positive team at the moment he makes his choice.”

    What’s so dumb about that, seriously I don’t get it. Stuff like that has been believed in strongly enough to create studies based on the process of transferable energy or thoughts by actual scientists. To some degrees even prayer has been tested and somewhat proved to “work” if you want to put it that way. Idk I guess i’ve just been ruffled from reading leonard shlain…

  34. Wait, what? People still see CNN as a decent news source? It makes Sky News in the UK seem fair, critical and balanced.

    Seriously, the “Science” part of the title of this post seems quite redundant.

  35. That Octopus got NINE BRAINZ! Thats more than Angela Merkel got. When GOD divided up the Brain he gave lots of it to Paul. Even Xavier had only ONE Brain. Paul KNOWS, therefore we need to get him into German politics. Especially because he looks better than than Angela. And because he can foresee a national crisis. Merkel can’t. So shut up, what CNN says, it MUST BE TRUE!!!elf!

  36. I heard this a long while back on a BBC podcast. It was right after England lost to Germany. Paul the Psychic Octopus had correctly predicted all of Germany’s games at that point. They mentioned that Paul only predicts Germany’s games, and he is in fact, British.

  37. One of my somewhat-removed cousins is supposedly an animal communications expert. (She’s also a reiki expert, crippled with MS despite kayaking compulsively, and certainly was not involved in possibly killing her father for his meager inheritance. I’m not making this up. She’s a nutjob.) She couldn’t tell you what your cat was thinking if your cat was shoving a can of cat food towards the bowl, mewling, and drooling frantically.

    She’s a self-proclaimed animal communications expert. You know what I am? A self-proclaimed physicist. Gravity is made of cheese.

    See how easy that is?

  38. Hi. Occam’s Razor here. The octopus loves the colors yellow and red. The only country that Germany has faced with more yellow and red on its flag than it has is Spain.

  39. this is silly – a psychic octopus! everyone is confusing prediction with causation. The octopus is clearly causing teams to win, duh.

  40. Agree with 1/64, selection bias, etc. Would like to add Birthday problem: only 57 people are needed for a 99% probability that 2 will share a birthday.

    But specifically, this reminds me of the Myst-alike I played based on Clarke’s RAMA. There was a puzzle involving intelligent creatures that communicated in colours and counted in octal. Surely you can guess what they looked like?

  41. Oh great. Fox news now sounds more intelligent than CNN. I do believe hell hath frozen over.

  42. Oh no … it’s …

    “Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

  43. Sorry, BB, I’m with CNN & Paul on this one. He just predicted the cup winner, right?

    All hail our new overlord!

  44. If you read the whole article and watch the video (and not just the quotes from the psychic), it seemed to me this reporting was meant as humorous, tongue-in-cheek fluff.

    E.g. the video mentions Princess the Camel, who picks football teams by eating graham crackers. And how YouTube Downfall parodies have already picked up Paul the Octopus:

  45. The octopus chose correctly eight times in a row which is a 0.39% chance. Predicting the German wins only looked easy in hindsight (who woulda thunk Argentina’d get thrashed so mightily). But predicting the Serbia win and the Spain win in the semis (after Germany had just outscored England and Argentina 8-1 in the round of 16 and quarterfinals)? Germany was only the slight underdog in the semis (+155 to +170). I thought it made for a very entertaining side story. Now we have to consider whether Paul predicted the losses or caused them.

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