“So, who’s your money on for the German v Spain match then?”
“Oh, definitely Spain, I trust the octopus.”
“… Stephen, you’ve said some weird shit before, but that’s got to be a new record”
“Oh, you haven’t heard about the psychic octopus?”
“… Okay, THAT is the new record…”
“Haha, no, seriously, the BBC’s reporting on an octopus in a German zoo which has been predicting Germany’s football results. He’s been right each time so far. He’s getting quite famous in Germany, apparently.”
“Really? Wow, I wouldn’t have thought the Germans would be into that sort of thing”
“What sort of thing?”
“You know, believing something as silly as a psychic octopus”
“Well, I think the octopus thing is more of a joke than anything, but actually the Germans are just as prone to superstition as everywhere else in Europe, if not more so. The people I know there are all mad keen on astrology and they’re one of the biggest consumers of homeopathic products in Europe.”
“Pfft, yeah, but come on, there’s a BIG difference between homeopathy and believing in a psychic octopus!”
And at that point I bit my tongue. I thought that if I got started, I’d be damn hard to stop. I was worried I’d end up insulting someone and I was pretty sure I’d end up coming off as a patronising git (let’s face it, it happens…). And, most importantly, it was only an hour before I got to punch out and go home, and I didn’t need to risk any drama after a long day in the office. But let’s face it, which is dafter, that there’s an octopus somewhere in Germany who knows something the rest of us don’t about football, or that water can treat everything from a touch of the sniffles to malaria or cancer because it “remembers” that it once contained something related to the condition? (But forgets that the water cycle meanders through quite a number of bladders.) Neither of these is particularly reassuring when it comes to what we know about the universe. According to our current theories, cephalopods, while awesome, should not be able to look into the future and accurately predict football results. Similarly, hydrogen and oxygen, while awesome, should not be able to look into the past, and impart the effects of long-gone substances. This is why we have a “May Contain Nuts” label on food, rather than an “Almost Certainly Does Not Contain Nuts, But Acts As If It Does” label.
Ultimately, this comes down to what people do and don’t perceive to be stupid. Clearly, a creature which has no concept of football (as far as we know) predicting game results is pretty out there, but homeopathy manages to get away with being downright loopy because of some really good publicity and people’s general acceptance that “we’ve used natural medicine for thousands of years, so there must be something in it…” There are two issues with this. 1- People forget that the reason natural medicine was used for so very long was because no one had gotten around to discovering penicillin and it was all they had available, and 2- While homeopathy is certainly natural, it sure isn’t medicine. There are many substances found in nature which will have a medical effect on the body, but water isn’t one of them (unless the diagnosis is “patient has overdosed on cream crackers”).
Maybe I should have spoken up and corrected my colleague, but skeptics seem to have a tough enough time with our reputation as fun-ruining busybodies (after all, what’s the harm in people reading the astrology column in the paper or having their palm read at a fair? etc. etc.), and there’s a lot to be said for choosing your battles. The battle of the psychic octopus vs the magic water just wasn’t worth it.
P.S. In between the conversation at the start of this blog and my getting around to finishing it, the world cup ended. Paul the Octopus was correct in each and every prediction he made during the tournament. Maybe there’s something in this psychic cephalopod thing after all…