News flash: Octopuses are actually psychic!

Here at the Southern Fried Science Network, all of us bloggers have been charged to post articles dealing with ocean-related pseudoscience as part of SFSN’s first “Ocean of Pseudoscience Week.” Since I try to keep this blog firmly focused on cephalopods, I was at first antsy that I would not find anything to write about. However, the (sometimes distressingly) wide pool of information that is the internet has not disappointed me.

You’ve all heard about Paul the Octopus by now. A Google search for “Paul the Octopus” (the exact phrase) turns up 5.5 million results. A blossoming cephalopod enthusiast who is curious about Paul can pick from literally millions of sources of information to hear about this phenomenon, and if she’s smart, will try to pick one that seems credible. Like, say, a CNN news report. She would find some informative and entertaining quips, and would mostly get the facts straight. That is, until she got to the point in the article where the CNN reporter asks an “expert” the critical question:

“Can an octopus really be psychic?”

After reading this section, if she had any sort of head on her shoulders, our inquisitive internet reader would (hopefully) be aghast, and a bit miffed that a CNN report would be such a lousy source of information.

Before I go on, let me say that there are any number of highly qualified people who could of answered this question. There are several researchers who study cephalopod behavior and cognition who are generally pretty friendly, and besides that entire societies of researchers devoted to scientificially studying claims of the “supernatural”. CNN is supposed to be credible, right? They’re one of the big names in news, globally. But their reporter didn’t pick anybody who was an expert in the science and psychology behind “parapsychological” phenomena or an expert on cephalopods. Instead, he decided to interview Michelle Childerley (see her personal homepage), a self-proclaimed “Animal Communication Expert
Pet Psychic & Behaviour Specialist.” Her qualifications include thinking that she could talk to her pet dog as a child (who didn’t, though?), as is proclaimed on her “About” page:

Michelle felt since the age of seven that she was aware of a special connection with her dog Jason, her soul mate throughout her childhood. She always knew exactly what Jason was thinking and feeling and would enjoy endless conversations. After Jason was taken away at the age of twelve, Michelle shut down her intuitive awareness for many years to come.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Michelle became aware of her ability once again when the dog of a man selling the big issue suddenly spoke to her. In that moment a reconnection was established and Michelle then set out to bridge the gap between animal and human communication.

(As an aside: what is “the big issue”? I’d love to know.)

So what did Ms. Childerley have to say about Paul? You might have guessed what her take would be. From the CNN article:

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.”

Why care about this women and her claims about communications with animals? For one thing, she’s selling these claims to people as a sort of veterinary care, taking money both from misled pet owners and from legitimate practitioners (this is not to say she might not use some legitimate animal training procedures in some of her work, but she will also accept 30 pounds to do an “animal readings/consultations by an emailed or posted photograph”, which means that you send her some money and a picture of your pet, and she will tell you what’s wrong with your pet’s emotional/psychic life. Despite my small knowledge of the field of veterinary medicine, I am sure that this is not a legitimate veterinary care technique.) In addition, claims like hers serve to distract from and give a bad name to people who are trying to work on the sciences of animal communication and animal-human communication. It turns out that communicating with animals in a reproducible and useful way is much more difficult than being paid money to look at a digital image and coming up with a diagnosis and prognosis based on the feeling you get from the image. Pet psychics (especially those who bill themselves with sciencey-sounding titles like “Animal Communications Expert”) give a bad name to the scientists who are working hard to actually understand and explain animal communication and cognition.

The reporter might have redeemed the article if he’d presented any other opinions on the topic, or any indication that readers might want take this “expert’s” testimony with a grain of salt. Sadly, he didn’t. We’re left wondering whether he really took Ms. Childerley’s comments seriously, or if he’s just kind of bad at finding relevant people to interview.

To give credit and links where they are due, I first heard about this story at Boing Boing, where Maggie Koerth-Baker had the right reaction to it: a hearty facepalm.

Thanks for reading!

11 Comments

  1. Luna_the_cat says:

    Just FYI, “The Big Issue” is actually a very worthy social institution — it’s a (thankfully non-religious) magazine for sale by those who are homeless, generally contains a mix of news, interviews & reviews of general bits and pieces, occasionally has a mix CD of pop or rock music donated by artists stuck in there. The vendors have to sign a pledge to stay clean and sober, in return they get most of the cover price of what they sell & help finding long-term housing.

    And yes, why anyone in the world takes Childerly seriously is utterly beyond me. You would think anyone with two brain cells to rub together for a spark would be able to spot delusion as serious as this, but there you go. It seems one will never go broke by underestimating general common sense.

    • Mike Lisieski says:

      Thanks for the info! Apparently it’s not distributed in the US, and so I had no idea.

  2. But how else could he know who would win the world cup?

  3. CNN sent a camera crew on a shark cruise I was on. The reporter, Rob Marciano, usually spends his time as the weather guy on CNN’s “American Morning”. Sending strange people to do stories is nothing new.

  4. Let me blow your mind, Mike. Here’s a way to make millions of dollars with Paul the Psychic Octopus.

    Picture a TV commercial. In it, Paul is in a tank. On one side is a can of coke. On the other is a can of Pepsi. The narrator says “The question of Coke vs. Pepsi has been debated for decades. Now, Paul the psychic octopus will finally answer, once and for all, which is better”.

    Pepsi or Coke, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome.

    • Mike Lisieski says:

      There’s lots of brands it could work for. Ford vs. Chevy (Paul could click the auto-start up button on the keys), Kelloggs vs. General Mills, etc.

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