This week, British newspaper The Observer released the results of a very cheeky, very British study about whether financial professionals could manage stocks better than a classroom full of children or a cat named Orlando.
As it turned out, the kids weren’t very good at playing the market – they had a net loss of 160 pounds, from a 5,000-pound investment – but neither were the pros, at least not compared to the cat.
Orlando, using the experimental method of throwing a toy mouse at a board with the names of various companies, did very well. While the team of three wealth managers managed a profit of only 176 pounds at the end of the one-year study, Orlando the ginger housecat made himself 542.
In 2010, the late Paul the octopus, who lived in Oberhausen, Germany, correctly predicted the winners of all eight games in the FIFA World Cup about which he was asked.
Paul was given two different boxes, each with a tasty mussel inside and the flags of opposing countries on the outside. Whichever country’s box he glommed onto first ended up winning the match, meaning there was much dismay in Germany after Paul betrayed his home country and picked Spain in the semifinals. Spain won when it beat the Germans 1-0.
What should we make of these animals and their apparent powers of foresight? The rational response, of course, is: nothing.
It’s fun to reflect human experiences through the lenses of cute animals (or, as cute as an octopus can really be). That’s why people knit their dogs sweaters or name their cats fun names like “Orlando.”
Projecting our own lives onto animals is an endless source of joy.
But I think there’s more to these animal Miss Cleos than that. It seems to say something about the whole field of factless prediction and speculation.
Last week, Nate Silver, the newly (and justifiably) renowned statistician known for predicting all 50 states correctly in last year’s presidential election, said on ESPN that, statistically, he thought the Seahawks and the New England Patriots had the best chances to make the Super Bowl of any of the teams left in the NFL playoffs.
The joy that spread throughout the Puget Sound region at Silver’s pronouncement was immediate and pretty foolish (although I was definitely guilty of some of it myself).
Silver made his name by creating a prediction model that analyzed concrete data. Or as concrete as polling data can be, although he also used demographic, historical and other information.
But sports, as with most things in life, don’t fall under the purview of concrete, analyzable data, and Silver wasn’t even saying he thought the Seahawks would get to the Super Bowl, just that they had the best chance to do so, given their stats.
We might have been just as well off listening to Orlando.
Of course, stats, trends and experts can tell us what seems more likely to happen. And in something empirical like political polling, analysis does indeed count for something, as Silver showed by proving his many doubters wrong this past November.
In sports, though, or in other, less fact-based aspects of life, speculation is usually pretty meaningless.
That doesn’t mean it’s worthless – it’s still enjoyable to read the predictions of so-called football experts before a game, and I’ll continue to do so.
And while it’s more than a little disturbing that the stock market, on which our world economy is largely based, can be subject to the same random whims as a football game, the British study is an important reminder that high finance isn’t necessarily as fact-based as its many experts claim.
So I hope we keep trotting out animals to try to predict how we humans will fare. For one, it’s a lot of fun. But it’s also a good check against putting too much stake in predictions about something that, at its core, revolves around a certain degree of luck, chance and Pete Carroll’s inappropriate use of timeouts.