The Doctor and the Octopus

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the July 19, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Manuel Buencamino, our resident satirist at Action for Economic Reforms, writes for the other business newspaper. He is arguably the best satirist in the country although not many know him because his weekly column doesn’t have that wide a reach.

I like to describe him as the Hunter Thompson of the Philippines. Buencamino and Thompson have many things in common—despise for autocrats, empathy for the oppressed, love of the counterculture, wild and crazy life, witty and irreverent writing.

Thompson had his “Fear and Loathing” writings, which exposed the nightmares of the American dream and the despicableness of Richard Nixon. Buencamino has “Dispatches from the Enchanted Kingdom,” which made fun of Queen Gloria and defied her illegitimate rule.

Thompson mockingly gave himself a title—that of Doctor. Well, Pinoys love titles, too. We have a Professor Joma Sison, and many of us want to be addressed as Atty., Arch. (for either architects or archbishops), Eng., Gen., Col., etc. I likewise insist in giving Buencamino the title of Doctor. After all, he went through many years of schooling at the top schools—De La Salle, Ateneo de Manila, University of the Philippines, University of Sto. Tomas, and American University in Washington D.C. But one school should be proud of him, for this was where he finally obtained his undergrad diploma—Baguio Colleges Foundation.

Now that I’ve given a long but proper introduction for Dr. Buencamino, the Pinoy Hunter Thompson, I can now delve into a column he recently wrote. As backgrounder, Buencamino has complained to me that he’s having a hard time finding a good topic to write about, now that Gloria is no longer queen.

I recall what Roberto Benigni, another satirist but more known as an actor and movie director, once said: That he needed a buffoon like Berlusconi to do effective satire. In a manner, Buencamino misses Gloria because she is the raison d’etre of “Dispatches from the Enchanted Kingdom.”

With Gloria gone—poking fun at a popular but prim P-Noy won’t work. So Buencamino turned his attention to Paul, the octopus. To those who didn’t follow the World Cup, Paul needs an introduction, too. Paul has become a worldwide sensation for having accurately predicted the victories in matches and the ultimate champion.

Buencamino’s column about Paul is titled “The Oracle.” It is one of his best writings. The article in fact has gone viral on the internet. A friend commented that the Buencamino piece is better written than a nice New York Times column on the same topic.

Here are some entertaining excerpts from the column:

“Wikipedia, the font of all human knowledge, explained how Paul picks winners: ‘During a divination, Paul is presented with two boxes containing food in the form of a mussel, each marked with the flag of a national football team in an upcoming match. The box which Paul opens first (and eats the contents of) is judged to be the predicted winner of the game.’

“Apparently Paul does not pick flags. He picks mussels. The question then is should credit therefore go to whoever flagged the mussels?”

Further:

“One group of academics compared Paul’s incredible string of right choices to tossing a coin: 50/50 chance of predicting a winner and 1/64 chance of picking six consecutively. Unfortunately coin-toss theory does not explain how or why Paul defied the odds and got it right every time.

“Nevertheless coin-toss proponents will argue that their theory will be proven right eventually; in the long run Paul will make mistakes. But there is a simpler explanation if and when Paul finally falters: he lost his mojo.

“Another group advanced the ‘flag-shape’ theory: octopuses are color blind but they can ‘distinguish brightness as well as an object’s size, shape, and orientation.’ Octopuses are therefore ‘drawn’ to flags that sport horizontal stripes. Unfortunately flag-shape theory cannot explain why, despite the fact that the flags of Serbia, Spain, and Germany have horizontal stripes, Paul still picked the winner when they played against each other.

“A third group, two biologists actually, came up with the ‘trained-animal’ theory: ‘Octopus vulgaris is also equipped with sensitive chemoreceptors on its tentacles, which are used to taste food and ‘smell’ the water…minor chemical differences on the surface of each box might account for Paul’s decisions,’ said one….So Paul was trained, then how does the theory explain the perfect record of Paul’s trainer?”

“The Oracle” however is not just an entertainment piece. It is likewise a meaty essay about making inferences from experiments or statistics. Although written with humor, the article actually explains basic concepts in statistics like randomness, omitted variable, and error term.

Even the most highly trained researchers are prone to expressing incredible conclusions. I came across a science blog (Frontal Cortex) that reported an experiment on caged mice in order to determine what factors prevent tumors. According to the blog, “the presence of toys in a cage can dramatically alter the course of the disease, making it harder for cancerous cells to take root and slowing their growth once they do.” Should that mean that I start assuming the character of Andy in Toy Story and that I acquire toys named Woody and Buzz so I will be tumor-free? Or are toys just the instruments to have exercise and to stimulate my senses and hence live a healthy life? For an adult, having sex can be a substitute for having toys.

Similarly, economists commit blunders in drawing statistical inferences. In the heyday of the Washington Consensus, papers trumpeted that trade openness is a determinant of high, sustained growth. But now the more credible explanation is the reverse causality—sustained high level of growth leads to more trade openness.

And so, I have a piece of good advice for our scientists and economists—next time you release the analysis of your experiment or regression, first consult Dr. Buencamino. Not only will he give you sound analysis; he will also make you laugh.

No comments yet.