Come back, Paul. All is forgiven

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Image: Paul the Octopus, Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Paul the Octopus, Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, Paul – the ‘fortune-telling octopus’ – is no more, but since his exploits during football’s World Cup last summer, we seem to have developed a taste for using biota to predict the outcome of human activities. Latest in this trend is a joint study between the University of Leicester (UK) and the Siberian Federal University (Russia) in which Alexander Gorban and colleagues (Physica A 389: 3193–3217, 2010) propose that plants and animals under stress may provide the key to better stock market predictions. Gorban explains that ‘by studying the dynamics of correlation and variance in many systems facing external, or environmental, factors, we can typically, even before obvious symptoms of crisis appear, predict when one might occur, as correlation between individuals increases, and, at the same time, variance (and volatility) goes up’. For example, a study of Scots pine trees growing near a power station showed that, although the average compositions of the needles was similar to those outside the polluted area, the variance and interdependence of individual components were far greater. Now, it is probably a long way from observing natural phenomena and correctly second-guessing the stock market, but the similarity of gymnosperm needle behaviour to choosing stocks and shares by sticking a pin in a list has not gone unnoticed by this sceptical commentator. Nevertheless, until we can properly and productively pursue phytological portents to produce plausible predictions, we may as well ask an invertebrate: roll on Paul II. However, and on a more positive note, a recent report by Wei Wang et al. (Nature 470: 110–115, 2011) suggests that plants may be able to ‘predict’ fungal infection and take precautions to combat it. So it’s not all doom-and-gloom after all; the future looks fine to me (predictably!).


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1 COMMENT

  1. Craig Bennett and colleagues show that ‘appropriate’ use of magentic resonance imaging can ‘find’ that a dead salmon can distinguish between pictures of humans in different social situations. Using conventional analyses, they demonstrate that failure to control correctly for the sex of the animal (no, I mean to control for false positives) leads to significant findings where none is possible. Bennett, C.M., Baird, A.A., Miller, M.B., & Wolford, G.L. (in press). Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: an argument for multiple comparisons correction. Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results. in press. Preprint from http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/miller/publications/Bennett,%20Baird,%20Miller,%20&%20Wolford%20(proof)%202010%20(JSUR).pdf Thanks to the Genetics Society newsletter for highlighting this article – certainly one to use for teaching the concept of false positives.

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