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Remember Paul the Octopus?

Paul the Octopus sadly passed away on 26 October 2010, at the ripe old age of 33 months, but not before shooting to fame for his successful predictions of matches in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Now, sixteen – um, make that twelve teams are battling it out for the glory of the 2014 World Cup. Here’s my prediction: soon, media reports of a new Paul will arise. Soon, you’ll read in the paper about some animal, or plant or inanimate object which has shown an uncanny ability to predict the winners in football matches. Some fish or parrot ot llama will attract reporters’ attention with their 100% success rate. I’m 100% sure of this.

The reason is simple. There are 16 matches in the final round of the World Cup. If lions or dandelions are asked to predict the outcomes, we can assume their chances of success, in each match, will only be 50%. That means they have a 1 in 65536 chance of getting all 16 match outcomes correct.

However, a lot more than 65536 people will be asking their pet poodle to publicly prognosticate. Hey, I’m even making my own predictions, based on a complicated mathematical model of the teams. You can see some of my model’s predictions on my facebook page. By the laws of probability, somebody will get ridiculously lucky and get all their predictions right.

You won’t hear about the 99.9985% who don’t, of course.

This is an example of what’s called “survivorship bias,” which is a much more important idea than the outcomes of football matches. For example, there’s a multimillion dollar industry selling books on how to be successful. Many of these books made the terrible blunder of going and studying successful people, to find out their secrets. Then they come up with all kinds of theories about what it takes. Grit. Determination, perhaps. Compassion for people. Slight sociopath tendencies. The answers depend on the book you read.

But what if success requires a healthy dose of good luck?

After all, did anybody bother to ask after the gritty, determined, compassionate, sociopathic failures?

So, next time you read about how to succeed, ask yourself if the authors studied only successful people, or if they also studied those who failed. And if they didn’t study both, put the book down. Find a book that takes luck into account, such as Tim Harford’s “Adapt”.

Speaking of books, there’s a book coming out soon, of which I’m one of the contributing authors. The book is “Playing With Math”, edited by Sue VanHattum. The book has launched a fundraising campaign on IncitED to get it through the final hoops towards hitting the bookshelves. You can support the book (and get your copy pre-booked) at the