Psychic Predictions and The Premier League: Genuinely Bogus?

May 24, 2009 at 9:29 pm (Bad Science, Media, Woo) (, , , , , , , , , , )

It’s just a bit of fun. The Guardian recently asked psychic Inbaal to predict which three of five possible clubs will be relegated from the Premier League. (Association Football, since you ask.) The piece ran in the sports section with two games of the season remaining and West Brom and Middlesbrough in desperate trouble, with Newcastle, Hull and Sunderland also in danger of relegation. What happened next?

This: Inbaal read the tarot cards and astrology charts of the managers of the five relegation-threatened teams. Ricky Sbragia was considered “too unfocused to be a leader” and his team Sunderland had “the worst credentials” due to his Sagittarius moon making him feel oppressed and Mars in Aquarius making him confused. Verdict: Relegated. What actually happened to Sunderland? Well, they finished two places above the relegation zone and survived to fight another season in English football’s top tier. Incorrect. Scoreline: 0-1.

Alan Shearer had “fire and earth in his chart”, signifying fight and steadfastness. Despite this fire and steadfastness, it seemed the fates had it in for Big Al and Inbaal correctly predicted that Newcastle would be relegated. Verdict: Relegated. Correct. 1-1.

Phil Brown, manager of Hull City, was apparently focused on two things at once due to being Gemini and Hull were “doomed to lose everything and start afresh” Inbaal said she “would be astounded if they stay up”. Verdict: Relegated. Actual position? Hull finish a point and a place above Newcastle. Incorrect. 1-2.

Middlesbrough’s Gareth Southgate “has a perfect chart for management”. Blah, blah, earth signs, Chinese year of the dog, blah blah. Verdict: Staying up. What happened? They lost and finished three points from safety with a worse goal difference than Hull. Incorrect. 1-3.

And finally, Tony Mowbray of West Bromwich Albion: “He has three major planets in Sagittarius and he wants success now.” Verdict: Staying up. What happened? They drew and finished slightly further from safety than Middlesbrough. Incorrect. 1-4.

Now, given that three of five teams had to be relegated the worst possible score that Inbaal could have managed would be 1-4 (one correct prediction out of five), which is exactly the final outcome. I’m not exactly an expert on football but I managed to correctly predict that Sunderland would stay up and that Boro and West Brom would go down. My score was 3-2*.

Inbaal, as you will know if you have clicked on the link at the beginning of this post, runs a website that offers a mini-reading by email. Three short questions for £10. If you have confidence in Inbaal’s powers of prediction having read about her use of tarot and astrology in divining the final Premier League table, then fair enough – you go right ahead and buy three predictions for a tenner. It’s only a bit of fun in my view and if you want to spend your money on psychics it is entirely your business. What bothers me slightly is that the Guardian linked to Inbaal’s website and included a reference to her TV show Psychic & Soul on Sky channel 885 as if she provided a reliable service. Not that they are alone. These predictions based on bogus methods are promoted by a whole host of media outlets: if you don’t believe me, check Inbaal’s Media CV. What kind of world do we live in when the Guardian’s sports pages pimp a psychic’s business one week (and then follow it the next with namechecks to Rio Ferdinand’s agent the next – if this was a precondition to gaining an interview with Rio the Guardian should have refused, if it was the Guardian’s choice to namecheck an agency then I find their decision to advertise this commercial entity baffling and inappropriate), but is unable to find the space in an article on Karol Sikora to credit the person who did all the ground work and broke the story four days previously – Dr Crippen, the NHS blog Doctor.

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*The main reasoning was that Boro and West Brom were already lagging behind the other teams and were fairly certain to go down, while Sunderland had the advantage over the other four teams in terms of points already in the bag – my predictions were almost completely informed by the number of points each team already had. The only thing I got wrong was in predicting that Hull would swap places with Newcastle and this was based on my views that (a) Hull were in a worse run of form than Newcastle and were less likely to turn things round and (b) subjectively, I considered Newcastle’s players to be better than Hull’s. If I had used only the rule of thumb that the teams with fewest points in the bag with two games remaining would likely be relegated, I would have scored 5/5. This simple heuristic was ignored because I thought I knew better – I believed that the information I had regarding Hull’s poor form and Newcastle’s superior quality in the form of players like Mark Viduka would help me to pick the three losers. It didn’t help. If anything it distracted me from the more relevant information that was available to me from a simple glance at the league table. The heuristic never figured in Inbaal’s mind, however, as she had the power of tarot and astrology on her side and therefore could not fail. If Inbaal had cheated and made her predictions fit the likely outcome then she’d have done much better. This makes her bogus prediction, in my opinion, genuinely bogus – she really seemed to believe that tarot and astrology could enable her to predict the correct outcome to the Premier League season and as such felt no need to cheat. Bogus methods can be happily applied by a person acting genuinely. Contrary to what Justice Eady believes.

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7 Comments

  1. rob said,

    On the other hand we could consider a less-woo based set of predictions, as made on the R4 program “More or less” – a program about playing with numbers.

    On Friday, Professor David Spiegelhalter (Prof of Understanding Risk at Cambridge) spoke about predicting football results (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/more_or_less/8062277.stm)*

    Here is the outcome for last weekend. For the sake of brevity I identify the match by the success of the home team. First result is the actual result, the second is the prediction:

    Arsenal win win
    Aston Villa win win
    Blackburn draw draw
    Fulham lose draw
    Hull lose lose
    Liverpool win win
    Man City win win
    Sunderland lose lose
    West Ham win win
    Wigan win win

    Success rate: 9/10

    The actual scores, which you can compare with the predicted scores (see R4 web-page), are below. The predicted scores are not so good, but at least he gives a probability of the prediction being correct (and they are surprisingly low). At least for this weekend’s matches, the goal difference seems to be better predicted.

    Arsenal 4-1 Stoke
    Aston Villa 1-0 Newcastle
    Blackburn 0-0 West Brom
    Fulham 0-2 Everton
    Hull 0-1 Man Utd
    Liverpool 3-1 Tottenham
    Man City 1-0 Bolton
    Sunderland 2-3 Chelsea
    West Ham 2-1 M’boro
    Wigan 1-0 Portsmouth

    *(and also whether being at the top or bottom of a league table actually meant anything about real performance. Surprise, surprise: not always. Listen again for the next few days. Short message – if results were completely random, someone would still be at the top and someone at the bottom, but that would not make them better or worse, respectively).

  2. jdc325 said,

    rob – thanks for reminding me about David Spiegelhalter. I’d completely forgotten, but his Understanding Uncertainty website actually uses the Premier League as a learning tool. If you go here (“Premier League”), you can click through to the pages titled “Luck or skill?” and “May the best team win”. You can see the Premier League table for the 2006-2007 season with added confidence intervals. (Thanks for the listen again link too.)

  3. Inbaal said,

    Hey guys,

    Just to give you my angle of it… the Guardian said it would be ‘no fun’ if I just said that the three teams which were at the bottom at the time would go down – which was what happened.
    So I focused on explaining the astrology of the managers instead.
    I’m sure you know what papers do, and they left out a lot of info which I got totally right.

    I happen to be very good at what I do, which is why a respected paper such as the Guardian endorsed me.

    Thanks for the links,
    Inbaal x

  4. jdc325 said,

    Thank you for commenting Inbaal. I was interested to note that the Guardian “guided you away from” the obvious by telling you it would be ‘no fun’ if you tipped what, on the face of it, were the likeliest candidates for relegation. I hope you felt that my comments regarding your published predictions were fair. Please feel free to comment here on the correct info that the Guardian left out if you wish to do so.

  5. Inbaal said,

    Hey, thanks for replying.
    I have to be honest and say I no longer remember what else I said about the managers… sorry. I agree your comments are fair regarding my performance, I’m not too impressed with my results, and I was gutted to have not gone with the obvious, but what can ya do?

    I don’t think it’s fair that you feel the Guardian or any publication mustn’t endorse professions or people you happen to disagree with. There are much more offensive concepts out there than psychic ability. Try reading the Mail sometime…

    It’s rather more important that I make no mistakes when I read for my clients, when they go through real problems. I can take being wrong on a little vanity project like that. No one got hurt.

    Keep in touch,
    Inbaal x

  6. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for your comment Inbaal. I disagree with you regarding the media’s use of endorsements – although I am unhappy about their endorsements in general rather than specifically disliking endorsements of particular people or professions (I was as unimpressed by their endorsement of Rio Ferdinand’s agent as I was of their endorsement of you, for example).
    Regarding your point that there are much more offensive concepts out there than psychic ability: I agree, partly because I read some of the Daily Mail’s articles. I do think, though, that people will always be able to find a target they think more suited for criticism and I don’t think that the existence of a ‘better target’ is a defence against criticism – as I’ve said before in another post on this blog.

  7. Inbaal said,

    Of course, you’re entitled to your own opinions.

    Kind regards,
    Inbaal x

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