Animal Predictors: Psychic, Sensitive, or Silly?

Many animals are presented in the popular media as being psychic. Is this the best explanation?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

psychic_dog_250pxIn the wake of a popular 2014 hoax email going around claiming that animals were fleeing Yellowstone National Park in record numbers to escape an impending volcanic eruption, it probably makes sense to have a Skeptoid episode addressing animal predictions in general. Most are not hoaxes. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re psychic, though. There are a range of possible explanations for the apparent ability. Perhaps the animals have some special sensitivity, perhaps it’s an error made by the people who observe them. Today we’re going to take a look at a few popular cases of famous, modern animals believed to have the power of prediction.

Oscar the Cat

In 2007, the media went wild over an article published in the highly respected scientific journal The New England Journal of Medicine claiming that a cat named Oscar was able to predict which patients at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island were about to die, and would curl up with them until they did. Psychic cat_225pxThe story proved so popular that its author, Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician at the Center, was offered a book deal and expanded the story of Oscar’s amazing predictive ability into a 240-page book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. Oscar’s story has since been included in virtually every list of psychic animals in every kind of media, and is often cited as proof that the ability exists, particularly due to its publication in such an esteemed journal.

But please, hold the horses a moment. The opening section of the Journal is called Perspectives, and includes essays, editorials, and opinion pieces. Dosa’s article was in this section; it was most certainly not presented as research, but simply as a fun anecdote. Dosa made no representation that it was either scientific or based on serious study of the cat’s behavior.

psychic dog_225pxBy the time of the book, Dosa said some 50 deaths at the Center had been preceded by visits from Oscar. But as many science journalists have noted, no data was ever collected or analyzed. No mention was made of how often Oscar visited other patients. Since it’s a nursing home, most patients are terminally ill and remain there until they die, so it’s hardly even possible for Oscar to ever be wrong. No criteria were ever observed for the length of time between Oscar’s last visit and the patient’s death, the duration of Oscar’s visit, or how those numbers compared to his visits to other patients. Moreover, Dosa even states in the book that “for narrative purposes” he “made some changes that depart from actual events”.

From what we know of Oscar, there is no need to suggest that he has the power of prediction, either psychic or based on some smelling ability or behavioral sensing. Oscar’s story can almost certainly be explained by confirmation bias: the tendency of workers at the center to more strongly notice Oscar’s actions when they confirm the belief, in exactly the same way that many hospital workers notice busier nights during a full moon, a notion that’s been conclusively disproven. But we can’t know for sure since nobody has ever studied the way Oscar divides his time between the living and the dying. Until they do, we have a cute story, but certainly not a psychic cat.

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