Aug 01 2007
Recent reports that Oscar the cat can predict the impending death of hospice patients have been spread by the media rather uncritically (although my fellow science bloggers have already filled the skeptical gap left by the mainstream media). I was not going to write about it myself, but then yesterday “Freddy the Pig” left a comment in response to my seizure discussion asking about the so-called “seizure dogs” who can allegedly predict when their master will have a seizure. So I thought I would kill two birds with one stone.
Both cases bring up a few principles I want to touch on. The first is that before we waste too much time trying to explain the nature of a phenomenon we should first confirm that the phenomenon exists. This is a chronic problem in the paranormal research community, who spend far too much time weaving explanations out of quantum mechanics for phenomena, like ESP, that probably don’t exist. Admittedly, these can be useful thought experiments to assess the plausibility of a claim, but we need to resist putting the cart before the horse.
In both of these cases – Oscar the death predicting cat and seizure predicting dogs, neither has been scientifically validated. Both are likely a result of confirmation bias – the tendency to make and remember observations that confirm a belief we already have. For example, given that Oscar probably likes to lay next to warm people on their comfy beds, and these particular people are all very near death, it is likely that on occasion Oscar till spend time with someone right before they die. This, however, might seem rather creepy to nursing home staff, and rumors of Oscar’s apparent morbid ability would spread quickly. Now, everyone would be on the lookout for correlations between Oscar’s visitations and later death – to confirm the story. No one will much notice, report, or remember the times Oscar visited a patient and they did not die soon after.
Continue Reading »