I’m sure by now you’ve read all about The Cat of Doom. The Reaper Kitten. The Fuzzy Death. Clawed Herald of the End of All Things. The Mewling Messenger of Mortality.
His name is Oscar. As the resident pet of a nursing home for the infirm and terminally ill, Oscar has demonstrated “an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die,” per the original article. CNN and MSNBC are only too happy to give front page coverage to reports of purportedly psychic animals, as any self-respecting news organization would be.
Of course, Oscar has no special connection to the Other Side, and he is not “helping Grandma get to Heaven,” as one woman in the article poignantly states. There are two possible explanations here. One, put forth by the great Orac, is confirmation bias–that the nursing home staff, overworked and immersed in what I’m certain is a very depressing environment, is seeing what it wants to see. The staff may simply be more likely to take note of the times when Oscar is in the presence of a dying patient than when he is not, and call it a pattern.
The other explanation is the Clever Hans effect. Hans was the turn of the century Mr. Ed, a horse with the amazing ability to do basic arithmetic by stamping the answers out with his hoof. As it turns out, Hans possessed no real mathematical ability; he was simply picking up on subtle, unconscious body language from his trainers and audience, stamping his foot until the people around him stopped responding. It’s not supernatural, but it is nevertheless quite remarkable. Likewise, our pet dog drastically changed his behavior toward my mother one day, becoming extremely protective of her. She would find out a few weeks later that she was pregnant with my younger brother. Our dog took the secret of his pregnancy powers to his grave, but there you go.
The same kinds of things happen between different kinds of humans. Temple Grandin, a high functioning woman with autism most famously profiled in the titular story of An Anthropologist on Mars, completely misses the cues of subtle social interaction. Her friends, she says, always seemed to be in on some joke, sharing some secret, that she was never able to perceive. To her, normal social interaction appears to be psychic. Conversely, Grandin’s ability to calm panicked cattle and empathize with the mental state of livestock looks to all outside observers like a supernatural power.
Oscar may be able to pick up on subtle body language or other biological markers present in the near-death that the nursing staff simply cannot. It’s really cool, but alas, it’s not psychic.