A dose of sentimental claptrap from the New England Journal of Medicine.
By Daniel Engber
Posted Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007, at 11:38 AM ET
It's been quite a week for the New England Journal of Medicine. In the current issue, we learn that fat is contagious and that cats can sense when people are about to die. Or at least one particular cat can tell. He's 2 years old, with patches of gray and white fur, and he lives in a nursing home in Providence, R.I. "Oscar the Cat awakens from his nap, opening a single eye to survey his kingdom," begins the article, by Dr. David M. Dosa of Brown University. "From atop the desk in the doctor's charting area, the cat peers down the two wings of the nursing home's advanced dementia unit. All quiet on the western and eastern fronts."
Don't be surprised if that sounds a little florid for the nation's leading medical research journal. The story of Oscar the Cat—a feline who cuddles up with patients in the moments just before they meet their makers—isn't a peer-reviewed scientific inquiry, nor is it a clinical report, a case study, or even an editorial. It's a work of creative nonfiction—an uncorroborated anecdote that makes vaguely mystical claims about the cognitive abilities of animals. And it's tucked into a section of the journal that's more often reserved for wonky reviews. "A young grandson asks his mother, 'What is the cat doing here?' " writes Dr. Dosa. "The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, "He is here to help Grandma get to heaven." Let me pose a more modest question: What is the cat doing in the New England Journal of Medicine?
Wed Aug 01 2007 04:48 PM
Gaining credibility, for one thing. Reporters were happy to attribute the news of Oscar's amazing powers to "a new report in a medical journal" by "an expert in geriatric care." ("Cat predicts patients' deaths: scientists," read one headline.) Without his prestigious turn in the NEJM, Oscar might have ended up on the local television news, like the 10-year-old tabby named Buckwheat who sniffs out dying patients in West Seattle. He might even have become as famous as the dog that dialed 911 or the monkey that joined a SWAT team. But after making his debut in the NEJM, he's an international sensation.