Thursday, December 24, 2015

#1553: David M. Dosa

Psychic pets are pets that some, uh, “researchers” claim are … psychic. They communicate using ESP. These researchers generally know that the animals in question are psychic because the researchers are now able to predict what the animal wishes in certain situations (yeah, that’s pretty much it). Having lived with the animals for a while has also provided plenty of … uh, “evidence” for the assessment. Bringing up Clever Hans when commenting on these people’s abilities to critically assess evidence is probably too charitable.

One of the most famous “psychic” pets is Oscar, a cat who lives on the third floor of a Rhode Island nursing home. Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician there and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, claims that Oscar can tell when a patient is about to die, since when a patient is about to die, Oscar curls up next to that patient and leaves after the patient dies. Dosa has published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine and even written a book about Oscar. As Robert Carroll puts it, “[n]obody doubts that Oscar curls up on the beds of patients and leaves when they die. He also curls up on the beds of patients who don't die. He leaves those beds, too.”

The book (German translation).
During his research for the book, Dosa – rather predictably – failed to make any records or apply any methods to control for bias; instead, he relied on his memories of the events. Nor did he control for any confounding factors (such as activity around the beds of dying patients). In other words, the “research” was conducted precisely the way all research “establishing” the psychic abilities of animals is conducted. Dosa could report that Oscar had curled up to patients “50 times”, but provided no further information about the patients and didn’t actually count the instances (he did admit that the cat didn’t always do this, but often). Why he chose to interpret Oscar as a “gentle angel of death” rather than something more sinister is not clear either.

Of course, news outlets picked up the story en masse, followed by a plethora of silly “natural explanations” for the correlation between the cat’s behavior and patients’ deaths. Too few pointed out the obvious: Dr. Dosa had given not a shred of evidence that a correlation existed in the first place. (And if there were a correlation, the obvious explanation would of course be that the cat was spreading some kind of infection, a possibility that Dosa doesn’t consider.)

Dosa also made it to Renée Scheltema’s ridiculous Something Unknown is Doing We Don’t Know What (yes, note the What the Bleep do We Know inspiration), a “spiritual journey into the science behind psychic phenomena,” with his cat musings.

Diagnosis: Dosa makes it really, really hard for us to avoid concluding that he is very much aware of the absence of any indication of evidence for his claims. Out of generosity (if it is) we choose to conclude that he is seriously deluded and utterly deficient in critical thinking skills.

Most of the information for this article is credited to the skepdic website.


  1. OF COURSE cats are At least mine is. How else would he know to yowl to go out just as I sit down to eat?

  2. Mine waits until I need to pee before curling up in my lap, so, yeah... psychic.