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  • Writer's pictureKarl Walker-Finch

Sleeping dogs lie

I just don't know what to believe any more.

I've mentioned Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker on multiple occasions on this blog. It's a book I enjoyed and changed my sleeping patterns, hopefully for the better.

The problem is, it turns out, a lot of the stuff he wrote was just, well, made up.

This is a Professor who, according to Research Gate has published 122 peer reviewed scientific articles and who has been cited over 24,000 times in other articles. His h-index is 71, this might not mean a lot to most people but it pretty much puts him in the colloquial category of hugely influential.

The book rattles off the many many ailments that Walker claims are caused by a lack of sleep, including death itself. Undeniably, getting the right amount of sleep is clearly very good for you, in terms of physical and mental recovery, memory formation, etc etc etc. and I'm sure, a lot of what he says in the book is entirely true and without a doubt, it's said with good intentions.

But unfortunately, he undermines the whole argument by writing things like the World Health Organisation declared a sleep loss epidemic. It's not hard to disprove this statement and indeed, people have readily done so. This is the tip of a very large iceberg, wherein many of his claims are misleading, many are based on contrived interpretations of the scientific data, and many more statements presented as fact in the book are simply wrong.

I discovered all this when I was introduced to The Maintenance Phase podcast recently by a friend who shared the Sleep Loss Epidemic episode with me, in which they go into much greater detail on all of this. Much of this pod is based on this post by Alexey Guzey in 2019 who actually took the time to research the claims that they felt were beginning to sound very spurious. His lengthy blog post runs into the thousands of words and to his credit, Matthew Walker has responded and contested several of the points raised and has even made some amendments where he admits error.

So here's my problem, I don't want to spend hours and hours researching the finer details of everything I read. I trust these authors to do that for me so I can get the highlights rather than having to get halfway to acquiring a PhD on any given subject.

Do I trust the Professor who's taken the time to write the book to help educate people about the importance of getting a good night's sleep, or Alexey in a bedroom somewhere who's taken the time to investigate the research behind the book to tell the world it's all made up?

I think I can enjoy the book and the principles it teaches but how much of it is based in fact, I just don't know.

We know we can't trust what we see and read on social media. We know the traditional media companies spin and manipulate everything beyond all recognition. Science I hoped was the last bastion of sanity when it came to sharing factual information and yet ultimately, it falls foul to the same problem that it's dependent on the integrity of the writer and sadly, that's a metric that you simply cannot elucidate from text on a page.

There is some hope that this is a book that's aimed at popularising a subject, in an almost journalistic sense, in order to bring attention to a problem that many people need some help with. That this book wasn't subject to the same rigour as the scientific peer review process and so isn't to be confused with Professor Walker's, or anyone else's academic work.

It makes you think though.

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