Markus Loecher writes:
Just when I had put the “Matthew Walker fake news” into a comfortable place of oblivion, NPR sends me this suggested story.
How disappointing that NPR’s fact check is no better than other media outlets. Then again, it is a different TED talk.
I [Loecher] am itching to look into the claims that:
– “Restricting your sleep to 4 hours in just one night, we observed a 70% drop of killer cells“ (minute 10:40)
– “Limiting your sleep to 6 hours for one week, they measured the change in their gene activity profile, they observed (i) a sizeable 711 modified/damaged genes and (ii) half of these were increased, half decreased” (minute 12:40)
Is it not incredible that TED talkers do not have to supply a list of references which they cite ? Every school child’s presentation is required to do this nowadays.
Well, sure, standards are much higher in elementary school. Art Buchwald had a column about that once.
Loecher supplied the background last year:
The video of [University of California professor Matthew] Walker’s 19-minute “Sleep is your superpower” talk received more than 1 million views . . .
I [Loecher] applaud both the outstanding delivery and the main message of his captivating presentation . . . However, at about 8:45 into the talk, Matthew walks (no pun intended) on very thin ice:
I could tell you about sleep loss and your cardiovascular system, and that all it takes is one hour. Because there is a global experiment performed on 1.6 billion people across 70 countries twice a year, and it’s called daylight saving time. Now, in the spring, when we lose one hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24-percent increase in heart attacks that following day. In the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21-percent reduction in heart attacks. Isn’t that incredible? And you see exactly the same profile for car crashes, road traffic accidents, even suicide rates.
Initially I [Loecher] was super excited about the suggested sample size of 1.6 billion people and wanted to find out how exactly such an incredible data set could possibly have been gathered. Upon my inquiry, Matthew was kind enough to point me to the paper, which was the basis for the rather outrageous claims from above. Luckily, it is an open access article in the openheart Journal from 2014.
Imagine my grave disappointment to find out that the sample was limited to 3 years in the state of Michigan and had just 31 cases per day! On page 4 you find Table 1 which contains the quoted 24% increase and 21% decrease expressed as relative risk (multipliers 1.24 and 0.79, respectively) . . .
More importantly, these changes were not observed on the “following day” after DST but instead on a Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Why did Matthew Walker choose these somewhat random days? My guess would be, because they were the only ones significant at the 5% level, which would be a classic case of “p-value fishing”. . . .
I was unable to find any backing of the statement on “exactly the same profile for car crashes, road traffic accidents, even suicide rates” in the literature.
I’m reminded of the nudgelord who wrote in the New York Times:
Knowing a person’s political leanings should not affect your assessment of how good a doctor she is — or whether she is likely to be a good accountant or a talented architect. But in practice, does it? Recently we conducted an experiment to answer that question. Our study . . . found that knowing about people’s political beliefs did interfere with the ability to assess those people’s expertise in other, unrelated domains.
Actually, their study said nothing at all about doctors, accountants, or architects.
I guess that for some people, the general news media are a place to exaggerate findings and flat-out make things up in order to get more attention. It’s all for a good cause, right?
What really frustrates me is that when people call them on their, ummm, misrepresentations, these people do their best to pretend the criticism never existed, replying only when absolutely necessary and then not admitting what they got wrong. To Walker’s credit, he seems to have stayed on the (relatively) high road, ducking criticism and continuing to push nonsense, but at least not calling us Stasi, terrorist, etc., or attacking us in other ways. I appreciate this bit of civility.
Loecher wrote the following letter to Ted:
Dear TED organisers,
I am a huge fan of TED talks and find that the vast majority delivers high quality, relevant and truthful content.
At the same time I am quite worried that there seems to be no “fact checking” at all. Given its global reach, its enormous impact and power to influence large number of people, I feel that TED bears a large social responsibility to prevent the dissemination of “pseudoscience”, which you acknowledge yourself:
Is TED full of pseudoscience?
As the global TEDx movement grows, some local events have been targeted by speakers who make unsupported claims about science and health — from perpetual motion to psychic healing. TEDx’s science guidelines clearly state that science and health information shared from the stage must be supported by peer-reviewed research. If you have concerns about the content of a TEDx talk, please write to email@example.com and let us know.
A very worrisome example is the “Sleep is your superpower” talk by Matthew Walker, which received more than 1 million views in the first 72 hours (as of publication, it’s up to more than 11,442,588 !)
There is substantial evidence that Walker is distorting scientific facts and grossly exaggerates, in fact, “lying” would not be an entirely false accusation. If you want to inform yourself on the scandalous assertions, see here, here, and many more . . .
I understand that you probably cannot fact check every talk nor implement a type of peer review. But that is simply not good enough of an attempt to limit this lack of integrity.
One suggestion: Every school child’s presentation is required to supply a list of references nowadays. I feel that would be a minimum requirement for TED talkers as well ? At least, the enormous work currently required to get to the bottom of false claims made in a TED talk, would be reduced.
I would welcome your feedback.
I assume their response will be no better than the empty reply we received from the University of California’s time-serving academic bureaucrats (I guess they couldn’t very well admit that they were paying $218,749.00 a year to someone who was doing research misconduct), but you never know. It doesn’t hurt to try.
P.S. I think McBroom’s Law holds here.