Matthew Walker's "Why We Sleep" was one of the most popular and acclaimed wellness books of 2017. There's just one problem: Much of it isn't true.
Thanks to University of Ottawa Postdoctoral Fellow Dylan Smith for helping us with the research!
Aubrey: Hi everybody and welcome to Maintenance Phase. The podcast that already knows it's going to die, you don't have to tell us. It's fine.
Mike: We're a J-shaped podcast-
Mike: - with V-shaped mortality.
Aubrey: I always thought of this as an apple-shaped podcast.
Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes.
Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon. If you would like to support the show, you can do that at patreon.com/maintenancephase, where you can get bonus episodes like this month’s forthcoming bonus episode where we are doing an award ceremony.
Mike: Yes. We're going to do the best and worst wellness influencers, we're going to do the best and worst wellness trends of 2021. We have been taking nominations. We are really excited to dive in and give the smelly Moon Juice crown to somebody.
Aubrey: [chuckles] Why is it smelly?
Mike: I don't know where I was going with that. I just was talking.
Aubrey: I don't know either, but I like it. [laughs]
Mike: Okay, we just learned 30 seconds before we started recording that I had switched topics for this week. I thought that I told you, but I did not in fact tell you. So, I was supposed to do an episode on obesity in COVID, but I got sidetracked and pulled by my own gravity down a different rabbit hole. This week, Aubrey, we are talking about the science of sleep.
Mike: We're talking about a sleep influencer.
Aubrey: This is so good because I am like a person who historically has had a hard time with sleep. I come from a family of people who historically have a hard time with sleep. In our family, there are all kinds of things about like, “You got to do screen time, you got to set an alarm for yourself or when you wind down.” All of these little hacks. In the back of my mind, I'm always like, “This all seems like maybe bullshit.”
Mike: It's mostly garbage, but we'll talk about it.
Mike: First tell me, what kind of sleeper are you?
Aubrey: Mostly it's just related. I'm a person with just a nice little array, a little charcuterie platter of anxiety disorders.
Aubrey: Mostly it's like anxiety and sleep, not being able to turn your brain off, that kind of stuff. Which I think I'm not alone in that.
Mike: Oh, yeah. That's called being a millennial.
Mike: I think that’s the term for the condition. Are you an eight-hour person? How many hours a night are you aiming for?
Aubrey: I think eight hours, but in an uninterrogated way, where I'm like, that's the number that people say is the number that you should have. I think I probably feel my most rested at nine hours but that almost never happens. How about you? You're an early riser.
Mike: I'm a seven-hour person. All of us get this eight hours of sleep, six glasses of water a day. These numbers around health that we all hear growing up. I'd always heard eight hours, I would just set my alarm. If I'm going to bed at 11:00, I set my alarm for 7:00.
Aubrey: Yeah, same-same.
Mike: I remember I read somewhere or I heard somewhere in college, that was like, not everybody needs eight hours and some people only need seven hours or even less. I was like, okay, I'm going to try getting seven hours instead of eight hours. So, I started setting my alarm for seven hours. I noticed no change. I haven't felt tired. So, I've just been like a seven-hour guy ever since.
Aubrey: Sure, sure.
Mike: But the thing is what's happening when you're in your 30s, is your body at just like 4:00 in the morning will just be like, “We're up now.” Also, the normal aging millennial thing of like, oh, sleep is going to be a like a thing that I think about way more in my 30s than I did in my 20s.
Aubrey: Yeah, this is a thing where I'm like, I feel very aware of, “Oh, this is how it's going to be from here on out.”
Mike: Yes, our bodies are decaying husks.
Mike: That's the lesson for this episode.
Aubrey: Delightful. The slow march to death has begun.
Mike: [laughs] Exactly.
Mike: Before we get to this specific wellness influencer, we have to talk about the science of sleep, which is actually really cool, because a lot of it sounds fake. No one still knows why we sleep. There's a lot of cockamamie theories about evolution. We would fall asleep at night to avoid predators, or I don't know, these kind of like conjecture little theories. But none of them really makes sense because sleep seems to have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Basically, every vertebrate sleeps. Where we differ is how different organisms sleep and how much we sleep. Elephants only need four hours of sleep a night, whereas lions and tigers need 15. This is one of the ones that sound fake. Dolphins sleep with half of their brain at a time.
Aubrey: No, bullshit.
Mike: I know.
Aubrey: Like, I trust you and I believe you. My instinctual response is like, “Nope, that's a lie.”
Mike: I was typing in the Wikipedia address with one hand and making the wanking motion with the other. I was like, [blows raspberry] [Aubrey starts laughing] half a fucking brain. Fuck outta here. There's also another super fake one, is that there's bird species that will do micro sleeps for 30 seconds at a time. Sometimes, while they're in the air, which again, sounds fake, but it's true and lit.
Aubrey: Birds, nature's Priuses.
Mike: I guess the thing is, monkeys and ape species sleep a lot longer than us. The current theory is that humans sleep less, but we sleep much more efficiently. Do you get the thing where right when you're about to fall asleep, you get a little twitch?
Aubrey: Yeah, it's a hypnic jerk.
Mike: Oh, my God. You knew the term?
Aubrey: Here's how the fuck I know it. Don't get too impressed. It's in a Fiona Apple song.
Aubrey: I don't really know it. It's just in lyrics to a song that I really like.
Mike: Those are basically like a universal feature of the human experience. An old professor of mine, because I did some sleep studies when I was an undergrad. My professor said that they were the last of the days energy leaving your body.
Mike: Which is total bullshit that he made up. There's no-- [laughs]
Aubrey: I was going to say, college professor.
Mike: But it's a fun theory. Basically, there's no explanation for why those happen. But the evolutionary explanation is that, it's one of those things that keeps you a little bit alert if you're sleeping in a tree. It's a way of checking before you go to sleep, like am I in a firm place? But that still sounds fake to me, honestly, I don't know.
Aubrey: I don't know, either. I also think, listen, all of the evolutionary logic kind of stuff often just feels to me throwing darts at the wall.
Mike: It's like Freud, where you're like, “Oh, that's an interesting way of looking at the world.”
Aubrey: Yeah, totally.
Mike: They also in the 1950s, was when they started discovering the stages of sleep. I guess, the way that they found out was that somebody was sleeping in another person's sleep lab, and they noticed their eyes were darting around as if they were watching tennis or something.
Aubrey: No, this is where we get REM sleep.
Mike: That's what REM sleep is, is this literally rapid eye movement, like you're looking around as if like things are happening around you. I guess if you measure people's brainwaves, REM sleep looks like they're awake. It looks like normal thought patterns, or at least like something very close to normal thought patterns. But then of course, there's three stages of non-REM sleep. That's when you defrag your hard drive of your memory and your experiences and stuff.
Another thing that sounded super fake, was you read these things that are like you sleep to clear your brain of toxins. And I was like, “Toxins? Everybody calm down.” But then you look it up, and it's like, no, there are actual named identified proteins in your brain and your spinal fluid literally washes into your brain and flushes them out.
Mike: Dude, it sounds fake as hell, but they don't know this in humans. But in mice, their brain actually like physically shrinks when they're sleeping. It's being like wrung out.
Aubrey: That's bananas. What I was about to say before you were like, “It's true,” I think toxins are a red flag word for this podcast on the order [crosstalk] of like a magazine or newspaper feature that where the headline ends with a question mark.
Mike: Oh, I know. Totally. We're like, “No.”
Aubrey: Do you know what I mean? The new miracle drug?
Mike: The interesting thing about health and sleep, is that both of these stages are important. This deeper non-REM sleep and REM sleep are both, they both have these kinds of restorative important properties. One thing we're going to talk about a lot of the stuff that is debated in the science of sleep, but one of the things that isn't debated in sleep, it's really good for you. Sleep deprivation is really bad for you, it wreaks havoc on your immune system. Everything just gets thrown off when you haven't slept, and you need sleep to live. I'm going to send you a little excerpt read. This is from a sleep researcher named Jade Wu. This is on the recommendation of how much sleep we should all be getting.
Aubrey: Perfect. “How much sleep we need depends on how we are biologically hardwired and, on our body's current needs. The National Sleep Foundation's 2015 guide for healthy sleep durations agrees. To come up with this guide, a panel of sleep experts use the available scientific data to determine appropriate amounts of sleep for each age group. After much rigorous work, they did not say you should get eight hours. Rather they said things, like, ‘For teens, we recommend 8 to 10 hours, but anywhere from 7 to 11 hours may be appropriate.’ Notice how there's up to a four-hour range in their recommendation, that's a lot. Also, notice how they specified the age group they were speaking to. For newborn babies the “maybe appropriate range” is 11 to 18 hours. For seniors over 65, that ranges from five to nine hours. The takeaway message is twofold. Not only do healthy sleepers differ from each other in how much sleep they need but healthy sleepers also change their sleep leads over time.”
Mike: Really boring message.
Aubrey: But makes sense, right?
Aubrey: Your grandma's sleep less than the baby and the family.
Mike: Also, how much sleep do I need? Well, it depends.
Aubrey: Here's the thing about sleep and about eat both, is that you have this built-in alarm. If you're not done eating, you still feel hungry. If you're not done sleeping, you still feel tired. There's this desire for some sort of mandate, some scientific clarity. I think the clarity is maybe just in your body.
Mike: One of the sleep researchers that I spoke to, he said, it's a really boring message. But the fact is, we know that it's really good for you to get a good night's sleep. What a good night's sleep means is different for different people. The institutional recommendation is that “normal adults” need seven to nine hours a night. Everything is a bell curve. This sleep researcher told me that, if you're sleeping five or six hours a night, and you're feeling good all the time, and you're not super struggling to get out of bed and just dying, whenever the alarm goes off, then, yeah, you might just be somebody who needs less sleep than other people. It is the same if you're sleeping nine hours a night. Yeah, you might just need more sleep than other people.
Aubrey: Yeah. As we're talking about this, I'm like, it sounds like you're on the seven end and I'm on the nine end, generally speaking. And that's fine and normal.
Mike: The problem is that it's very hard to write bestselling books and become a wellness influencer, telling people that they should listen to their bodies, and it depends.
Aubrey: Are we about to get into grifty territory, Mike?
Mike: We have to meet somebody now. We have to meet [crosstalk] now. We have to bring individuals into the story.
Aubrey: [laughs] All right.
Mike: I'm sorry to do this to you. I'm going to send you a link to a TED Talk right now.
Mike: I apologize, for what I'm about to do to you.
Aubrey: That text that you sent me where you're like, “I hate that I'm serious about this, but we should get you a TED Talk,” is maybe [Mike laughing] the funniest text I've ever gotten, because I know how much that pains you to say-- [laughs].
Mike: I remain staunch in both of those beliefs. It sucks and you should do one.
Mike: I'm going to send you two links, we're going to watch two short clips.
Aubrey: Oh, I can't wait.
Matthew Walker: Thank you very much. Well, I would like to start with testicles.
Matthew Walker: Men who sleep five hours a night have significantly smaller testicles than those who sleep seven hours or more.
Mike: I know.
Matthew Walker: In addition, men who routinely sleep just four to five hours a night will have a level of testosterone, which is that of someone 10 years their senior. A lack of sleep will age a man by a decade in terms of that critical aspect of wellness. This is the best news that I have for you today.
Sleep, unfortunately, is not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a nonnegotiable biological necessity. It is your life support system, and it is mother nature's best effort yet at immortality. And the decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness. Even the safety and the education of our children, it's a silent sleep loss epidemic. And it is fast becoming one of the greatest public health challenges that we face in the 21st century.
Aubrey: Ah, God.
Mike: Well, tell me what you just saw.
Aubrey: He's a white dude. He's a thin guy. He's got blond hair, swooped off to one side. He is as you have noted, a very slow talker.
Mike: I've been watching him on 1.75 speed all week.
Aubrey: Yeah, good idea.
Mike: Now, I'm just like, “Oh, my fucking God.”
Aubrey: He's talking at the rate of someone who seems sleepy.
Mike: [blows raspberry]
Mike: He's blond, he's blue eyed. He's very conventionally attractive and very good at presenting his ideas. He opens with a cute little icebreaker. He's got you, like, “I'm going to start with the testicles.” And then he does a bunch of stuff in the middle that we skipped. And then at the end, he's got your call to action and the broader scope.
Aubrey: I think this is all the stuff of this, like, Ted talkie kind of era, which is just a bunch of interesting tidbits and anecdotes sound and fury signifying nothing. It struck me as the shit that we talked about with mortality statistics. “This kind of person lives this long.” Okay, so then what? What's instructive about this?
Mike: This is the problem with doing a podcast with somebody smart.
Mike: You're like, “Mike, I know all of your twists in advance.”
Mike: Some of this science is going to turn out to not be super watertight.
Aubrey: What you and I are sort of informally doing is compiling a list of things to be skeptical of. One of them is this mortality, little nuggets about mortality. Where I'm like, “Okay, so then what?”
Mike: This gentleman that we just met is named Matthew Walker. It seems like he basically has spent his entire career working on sleep. He started out in a lab for a PhD, where he was trying to differentiate between different types of dementia and he was looking at people's brainwaves. And he realized that there's no difference in their brainwaves. But then he realized that you could measure their brainwaves while they were sleeping. And if you measure their sleeping brainwaves, you could tell that they were suffering from different types of dementia. I guess there's Parkinson's dementia. There's different ways that this presents. Since then, he's just gotten more and more prominent in the field of sleep. He goes to Harvard after his PhD and then eventually he's offered a post at Berkeley, where he now runs a sleep lab. It's like the Berkeley Sleep Center or something. He's one of the most prominent sleep researchers in the field. This is not a journalist parachuting in interloper. This is an actual scientist who has published dozens of articles in very prestigious scholarly journals.
Aubrey: I love that you're like, “This isn't like a journalist parachuting in interloper,” and I was like, “like us.”
Mike: Like some fucking podcaster.
Aubrey: Sitting in their mom's closet.
Mike: In 2017, he publishes the book that will be the subject of this episode. It is called Why We Sleep. When the book comes out, it's positively reviewed in the New York Times and The Guardian. It's one of NPR’s favorite books of 2017. He's on Joe Rogan's podcast. He's on NPR. He's on the BBC. He just one of these guys who like, this hasn't really been popularized as an issue before. So, he just gets scooped up everywhere. One of the things I found and like, I think it was in his Wikipedia entry, it says, “A month after the book's publication, he became a sleep scientist at Google.”
Aubrey: Oh, that is a cursed sentence.
Mike: Why would Google have a sleep scientist on staff?
Aubrey: Nope, I don't know why, but it feels real bad.
Mike: Now we're going to talk about the contents of the book. I'm going to send you an excerpt from chapter one. It's a little bit long, but it's the thesis statement of the entire book.
Aubrey: You know I love story time though.
Mike: I know. You like to read.
Aubrey: “Do you think you got enough sleep this past week? Can you recall the last time you woke up without an alarm clock feeling refreshed, not needing caffeine? If the answer to either of these questions is no, you are not alone. Two thirds of adults throughout all developed nations failed to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. I doubt you're surprised by this fact, but you may be surprised by the consequences. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer's disease. Inadequate sleep, even moderate reductions for just one week, disrupts blood sugar level so profoundly that you would be classified as prediabetic. Add the above health consequences up and a proven link becomes easier to accept. The shorter your sleep, the shorter of your lifespan. Every component of wellness and countless seams of societal fabric are being eroded by our costly state of sleep neglect, human and financial alike. So much so that the World Health Organization has now declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialized nations.”
Mike: Sleep loss epidemic.
Aubrey: I know that was fat people.
Mike: Get it straight, public health.
Aubrey: Get in line, man. I'm next to be the greatest public health challenge. [laughs]
Mike: I'm a fat person who sleeps great. You're giving me mixed messages.
Aubrey: [laughs] What about me?
Aubrey: This also seems like one of those things, again, in the informal book of things to be skeptical of. This kind of stuff where it's every possible cause of death or ill health is linked to this one thing. Am I spoiling something to say this really feels he's just talking about poor people in industrialized nations or people who have to work graveyard or swing shifts? Do you know what I'm saying? It's related to sleep, but it's not necessarily about the sleep.
Mike: Caused by sleep.
Aubrey: Yeah, that it's probably more likely to be caused by poverty or by a lack of a social safety net or support system. To isolate sleep and be like, it's about how many hours a night you sleep, and if you slept one more hour, but everything else remained the same, you would be in like perfect health or significantly better health. Just seems really facile to me.
Mike: He says after 10 days of seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for 24 hours.
Mike: I, Michael Hobbes, walking around as if I haven't slept for 24 hours at all times, basically.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's definitely my experience of you.
Aubrey: It's just like, “Somebody get that guy a cot.” [giggles]
Mike: Throughout the rest of the book, not only does he insist that like everybody needs to be getting eight hours or more, but he connects sleep and not in tenuous, some of the data is there, this causes that kind of way. He says sleep causes schizophrenia. He says it causes ADHD. There's a weird thing where he says it causes autism.
Aubrey: Oh, no.
Mike: Because, I guess, autistic kids do actually have different sleep patterns. There're signatures in like REM versus non-REM. This is from an interview that he gave to his hometown newspaper. He says, “By the way, and strictly non-scientifically, I've always found it interesting that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two heads of state who were very vocal, if not proud, about sleeping four to five hours a night. Both went on to develop dementia.”
Mike: I don't know, man.
Aubrey: That's phrased in the way that someone phrases something where they're like, “I know I can't substantiate this. I know it won't hold up to any scrutiny, but I still want to fuckin say it.”
Mike: Isn't it interesting?
Aubrey: I'm just noticing. It's just an observation.
Mike: The main message of the book is sleep is super important and we all need to be getting eight hours of sleep. The second main message of the book is that we're in the middle of a sleep loss epidemic. This is the thing that we're not sleeping, as much as we used to, because we're on our telephones, and we're overworked and stressed, blah, blah, blah. I'm going to send you another little excerpt.
Aubrey: Okay. “Within the space of a mere 100 years, human beings have abandoned their biologically mandated need for adequate sleep. One that evolution spent 3.4 million years perfecting. Visit cultures that are untouched by electricity and you often see something rather different. Hunter gatherer tribes, such as the Gabra, in northern Kenya, or the sand people in the Kalahari Desert, whose way of life has changed little over the past thousands of years, sleep in a biphasic pattern. Both these groups take a similarly longer sleep period at night, seven to eight hours of time in bed, achieving about seven hours of sleep, followed by a 30-to-60-minute nap in the afternoon.”
Mike: The idea is that there's these like biological patterns that we should be sleeping like but we have broken from those patterns. So, modernity, industrial revolution, technology, cities decoupled us from the way that our bodies want to sleep.
Aubrey: It's also interesting because I'm like, the thing that you're talking about is capitalism. That's another way to think about this, is that people's ability to sleep and therefore avoid these negative health markers, is intention with the mandate to produce and to show up in these capital systems.
Mike: This gets to the next thing that I wanted to talk about before we get to the debunking. The chapter of his book that really stuck out to me was the final chapter. We have both read a million fat panic books for the podcast and wellness panic books, and they all do the exact same thing. It's like, “Obesity is killing us. Our kids can't go into the military. Their life expectancies are shorter,” and you get to the final chapter of like, the fixes, the policy fixes. And they're like, “We need billboards. People need to stop drinking soda.” I'm like, “Wait, didn't you just tell me this is a massive problem. And then when I suggest to you that like, ‘Maybe we should expand food stamps, so that people can buy fresh food for their kids?’ And you're like, ‘I don't know about that.’”
Aubrey: No, we need a TV ad, that’s like, “Look how gross these fat people are?” Where you're like, “Well, okay.”
Mike: He just told you your risk of cancer is doubling. He never understates this problem. He's saying this is the biggest problem in developed nations. Then final chapter, his first recommendation, how are we going to fix all this? How are we going to get us back to these patterns? He says, “We should have more sleep apps on our phones.”
Mike: He spends two-thirds of the fucking chapter, he says, “Someday we'll have like machine learning that can adjust the temperature of your bedroom,” because I guess you're supposed to sleep in slightly colder rooms. Theoretically, we could have a thing where your smart home knows that you're a 7 o'clock riser or whatever. So, it would set the heat to go up at 6:30 or something. And I'm like, first of all, I don't know that we need machine learning [crosstalk] to get a slightly warmer at 6:00 AM. Secondly, it's like, “This is your fix, bro? We're all supposed to have apps on our phones?”
Aubrey: Also, have you use those fucking apps?
Mike: Dude, those apps are trash.
Aubrey: I have used a bunch of those sleep apps and they're like, “Put it on your bed.”
Mike: I know.
Aubrey: Every time I would like go to sleep and be asleep for six hours or eight hours or whatever, and then I would wake up and it'd be like, “You got 20 minutes of sleep,” but I'm like, “You fucking liar.”
Mike: It's like my jogging app or when I tried to use the jogging apps that have me leaping across the street 75 times. [crosstalk] “You ran 44 miles in 20 minutes.” I'm like, Ah, I don’t know that I did.”
Aubrey: It just seems like such garbage.
Mike: I'm going to send you another excerpt from his book. This is one of his big ideas for the technological fix to this problem. You're going to fucking die.
Aubrey: Okay, here we go. “Going even further, what if we moved from a stance of analytics to that of forward looking predictalytics.”
Mike: You can see why Joe Rogan invited him on.
Aubrey: It sounds like designer imposter Pedialyte.
Aubrey: “To explain the term, let me go back to the smoking example. There are efforts to create predictalytics apps that start with you taking a picture of your own face. The app then asks you, how many cigarettes you smoke on average a day? Based on scientific data that understand how smoking quantity impacts outward health features such as bags under your eyes, wrinkles, psoriasis, thinning hair and yellow teeth, the app predictively modifies your face-" fuck you. “-on the assumption of your continued smoking.” Get fucked.
Mike: I knew you'd like this.
Aubrey: “The very same approach could be adopted for sleep, but at many different levels, outward appearance as well as inward brain and body health. For example, we could show individuals their increasing risk of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or certain cancers, if they continue sleeping too little. Men could see projections on how much their testicles will shrink, or [laughingly] their testosterone level will drop should their sleep neglect continue? Similar risk predictions could be made for gains in bodyweight, diabetes, or immune impairment and infection.” He's just doing an app version of Faces of Meth.
Mike: Please, excuse me, I'm getting a notification on my phone. Oh, it's a picture of my balls, if I continue not to sleep. [crosstalk]
Mike: It's just a picture of two very tiny balls.
Aubrey: Okay. Listen, I'm a person as we've discussed who struggles with sleep from time to time. So, I see a picture of myself looking like shit or I see these predictions of, like, “I'm going to get Alzheimer's and cancer and tiny testicles, apparently.” This is not going to lower my anxiety levels and be like, “This is real restful and I should get more sleep.”
Mike: We all know that when you're struggling to sleep, the most helpful thing to do is to lay in bed and go, “I really need to sleep.”
Aubrey: It's not even an angel and a devil on your shoulder. It's just fucking Gremlins being like, “If you don't sleep, you're going to get Alzheimer's. How's that dementia treating you?” [Mike laughing] Chill out, dude.
Mike: This is the main conclusion of the book. There's like, it doesn't really have any policy stuff. He mentions vaguely stuff about school opening times, which are legitimately like do help. But he doesn't really say anything. And it's just really weird and really telling.
Aubrey: To some degree, I'm like, “I get it. He's a researcher. His job is to research and find out what's true and what's not.” It's not necessarily to provide public policy prescriptions or that sort of thing. But if that's the case, and you don't have solutions to offer, then don't write this kind of book.
Aubrey: It does feel very similar to the mandate to lose weight that we talk about all the time, which is like, okay, but then what works? And everyone's like, “Hmm.”
Mike: Well, also you can tell from the entire book and all of his pitch, and the way that he describes the work in media, is that he wants to deliver 'you' tips on how to sleep better, like your room should be slightly colder, or you should set an alarm at 9:00 PM, so you start getting into restfulness. He wants to cast this as a public health epidemic. But I think he's doing that as a marketing strategy to get NPR listening people to take their own sleep seriously. It's like a fucking Marvel movie. You have to establish the stakes. Like, the whole galaxy is going to die, and then you can get people to care about these characters, even though that doesn't really work in those movies. And it doesn't really work here, because he's very clearly not interested in the public health aspects of it.
Aubrey: If you're positing that something is a societal epidemic in whole chunks of nations, that points to macro level solutions, not individual, like you get an app on your phone and make sure your room's cold enough. His goal and using that rhetoric seems to be to just amp up the importance of the conversation. Not to say, this is a systemic issue, and here are the systemic solutions. Like, “This is a systemic issue, so really listen to what I'm saying.”
Mike: Download this app super hard. Are you ready for the debunking?
Aubrey: I am always ready for the debunking. I'm hungry for the debunking. I'm sleepy for the debunking. [Mike blows raspberry] Here we go. Tell me what you got.
Mike: So, the book comes out in 2017, and then two years go by, he's on podcast, the book is acclaimed, it becomes a big bestseller. He does this massively popular TED Talk. And then in November of 2019, we meet a guy called Alexey Guzey. So, I interviewed Alexey for this. What he says later, he's like, “I cannot emphasize what a random person I was.” [Aubrey laughing] He's not a sleep researcher. He is 22 years old. He is a Russian living in Moscow. He has just graduated from college, he did math and econ at school, he took a couple statistics classes, but he's not someone sort of in this field particularly.
Aubrey: Just like some guy.
Mike: Exactly. This is not an academic debate. This is some guy. His friend recommends this book to him and he starts reading through it and immediately starts noticing all of the red flags. And he basically starts like a spreadsheet listing all of these claims that seem like kind of dubious and looking into them.
Aubrey: Already like this. Already like this guy.
Mike: Exactly. This is our people.
Aubrey: Yeah, this is the audience surrogate for specifically you and me.
Mike: Like, this dude feels he's full of shit and I need to spend like 300 hours looking into this.
Aubrey: I need to have a weird academic grudge match with the person I've never met.
Mike: The first category of error in the book is he starts seeing just weird baffling mistakes or things that seem just like on their face wrong. In a section on how doctors make more errors when they haven't slept. Matt Walker says when you limit trainee doctors to no more than a 16-hour shift, residents make 400% to 600% fewer diagnostic errors.
Mike: 400% fewer. [laughs]
Aubrey: So, were negative, now they're just doing extra right things?
Mike: No one knows exactly what happened here. But obviously something cannot reduce by more than 100%. It's not the biggest deal in the world. But this did get published in The Lancet.
Aubrey: Fuck, man.
Mike: Another one is, you know how he said the World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic?
Aubrey: Did they not do that?
Mike: Alexey notices in the book. There're actually very few citations in the book. It's really weird, but you're citing like the WHO says-- You would think it'd be a link to the WHO. WHO taskforce 1994 or whatever. The citation links to a random National Geographic documentary.
Mike: Like the wonders of sleep or something. Alexey goes on YouTube and finds this fucking documentary and watches the whole thing and it's just like, I don't know standard sleep is cool documentary. But it doesn't say anything about the WHO and then he starts looking around and the WHO never said this.
Aubrey: What a weird thing to just throw in there, and have it be so disprovable and even just on its face, it seems not true.
Mike: It seems weird. Alexey also finds a bunch of exaggerations. One of the things that Matt Walker said in the excerpt that we read is, he said, “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your lifespan.” But that's not true. The mortality rates, the link between sleep and lifespan is just link between obesity and lifespan. At the low end, it's high, and at the high end, it's high. So, it's really bad for you to get less than four hours of sleep at night, people who sleep very little have very high mortality rates, but people who sleep more than nine hours a night, also have extremely high mortality rates. The highest mortality rates are people who sleep more than 10 hours.
Mike: The problem here is the same thing that we came across in our obesity episode and it's all correlations. It's not necessarily you're getting too much sleep and it's making you die. It could be that like, you have cancer, you're sleeping a lot because your body is shutting down. There're all kinds of health conditions that would make you sleep a really long time and would also end up killing you and on the other end of the scale, there's also all kinds of conditions that cause insomnia. If you have chronic pain, like lots of cancers you're in pain and you can't sleep more than four hours a night. It's just a big old bundle of correlations and we can't really say that the sleep is causing fucking anything.
Aubrey: Yeah, it feels like it harkens back to our conversations about like nutrition research, like how do you isolate only sleep as the sole or even just primary factor? When people are living complicated, messy lives with lots and lots of factors happening all the time, right?
Mike: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: Maybe it's that you're not sleeping, maybe it's that you had a couple of loved ones pass away and you're grieving, and there are physiological impacts of that. Maybe it's that you work in a factory or a nail salon or whatever, and you're being exposed to chemicals on the daily that are-- there's just a bajillion things that it could be and you can't just isolate people and keep them in a lab and have them live identical lives except for the amount of sleep that they have.
Mike: This also brings us to his thing about cancer. I don't know if you caught this.
Aubrey: Here's what I thought about the cancer thing. It's often the thing that I think when people are like, “You're 10 times as likely to get cancer.” I always want to be like, “Which ones?”
Aubrey: It just feels a very big bucket to throw everything into without parsing a little bit.
Mike: Also, people have done studies on this. There's no link between sleeping too much and cancer and there's no link between sleeping too little and cancer. [crosstalk] I think this isn't.
Aubrey: [laughs] So, it's also just like, I'm going too far down the path. You're like, not even that, it's just not true.
Mike: There's a couple, I think two or three, breast cancer is one of them that for whatever reason, people who sleep less are more likely to get breast cancer. But, again, we don't know causality. So, it could actually be that a precursor to breast cancer is causing you to sleep less. Or some third thing is causing both of them. We don't actually know, and also considering how many types of cancer there are. The fact that there's two or three that are linked to sleep does not justify saying, “If you sleep less, you will double your risk of cancer.”
Aubrey: Yeah, no.
Mike: I'm going to send you this. This is actually an excerpt from his TED Talk, but the excerpt from the book is like slightly longer. This is my favorite, most debunkie thing. So, I'm going to send you this.
Aubrey: “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.” I hate it, Mike.
Mike: It's coming.
Aubrey: “Now, in the spring, when we lose one hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24% increase in the heart attacks that following day.”
Mike: Hard facts, Bible facts.
Aubrey: “In the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21% reduction in heart attacks. Isn't that incredible? And you see exactly the same profile for car crashes, road traffic accidents, and even suicide rates.” Mike, I hate it.
Mike: Do you want to know what this is based on?
Aubrey: Yes, I do. I just am ready for fucking lift off with my irritation with this.
Mike: You're going to explode. It's based on one paper that looked at data from Michigan, one state and only over three years.
Mike: I actually respect the researchers for publishing this because they're quite transparent about what they find. So, what they do is the researchers look at the seven days following Daylight Savings Time. This one hour of sleep deprivation that we're all getting. On the Sunday, heart attacks are slightly less likely. On the Monday, they are 24% higher. On the Tuesday, they are lower. On the Wednesday, they are lower. On the Thursday, they are lower. On the Friday, they are lower, and on the Saturday, they are 4% more likely.
Mike: The closest thing to an explanation for this, I can come to is, it just a fucking coincidence. Pick any week out of the year, by random chance, there's going to be more heart attacks on the Wednesday or something. Any pattern, you're always going to find a little peek. It's the same number of heart attacks spread across the week. And they even say this in the study. They're like, “Hey, everybody just want to be transparent.” It's the same number of heart attacks. There's this weird spike on Monday, but there's no actual overall increase in the heart attacks. It's just moving them around.
Aubrey: He's not saying, “Hey, look at this three-year study on Michiganders.
Mike: Michigandigans, yes.
Aubrey: He's saying, “There's an experiment involving 1.6 billion people across 70 countries.” I get that that's a rhetorical flourish, but it also does set up the expectation that you're looking at a data set that size and not a data set of 1500 people in the Upper Peninsula or whatever.
Mike: Also, it's just the researchers have said, the only data that he's basing this on, they're really transparent, like, we don't think this is a thing. We're just putting the data out there, so other people can see it. I actually love this because publishing studies that don't find anything is actually really important, because then somebody else doesn't waste their time looking at the same thing. It's like researchers that are just like, “Hey, we have this data, we're going to look into it. We didn't really find anything, but we want to publish it. So everybody else knows, maybe it's different for your state. But in our state for this data, we're not finding an effect.” That's how science is supposed to work. But then other people like take this data, and they're like, “Oh, 24% increase.” It's like, well, on one of the days?
Aubrey: I just think about, I've been in enough state legislatures and watched enough hearings about daylight saving time, and should we keep it or should we get rid of it? People fucking hate it. If they were like, daylight saving time is making people die, it would be so much more than the tiny nudge that people need to be like, “Fuck daylight saving time, it's the worst.”
Mike: Although, he's actually correct about the thing that there's more car crashes the day after daylight savings time.
Aubrey: Oh, interesting.
Mike: As usual, he's over simplifying. There're a million studies on this because the data is pretty readily available. There is a spike the entire week after it's like really high the day after then it sort of tapers off throughout the week, the week after daylight savings time, but that's not because of sleep deprivation, it's because of light.
Aubrey: [laughs] People are driving in the dark?
Mike: Yeah, because people aren't used to it. You're not used to driving in the dark, and then all of a sudden, you're driving in the dark and it takes you a couple days to adjust. All of a sudden, all these people are driving to work in the dark. Most of the accidents are people running into pedestrians. The weird thing is there's like the spike in the spring and car crashes, but then there's a reduction in the fall in car crashes because it is lighter out. Matthew Walker wants to say that it's like, “Oh, cause we're sleeping less. And then in the fall, we're sleeping more.” And in the studies, they say that like, “Yeah, sleep deprivation is probably in there. It's probably a factor.” But it's probably outweighed by the fact that it's just really fucking dark. And like, in general, there's way more car accidents at night than during the day for the same reason. Also, there're more car accidents on the western side of time zones where it's darker than on the eastern side.
Aubrey: This is a great time for Occam's razor. Do you know what I mean? There's a simpler explanation here, which is just it's real dark.
Mike: It's freakin' dark, dude.
Aubrey: It's real dark.
Mike: Okay, we're not even to the fucking major problems with the book yet. These are just minor problems with the book and the exaggerations in the book.
Aubrey: You're like, “Let me get the little stuff out of the way.”
Mike: This was the easy stuff.
Aubrey: It's all lies. [laughs]
Mike: The main existential problem with the book is that there is no evidence that we're in the middle of a sleep loss epidemic.
Aubrey: There's no evidence that like, “30 years ago, people were sleeping more, and now they're sleeping less?”
Mike: Exactly. As usual, this is a really difficult thing to measure. Most of the research is based on self-reported sleep data. Either, how much did you sleep last night? Or, how much do you typically sleep throughout the year? So, you ask people this stuff. Even on these sorts of surveys, the number of hours that people are sleeping in developed countries is pretty flat. Two-thirds of the population says that they get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night that hasn't really budged. Roughly 40% of people say that they're getting less than seven hours of sleep at night, but also on self-reports, people tend to take off around an hour for how much they're sleeping because we live in a culture that glorifies productivity.
One of the sleep researchers that I spoke to, he said, he works in an insomnia lab where they bring people in and they attach electrodes and stuff. And he said, one of the most remarkable things is that you bring people in, you measure their sleep for eight hours, and then they wake up, and then he comes into the room, and he's like, “Hey, how did you sleep?” Oftentimes, people will be like, “Ugh, I had such a terrible night.” And he's looking at the brainwave stuff. And he's like, “No, you didn't.”
Aubrey: Oh, interesting.
Mike: “You had a great night.” People don't know even on a night to night basis, there're other studies that use objective methods and find the same thing it's basically flat.
Aubrey: Yeah. The foundational premise of the book is in demonstrably false.
Mike: The literal premise, yes. I also think that this is like a fascinating methodology thing. It sounds a really obvious easy question, how much are we sleeping? It seems we would be able to say that with some certainty. But even something that simple, like, we don't actually have a good picture. People might actually be sleeping less now than they used to. I don't know it's vaguely plausible to me that the fact that you have this device, like a little light up emotion invoker device in your hand at all times. If there was data indicating it, I find that totally plausible. But if we don't really have any data, then what is Matt Walker basing his book on?
Aubrey: Right. Totally. It might be the case and it might not. But it's definitely not the case that we are in the middle of a sleep loss epidemic. If it's happening, it's not currently proven.
Mike: What Alexey finds when he's looking into this, is that the way that he gets the numbers for his book, the standard CDC National Sleep Foundation advice is seven to nine hours. That's how much we're supposed to be getting. He averages that to eight and then he measures everyone who's getting less than eight hours of sleep.
Aubrey: Well, but hang on.
Mike: If you add up everyone who's getting four or five, six and seven hours of sleep, yeah, it's like a third of the country or two thirds or something isn't getting enough sleep. But that's only because you're then counting all the seven-hour people. This isn't standard advice that everybody has to be getting eight hours. He's just made that up.
Aubrey: Well, and it is the shorthand, when you're like, what's the right amount of sleep to get? People are like, “I don't know, eight hours?” That's then what he's basic, like making research calculations based on that.
Mike: Another thing that isn't true, is his whole fucking thing about hunter gatherers.
Aubrey: Yeah, that shit.
Mike: There're now some studies on this. These studies are honestly pretty weird. There're actually semi-uncontacted tribes in various parts of Africa, where they've given them sleepometers, like these watches. When you actually measure the sleep patterns of these tribes, they sleep between 5.7 and 7.1 hours per night. They barely take naps. They just sleep the same fucking way that everybody does. They go to bed around midnight, they get up around 7:00. What's weird is that after his early, like, I think it's chapter two or three, where he talks about like, “Oh, these biphasic patterns are so great and hunter gatherers live like this and we need to get back to these patterns.
Later in the book, he acknowledges that this other research has taken place. It's actually one of his colleagues at Berkeley who did this study. Later in the book, Matt Walker is like, “Well, now we have data on hunter gatherer tribes and it turns out that they sleep basically the same as we do.” This is from the book, he says, “Now we discover the average lifespan of these hunter gatherers is just 58 years, even though they're more physically active than we are, rarely obese and are not plagued by the assault of processed foods that erode our health.” So, you're like, “Wait, so they don't live very long. So why the fuck were you telling me about them earlier?” You just said we need to sleep like them, so we can live longer, but now you're like, “Oh, they don't even live that long.”
Aubrey: Yeah, it's fine. Society is changing. This stuff is all a moving target. That doesn't mean that it was better back then-
Aubrey: -that we need to get in the fucking Wayback Machine.
Mike: He also does some weird shit, where he says the reason that they have shorter life expectancies is because they're more susceptible to infections, and infections are a sign that you're not sleeping enough.
Mike: We're supposed to sleep like them, but the people who actually sleep like them don't live long enough and should sleep more. Of course, various people have done these what are called polyphasic sleeps, where you like sleep in bursts. There're a million societies that have siestas. There's no data that this does anything. There aren't clear health benefits.
Aubrey: Hey, man, if you want to take a nap, take a nap. That's fine with me. But there's this overlay that gets added about why it's like the right thing to do, or the healthiest thing to do, or the best thing to do. And I'm like, “It's enough that it just works for you. It doesn't need to be a mandate.”
Mike: This is my thing with people who are morning people and people who are evening people. There's whatever, fucking studies, there's some dumb study that I saw. “There's a 6% lower depression rate among people who are morning people,” which like, that's basically zero. That's zero. It doesn't matter. It's fake. But also, if you're not a morning person and you're forcing yourself to be a morning person, i.e., setting your alarm before you are ready to wake up, that's also probably not good for you. You're not going to get the health benefits of forcing yourself into a lifestyle that you don't like and doesn't work for you.
Aubrey: Here's my question for you. He's a researcher, he knows better than all of this stuff, presumably. Why is he doing this?
Mike: On some level, to his credit, his social media handle everywhere is the Sleep Diplomat. That's the name of his website, he sees himself as an ambassador for people should be getting more sleep, people should be prioritizing sleep in their lives, to an extent that they are not now. On some level, that's probably true. Yeah, we all probably should get off of Tumblr a little bit earlier and go to bed. Maybe spend less time on our screens, like, in the same way that it's probably good advice, to tell people eat more fruits and vegetables and try to take the stairs instead of the elevator. All this stuff is perfectly prudent advice. I think he sees himself as sleep is not getting enough attention as a contributor to our public health problems as a country. I don't think he's doing this consciously and he's not doing it explicitly, but he's using that as an excuse to twist all this stuff and make it more important than it has to be.
Aubrey: Yeah. That's the thing is, sure, none of this is bad stuff to say, like, get off your screens and blah, blah, blah, blah, all of those sorts of things. But, again, when I think about myself and the other people that I know, that sometimes have a hard time with sleep, the issue isn't their sleep habits, or their “sleep hygiene.” The issue is untreated mental illness, the issue is untenable work schedule. It's always about a different thing. It's not just people don't think sleep is important enough, so they don't get it.
Mike: But this is also another thing that was really noticeable about the book, is that throughout the book, he has a bunch of studies and a bunch of data, whatever. He never looks into the reasons why people are not getting enough sleep. He just assumes that people are choosing not to get sleep. I do think that there is some contingent of people who don't take sleep seriously, and has this rise and grind attitude of like, “Oh, Martha Stewart only gets four hours. So, I'm only getting it four hours.” I think that these people exist, but it's not clear from the research and it's especially not clear in his book, how many people this is. He never compares them to people who are desperate to get fucking sleep but cannot sleep.
The sleep researcher I talked to, he says a lot of his patients are women going through menopause. Menopause fucks up your sleep.
Aubrey: Holy shit. Yes.
Mike: If you look at the actual numbers, up to 30% of the population has chronic insomnia. 40% of people with insomnia have a mental disorder that in some way affects their sleep, 16% of full-time workers work either evening or overnight shifts, 75% of people with depression suffer from insomnia, 90% of people with PTSD. A huge number of people want to be sleeping and feel like shit all day and are begging for any solution that would help them sleep.
Aubrey: Yeah. He's probably addressing this like in the same way that I'm putting my own personal experience lens on responding to all of this. I think he's probably doing the same thing. If he's a sleep researcher with Google, you are swimming in just a lake of tech bros, who strike me as probably likelier people to do the rise and grind, you only need four hours of sleep bullshit versus the people that I know who are much more like, “I am desperate to sleep and I can't figure out how to make that happen.”
Mike: Yeah. One of the things that he says and he does say a lot in his book about like, there's this culture of pulling an all-nighter. Especially in tech, you stay up all night coding. He's like, it's not great that that's normalized, it's not great that this is part of American productivity culture. It's really bad for you, and we shouldn't necessarily be glorifying that kind of stuff. And I think that's like super prudent advice. But that's also a very small number of people who are like, “I love doing all-nighters.” They actually have the option to not do that and they're not taking that option.
Aubrey: Right. It's great advice for young ambitious attorneys who want to be on partner track at their private law firm. I buy that as advice for that group of people. And then there's everyone else in the country and world.
Mike: The thing that I cannot convey adequately is that all of these errors that I just enumerated, these are all in the first chapter.
Mike: Alexey is going through this book, and he's like, “I had to cut down the scope because I came across so many fucking errors that I had to stop.”
Aubrey: Oh, my God.
Mike: To be fair, the first chapter is an overture where he like paints the picture and he presents like it's slightly more information dense in the other chapters. But in the version of the book that I had, this chapter is eight pages long. All of this [Aubrey laughs] appeared in the first eight pages. There're other errors that I'm not including, too.
Aubrey: As we're talking, I'm looking at the little timer on QuickTime. We've now been talking for two hours and 10 minutes about eight pages of garbage, is that what you're telling me?
Mike: [laughs] Yes.
Aubrey: I'm not mad at you, but I am mad at this dude.
Mike: It's a lot. In 2019 Alexey, again, random guy, he posts a massive blog post that I think is 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 words long. That's just called Matthew Walker's "Why We Sleep" Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors. It's organized in just bullet points. “This is Matthew Walker's claim. I looked into it. It doesn't check out. This is Matthew Walker's next claim.” This gets quite a bit of attention in methodology debunker blogging. This is how I came across, it showed up on a statistical retraction something-something website that I read. It didn't really blow up in the broader culture.
Aubrey: Also, anytime you're like, “Oh, this was big on methodology Twitter.” I'm like, “So you [crosstalk]”
Mike: I tweeted about it and everyone else muted me.
Aubrey: When you say this was big on methodology Twitter, it just means, “I, Michael Hobbes, tweeted it.” [laughs]
Mike: It's like, “Mike is on his bullshit,” basically.
Mike: As [crosstalk] he starts bouncing around methodology Twitter, it does the thing that, always happens. That somebody like cracks open a door and then everyone else just kicks it down. So, there's then this wave following the blog post, all these other errors in the book.
Aubrey: Right. Somebody went into chapter two, and was like, “Hang on, guys, there's more.”
Mike: Wait, we're not done. Also, the funny thing, there's all these other little errors that come out. Also, as I was reading it for this show, I also found two more pretty major ones. I didn't even see these on Reddit at the time, but it's like, “I've got something to add to the pile.” There's a lot that I'm skipping because a lot of them are just they're very similar to the ones we've already gone over. This is when the testicular thing kind of falls apart. There's a study but it's a really bad study with a very small number of people and their relationship that it found was actually more like U-shaped rather than a line. There's also, he mentioned in his book, this really dumb study, where he says that just one night of sleeping five hours a night will make you less attractive. But what he doesn't mention is that those people, sleep-deprived people, had been deprived of sleep for 31 hours straight before them. So, they were kept up for 31 hours, then they slept five hours. Then their picture was shown to other people who were like, “Yeah, that person looks really rough.” But it's like, yeah, we all look rough after being awake for 31 hours and then sleeping for five.
Aubrey: Well, and also, he just wants to bring back fucking hot or not websites and be like, “It's science now.” Yes, I haven't slept for over a day, but am I hot?
Mike: The last thing that comes out in this wave of criticism after Alexey’s blog post is also some like self-plagiarism. This article in The Lancet basically appears in another journal called Neuron. We've gotten the blog post with all the main criticisms, we've then got this entire wave of criticism after this, like all these other random things. Let's do a hypothetical. If somebody writes like a long blog post saying, like, “Aubrey Gordon's book is bad, and here's why.” Much of it was false. A lot of it was like them accusing you of stuff that wasn't true. Walk me through, like what you would actually do in that situation?
Aubrey: Depending on how high profile it was, if it was a little thing, I might just let it be. If it was a big source or something, I might be like, “Let's have a conversation about it.” Or, I might be like, “Here are all of my primary sources, once again, but here's where it says the thing that I say it says.” Those seem the two or three main options to me. One is just leave it alone. Two is actually do a point-by-point refutation. And three is try and connect with the person who has the criticism and just see what's underneath that.
Mike: Matt Walker does none of those, somehow.
Mike: There's a little known weird fourth option. I could not believe this when I found out about it. So, like I said, all the social media profiles are the sleep diplomat, that's his jokey name that he uses on the internet. He sets up a random WordPress site-
Aubrey: Oh, God.
Mike: -called the sleepdiplomat.wordpress.com, which to this day consists of one post. He doesn't put this on any of his existing platforms. And to this day, he has never tweeted this blog post. He has never publicly acknowledged it. The blog post doesn't even say, “by Matthew Walker.” At no point in the blog post does he identify himself as the author.
Aubrey: How do we know it's him though?
Mike: There's been some sort of like oblique indirect third hand confirmation. At one point, somebody contacts his university, and they're like, it's our understanding that Matthew Walker has responded to the criticism. If you were responding like, you, Aubrey Gordon were responding to somebody wrote an essay, you probably like tweeted out.
Aubrey: Yeah, or I do it on the show. Or, I would be like, “Yes, let's get it out into the world. Let's propel it forward.”
Mike: You would put it in a place where people find you. I'm assuming that it's Matt Walker. We still don't have proof that it's Matt Walker, but it seems like it is. He's basically doing it in a way that ensures this will be seen by the fucking weirdos like me on methodology Twitter who've been following this little debate, but nobody outside of that world is ever going to see it. Or at least that is the effect. I've no idea what his intention was. He doesn't actually want to engage in like a normal scholarly debate. This is bananas. The post is called Why We Sleep: Responses to questions from readers.
In the opening paragraph, he says, like, “I published this book, and some readers have questions and some questions have also come up in online forums.” Where it says online forums, he links to Alexey’s posts, so clearly, he's aware of it. The normal thing to do in this situation would be like, “Alexey Guzey made a series of claims about me, I'd like to respond to those claims.” As you said, like a point-by-point rebuttal. But this post, it's organized by theme. It's not organized according to like, “He says that I said this, but I actually said is this,” or, “He says this, here's my evidence.” It's organized around a bunch of questions and the questions are like, not what the claims are. One of the questions is, is sleeping fewer than six hours a night fine for your health? Another one is does sleep serve a vital function?
Aubrey: No one was asking those things.
Mike: Exactly. And he doesn't cite any readers specifically.
Aubrey: Yeah, good Lord.
Mike: He addresses the WHO thing. He's like, “You're right, that WHO never declared a sleep epidemic. It was actually a CDC paper that declared a sleep epidemic. Here's the link, my bad, we'll fix it in the next version of the book that comes out.” But what Alexey notices when he looks at this response is that he doesn't actually link to the CDC, because the CDC did actually issue this in, I believe, the late 90s very briefly, and then when it got pushed back, they changed it to, “sleep is a public health problem.” It's kind of chickenshit to say, like, “Oh, sorry, the citation was wrong. It's actually a CDC thing.” And it's like, well, kind of, but the CDC doesn't actually stand by this.
Aubrey: Right. If you're going to do a point-by-point response and one of your responses has since been retracted, you do have to say it's been retracted.
Mike: Exactly. There's also, in this kind of flurry of criticism, people point out very small errors. He's talking about, there's one study that he mentioned in his book where he says, like, “This study had more than 4000 subjects,” but when you look at the study, it actually had 2200 subjects. There are errors clearly, but no one is mad about those things. If you read Alexey’s posts, yeah, there's small stuff in there. But we're talking about the thesis of your book is wrong.
Aubrey: Those little things do matter, but they matter as part of a fuller picture.
Mike: Yeah, as part of the pattern.
Aubrey: The core question here is, “Hey, why is almost everything in this book or why are big chunks of this book just categorically wrong or misrepresented?”
Mike: Yes. A very typical response is the thing about cancer, where in the intro, it's the second paragraph of his book. He says, “Routinely sleeping less than six hours a night demolishes your immune system more than doubling your risk of cancer.” He never says what he said. He never says what Alexey said in response to what he says. He just says, like, “Sleep and cancer,” does this kind of boilerplate thing about sleep and cancer. This is bananas. He says, “Importantly, epidemiological data cannot be used to inform causality. It is not correct to suggest based on epidemiological findings, that sleeping less than six or seven hours causes cancer. However, one similarly cannot state that sleeping less than six hours a night does not double your risk of cancer.” [laughs]
Aubrey: Sir, you seem to think that this is really strong proof to be like, “You can't prove it. But you also can't prove it's not true.”
Mike: It's like, “Are you seven?”
Aubrey: You say the moon isn't made of cheese? I say it is. Proved that it isn't. No.
Mike: You're the one out here saying that it causes a doubling of the risk and then now you're saying like, “We can't say that it causes anything, but we can't say it doesn't cause anything.” It's like, only one person here is saying that losing sleep causes cancer and it's you. Why are you lecturing me about this? I bought this fucking book twice. I looked up the second new version.
Mike: He says that, “We'll fix that in later editions of the book.”
Aubrey: Did he fix it? Did he actually change it?
Mike: Well, you tell me. The book now says, “Routinely sleeping less than six hours a night weakens your immune system substantially increasing your risk of certain forms of cancer.”
Aubrey: No, that's not different. It's still implying causation. It's still functionally saying the same thing. The clarification or the addition that he's added in of certain forms of cancer, isn't actually the thing that people were taking issue with.
Mike: Right, exactly. He does the same thing with this thing of like, “Are Americans getting enough sleep?” His little FAQ question, he says, “Are two-thirds of adults failing to obtain eight hours of nightly sleep.” It's like, dude, the issue is that you arbitrarily chose eight hours.
Aubrey: Yeah, boo. [chuckles]
Mike: So, he then goes through this entire rigmarole where he's like, “According to this survey, this many Americans are getting fewer than eight hours of sleep.” And you're like, but it's seven to nine.
Aubrey: It feels a little bit like two siblings are sitting in the backseat of a car and one of them is like, “Mom, make him stop it.” And he's like, “What? I'm not touching you. I'm not touching.”
Aubrey: This is all on a technicality and you're not addressing the core thing, which is someone's asking you to leave him alone. Why couldn't you just leave him alone?
Mike: That's like the perfect way to put it. It's like he wants to make all of these things into technicalities. I found a podcast that came up after this where they bring up, they're like, “Well, how do you respond to the criticism? We've received emails from listeners who knew that we were having you on, and they wanted us to address the criticism.” And he's like, “You know what? I'm really glad you brought it up. In my book, I said that there were more than 4000 subjects in a study, it turned out that there were 2200, and I'm very sorry.” It's this diversion tactic where it makes it seem like he's being accused of all this meaningless technical stuff.
Aubrey: Because his platform is so much larger than any of the people who are raising any of these questions, him saying, “Oh, I said there were 4000 subjects and there were really 2200,” is going to be the narrative that most people who follow him here. They're like, “Oh, honest mistake.” Versus, this much more foundation shaking critique that's happening.
Mike: Yes. This is the final chapter of the story. As a result of the blog post, the debate, the wave of criticism and his response, the only measurable response is that the journal unpublishes the article that he self-plagiarized.
Aubrey: That's it?
Mike: I don't want to defend self-plagiarism because you shouldn't do it and the journals have policies against it, whatever. But it's like, of all the stuff that he did.
Aubrey: Yeah, that feels like not in the top 10 of concern.
Mike: Right. The problem is it's the only one where he broke a rule, there's a mechanism in place for when this happens, journal retractions, some number of journal articles get retracted every month, it happens. But in every other area, there haven't been any consequences of this. People contact his university, the university is like, “No, we can't really do anything. We don't consider these things to rise to the level of we have to do anything, and obviously he's tenured.” The book publishers aren't really responsible for this stuff. And they say like, “Oh, we're updating the second edition.” All the TED Talks are still up, the podcast interviews are still up. The only actual change I could find. This is wild. Fucking Joe Rogan took his episode out of his feed.
Aubrey: Fucking Joe Rogan is doing the most rigorous fact checking here?
Mike: The defender of journalistic ethics, Joe Rogan [crosstalk] has the highest standards. Although, there was some talk on Reddit on the Joe Rogan subreddit, this might have actually been like a technical error. So, I'm not sure if this was an ethics thing.
Aubrey: I just love the idea of you spending any amount of time on the Joe Rogan subreddit.
Mike: Super user, you know me.
Mike: Rogan [crosstalk] Alexey has talked about this quite a bit. This is his new career. He's now working in a sciences NGO, that's trying to reform the way that science is done. He did a very angry tweet storm at some point that I found. Alexey says, “I keep thinking about the fact that Walker falsified data and plainly lied about the most basic facts about sleep, like the relationships between sleep and mortality and sleep and cancer and yet nobody gives a fuck. Neither other public intellectuals nor UC Berkeley nor media. If my accusations are without merit where are the debunkings of them? I'm literally just a rando who read the book because a friend recommended it and maybe I'm wrong. If my accusations are correct, why has nobody in the field spoken against Walker publicly?”
Aubrey: Yeah. Listen, if I were Alexey, I would also feel like, “What the fuck, man?”
Mike: What the fuck, man? People within the field, I'm sure the sleep researchers, it must be really frustrating. Like, yeah, sleep is not seen as important a thing as diet or exercise, and it is linked to all of these other health impacts. As a culture, we do sort of glorified not getting enough sleep. I can see why this would be frustrating. And you're like, “Man, we got this guy who's out there telling people about sleep and making people take it seriously.” I'm sure it's resulted in more funding coming into the field. But structurally speaking, it's a huge problem that, if you're a sleep researcher, it makes no sense to go out on a limb to criticize this bestselling author because he's bringing in more attention to the field.
The other worrying thing about this, I went on the UC Berkeley Sleep Center, whatever website and they have press releases on thereof, “Here's our recent research. Here's what our findings say.” I went through the press releases and the most recent one is from last year. And it's a study of 37 people where they found poor sleep might be linked to these proteins in your brain that are a component of Alzheimer's, it's complicated, we don't really know. And it's like, pretty boilerplate press release, whatever. The first quote is from Matthew Walker and he says, “We found that the sleep you're having right now is almost like a crystal ball telling you when and how fast Alzheimer's pathology will develop in your brain.”
Mike: I'm like, “Really, dude? You're on this bullshit still?”
Aubrey: Also, just any fucking researcher, who's like, “This thing is like a crystal ball.” Does not exactly instill confidence.
Mike: Also, of course, I get Alexey’s problem because I'm like, “Well, now I have to go down like a fucking day long rabbit hole looking at these fucking proteins and Alzheimer's.” You look, and it's like,
“Yes, they are predictors, they are linked.” But lots of people have these chemicals in their brain and don't get Alzheimer's. It's like WebMD, where you're like, “I have a headache.” And then you look it up, and it's like, “It could be a sign of brain cancer.” Yeah, it could.
Aubrey: Full fucking Dr. Google.
Mike: But it also could be a sign of like, you didn't drink enough water. In most cases, if you're in middle age, and you're not sleeping well, it's not a fucking sign that you're going to get Alzheimer's and it's like, so irresponsible to say that it's a crystal ball.
Aubrey: Also, I hear you on, it's so irritating to find shit like that. And you're like, “God damn it, I know this is false. But now I have to go dig around and prove why,” and blah, blah, blah. But also, secretly inside, you're like, “Yay. I get to go down a rabbit hole.” [Mike laughs] “Oh, this is so irritating. But also, I love it. Merry Christmas to me.”
Mike: Digging in. Look, sleep is really good for you, this isn't really disputed. I should also mention that in contrast to other people we've covered on the show, there's been no accusations of Matthew Walker doing any fiddling with his academic work. This really isn't a story of a scientist that goes off the rails in his scientific work. This is about a scientist, that is, I would say irresponsible with how he presents this issue to the public, not necessarily within the field of sleep science.
One of the defenses that you see of Matthew Walker from people within the field is that, it's a pop science book, so it's okay to exaggerate or maybe cut a few corners. To me that sounds like argument of like, “Well, he has a lower ethical standard because more people are reading his book.” I actually think that if you're an academic who's writing for people in airports and stuff, you actually have like a higher obligation to not oversimplify the science and not make them scared that they're going to get cancer because they can't sleep.
Aubrey: Yeah. It's not a great defense to be like, “Oh, yeah, don't worry about this book. It's just the one that the most people are going to read and believe.”
Mike: I know. [laughs]
Aubrey: That's not an ironclad defense.
Mike: It just sounds like Dr. Oz to me. It's like, “Oh, I had to oversimplify things for popular audience,” but it's like, “We're not even talking about oversimplification. We're talking about wrongness.”
Aubrey: Like just full misrepresentation of data and of making conclusions that aren't substantiated and whatever.
Mike: Yes. The quote I want to end with is, this is also from Alexey. He says, “The most common defensive Walker is some version of a noble lie argument. He brought people's attention to sleep, but if sleep is so important, why were so many lies needed for people to care about it.”
Aubrey: Yeah, there you go.
Mike: Boom. You can hear Alexey dropping the microphone from Moscow from-- crosstalk]
Aubrey: It's a really good line.
Aubrey: Well, listen, man, this has been a great episode. It's totally fascinating. I’ve got to run. I’ve got to go take a nap because I don't want to get cancer or Alzheimer's.
Aubrey: I'm going to go do that. This has been great, solid work.
Mike: I'm going to text you a picture of my balls. [crosstalk]
Aubrey: [laughs] Michael. Oh, Michael. [laughs]
Mike: And show you what it'll look like, if we keep going on like this.
Aubrey: [laughs] Oh, shit.