Journalists Shouldn’t Do Science

Time Magazine last month provided a textbook example of why one should take the journalistic hype about any scientific study with a grain of salt. For years we’ve seen stories extolling the benefits of sleeping eight to ten hours, including this one from Time itself that is dripping with doom-and-gloom about the epidemic of sleeplessness and America. The article warns that after prolonged sleep deprivation, humans are incapable even of pressing a button in response to a stimulus, as though this is a common problem. A quoted expert puts it bluntly: “‘The human brain is only capable of about 16 hours of wakefulness [a day]'”

Now Time published this story, worded to imply that sleeping 8 or more hours a night shortens lifespan. The story procedes as though this refutes all the previous studies of sleep, and chalks it up to the negative returns of increasing sleep behind a certain point. Both reflect the typical trigger-happy science reporting that permeates the media today. Everything is either an epidemic or a miracle cure. Of course, a scientist should take one look and sense that the difference might be due to selection effects. Rich executives with good healthcare probably do not sleep very much. Obesity which is tied to morbidity increases fatigue and can cause higher amounts of sleeping.

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