Sleep Smarter by Schawn Stevenson
(Spoiler: not recommended!)
This book has very good Amazon rating and this, after reading it, is what scares me. I trusted the ratings and bought the book to see if I could use it as a reference for clients with sleep problems. My verdict is, I don’t think so.
There is definitely a lot of enthusiasm in this book (quite annoying at times), but content-wise, it is disappointingly superficial. Some advice made me roll my eyes. (Do I need a book to tell me not to buy sunglasses without UV protection? Or to wear socks if my feet are cold?). Other advice seemed very unspecific or hard to implement. (Going to bed within a few hours after sunset. What if I live in Norway and there is no sunset in summer?).
But that, to me, was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is how this book quotes scientific evidence. Surely this is not the only popular science or self-help book that does such things, but it is a very good illustration of how “evidence-based” literature is not only misusing research findings, but how this can also be dangerous.
When you read “a study shows that…” in popular literature (also in unpopular literature), here are the questions you should be wondering about:
Has there only been one study on the subject or multiple studies?
If there have been multiple studies, are findings consistent or not?
If there have been multiple studies, why is the author only telling me about this one? Is he cherry picking to try to prove his point?
When there have only been a handful of studies on a health related subject, it might make scientist think about a particular research direction or suggest that certain things might work a certain way, but we are still in the realm of ideas here. Based on just a couple of studies, we are nowhere near ready to make public health recommendations. Before we do, the findings need to be checked and replicated multiple times in multiple contexts. Enthusiasm can be a good thing, but not when you jump to conclusions based on one piece of research, however well-done.
While there are multiple instances of cherry picking studies and recommendations that have dubious scientific basis in this book, I am going to give just one example that made me jump out of my chair and pull my hair really hard (good thing I have a lot). The author gives tips on what to wear to bed:
“A 1999 Harvard study found that women who do not wear bras had half the risk of breast cancer compared to avid bra users” (p.179)
Number one, a side note, what’s an avid bra user anyway? Do you know many women who would claim that they simply can't wait to put on a bra?
Number two, no proper reference to the scientific journal article, making me wonder whether that “Harvard study” was ever published in any reputable source.
Number three, dude, it’s 1991!! That’s almost 30 years ago. Had that been a valid finding, it
would have been replicated many times by now.
And finally, it so happens that I once discussed the issue of bras and breast cancer with an actual medical doctor, the one who treats people. She said: “If the solution to breast cancer was as simple as taking your bra off, our life would be so easy! Don’t you think we’d be recommending this to every single woman?”
This kind of self-help literature is what turns the life of a scientist into a nightmare. When it comes to health, proving cause-and-effect relationships, let alone finding cures for disease, is very (very, very, very) difficult! Best minds on the planet are working hard on it, but most of the available studies, as I’ve said, only “point in the direction of” and conclude that “more research is needed”. Please keep that in mind when you read advice that claims to be science based.
Oh, and one last thing. The tips provided in this book might improve your sleep if you already are an okay sleeper. But for chronic insomniacs, it will likely do little. Psychological factors, which play a major role in insomnia, are touched upon only briefly and superficially. So no, there will be no five stars from me on Amazon.