Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ah, "Science"

I was watching Dr. Oz a couple weeks ago and was completely appalled. Now, before I continue, I want to say that I appreciate what he's trying to do with his show. I completely agree that the public needs more health-based education, and he's able to explain things to the laymen pretty well. My problem comes when he promotes something as "science", and it clearly isn't.

On this particular show, he was discussing sleep deprivation and how it influences our motor skills (specifically driving abilities). He goes on to say something along the lines of "You know me - I don't just like to say things; I like to put science behind it." Then he describes the experiments.

He has one woman stay up for 24 hours. After that amount of time, he gives her three tests. The first one is reaction time. She had to watch a computer screen, and when a green box pops up she had to hit a certain key. This is all fine and dandy, except they never did it before she was sleep deprived.

The second test was on her memory. A person read her a list of ten grocery items. She then had to write the list out after a certain time period. No, we were not given that time period. Also, my memory sucks at the best of times - hence why I make lists - and there was no control experiment here either.

The third test involved a driving simulator. It was actually done in a car, but the car was rigged up so that she had to wear a virtual reality head set, but she got to use the regular controls of the car. Now, I know that when I first play a video game I have a hard time getting used to the controls. So, they showed her weaving all over the road, clearly not because she wasn't aware (because she was constantly saying things like "I don't want to go there", or "The car is going the wrong way!"), but because she didn't know the feel of the controls. Plus, they had all sorts of things going on in the simulator that wouldn't generally happen in real life, like having cars coming directly at you in both lanes, or having people pop up in your path out of thin air. In the end, she ended up "killing" six people.

I understand what Dr. Oz is trying to show here - look how much sleep deprivation can influence your motor skills! But, to tote it as "science" just so people will listen? Not cool, Dr. Oz. Now perhaps they did do control experiments before hand, and really did use the scientific method, but they didn't show it on TV.

This kind of stuff gives science a bad name - like we just do random stuff once, and call it a day. The public needs to understand that science is a way to systematically study things, and the results should be repeatable. It wouldn't be difficult for Dr. Oz to show the control experiment, or do the experiment more than once - and it would be a heck of a lot more credible.