Stephen Baker

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A sty in the eye and statistical thinking

December 26, 2012General

I have a sty in my left eye. It's tiny and unobtrusive. But now that I've seen it, it screams at me everytime I look at it in the mirror.

Last time I had a sty, I was in my 20s and living in Madrid. My friend's mother, Isabel, told me to place a steaming bag of chamomile tea, manzanilla, over my eye as a hot compress. She had learned this from her mother, and her grandmother. It was folk wisdom. I applied the manzanilla and the sty quickly disappeared. 

Now I call up a Mayo Institution Web site for a modern answer. I learn that the sty is bacterial, and that I may have touched my eye with an unwashed hand (surely the first time since the 1980s). They tell me to apply hot compresses for 10 minutes three times a day. In other words, Mayo replicates the folk remedy, but without adding the manzanilla. 

Does the tea add value to the hot compress? I haven't a clue, and  I would doubt that generations of Spaniards carried out rigorous double-blind testing. If something worked, it worked.

When I started writing this post, I was going to compare our access to folk and scientific wisdom: If I ask someone for an answer, I'm more likely to get the first, if I search on the Internet, the second. But then I realized that the Internet provides both. The algorithms give us access to science, and the social networks link us to folks. 

Then, out of curiosity, I looked for the Spanish words (orzuelo, perrilla) and manzanilla. This brought up lots of results. On one Spanish-language Yahoo answers page, several people recommend chamomile, some hot, some cold. Others suggest rubbing a golden ring in woolen cloth, and then applying it to the sty. (I think I'll forgo that one.) Several people weigh in with a more scientific approach, a la Mayo Clinic.

One woman recommends rubbing a finger in the palm of the other hand until it heats up, and then touching it to the sty. She adds, helpfully, that in her country it is believed that withholding help from a pregnant woman results in sties. Could it be that I sat in the New York subway, lost in a book or my music, and neglected to offer my seat to an expectant mother? If so, I may be paying the price.
 

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