Not too long ago, we asked our readers whether they rely more on experience or on evidence. It’s really a false division: even when doctors insist on evidence, they are relying on someone to record and analyze the experience of volunteers in a study.
Sometimes it is hard to know when our experience should be trusted and when it should be tested further. This is especially obvious in the case of home remedies. Putting a bar of soap under the bottom sheet to stop leg cramps sounds so crazy that it needs to be tried out before anyone will believe it might help. Perhaps the same holds for munching coconut macaroon cookies to ease chronic diarrhea.
It might be useful to bring a similarly open-minded but skeptical approach to certain prescription drugs. Not all medications help each and every person, after all. Sometimes doctors and patients will need to try out quite a few antidepressants or blood pressure pills before finding one that works.
The difficulty in sorting out experience from experiment was illustrated recently in readers’ reactions to a column about a non-chemical approach to discourage insects: “I was at a child’s birthday party and wasps and bees were flying all over while the food was out. Someone said to get self-sealing plastic bags (sandwich size is fine), fill them with water and put them on the table. The wasps disappeared. If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes I never would have believed it.”
This report inspired a back-yard experiment: “I’ve had a problem with yellow jackets & wasps around my hummingbird feeder all summer. So this morning, I filled two large plastic bags with water and laid them on the porch railing, directly under the feeder. I then watched the scene for the next four hours.
“The bags did NOT deter the insects AT ALL. The bags were in shade when I started the experiment, and now they’re in full glaring sun. So light doesn’t seem to have an effect.”
The photos this reader sent were quite convincing. But we soon heard from critics of the experiment: “I’ve never heard of just laying the bags on the railing like that. And I haven’t heard of this deterring wasps.
“But I can tell you that hanging them is a good fly deterrent. I learned this from Mexican restaurants that have an outdoor covered patio. The water-filled bags are hung around the edge of the patio (from the eaves). They’re hardly noticeable; I never noticed them ’til someone told me, then I noticed them everywhere.
“They use a quart-size zip bag, filled about 3/4 full of water and hung every 8 feet or so around the perimeter. They say the flies see themselves magnified or something, and stay away. For whatever reason, they do stay away.”
Another reader reported on his own experiment: “I tried the water-filled plastic storage bag trick but added three pennies. It was hung from my porch roof to ward off bumblebees that had made a nest under the deck. It worked and there are no bees. It has something to do with sunlight and a prism effect on an insect’s compound eyes.”
We wish an entomologist could share the scientific evidence on plastic bags. Instead, you will have to use your own judgment on the value of this practice. Your judgment is even more essential when it comes to your own health.