PCRM vs. Noah Wyle: Will the Real Physician Please Stand Up?

In a bit of humorous hypocrisy, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is upset about a new “Got Milk” ad featuring Noah Wyle — the actor who plays Dr. John Carter on TV’s “ER.” The ad shows Wyle with a milk mustache and the tag line, “Noah Wyle, M.D. (Milk Drinker)” and suggests readers should drink milk under “doctor’s orders.”

The ad prompted PCRM to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that the ad is misleading. “Like many of the ads in the milk-mustache ad campaign,” PCRM president Neal D. Barnard said in a press release, “the Wyle ad violates federal law by disseminating deceptive information. It implies that milk-drinking an stop osteoporosis among men, a claim not proven in medical studies. At the same time, it promotes regular, full-fat milk without warning that the product contributes to heart disease and cancer. The Wyle ad is particularly egregious as it misleads people into thinking a real doctor is prescribing milk.”

Okay, maybe Barnard and his PCRM folks don’t realize that just because Noah Wyle plays a doctor on “ER” doesn’t mean he really is a doctor, I think most Americans are able to make that distinction. On the other hand it’s a bit amusing for Barnard to complain that the ad passes Wyle off as a doctor, because despite PCRM’s name, it actually consists of very few physicians — in fact the last time I checked only about 10 percent of PCRM’s members were in fact physicians. In addition the leading physician’s group in the United States, the American Medical Association, has in the past censured PCRM for spreading unfounded health claims (the claims that milk contributes to cancer and heart disease, for example, are very misleading).

This seems a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.


Physicians lodge complaint over misleading ad starring “ER” actor Noah Wyle. Press release, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, October 24, 2000.

Afghanistan In Dire Need of Food Aid

What do you get if you combine an ongoing civil war along with the worst drought in 30 years? In the case of Afghanistan the result is a potential humanitarian disaster. The World Food Programme recently warned that unless it receives additional aid from donor countries, it will run out of aid sometime in February 2000 — the worst possible time thanks to Afghanistan’s harsh winters. Appeals for additional aid this summer brought in only half of what the World Food Programme expected.

According to to the WFP, up to one million Afghans could face starvation. “If we do not receive new pledges this month, we will have to cut down or stop our operations in Afghanistan at a time when Afghans will be in the midst of the pre-harvest hungry season,” the WFP’s Gerard van Dijk told the BBC.

According to the BBC, about 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population are subsistence farmers — the constant warfare since the 1980s has pretty much destroyed any economic alternatives for the bulk of the population.


Wartorn Afghanistan Facing Up To Worst Drought In 30 Years. Press release, The World Food Programme, October 2000.

UN agency pleads for Afghan aid. The BBC, October 27, 2000.

World Health Organization Reports Dramatic Declines in Child Mortality

In 1950, a full 25 percent of infants born around the world died before reaching their fifth birthday. After a concerted effort to brings this down, today only 7 percent of infants born around the world die before reaching their fifth birthday. Too many children to be sure, but an incredible decline in only a few decades.

In fact the decline in child mortality outpaced World Health Organization goals. In 1990 the World Summit for Children set a target goal of 70 deaths per 1,000 live births by the year 2000 — at that time there were 85 child deaths per 1,000 live births. The current rate is actually an estimated 67 deaths per 1,000 live births.

To put those in absolute numbers, last year 10.5 million children under the age of five died compared to 12.7 million in 1990, even though the world population in 1999 was significantly higher than in 1990. If things had remained as they stood in 1950, a staggering 25 to 30 million children would have died last year alone.

What caused the decline? A combination of factors but primarily improvements in nutrition, environmental factors such as effective sanitation and clean water supplies, and better use of basic medical intervention such as oral rehydration therapy to combat childhood diarrhea. In 1990 an estimated 3.5 million children died from diarrhea-related problems, but by the end of the decade that number had been cut in half as the use of oral rehydration zoomed from 40% to 69% of diarrhea cases in the developing world.

Not that there aren’t troubling trends on the horizon. There are still 57 countries that haven’t yet reach the 70 deaths per 1,000 live births target, and they tend to be the countries you’d expect — Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, Niger. Seven countries actually saw increases in child mortality — Botswana, Namibia, Niger, Zambia, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Papua New Guinea. For the most part child mortality showed little change or increased for the same reason most of those countries have a multitude of other problems; they tend to be countries where corruption, authoritarianism and/or war is high while respect for human rights is very low.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic also poses potential problems, with some WHO experts predicting that the disease might stop further improvement in childhood mortality in its tracks in Africa.

Still, overall, the WHO report is very good news for anyone who cares about the quality of life for the world’s children.


Drop in world child mortality reaches target, new study shows but many countries lagging. Press release, World Health Organization, October 12, 2000.

Bulletin of the World Health Organization: Special Theme – Child Mortality. The World Health Organization, Volume 78, Number 10, Bulletin 2000, 1172-1282.

PC Data Report on Napster Users’ Behavior

The Register (UK) has a story previewing an upcoming PC Data report that hammers home my point (and, unfortunately, the record industry’s point) about Napster — once people have integrated free music as part of their lives, they stop buying compact discs:

PC Data’s latest survey of the buying habits of some 120,000 US home-based Net surfers shows that Napster users soon cut the number of albums they buy, once they get proficient at downloading songs from the MP3 sharing service.

The company measures sales through online stores. It found that “new Napster users are just as likely to purchase music at cdnow.com after initially downloading Napster software. However, 90 days after downloading Napster software, consumers’ online music purchases plummet”.

The PC Data report also found that after getting familiar with the application, Napster users were far more likely to visit web retailers like CDNow, but they were less likely to actually make purchases — they tended to visit the sites to find out what new music to search for on Napster!

The Dark Side of Wicca’s Mainstream Appeal

The other day I pointed out how surprised I was that Wicca is now relatively mainstream (whether or not its popularity is a recent fad or a long-term trend remains to be seen). There is of course a downside to that — the more exposure Wicca gets the more I see articles that are part of a backlash against the religious movement.

For example, a lawsuit by a young Oklahoma woman whom school officials believed was a Wiccan has been covered widely because of the preposterous nature of the charges — allegedly she was suspended because her principal became convinced she cast a spell that caused a teacher’s illness. Unfortunately state laws prevent the school from commenting on the particulars of the case so we’re only getting the young girl’s side of the case, but there have been similar cases, including more serious ones involving child custody cases.

One of the things the young woman alleges is that officials saw a five-pointed star within a circle that she drew on her hand and told her she couldn’t display such occult symbols. It shouldn’t be forgotten that with the big Satanism scare propelled by some Christian fundamentalists and publicity seekers like Geraldo Rivera, some people urged even things like the Star of David be banned as an occult symbol (fringe fundamentalist Bob Larson recommended this in his book Satanism).

Maybe there is more to the story than the young woman is letting on, but the alleged behavior is hardly inconsistent with some of the more hysterical reactions to Wicca.

A common place I see anti-Wiccan articles are in conservative publications who are horrified at the rise of Wicca on campuses and see it as part of a general anti-Christian and/or anti-Western civilization trend. I think these arguments are largely misguided. One of the things a lot of conservatives forget is that, at least on college campuses, the Christian ministers are as likely to be far left wing activists as are anybody else. The most radical pro-socialist anti-Western civilization person I’ve personally met was a campus minister. On the other the basic underlying philosophy of Wicca is very much a pro-freedom ideology, even if the particular views of particular Wiccans definitely aren’t (like many religious people I’ve met, many of the Wiccans I’ve met tend to have a lot of moral distance between their professed moral outlook and their actual particular views which, in general, are very statist).

Another problem with Wicca is that some Wiccans complain about Christianity’s ahistoricism (such as the problem with Halloween I pointed out yesterday), but then perpetuate their own myths as encapsulated in this excerpt from a Reuters story on the Oklahoma case,

The lawsuit alleged Blackbear’s civil rights also were violated when school officials prohibited her from wearing or drawing in school any symbols related to Wicca, a religion that dates back to pre-Christian nature worship.

There is simply no basis in fact for claiming that Wicca is in any way a continuation of pre-Christian pagan religions. Aside from the fact that such claims absurdly oversimplify the incredibly broad range of practices that fall under the title of pre-Christian pagan religions, Wicca is, in fact, very much a creature and product of the 20th century. To say it is a continuation of ancient traditions is deceptive in the same way that the claims of 19th century pseudo-religious movements that they were a continuation of ancient Egyptian religious practices was deceptive (and in much the same way — the claims by those groups created a vast array of misconceptions about ancient Egypt that still persist in the same way that Wicca’s claim to be an extension of pre-Christian pagan religions is creating a series of myths about those ancient religions). In fact one of the things that always strikes me about Wicca is just how dependent it is upon cultural strains that are in many respects Christian in origin (especially it’s individualism).

The lasting impression of Wicca and its practitioners that I have is just how ordinary the religion is. Most news coverage, whether positive or negative, really plays up the exotic aspect that comes with calling oneself a witch. But after you scratch below the surface, Wicca’s pretty much like any of the other countless new religious movement that’s sprung up in human societies for millennia.