From Webster’s New World College Dictionary:
Shill- noun: [slang] 1) The confederate of a gambler, pitchman, auctioneer, etc. who pretends to buy so as to lure onlookers into participating. 2) A person who works energetically to sell or promote something. –vi. [slang] To act or work as a shill.
Until recently, I was only vaguely aware that empty accusations of shilling were used as arguments in sensible lines of reasoning. To be honest, I didn’t quite believe such an allegation could be realistically considered and then put forth by a sincere and thoughtful individual. Either I was grossly naïve about the ways of the internet, or most people who use the shill argument are extremely disingenuous. Maybe there’s truth in both.
I was brusquely yanked from my naivety when I decided to cross post a couple of my GP articles at Daily Kos. In no time, there were a few hundred comments on two of my GMO posts with accusations of shilling flung one way, support for GM tech the other way, and everything in between.
I won’t bore you with the details, but feel free to peruse here and here. That said, I’ll discuss a few representative comments (and these are only the negative comments. Fortunately for the love of humanity, there were plenty of positive ones as well.) These demonstrate a few basic fallacies.
The first fallacy is the all-too-common Argumentum Ad Monsantum. To paraphrase: Monsanto Company has produced harmful products in the past and their current business practices are exploitative (I disagree with this but won’t expand on it here.) Therefore anything Monsanto does is evil. Monsanto is heavily involved with the GMO domain and is a multi-billion dollar company. Therefore GM food must be inherently evil and Monsanto’s huge monetary standing applies similarly to all players in the GMO game. Based on this conclusion, it would logically follow that no objective party could possibly speak in support of GM technology or GMOs in general.
Case in point—my true conspirator identity was revealed by comments like the following:
“…do not bother us with this corporate PR crap.”
“I can’t understand why anyone would shill for Monsanto. Label GMOs now.” (This comment was followed by this video by Vandana Shiva. More on Vandana Shiva later in this post.)
My first thought was, do they really believe what they’re saying? I tend to avoid using the word “troll,” but how does one address such accusations without seeming defensive? To be honest I didn’t try very hard to respond to these particular claims. Either these people are delusional or have run out of logic and can’t rationally oppose what they’re reading.
The next fallacy, on the other hand, is far more telling and arguably depressing: Anything related to genomics, genetics, biotech, bioinformatics, or any associated field is necessarily related directly to GMO. Before I go on, let me explain. Readers and admin at DK decided to google my name and stealthily discovered (TIC) that I work in business development for a genomics and bioinformatics R&D company. Needless to say, this information is readily available and easily ascertained. I make no secret of my profession. As one commenter pointed out, my Twitter bio clearly states this.
Here are some comments that exemplify the “bio/genomics field equals GMO” error:
“You are a shill. You work in the industry, thus you benefit financially from GMO.”
“Last night it was shown that the individual works in the biotech industry.”
And the most telling of all was a series of private messages from Daily Kos management to a reader and scientist I admire and follow on Twitter (@mem_somerville.) She has been a longtime victim of this phenomenon, fittingly dubbed SAS or Shill Accusation Syndrome. Furthermore, she was inspired to write a pithy post entitled, “Houston, We Have a Science Problem” after getting caught in the mire of the comments on mine. After reporting these unfounded claims of shilling, (such claims are supposedly against DK policy and constitute grounds for banning) she forwarded the thread to me:
“…The shill claims in this case WERE NOT FALSE. The pieces she wrote were complete GMO PR written by someone who does GMO PR and business development for her day job…”
“Her job is business development for a company that provides GMO technology…It’s not your typical mom who would ask for non-labeled GMOs as some sort of top priority.”
So I say this is depressing because it’s symptomatic of science illiteracy. To be clear, I’m not condescending to my readers or saying that only scientists can be scientifically savvy. I myself am not a scientist.
That said, to say that anyone working in the “biotech industry” “benefit[s] financially from GMO” shows ignorance of the implications of genomics (and business.) The reality is, the current world of life science R&D is less like a world and more like a universe. The figurative distance from lab to data to action could be measured in light-years. Moreover, the “action” in the lab →data →action chain applies across a number of domains, not only agriculture and GMO. I won’t get into the gritty details of this process, but essentially the recent technological advances in DNA sequencing have enabled a fast and inexpensive glut of genetic information about a plethora of organisms, including plants, animals, humans, and microbes. DNA and how it codes for the functions of life (see here for a primer) generally holds true across all life forms. Often, private sector companies, government agencies, and academic/research institutions focus on only a very specific organism or set of organisms. Also, some only focus on particular activities in the chain. This means that many companies/institutions involved in biotech could be involved in any of the following: DNA sequencing, bioinformatics and data analysis, studying how genes are expressed, drug development, clinical genomics or precision medicine (the application of genetic knowledge to treatment for human patients), many other sub-fields, OR genetics-assisted agriculture (the application of genetics to selective breeding or genetic modification of organisms.) And within the last in that list, there are many sub areas like marker-assisted breeding that don’t involve direct transgenic or cisgenic genetic modification. Now, this isn’t at all a deplorable ignorance; we can’t expect people to be experts in all subjects. What’s deplorable is the utter unwillingness to hear reason.
For the management of a site, let alone commenters, to assume that my (small) genomics/bioinformatics R&D employer “provides GMO technology” is utterly foolish. To truly believe that I benefit financially from expressing my opinions is akin to asserting that a dermatologist encouraging sunscreen to protect kids from melanoma is a Banana Boat shill.
The other reason why the shill accusations are depressing? If any GMO proponent is automatically assumed to be a shill then if we extrapolate, no employee should have the autonomy of mind and freedom of speech to have any thought or belief at odds with her employer. This, my friends, is not the type of society I plan for my children to inherit.
Since I’m on the topic of shilling, let me make a few brief points to turn the tables for a moment:
- If the fallacies I’ve described hold true, then organic proponents should be called “Whole Foods shills” or “Big Organic Shills.” A far cry from the romantic notion of local and quaint businesses, Big Organic is a $63 billion dollar industry.
- Have you ever heard of the famous, self-proclaimed “Gluten-free, non-GMO…Organic” Himala Salt? That’s right folks, were talking about salt, a mineral that naturally does not contain genetic material. In a message to me on Facebook, the owner of this company had the following to say:
“With regards to GMO salt and accusing HimalaSalt of getting a good one over on innocent folks – please do your research…. any salt that is iodized, is a GMO tainted product. Iodine is delivered in a corn/dextrose base. Anti-caking and flow agents are also derived from corn, aluminum and others. These salts contribute to poor health and are also detrimental to the food chain, as they are in most all packaged foods… for me, it’s not about branding or duping people…My customers depend on me to provide them with the highest quality clean ingredients, because they know what’s in the other conventional salts and many sea salts. All I ask is that a smart girl like you should do your homework before jumping the gun and pulling low blows on companies that are working hard to keep GMO out of our food. If given the choice, would you eat salt with GMO additives? Or would you choose a salt that will support your health and the environment?”
Spare us the ethics and savior to your customers and the delicate earth trope. I won’t lengthen this post further by breaking down all of the errors in this message, as there’s a lovely group of people on Facebook that has already done so, here. What I will say is that while this company’s isn’t huge, their annual revenue is estimated at $2-5 million. So shouldn’t this make someone who spouts disingenuous drivel about the benefits of non-GMO salt a shill?
Finally, as promised, more on Vandana Shiva:
- Vandana Shiva is a famous anti-GMO activist and author, and proponent of the organic movement, all in the name of altruism. See her website here, and again spare me. She promotes practices that harm the poor and opposes life-saving technology like Golden Rice. She has written several books. In the meantime, she rakes in $40,000 per appearance plus comped business-class round-trip travel. Again, could we deem Vandana Shiva a shill?
If I go any further, I risk rambling, as I am wont to do. I’ll leave you with this: Unfounded accusation of shilling is based in ignorance, disingenuousness, or malevolent attempt to undermine one’s autonomy. This is an unacceptable and empty means of supporting opposition to anything. If one wants to seem informed and sincere, I implore you help eradicate Shill Accusation Syndrome. Maybe we’ll come up with a Big Pharma vaccine for that?
Note: Since I’ve been writing so much on the subject of GMOs, please find links to these articles below:
All I Want for Mother’s Day is Non-labeled GMOs
GMO, Séralini, and March Against Monsanto: It’s Magically Misleading!
Good, Kindhearted Parents are Pro-GMO
Featured image © 2014 Kavin Senapathy
Other images Wikipedia
Hey–this is Mary (mem_somerville)–I hear you! I found an old login I had for Skepchick, so I wanted to come by.
This is so frustrating–it’s essentially a conspiracy theory, this shilling accusation. They can’t imagine you just write because you have thoughts and passion, you must be paid off. While actually people benefiting from the topic–like Shiva, or at DK it was other writers/activists–are totally unchallenged.
I was told the admin comments would have been public if they hadn’t disliked my title, so I thought you should see them. But if you take this Kevin-Bacon-degrees thing seriously, you have to indict every part of the support stream, right? You work for someone that supplies computers! You work for someone that provides software! You work for an internet provider–they use internet, you know! They use electrical power–OMG!
It’s insane. But the worst thing is it clouds the discussion so that you can’t get to the issues. And they blame us for not educating….sigh…
Mary, I like your Kevin Bacon degrees comparison. Maybe we could actually calculate degrees of Banana Boat Shilling on any blogging topic. As for educate, you can only try. No matter how many times I explain that bio field does not automatically equal GMO, it’s brushed off either because the person doesn’t want to hear, or truly just doesn’t get it.
Kavin: Unfortunately, it is true that there are many people who are paid to comment/post on any number of things who do not disclose these facts on the internet. This is a real phenomenon, and it is in part what drives the rampant paranoia about “shills”.
That said, the number of paid shills on the internet is certain to be far fewer than the number of non-paid non-shills, it is just that they are an unknown, and humans fear that which they cannot place in a neat container, so if they don’t know the odds, they vastly inflate them. Also, the people shouting “SHILL” and crying about “big pharma” are surprisingly ignorant of the fact that “big organic” is really a thing now, and these people have their best interests in mind no more than “big pharma” does. The difference is that “big pharma” makes money by selling vaccines and cures, and “big organic” makes money (for the most part) by selling a superior feeling.
Absolutely. Big organic charges a premium for nutritionally equivalent, safety equivalent product. So consumers are basically buying a false sense of safety, and like you say a feeling of superiority.
Yes, there are paid shills, but I’m certain that it’s unfounded to cry “shill” at every turn. If shilling is a valid accusation, then it really should be hurled at anyone who writes positively about any consumer product or service.
I would love to get paid to promote safe technology and scientific exploration of how we can feed the planet and prevent disease. Sign me up. BigBiotech and BigPharma – I can be reached via Grounded Parents. Call me, maybe?
Call Steph! But a disclaimer to readers – she would be transparent about doing promo! Steph’s pro-vax and evidence-based medicine views are currently just from unadulterated passion 🙂
This is also not the sort of situation where people are likely to shill. If there was a specific election coming up, or a specific person or product under discussion, that is more likely to be a case where shilling (on both sides of course) might occur.
Someone forwarded the link to this blog this morning and I am so grateful. As a registered dietitian nutritionist with two degrees in nutrition, I can totally sympathize with you. I work as a paid consultant/advisor to several food industry clients. And, yes, I am paid to blog and do social media for some of them. Why? Because I have the science-based information from peer-reviewed studies that I can translate into consumer-friendly terms in an attempt to combat the myriad of nutrition science misinformation on the internet and social media and balance the conversation. I have found that when those who disagree with me (and sound science) cannot dispute the facts, they attack me personally. And because I disclose my affiliation with a client in every social media or blog post as well as in my bio information on each account, it leaves me wide open for attack. It’s an interesting phenomenon. For them to call me a name takes 2 seconds, while my searching for the appropriate study or article to substantiate my points or dispute theirs takes considerably more time. Thanks for your #stand4science. Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD
Thanks for fighting the good fight!!