Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
It’s a common accusation, and a convenient one. Accusing a skeptic of being a shill for some industry, pharmaceutical companies, or any allegedly evil organization is a popular appeal to motive and ad hominem fallacy. Even if the skeptic does indeed have ties to an organization, that doesn’t mean the evidence or arguments he presents should be ignored. If anything, it means they should be examined a little bit of extra scrutiny, not simply ignored.
A big problem with this doggerel, however, is that it’s commonly used against anyone who disagrees with the accuser, not just those with demonstrable organizational ties. Simply assuming that everyone who comes to a position out of profit motive demonstrates great cynicism as well as an unwillingness to consider alternative views or motives. Skeptics generally take up the viewpoints that appear to have the best evidence in their favor. If we’re mistaken, present evidence and ask critical questions. Jumping to the conclusion of selfishness and malice instead of considering the possibility that we might be mistaken or even that we might be right does nothing productive.
Even in the event that someone does have ties to such an organization, it’s still cynical to assume there’s a profit motive, especially since causation doesn’t have to flow one way. People might join an organization because they honestly believe in what the organization is doing. Researchers might join a pharmaceutical company and endorse their products because they honestly consider them good for society. Those same researchers might reject a quack’s claimed alternative because they have reasons to suspect fraud. There are honest people out there, just like there are selfish ones. Reckless use of this fallacy is tantamount to denying human diversity.
Advice to my opponents: Don’t use this argument without exceptionally clear evidence of a connection. Even then, you should maintain focus on the quality of evidence, especially independent lines of evidence. Simply asserting bias without looking at the evidence and its countermeasures against those biases is seen as manipulative and reflexive. Using it on someone simply because they disagree with you on a topic makes you look like an egotistical black-and-white thinker who can’t deal with the idea that other people can think independently and come to a different conclusion as a result of their exploration of the issue. Think carefully before you use this line of argument.