Doggerel #4: “Shill!”

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.

The Doggerel Index

Naturally, with a new Doggerel series and how big the old one got, I’m going to need an index for easy reference. Feel free to drop suggestions in the comments.

  1. Supernatural
  2. You’re a Girl!
  3. You’re Just Jealous!
  4. Shill!
  5. Theory
  6. Impossible!
  7. You’re Just an Anonymous Blogger!
  8. Mystery
  9. Open-Minded
  10. I’m Not Arguing to Convince Anybody!
  11. You Skeptics Think We’re All Stupid!
  12. “You Skeptics Think We’re All Liars!”

Doggerel #3: “You’re Just Jealous!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Fry: This is so unfair! I liked you back when you were a cyclops! That guy’s only interested now that you have two eyes.
Leela: You’re just jealous!
Fry: No, I’m not! Oh, wait, I am. But my point remains valid!

It’s a classic mix of fallacies: appeal to emotion and appeal to motive. An arguer’s emotional state doesn’t make his point invalid. Neither do motives. They may give you a good reason to double-check the quality of evidence, but they do not change the way you should approach the argument.

The way this argument is commonly used is a bit worse than that. Quite often, someone will accuse a skeptic of being jealous of a psychic’s alleged powers, an alleged healer’s skills, or whatever. The problem is that, contrary to what many believers have been led to say, skeptics are skeptics. We simply don’t believe in extraordinary things without good evidence. Lots of people have been harmed by frauds, and it’s a common motive among skeptics to protect people from those frauds by spreading information and teaching people to think critically. We can’t exactly be jealous of someone’s ability if we don’t believe they have it.

Worse, some believers will accuse us of being jealous of their wealth or their fame. This cynicism is quite a toxic attitude. We know quite a lot of the tricks from various frauds we’ve seen, but refuse to sink to that level because of our ethics. It’s also a very shallow way to view humanity, as if no one has desires beyond money and fame.

In the information age, censorship is generally much more difficult. With the Streisand Effect, legal challenges can end up emboldening critics because they signal a lack of rational arguments. The favored alternative method for handling critics is propaganda and indoctrination. Intentionally or unintentionally, frauds and self-deceived believers create a culture that encourages the use of logical fallacies and other ways of evading critical scrutiny. Encouraging cynicism by depicting their critics as having petty, ulterior motives is an effective means to prevent followers from listening to their core criticisms.

Advice to my opponents: Focus on the facts, not the emotions. To a skeptic, employing this argument is a sign of weakness if you don’t include rational arguments alongside it. Assuming we’re jealous of great wealth or fame typically makes us wonder if you’re projecting your own psychology onto us and it shows great cynicism toward humanity in general if you jump to such conclusions so quickly.

Doggerel #2: “You’re a Girl!”

Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. Today’s Doggerel entry would be simple to write in a fair and just world, but there’s a lot of nasty sentiments that are typically involved. Though I resolved to write the series in a calm tone, I think this is an important entry worth making an exception.

The simple response is this: An arguer’s gender has nothing to do with the validity of his or her arguments or the quality of evidence presented.

The more in-depth response:

Continue reading

Doggerel #1: “Supernatural”

The old crew

Welcome to the new Doggerel series, where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with the series, and it’s time for new beginnings. I will be completely rewriting the series, using the lessons I’ve learned as a blogger and commentator for science, logic, and atheism. This time, I intend to keep a consistent, calm tone and restrain myself from ranting. Continue reading