I think it’s time to say we officially have a new logical fallacy – the argument from shill. If you’ve spent anytime following a discussion about science on social media you’ll be familiar with the accusation. Companies across the spectrum are apparently employing hordes of unscrupulous people to promote, defend and disagree on their behalf. Sure, they’ll claim not to be a shill, but we know they are lying. How do we know they’re lying? Because they’re shills!
The shill accusation is quite dynamic in its logical failing. As the above statement demonstrates, it can be stated as a tautology. When presented without evidence, it’s a red herring. When used preemptively, it poisons the well. But at the heart of the argument is the most classic of fallacies, the ad hominem, which is the grown up version of “I don’t have to listen to you because I don’t like you.”
The argument from shill is, like many logical fallacies, informal. This means that the basic logical structure of the statement can be sound. To suggest that we should be suspicious of what someone is saying because they are being disingenuous is reasonable. Informal fallacies are made invalid by the context, and every reasonable person should agree that a valid context for an accusation involves evidence.
This means that if a shill accusation is accompanied by evidence, then maybe it’s true or maybe it isn’t, but it’s not a logical fallacy. The fallacy is committed when the sole piece of evidence is the fact that the accused has disagreed with the accuser. When the argument boils down to “you’ve challenged what I’ve said, therefore no one should listen to you,” then the only argument you’re making is that you shouldn’t be challenged.
When someone makes the shill accusation they immediately turn the conversation to be about the evidence. If they are unwilling to discuss or unable to present any, you can safely call them on this fallacy. At that point it is up to you to decide if you want to continue conversing with them or not.
I recommend dismissing them as readily as they’ve dismissed you, here’s why. If I have decided that you are being paid to say something simply because I do not like what you are saying, then I’ve not only demonstrated faulty logic, I’ve also signified my standards for evidence. I’ve shown that I am willing to believe something based on nothing but my personal bias, and then repeat it in a public forum as if it were true. I’ve also shown that I am not really interested in having an actual conversation so much as simply broadcasting my claims and then smearing anyone who would question them. At the very least, I’ve shown you that I am not willing to think about the issue if it involves thinking I could be wrong. I’ve merely put my thumb to my nose, wiggled my fingers and declared “neener neener.”
The argument from shill shows everyone which field the accuser wants to play on, and that field is the schoolyard playground where facts and logic do not hold as much sway as calling someone a doody head. This is the arena you prefer when you have a desperate need to feel right while only possessing enough skill to convince a 5 y/o. So if that’s the sort of conversation you want to have, then go for it. But if you’d like to have an actual exchange of ideas where criticism is welcomed, evidence is examined, and better ideas come out the other end, you should probably move on.