The "pharma shill" gambit

I get the impression from the rapidly decreasing number of comments being posted here that the Hitler zombie might--just might--have overstayed his welcome. (Either that, or everyone agrees with me so much that they don't see the need to comment; a conclusion I find highly unlikely.) It's probably not surprising that people might tire quickly of the Hitler zombie, given that (1) he's a walking rotting corpse and thus doesn't smell too good and leaves a mess wherever he goes; (2) he has a propensity to eat brains, which is not generally welcome in polite company such as this blog, and he has really lousy table manners to boot; (3) he incites incredibly idiotic, overblown rhetoric, which annoys the hell out of critical thinkers like me and (I hope) my readers; and (4) he's Hitler, fer cryin' out loud. Even so, after rebutting a defender of Harry Belafonte, I was still half-tempted to write one more sequel, entitled something like "The Hitler zombie and those who love him," à la Jerry Springer meets Shaun of the Dead. Fortunately for all, a rare good sense of restraint stayed my hand.

It's time to move back to other entertaining (I hope) pastures.

I've mentioned before that I cut my skeptical teeth, so to speak, on Usenet, that vast untamed and largely unmoderated territory full of tens of thousands of discussion newsgroups which used to be a lot more active before the rise of the World Wide Web and then later blogs. It started out with combatting Holocaust denial and then branched out into more general skepticism, particularly about the claims of creationists and alties (please read my disclaimer about "alties in the link). After I began to participate in the debates in the main newsgroup where alternative medicine is discussed,, it didn't take me long to encounter a favorite tactic of alties who were not happy with one who insists on evidence-based medicine and who therefore questions claims that are obviously not based in valid science: the "pharma shill" gambit. This is a technique of ad hominem attack in which an altie, offended by your questioning of his/her favorite herb, colon or liver flush technique, zapper, or cancer "cure," tries to "poison the well" by implying or outright stating you must be in the pay of a pharmaceutical company, hired for nefarious purposes.

Since I entered the blogosphere, I've only occasionally checked back at my old stomping ground, mainly because blogging is so much less constraining than posting to Usenet, where mostly I used to respond to the posts of others, rather than writing about what I wanted to write about. A couple of weeks ago, though, out of curiosity I checked back and found this interesting little tidbit from a poster calling himself PeterB that demonstrated such a perfect example of the "pharma shill" gambit that I had to comment about it:
To : All participants and readers of + other health-related newsgroups

Please be aware that many comments and responses posted to this forum are not those of casual posters interested in an honest exchange. A number of individuals with ties to industry are engaging an effort to shape public sentiment about the risks of mainstream medicine while denigrating the benefits and validity of natural medicine. I refer to these individuals broadly as "Pharma Bloggers"(*). Pharma Bloggers on usenet don't promote a specific company or product, as might be the case with standard "blogging" on a weblog. Most of these people are likely to have an association with a PR campaign whose "blogging" efforts are underwritten by the media and marketing groups of industry. They are not difficult to identify due to specific patterns of behaviour in posting.

Here are a few points to remember while participating in usenet newsgroups:

1. Pharma Bloggers on usenet use intimidation, mockery, and insults to silence those who express belief or interest in natural medicine.

2. Pharma Bloggers on usenet attack those who question the effectiveness of mainstream medicine and defend disease-management "healthcare" as the only viable form of medicine.

3. Pharma Bloggers on usenet post the majority of their responses simply to bury the comments of others; they also strive obsessively to have the last word.

4. Pharma Bloggers on usenet are much faster at posting than casual participants; they almost always respond first to a new thread, question, or observation.

5. Pharma Bloggers on usenet use multiple "bloggers" in a swap-&-relay fashion to create an aura of the "consensus view" in an effort to isolate posters who question the value of mainstream medicine. You will see this tactic used more often than any other.

Tip: If you find yourself reading a response that is unusually dramatic in tone, or inexplicably vicious toward other posters, and if that response is a defense of mainstream medicine, you can be sure you have stumbled upon a "Pharma Blogger." Unfortunately, there are more of these individuals posting to usenet on a daily basis than virtually anyone else, which is why I am posting this alert. If you find it odd that so few people on health-related usenet newsgroups are expressing an interest in natural medicine, it isn't because they aren't there, it's because they have been intimidated into silence. The Pharma Bloggers have over-run the various newsgroups with their industrial brand of dogma, mockery, and ridicule. Many casual posters are simply frightened away. That's one of the goals of Pharma Blogging.

(*) Pharma Blogger: An individual who uses the Internet to: 1) promote and defend maintstream medicine while denigrating natural medicine approaches; 2) attack others who express a preference for natural medicine, or who question the value of mainstream medicine; and 3) cite a variety of "junk medical science" funded by industry for the purpose of establishing markets for marginally effective, and often dangerous, medical products and devices.

Ooh, boy. See what I had to deal with? First, let me just mention that I realize that astroturf campaigns do exist, but, quite frankly, die-hard Usenet alties like PeterB tend to be interested in such Internet PR efforts only as a means of smearing those who criticize them for their claims or who have the temerity to ask them to provide scientific studies to back up their assertions. To them, everyone who questions them is probably part of an astroturf campaign. It goes with the conspiracy-mongering proclivities so common among cranks.

This sort of obvious pre-emptive ad hominem attack would be utterly laughable if it were not so common. I sometimes get the impression that PeterB and his compatriots must think that there are hordes of "pharma shills" sitting behind banks of computers (remember the claim "more of these individuals posting to Usenet than anyone else"), waiting to pounce the instant anyone like PeterB starts posting critiques of big pharma or praising herbal "cures." (Yes, that they seem to think they are worth that sort of effort implies PeterB and others like them do seem to have an inflated view of their own importance.) My usual first response to such gambits tends to be facetious and runs along the lines of asking, "Where do I sign up to become a pharma shill? How do I get me a piece of that action? After all, why should I waste my time seeing patients and working like a dog to do science, publish papers, and write grants and then only having a couple of hours in the evenings to blog, when I could make big bucks ruthlessly mocking online dissent against big pharma full time while sitting back in my pajamas and sipping a big mug of coffee? Count me in!" (Expect to see my words posted somewhere out of context to make it seem as though I was being serious about this.)

However, facetiousness usually just infuriates people like PeterB to new heights of "pharma shill" accusations. At that point, it's time to try to be rational, hard as it may be in the face of such provocation, but I try. First, a lot of this smear tends to be a case of projection, of the pot calling the kettle black. For example, #1, #2, and #3 are more typical of Usenet alties than of anyone who questions altie claims. Indeed, the denizens of who are most pro-alternative medicine tend to react quite defensively to questioning of their assertions. They are often like a group of Cyber Sisters, except that they are comprised of both men and women, ruthlessly descending upon anyone who questions the dogma of their favorite alternative medicine, criticizes their behavior, or suggests that maybe, just maybe, conventional medicine might have value. (No, those on "our size" are not entirely innocent, but in my experience the alties tend to be quicker with the ad hominem.) One reason for this, I suspect, is that many of them are also active on moderated groups such as, where anyone questioning the alt-med treatment du jour too long or too vigorously will be banned from the discussion groups, thus providing a nice, safe, cuddly environment, where never is heard a discouraging word. #4 and #5 are clearly designed to imply that the so-called "Pharma Bloggers" either don't have a regular job (why else would they have so much time?) or that they are working for big pharma. Of course, they never provide any evidence to support their accusations. In fact, they almost never provide even any reasoning to support their accusations more substantive than variations on "he's criticizing alternative medicine a lot so he must be a pharma shill."

The "pharma shill" gambit, like other varieties of ad hominem or well-poisoning rhetoric, conveniently frees alties from having to argue for their favorite remedies on the science and clinical studies supporting them (which in most cases tend to be badly designed or nonexistent). It's a technique that's not just limited to alties, either. Anti-vaccination cranks and mercury/autism conspiracy theorists like it too. As Skeptico pointed out, even if a newsgroup denizen were a pharma shill, that wouldn't necessarily invalidate his argument. Yes, in the case of a true "shill" who does not reveal that he works for a pharmaceutical company and pretends to be "objective," it is quite appropriate to "out" that person. (Note that I have yet ever to observe such a person in action, which tells me that they are probably a lot less common than alties like to claim.) Even in the case of a real shill, however, this sort of "outing" is not a refutation of that person's arguments; it merely serves to increase appropriately the level of skepticism about what that person is saying. Such an "outing" still leaves the task of actually using evidence, logic, and sound arguments to refute what that person is saying, something alties rarely even attempt to do. It's far easier to fling the accusation of "pharma shill" about and see if they can get it to stick, as PeterB and his ilk do.


  1. 4. Pharma Bloggers on usenet are much faster at posting than casual participants; they almost always respond first to a new thread, question, or observation.

    Hmm… no quick first posts…
    No Pharma Bloggers around here then…
    Curses, my fiendish cover has been revealed…

  2. I must admit they've go all bases covered there! A brilliant piece of lucid, well-constructed paranoia. Remember, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!

    Anyway, Bring Back The Hitler Zombie!! I was enjoying that narrative...

    To appropriate the advertising tagline of the Royal Mail, I saw this and thought of you...

  3. The other odd thing that the alties use is kind of a weird appeal to authority, where they mention their years of layman research on a topic as somehow being more relevant than an advanced degree a physician or public health official might have. Denigration of one's educational or professional experience is a common gambit of theirs as well - in fact, the more you have, the more "biased" you are and likely to be a shill.

    The astonishing thing about all of this is that if you ever DARE to question whether they (or the sources they quote) have their own motives to shill, they get extraordinarily defensive and turn around and accuse you of ad hominem attacks. Nevermind that for someone like, say, Mark Geier or Rashod Buttar, the personal financial incentive is lie is far greater than some random drug company employee.

  4. Aw, Orac, say it ain't so! Get rid of Zombie Hitler? No, please, I promise I'll walk him and clean up after him and feed him FRESH BRAINS!

    More seriously, I appreciate the work you put into explaining in detail why a particular publication or public statement is misleading, poorly reasoned, or erroneous. To my mind, your blog performs a service to the community. So please, please, let us keep Zombie Hitler, please?

  5. I, too, appreciate the work you do. It's wonderful to read a blog which consistently contains such careful, well thought out arguments against both Intelligent Design AND Alternative Medicine. All too often people who defend science against political attack in the area of evolution will make analogies in their favor with modern medicine, claiming that you don't see people wanting to substitute "scientific" forms of voodoo for real science when it comes to their health. It's inconsistent, they say, to try to use the political process to manipulate science in one area but not the other.

    But they do try it -- as you very well know. Anti-science arguments and tactics are not confined to the theory of evolution, but spill out into other biological territories -- including medicine. It's not a "safe" noncontroversial example of a place where the general public has no problem accepting scientific authority.

    Thanks for fighting both battles so damn well.

  6. Another example of the Pharma Shill phenomenon:
    "Just to let you know: Lucid and Dangermama were the same man. He is a paid Internet poster for the pharmacetical companies. Once his identity was uncovered, he left. He now posts elsewhere under different names"

    Um, no.



  7. I especially love #5. Um, maybe when everybody jumps in to say you're incorrect about radish-juice enemas curing cancer, it's because you're wrong.

    Nah, couldn't be!

    And Orac, I'm very fond of the Hitler Zombie! Please keep him around. (even though I still disagree with you about Dick Durbin.)

  8. It's not that the Hitler Zombie is bad, it's just that there's really nothing left to say after it's done eating....

    And you're right: this is a beautifully constructed set of defensive fallacies.

  9. What was funny on the board was that I, Lucid, was accused of being Dangermomma. I asked the powers that be on to state as a fact that Lucid and Dangermomma were posting from two different locations. (Actually some weirdo went on there with a ID like "PrivateEye"- it seemed at the time like it was Erik Nanstiel - and said for a fact that he had access to the ISP numbers from and that Lucid and Dangermomma and that they were posting from the same ISP)
    Talk about desperate!

    At any rate the babysitter didn't jump in and comment as I asked, though he or she would have said that Dangermomma and I were not the same person. Personally, I left the board because it was soooo stupid and the arguments were so ridiculous. Dangermomma was much more literate in the science that I am.

    People are still using the pharmco shill accusation on the Huffingtonpost comments. If a person lays out 3 good arguments to disprove the thimerosol hypothesis, using references, some other person will respond with no discussion of the points at all, but with just a snyde comment that the poster being a "shill."

    It's too bad we don't have a rule like Godwin's
    the first person who accuses the other of being "astroturf" without a shred of proof loses the argument. I say, if there isn't such a law, we make it one and call it "Lucid's Law" because I think I'm special. It could be the Orac Rule or the Skeptico Principal.

  10. I'm not sure if I should be proud that I've been called a pharma shill for defending the New Zealand MeNZB vaccination strategy:

    I've also been accused of being paid by Monsanto for my defence of certain applications of Genetic Engineering. I must be getting paid by every major biotech and pharmacy company on the planet by now.

  11. Amusing! One can almost see the wheels and gears turning when they thought up the cardinal signs of being a "Pharma Shill". Might I suggest a more concise list of signs?

    They might be a Pharma Shill if:

    [1] They disagree with "alternative" medicine.

    [2] They don't agree with "alternative" medicine.

    [3] They put any part of the words "alternative medicine" in quotation marks (or inverted commas).

    [4] They cite studies that are well-designed, placebo-controlled and in peer-reviewed journals.

    That pretty much sums it up, don't you think?

    Jim Laidler

    P.S. I like the Hitler Zombie, but he could probably use a break to compose himself a bit.

  12. Damn. You summed it up way more concisely than I did.

  13. I get the impression from the rapidly decreasing number of comments being posted here that the Hitler zombie might--just might--have overstayed his welcome

    You are doing a great job with your posts but I am getting sick of the Hitler/Nazi comments themselves. It becomes tiresome reading one pitiful analogy after another (glad folks like you debunk them for us on line)

    The complete lack of any historical accuracy is amazing - do the people making the Hitler/Nazi comments know what is coming out of their mouths? And then the retractions. It's never a "I am sorry for comparing (insert name) to Hilter/Nazis" - never.

    Here is part of Belafonte's response:
    "I do regret the sentence was not structured more accurately,"

    What a moron!

  14. What gets me that after declaring anyone who does agree with as "pharma shills" --- they will go and promote some "doctor", "clinic" or "treatment". In a sense advertizing for some quack and their supplements.

    They seem to get confused and defensive when it is pointed out that the websites for Mercola, Hulda Clark, Blaylock, Buttar, etc are all essentially online shopping catalogs.

    OR... in the case of peterb... he thinks he would make a good salesman for supplements:

  15. I have been "addressing" the fellow who refers to those with whom he disagrees as a "pharmablogger" in one of the newsgroups. Ever since he first posted his screed, I had the feeling that I had read this script before. Yesterday it hit me where I had heard this and posted this message to him.

    Once you started the pharmablogger bullshit it became so. We recognized it for what it is, a preemptive ad hominem where you set up a system where any
    skepticism is automatically dismissable by you. It is a creature of your doing. Reminds me of an old sci-fi movie: Forbidden Planet. See if you can find it and see if you can understand the creature who is attacking the humans. Those creatures are your pharmabloggers.

    > I think the analogy is perfect.

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