The “pharma shill” gambit

Editor’s note: Since I happen to be on vacation (sort of–in reality I plan on spending most of next week holed up in my Sanctum Sanctorum at home writing a grant that’s due in February) and because readership tends to be down during the week between Christmas and New Years’ Day, I thought I’d resurrect something from well over three years ago and revise it to fit this particular blog. In doing so, I hope to provide you with something amusing to read, as well as something to link to time and time again whenever you want to refer to a particular gambit beloved by promoters of quackery and pseudoscience. I present here….The “Pharma Shill” Gambit! Enjoy!

I’ve mentioned before on this blog at least once 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. These days, few ISPs even offer much in the way of Usenet access; it’s become pretty much irrelevant since Google archived Usenet in the form of Google Groups. My forays into skepticism started out with combatting Holocaust denial on a newsgroup known as alt.revisionism (as good an excuse as any to remind you that nearly all Holocaust “revisionism” isn’t historical revisionism but is actually denial) and then branched out into more general skepticism, particularly about the claims of creationists and, of course, promoters of “alternative” medicine, the latter of which ultimately led me to being the editor of this wild and woolly thing we call the Science-Based Medicine blog. 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 promoters of alt-med 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 a defender of “alternative” medicine, offended by your questioning of, for instance, 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 several years ago under another guise, 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 while back, 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 thought it might serve as a perfect example of the sort of thing I’ve had to put up with ever since I started speaking out against quackery:

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.


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 defenders of alt-med on Usenet 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 (again, a.k.a. the logical fallacy of poisoning the well) 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 hot 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 supporters of alt-med than of anyone who questions alt-med 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 side” are not entirely innocent, but in my experience the certain promoters of alt-med 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 towards quackery. #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 defenders of “alternative” medicine 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 them, either. Anti-vaccination cranks and mercury/autism conspiracy theorists like it too, and, indeed, I have been the subject of some particularly vicious attacks over the years at the hands of the anti-vaccine movement1,2, Generation Rescue and its founder J. B. Handley in particular3,4,5, all of whom appear to be trying very hard to poison my Google reputation. (Indeed, another such attack rolled in just today, courtesy of AoA hanger-on Harold Doherty.) Moreover, J.B. Handley, in particular, has also attacked our very own Steve Novella. More recently, the late Hulda Clark’s former attack Chihuahua Tim Bolen appears to have decided for some reason that I have been named the heir apparent to Dr. Stephen Barrett. While I’m flattered that he somehow seems to think this, I’ll have to be at this for many more years and become much more effective even to approach Barrett’s legacy. Be that as it may, you have to have a tough skin if you’re going to try to combat the infiltration of pseudoscience into medicine.

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 would be entirely appropriate to “out” that person with extreme prejudice, so that his bias could be taken into account. That being said, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that I have never over the last decade observed such a person in action, which tells me that they are probably a lot less common than people like PeterB 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 boosters of alt-med 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.

No doubt, may of our readers here at SBM have heard of Godwin’s Law, which states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

Over the years, an assumed corollary to Godwin’s Law has become commonly accepted that in essence states that once such an “argumentum ad Nazium” is made, the discussion thread is over, and whoever brought up the Hitler or Nazi analogy first automatically loses the debate. Recently, this corollary was the basis of Scopie’s Law, which is more relevant to the topics covered on this blog and states:

In any discussion involving science or medicine, citing as a credible source loses you the argument immediately …and gets you laughed out of the room.

Over time, I and others have suggested that, although is clearly The One Quack Site To Rule Them All, there are at least a few other sites whose promotion of pseudoscience lead them to deserve to be included in Scopie’s Law, such as,, and the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism. However, I think that there’s another law, a law similar to the original formulation of Godwin’s Law, that applies to virtually any online discussion of anything resembling alternative medicine. Perhaps we could dub it “Gorski’s Law,” and this is what I propose it to say:

As an online discussion of health, in particular vaccines or alternative medicine, grows longer, the probability of the invocation of the ‘pharma shill gambit’ approaches one.

If there’s an exception to this law, other than in moderated forums and (usually but not always) here at SBM, I haven’t found it yet.

Posted in: Humor, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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