smallpox stories & shill accusations

Photo Credit: Content Providers(s): CDC/James Hicks – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #3265.


A couple of days ago newsroom published an article about smallpox, by Farah Hancock. It’s a very good story that covers the nature of smallpox and the history of efforts to develop a vaccine for this particularly nasty disease. And it’s the first of a science-based series about vaccines.

Smallpox is a disease that’s extinct in the wild, with its final eradication being due to the success of ‘ring-vaccination’ (ie all contacts of every detected case were vaccinated).

Farah’s article is carried on the newsroom webpage, and of course also on its Facebook page. Newsroom encourages comments on its social media sites, rather than on the main webpage, so off to the FB site I went.

Sadly (& sort of predictably), the first comment to appear was an attack on the reporter. You might expect queries about or challenges to the material contained in the article, but shooting the messenger?

Mind you, the late Margaret Thatcher had an excellent response to such personal attacks:

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single […] argument left.

Which is a sentiment I’m happy to apply to this comment:**

This is what’s known as the shill gambit – claiming that someone who holds differing views is being paid to do so. It’s a logical fallacy and an attempt, again, to deflect from the issue that is being discussed. And to poison the well.

It’s also an interesting indication of the mindset of many of those opposed to vaccination (and you could replace vaccination with fluoridation, GMOs, or anthropogenic climate change): an apparent inability to recognise that people can genuinely hold a different view without being paid to do so.

Am I paid (& according to that commenter, paid well) to write material about the science & history of vaccination in a way that is inaccurate or untruthful? No, I am not.

My university is supportive of my blogging – because such activities contribute to the statutory role of NZ universities as critic & conscience of society. So I will criticise views that I see as harmful to society – and under that falls the activities of those opposed to vaccinations. (I have seen people holding this view described as ‘infectious disease advocates’, and certainly those dealing with measles outbreaks in New York and Oregon/Washington DC would probably agree with that. After all, almost all of those infected with measles in the Washington outbreak are unvaccinated.)

But I’d be paid exactly the same if I didn’t blog. Nor does my university require that I write on particular topics, and in fact, back in 2007 when I started this blog I made it quite clear that any such requirement would see me move my blog to an external host. That independence is important to me.

And my first thought on seeing that comment was, if I were really so well paid for a secondary activity, I’d have retired by now!


** I haven’t blanked out the name of either commenter, because the newsroom FB is a public one.

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