Let's Put an End to the Shill Talk

farmTalking about food and farm practices, there is never a shortage of ideas and opinions. I’m actually starting to wonder if we have surpassed the level of passion for food that politics once took up. After all, with voter turn-out continuously in a free fall, I wonder if instead we now focus on all the good and bad that we put into our bodies. Where we once supported a political party, we now support a farm practice (or more likely support a farm practice because we are against another). Where heated debates would boil over around dinner tables and coffee shops about the latest in foreign or education policy to the point politics became a subject that was off limits, food now takes up it’s place. A place where we don’t want to hear (again) why our neighbour hounds us for a vegetarian main-dish at the dinner party because it would be better for everyone or why Monsanto is trying to slowly poison us all. Instead we try to ignore the subject with an internal sigh, because we don’t always feel like the fight.

But even if the dinner table discussion steers clear of opposing farm practice views, there is no shortage of opinion online. Some of it is great debate, like how to reduce nutrient run-off from farm fields or improve welfare among pigs, realizing we have a balance to maintain that takes into account price, product quality, product yield, the environment, etc.

Too much of it, though, is the kind of glove-off non-sense on corporate agendas and frankenfoods that puts people in the grocery aisle so confused about what might be good for them — and what might be best to leave on the shelf instead of playing Russian roulette. Many of us have seen these online comments. In a lot of cases, we might skim over them because – again – it is easier to ignore than start something that ends up with us banging our head against a wall. But, sometimes we decide it would be best to inform. And so the information starts, and we bring up research and actual on-farm scenerios and our experiences raising our kids beside us in the barn or the tractor cab. In fact, we nail every response with great, honest answers. Such great answers I figure, that the opposition determines are too good.

And so you are called a shill.

The shill card has to be one of my favourite comebacks. It never has anything to do with farm practices or food production – it simply is an effort to kill the buzz of truthful answers and instead create a hole of doubt around personal credibility. I’ve been called a shill, which I’ve come to find endearing — it tells me that someone has run out of logic.

I’ve been called a shill, which I’ve come to find endearing — it tells me that someone has run out of logic.

But as endearing as I find it, shill talk should be shut down.

Dr. Kevin Folta is at the University of Florida and one I enjoy following because of his passion for his work. He makes some interesting points on why calling someone a shill because you have nothing better to say, should actually hurt your own credibility before it hurts your targets. Mary Mangan, @Mem_Somerville, is another scientist I enjoy following and is someone I’ve seen on the receiving end of shill accusations. But her biography really states what this all boils down to. “The kind of independent scientist people claim they want to hear from, until they dislike the conclusions they hear.”

When people form an opinion on food, it sticks with them. Sometimes it is based on what they stand for, and other times for what they stand against. And with today’s conspiracy-loaded movement, it is hard to change minds.

But in the end, the idea that when nothing else can be said – shill needs to be used – it is an attack we cannot accept online anymore. Rather than scrolling through with a sigh, wondering where the logical debate fell off the tracks, we should question what makes it OK to throw out something aimed to hurt personal credibility when all that is happening is sharing differing views. We may not agree on how best to produce food, but we need to realize that different practices are good and you can vote with your wallet.

From now on, help shut down the shill talk.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Put an End to the Shill Talk

  1. I agree with the points made in this article. Was wondering if you had suggestions how to defend someone being called a shill or to reduce its use.

  2. Aww…thanks Andrew. You know, I do mud wrestle in the comment threads because I can. I work for myself. You can’t complain to my boss about me! I can’t be threatened professionally that way.

    But you know, I’ve had scientists thank me for doing it because they can’t. Ironically, they are often hampered by their work–either they aren’t allowed to do it, or they fear for their job. I have the freedom to speak my mind. So I feel a responsibility to carry the flag.

    It really is such useless place to end up though. No amount of fact, no demands for evidence, nothing can break into that conspiracy-theory mindset. I haven’t found anything that penetrates that. I am open to suggestions.

  3. Great post Andrew. Almost daily I have these kinds of conversations and find that I have to bite my tongue a lot because I don’t want to fight. You liken the discussions to be like political ones. I liken the conversations that I have to religious ones. The passion overtakes the common sense in many cases. The way we think about food is a core value – just like religion.

  4. Great post Andrew! As an owner and operator of a dairy farm in Owen Sound I’ve been finding it harder and harder to read, see and hear all of the negative backlash our industry gets. Most recently would be the animal cruelty videos that have gone viral on the web. I’ve said it before but I will say it again, I am 100% against animal cruelty but 100% supportive of the thousands of amazing farmers that treat their animals with respect, care and dignity. My question currently is: how do you stay positive and promote your industry when NO MATTER what you say ends up getting trashed? Some days it’s hard to be a farmer in 2014 even when you’re doing everything right in terms of animal welfare and production.

  5. I read an article and was like “wtf this guy is a shill” and then went to cross reference with some other articles and the second one I find is him defending himself from being called a shill and then I lol’d

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