“Formula shill”: a variation on testimonial silencing


I have been called a shill for the formula industry more times than I can count. Any medical professional who dares question the perfection of breastfeeding is typically subjected to the same treatment.

What’s it like to be called a formula shill?

Imagine Sue is allergic to strawberries. Joe insists that Sue is only saying that because she hates the taste of strawberries.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Accusing a medical professional who cares for babies of being a formula shill is like accusing an allergist of being an EpiPen shill.[/pullquote]

When Joe is asked whether Sue might actually be allergic to strawberries, he denies the possibility since he loves strawberries and eats them all the time without any side effects. In his view, since strawberries are harmless for him, they must be harmless for everyone.

Joe believes claiming a strawberry allergy is therefore proof of hating strawberries.

Now imagine that Joe is confronted by Sue’s doctor. With Sue’s permission he confirms her allergy, offers details and explains the physiology. How does Joe react? He accuses the doctor of being a shill for the EpiPen industry.

Now not only can he ignore Sue’s lived experience of allergy, he can ignore the doctor’s lived experience of treating that allergy.

That’s what it’s like to be called a formula shill.

Those familiar with the fundamentals of logical argument will recognize the shill gambit as a fallacious argument. But I believe it is also a variation on the pernicious practice of testimonial silencing, denying the lived experience of medical professionals who confirm the harms of aggressive breastfeeding promotion.

The shill gambit has been described as an ad hominem attack, a form of poisoning the well. It is designed to undermine a claim by discrediting the person making the claim instead of addressing the claim itself:

[It]occurs when one party dismisses another party’s arguments by proclaiming them to be on the payroll of some agency…

Of course, it is possible for medical professionals to be on the payroll of formula companies. But it’s a gambit when there is no evidence that such a relationship exists.

[W]hen a shill gambit is used fallaciously the only “evidence” given of such a connection to a big company or government is that someone endorses a particular position—and therefore they must hold that position only because they’re being paid or receiving some other deal-sweetener.

The shill gambit is typically invoked when someone cannot address the claim under discussion: I point out that exclusive breastfeeding is currently responsible for tens of thousands of preventable newborn hospital admissions each year. Any lactivist who tries to deny it will lose the argument because there is copious evidence. Therefore, lactivists derail the discussion by insisting that the fact that I made the claim is “proof” I am on the payroll of formula manufacturers; anything I say can be ignored. The claim itself is never addressed, let alone rebutted.

But the formula shill gambit is more for lactivists than merely a way to forestall losing an argument. It is an opportunity to deny the lived experience of professionals who address the harms of aggressive breastfeeding promotion. It is a form of testimonial silencing.

Last week I wrote about how lactation professionals use testimonial silencing to deny the lived experience of women with breastfeeding complications.

I noted:

[T]estimonial injustice occurs when someone’s knowledge is ignored or not believed because that person is the member of a particular social group …

Tactics of testimonial silencing include: erasure from breastfeeding literature, refusal to believe, pathologizing, claiming “lack of support,” disparaging women’s stories and banning from social media feeds.

We have a word for that type of behavior and the word is “cruelty.” Sue is a victim of Joe’s cruelty in denying her lived experience of strawberry allergy. Similarly, women who struggle with breastfeeding complications are victims of lactation professionals’ cruelty. Nothing can convince lactation professionals of the reality of breastfeeding complications since they have already justified their decision to ignore the sufferers.

It’s one thing to ignore the experience of sufferers, but it is another thing entirely to ignore the medical professionals who treat the sufferers. There’s a growing body of scientific literature attesting to the harms of aggressive breastfeeding promotion. An increasing number of physicians and nurses are writing about the harms of breastfeeding promotion, harms that they have witnessed professionally and can explain physiologically.

The tactics used by lactation professionals in response mirror those used against women who suffer breastfeeding complications — erasure from the professional literature by refusing to publish their papers, refusing to believe them, claiming they “hate” breastfeeding (even though many of them actually breastfed) and banning them from social media feeds. But nothing beats accusing them of shilling for formula companies.

Could doctors be formula shills? Of course they could, but serious accusations ought to require actual proof. To my knowledge, no medical professional accused of shilling for the formula industry has ever been shown to be receiving payments from them.

It doesn’t matter, though, since the point of the accusation is not to establish the truth, but to smear anyone who questions the perfection of breastfeeding. The tactic has been working, but as ever more professionals are coming forward to detail the growing harms of aggressive breastfeeding promotion — the hospitalizations, the permanent brain injuries and the deaths — it is a tactic that won’t work for much longer.