Categories: Skepticism

Brian Dunning Sentenced to 15 Months in Prison for Fraud

As I mentioned in a previous post, Brian Dunning, creator of the Skeptoid podcast and the world’s worst “science” rap video, pled guilty to wire fraud that had allowed him to collect more than $5 million. Sentencing has finally occurred, and the result is 15 months in prison starting on September 2, 2014, followed by three years of supervised release.

This is great news for the skeptic community at large, since it may be a long enough sentence for Dunning to fade from memory and stop publicly representing the very people who are supposedly trying to stop people from defrauding others.

Meanwhile, this case had brought to light an actual skeptical activist who appears to be smart, hilarious, and actually effective at stopping frauds: Assistant United States Attorney David R. Callaway. In the government’s sentencing recommendation to the court last week, Callaway* argued beautifully against the idea that Dunning deserves to be insulated from the consequences of his actions, saying that “There is no “Get out of Trauma Free” card for white-collar criminals or, unfortunately, their families.” In fact, Callaway argues that Dunning should be punished harshly in part because his crime wasn’t motivated by desperate need:

The crime in this case was motivated by pure greed….This was no “smash and grab,” motivated by poverty, hunger, or substance abuse, but rather a clever, sophisticated, calculated criminal scheme carried out over several years by a man who certainly had no pressing need for the money.

Callaway then cites scientific evidence suggesting that harsh sentencing for “white-collar” criminals may present a greater deterrence than “blue-collar” crimes, which tend to be more spontaneous crimes of passion compared to the pre-meditation of something like wire fraud.

Callaway points to Dunning’s “celebrity” in the skeptical community as a further reason to punish him harshly (emphasis mine):

The enhanced deterrence value of a prison term would be all the greater in Mr. Dunning’s case, as he is at least somewhat of a “public figure” by virtue of his podcast, “Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena,” which he claims has a weekly audience of 179,000 listeners. Mr. Dunning has written five books based on the podcast, and he even has a “rap” video.

On the plus side, this prison sentence could potentially do wonders for Dunning’s rap career. But let’s hope not.

*or US Attorney Melinda Haag or Criminal Division Chief J. Douglas Wilson, though Callaway is listed as the contact.

Rebecca Watson :Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

View Comments (95)

  • Ummm, this is clearly a joke peice right? A bit of fun, to promote skeptical thinking right?
    Or am i missing something huge? Is Brian in on it? I bloody hope so, becuase joke like this are damaging to his character and business/cause, to anybody from the outsiders perspective, i could see this joke ending badly is what im saying.

    Be warned :(

  • I'm stunned, absolutely stunned, i literally had no idea that this was going on in the entire 6 years i have been following him and donating to his site. While his content is great i just can't believe all this was going on in the background!

    I cant beleive i was so oblivious, and that this happened to somebody i thought was honest his approach to helping others, even now i still cant make much sense of it.

  • The glee (is there a better word for it?) expressed in this thread over Dunning's fall disturbs me profoundly.

    It seems totally disproportionate to the evidence presented against him (he committed middle-brow internet fraud, he took some totally chauvinist but basically mainstream nekkid-chick photos that would be considered PG on the cover of a new age album, he once did a podcast about Silent Spring without reading it). Perhaps there's something emotional at work, justifying the rain of ad hominems. Or perhaps there are other facts in play that I'm not privy to; I am not a full time researcher of the personal, political, and legal history of everyone who makes a podcast I listen to.


    This reminds me very much of what happened to when Tamara Smith accused Anita Sarkeesian of stealing her artwork: thousands of gleeful haters hurled themselves out of the woodwork to gloat at the tarnishing of person doing basically good work who, essentially, violated some terms and conditions. The vitriol was totally disproportionate to the offense in question, ludicrous distortions were hurled around, and a name was muddied more than it really should have been. [I am not directly equating Dunning's offense to Sarkeesian's; spare me the straw man, this is simply a comparison of critical reaction to a situation with some parallels].

    I won't donate to Brian's show anymore (steal money from EBay = bad). I also stopped donating to Feminist Frequency (steal artwork from the nice artist lady and refuse to apologize = bad). After the outburst on this thread, perhaps I won't donate to Skepchick.

    It's a shame I can't be a skeptical, feminist, scientific thinker without being exposed to so much hatred, belligerence, fraud, and disappointment. It's also a shame to see so much hostility directed FROM the skeptical community, AT the skeptical community. Whether Dunning is directly to blame for the hatred directed at him here or not, the sentiments in this thread do not bode well for the future of the movement.

    Reacting to the fall of a prolific advocate for skepticism (irrespective of his flaws) with snarky insults about rapping skills is a poor showing.

    • Brian Dunning took us for a ride, are we supposed to happy about that?

      And I love the "it was only a little fraud" argument, priceless.

      • Be happy about it? I did not and am not asserting anything like that, Mr. Misconception.

        As for your characterization of my discussion as alleging "only a little fraud", that was hardly the intent. I am not sure how to rate the magnitude of Dunning's crime; we live in a world where people go spend a lifetime in prison for the possession of an ounce of marijuana, and conversely where people torture prisoners of war and are appointed to high office... clearly Dunning did something wrong, he's going to prison, but he's hardly some sort of insane monster based on even the most severe and literal reading of the facts of the case. He's a liar and a fraud. Ok, fine.

        It seems reasonable to keep things in perspective.

        Will I stop contributing to his podcast? Certainly. I will probably stop listening to it as well. But some of the rhetoric on this thread strikes me as disproportionate. I asked if there were other (unstated) sins Dunning is atoning for, and piece by piece some pictures are emerging, but I'm not going to rush to hoist a pitchfork just yet.

        No matter how bad of a rapper the man is.

        • Well count me as believing he got just what he deserved for the crime he commited, one that most definitely thought through. I only wish more white-collar criminals would get what they deserve, and I don't give two shit how good they are at rapping.

          • I don't think I argued anywhere that his sentence was unfair or excessive. I'm agnostic on that point; I wasn't in court and wouldn't presume to say he should have gotten more or less time.

    • And if Dunning doesn't want to be mocked for his poor "rapping" "skills", then maybe he shouldn't have attempted to "rap".

    • Dunning betrayed the trust of his followers. Yet, for some reason, your nose is out of joint because those followers are feeling betrayed? How does this make sense to you?

      • What, exactly, did I say that made it seem like I was arguing that betrayal was an inappropriate response? I myself feel extremely betrayed by Dunning.

        What I was criticizing was the snide, gloating "sweet sweet schadenfreude" response that was and is typical on this thread, and the repeated, silly ad hominem attacks about rapping and so on.

          • Comment sections are the place for opinions, are they not?

            I AM concerned about the tone of this discussion, but I have other concerns as well, expressed in my comments on tomorrow's post (which, incidentally, was a much better post by Rebecca than this one was).

  • I'm going to take this opportunity to remind my fellow skeptics that perhaps before turning against one of our own colleagues -- based on very little information -- a little healthy skepticism may be in order. Please do your own reading and decide for yourself exactly what trespasses have been committed, whether the punishment Dunning received really fits the crime, and whether any of it requires that he be made a pariah.

    Just to put a finer point on it: I'm much more disturbed by this mass-hysterical, lizard-brained pile-on than I am by Dunning's conviction for wire fraud. Some of you are not who I thought you were.

    • Oh and HYSTERICAL!

      It's like a fucking sexist bingo game up in here.

      Also I love that you're more disturbed by people speaking out against Dunning than you are against the actual criminal. Wha?

      And more than one person has said that they weren't even aware this shit was going on. Don't you think it's important that people know that this guy committed fraud by using his listeners to steal?!

    • "Based on little information?" Have you clicked a single link? Nearly all the court documents are available in full to the public, except for those that Dunning had hidden.

  • Your August 7th post led me to this one to read what this was about. You claim the prosecutor cited "scientific evidence" that harsher punishments may deter white collar crime more than blue collar crime. That sounded fascinating, so I just wasted a lot of time perusing this supposed scientific evidence. I saw none. It was all speculation and hypothesis.

    It is quite possibly true that harsher punishments would deter white collar crime more than blue collar crime. It is true that the degree of punishment for white collar crime does not match the degree of damage caused by it relative to blue collar crime. However, if any scientific evidence exists that suggests deterrence of harsher sentences is more effective for white collar than blue collar crime, it was not cited in that paper.

  • In his "open letter" he also said "what I did was wrong and I knew it at the time." But he did it anyway. That pretty much says it all. When all this came to light I stopped listening to Skeptoid. And I'm a little disappointed in some other leaders in the skeptic community for continuing to promote him for so long.

    As for other reactions, I like how Rebecca is somehow a "bitch" for reporting on his criminal activities and conviction. Hello? It IS a good thing.

  • I've listened to Brian Dunning for years and even sent him money. I enjoyed his podcasts greatly. BUT, no more. He has shown himself to be a two-faced liar and scammer. He richly deserves what he got and more. Rebecca, you are to be commended for being honest and not standing beside someone simply because he claims to share some of the same views as you do. All believers are not deluded idiots, and not all skeptics are "saintly". It makes me sick that Dunning in his avarice has blackened the cause which we try to uphold. We cannot allow double standards for us and then for others.

  • I do not care that skepchick has 4 google ads on every page and makes money from them. The reality is there is a huge community of people who make money with websites and widgets. Brain Dunning did black hat marketing, got caught, admitted it and is paying a huge price for it.

    Attacking him for making a crappy rap song is just pathetic. As is the joy that some people seem to be getting by making an example out of him. He did what millions of people are still doing, thousands are selling courses teaching people how to do and cookie stuffing is just one of those annoying things that comes along with using the internet

    Almost all users of the internet are involved in fraud of some description. The overkill of glee some people here are getting is a little disturbing.

    Let those who have not downloaded a torrent or watched a song on youtube or movie online for free cast the first accusations. The rest of us should just shut up

  • I'm a little confused at the Brian Dunning hate here. Not because I love the man, but because other than his podcast, I previously didn't really know anything about him. (I didn't know he had a rap video for starters.) If I were just judging him on his podcast, I generally thought it was good. Some episodes were clearly better than others, but in general, it was a high quality skeptical podcast. Wasn't it?

    So, honest question. There seems to be quite a few people here who don't like him, and I'd love a little background on why. Is it his podcast that people didn't like, or is there a bunch of stuff that he was doing or saying elsewhere that people didn't like? I'm not trying to defend him, I'm just clueless here.

    In regards to his crime, it's a shame he had the bad judgement to get involved with a fraud scheme like he did, and it's nice to see white collar crime like this getting punished. It's obviously not a stretch to imagine him doing other things people here didn't like, I just don't know what those things are.

  • How is using hidden cookies to steal from eBay morally worse than torrenting to steal from the movie/TV/music industry?
    Worse because on effort/skill needed to do?
    Worse based on the amount you steal?

    • Worse because "stealing" a movie on torrent does not remove the original from its original owner, it is a copy. An argument can be made that the copyright owner loses revenue but it not that clear cut.

      Doing what Dunning did took money from Ebay or even worse other affiliates, plus the hypocrisy of exposing other frauds as oh so awful while perpetrating one yourself is rich irony indeed.