A Critical Analysis of Brian Dunning’s Explanation
Yesterday, I broke the news that Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning was sentenced to 15 months in prison for wire fraud after previously pleading guilty. Since then, I’ve received a number of complaints from people in the skeptic community who believe that it was wrong for me to report on this, that Dunning was set up, that he is guilty but not that guilty, and/or that it’s wrong for me to be glad that he’s going to prison.
This morning, I read Dunning’s own defense, which I see being passed around amongst skeptics, many of whom seem to accept it as a valid explanation and a confirmation that this is all a big mistake.
One of the reasons why I enjoy skepticism as a tool is because it does not (or should not) discriminate. I tend to be equally skeptical of things I like or agree with – sometimes more skeptical, because the things we want to believe are the easiest things to believe, regardless of whether they are true.
That’s one reason why I am very skeptical of other skeptics. The other reason is because I believe that if the skeptical movement wants to be taken seriously as a force that genuinely cares about helping people, about protecting them from scam artists, we need to make sure that the people who speak for us are honest and forthright and above all else ethical. If a person lacks those traits, I cannot in good conscience recommend their work to others. This doesn’t mean that leaders need to be perfect, or that I always need to agree with them: it only means that they cannot demonstrate to me a willful interest in manipulating the truth for their own benefit. It’s the reason why I can no longer recommend any of Ben Radford’s work after finding he purposely misrepresented scientific studies to suit his interests, and it’s the reason why I stopped promoting Brian Dunning’s work once I realized he admitted to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Dunning’s defense of himself is so riddled with half-truths and logical fallacies that I’m shocked and a little embarrassed that skeptics are accepting it on its face. I would be more shocked, were there not already many skeptics who never even considered the US government’s case against Dunning, and many who refuse to even talk about the case publicly, as though the idea of a skeptic leader pleading guilty to defrauding people isn’t newsworthy.
Let’s start with the photo that accompanies the post, along with the caption:
This is my family on Thanksgiving 2013, at the restaurant in Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California. A few hours earlier, we’d rescued three Chinese tourists who had spent the night in their car stuck in the snow, and we winched it out and got them back to safety.
Shortly thereafter, we ourselves suffered a single vehicle rollover, destroying the Jeep. Amazingly, none of us were seriously hurt. We were lucky to all make it back. These are the kinds of life events that matter most, and make other bumps in the road seem trivial by comparison.
A good skeptic should recognize that this is an ad hominem, and a kind of poisoning the well. Rescuing stranded tourists is a noble thing, but it has nothing to do with whether or not one has stolen money from others.
Here’s Dunning’s post:
My latest news is that I can now add to my resume the title “convicted felon.” We make up about 2% of the population.
Before I became a science writer and podcaster in 2006, I had a small consulting business doing FileMaker Pro development. It provided a modest family income. In about 2003 my company partnered with another to form “Kessler’s Flying Circus” (a reference to The Great Waldo Pepper, a favorite movie), to give affiliate marketing a try.
Already there is a bit of context missing. The other company Dunning partnered with was his brother, Todd Dunning. Kessler’s Flying Circus (KFC) was run out of Brian Dunning’s home. eBay’s complaint and all other court documents make it clear that Todd and Brian Dunning were the two sole owners of the KFC partnership.
Dunning wants his audience to think that KFC is a large company, and that he is just one of many hapless employees. This is not true.
Affiliate marketing is where you place ads on the web, and if anyone clicks those ads and subsequently makes a purchase, you would get a sales commission of some kind. There are a whole variety of models for this: pay per ad impression, pay per click, pay per sale, etc. These were trailblazing years for fast-growing companies like Amazon, Google, and eBay. A perspective of what those days were like is offered here, from another defendant who was also convicted.
For our first few years we had very little success, making perhaps a few hundred dollars per month. But then, working in close association with eBay and with Commission Junction (the company that managed eBay’s affiliate program) we developed a pair of useful widgets: ProfileMaps, that showed a map of visitors to your MySpace page; and WhoLinked, a WordPress plugin that showed who has linked to your blog.
Dunning also worked closely with Shawn Hogan, who was also convicted of fraud for the same cookie-stuffing scheme. According to the FBI’s interview with Hogan, Dunning found out about Hogan’s scheme, which involved loading a 1×1 pixel onto a user’s computer that altered their browsing history to make it look as though they had visited eBay through Hogan’s affiliate link, even though the end user would never see the eBay homepage load and had no idea what was happening. If that user happened to visit eBay at some later date and sign up as a new user or make a purchase, it would look as though they had come from Hogan’s link, and so Hogan would be paid a percentage of the sale from eBay.
According to Hogan, Dunning tried to reverse engineer the 1×1 pixel but he needed help. So, he allegedly blackmailed Hogan into helping him out, telling Hogan that if Dunning screwed up and got caught by eBay, he’d tell them about Hogan’s activities, too.
Dunning then used the pixel trick on his widgets and websites, and started raking in the millions.
These both included an eBay advertisement. Amazingly these both went viral, and through 2006 and 2007 our ads drove enough new customers to eBay US to earn KFC about $5.3 million dollars.
I assume Dunning ran this statement past his lawyer, which is why I’m stunned to see what appears to be an outright lie. The entire point of the pixel trick was that customers were visiting eBay without clicking on Dunning’s ad. Many of them viewed the ad, unknowingly downloaded the cookie, and then at a later date happened to sign up or make a purchase on eBay. The $5.3 million in commission that Dunning got from eBay was not due to his ads driving new customers to eBay, which is the entire reason the government is calling this “fraud.”
In his interview with the FBI, Dunning admitted “that eBay does not need an Affiliate Program in that the average person visits eBay and engages in transactions on a fairly regular basis and would do so with or without a program.”
Keep in mind that was the company’s gross revenue; we had overhead and employees and costs like every other company.
According to his interview with the FBI, Dunning’s employees included his wife (who earned $10,000/month), his mother ($2,500/month), and his mother-in-law ($2,500/month). And again, the company was run out of his home, making one wonder how much “overhead” there could possibly be.
We’re not even through three paragraphs and I’m already exhausted by this. This statement is the Gish Gallop of wire fraud.
I was the second highest paid employee, and I did earn over a million dollars personally over 2006 and 2007 before taxes.
The first highest paid employee would presumably be his brother, Todd Dunning, but according to Brian’s statement to the FBI, he and Todd split all the affiliate income equally down the middle. Also, the million dollars Brian earned is presumably separate from the $10,000/month his wife earned.
We put the money toward paying off our mortgage and opening college savings accounts for our kids. Then just as we were about to start saving, everything came to an abrupt end.
On June 18, 2007, our house was raided by armed FBI agents. They had a search warrant from the Treasury Department alleging racketeering, wire fraud, and a raft of other charges. The model we used, which is the same as that used by all other eBay affiliates I knew at the time, was to pass through eBay’s URL along with each advertisement, allowing eBay to read/write whatever affiliate cookie they choose.
It may be true that all affiliates Dunning knew at the time used the same fraudulent cookie-stuffing method, if the only other affiliates Dunning knew were his brother and Shawn Hogan. Again, Hogan came up with this method and then says that Dunning forced him to help him do it, as well.
About the time of the raid, eBay transferred our affiliate program manager overseas to their London office, and filed both civil and criminal charges against the affiliates, claiming that this pass-through model was a violation of their Terms & Conditions. This is true, it was a clear violation, and we knew this. But the models of all top affiliates were clear violations. Mainly, you weren’t allowed to place ads on sites that you did not personally own.
This is absolutely not what this case is about. The US government did not sentence Dunning to prison because he put ads on a sites he did not personally own – they sentenced him to prison because he planted a file on unsuspecting people’s computers that tricked eBay’s systems into thinking he was doing something that he was not, and he got paid for it.
But we had worked carefully and openly with the eBay team assigned to us to form “interpretations” of the rules that permitted this.
Dunning even told the FBI that he met with Hogan to discuss ways to better mask what they were doing. (Dunning describes this as him trying to help out Hogan and himself. Hogan describes this as Todd Dunning telling eBay what Hogan was up to and then Brian Dunning using that to blackmail Hogan into helping him cover up their activity.)
I suppose that’s one way of working “carefully” with the eBay team, but I’d hardly call it “open.”
Obviously, this was a red flag (among many) and I should have gotten out of the business right away. I didn’t. I was making some money for the first time in my life, and I let myself believe that bending the rules was OK if other people were bending them too. Let’s be clear: what I did was wrong, and I knew it at the time. “Come on, everyone’s doing it!”
On that same day in 2007, I ceased my association with KFC and have had no involvement with affiliate marketing, or anything remotely related to it, ever since.
It’s hardly a mark of good morals that he closed his own business on the day he was raided by the FBI.
Although all the lawyers involved felt this should have been strictly a civil contract dispute, the government determined that it constituted wire fraud, a violation of 18 USC § 1343, and that eBay had been victimized by paying KFC commissions on sales that should have been house sales.
“All the lawyers involved” on the defense. Important distinction.
I fully accept this determination, and fully accept and admit responsibility for every action I was involved in. eBay claimed a loss amount of $200-400K, and I agreed to stipulate to that amount. I was the only person criminally charged from KFC, though we have never been able to determine why I was singled out; we can only guess it was because of my notoriety.
It’s strange that I’ve been able to read all of these documents but Dunning apparently has not. If I were to guess, I would say he was “singled out” because he owned the company responsible for the fraud, and because others pointed to him as the person actively trying to make as much money as possible while covering up his activity from eBay and Commission Junction.
I stress that from the first day to the last day, I offered full cooperation to authorities, and I did make eBay whole through a confidential settlement.
On August 4, 2014, the judge sentenced me to 15 months incarceration, beginning September 2, 2014. In the federal system you must serve a minimum 85% of that time. According to determinations made during your stay, you may be able to transfer to a halfway house near your home at some point during the sentence, which allows you to resume work and see your family. Most attorneys involved felt the sentence was unnecessarily harsh, and the judge stated in his pronouncement that it was based mainly on the deterrence criterion, particularly due to my “minor Internet celebrity” status.
That’s true (if you change it to “Most attorneys involved with the defense” – the sentence was less than what the prosecution recommended and of course much less than the maximum)! I mentioned it in my previous post.
There are a lot of untruths being circulated by bloggers and reporters:
That I “stole millions of dollars”. Completely false. The vast majority of KFC’s earnings, over 90%, were never in dispute. My share of the unearned commissions was about a third of the $200-400K, on which I paid taxes. That doesn’t make it any less of a crime, but absurd exaggerations serve nobody.
This is tough to say. KFC did take about $5.2 million from eBay over the course of two years, and by Dunning’s own admission he was only making a few hundred dollars a month prior to beginning his fraudulent cookie-stuffing operation. But it does appear as though the US Government settled for assuming that a few hundred thousand was definitely due to the fraudulent activity.
That any individuals were affected. Completely false. The only victim was eBay, and the nature of their loss was a reduced profit (due to paying an unearned sales commission) on new paying customers who had viewed one of our ads.
I can think of individuals who were affected: honest affiliates. Dunning didn’t “just” steal money from eBay (note: not liking the victim doesn’t make the crime better). He took money that was meant for others. Cookie-stuffing overwrites any previous cookies from affiliates who may have succeeded in getting users to visit eBay, meaning that Dunning would collect commissions that were rightfully owed to honest individuals.
A conspiracy theory that my nonprofit Skeptoid Media, Inc., was set up as some kind of shield to hide stolen millions. First, I never had millions in my possession; second, you cannot shield money from the feds. The federal government can seize anything at any time; there is no protection like there is in state cases (e.g., moving to a state that allows you to keep your primary residence). Skeptoid Media exists only for its stated reasons: producing free educational materials and STEM-focused informational and entertainment content, made available to educators and individuals worldwide, concentrating on critical thinking and scientific skepticism.
I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t comment on this at all except to say that if you’ve read this far and you still trust Dunning with your money, there’s nothing more I can do for you.
That I’m a millionaire who has the gall to beg for donations. Please do not conflate the two. Donations that support the Skeptoid podcast go only to support Skeptoid Media, a good cause. See Skeptoid.org for all available disclosures. Separately, I am not a millionaire and my family is under a huge amount of debt, but working that out is our problem, not yours, and not Skeptoid Media’s.
By his own admission, Dunning did top a million dollars in income. Unless we’re splitting hairs here, that would make him a millionaire at that time, and he did have the gall to beg for donations, repeatedly, on his podcast, on his website, and in his multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns.
In the meantime, the Skeptoid podcast is going to continue uninterrupted, using a combination of banked episodes and guest hosts, so you can continue to expect the same high quality show every week.
My plan is to start production on Principia Curiositas, the long-awaited sequel to Here Be Dragons, as soon as I’m able to return to work. And of course, I plan to continue Skeptoid and other projects.
I am proud of who I am and what I have accomplished to date, and very much regret this stain on my past. But as we all must do with all our regrets, I will incorporate it into who I am, own it, and continue on as best I can.
I’m not surprised he’s planning to continue squeezing skeptics for money even from prison. In my opinion, someone who actually cared about the skeptical movement would accept that he’s a huge liability and step out of the spotlight to find more productive ways to contribute to skepticism. But Dunning’s behavior to date makes it clear to me that he only cares about himself, and so he’ll continue trying to make money and be famous in whatever subculture will have him. Unfortunately, I have little doubt that many skeptics will be all too happy to continue giving him what he wants.
In short, I’ll see you soon.
Goodness, I hope not.
It will be very interesting to see who the guest hosts on Skeptoid will be, just make note of who else I cannot trust.
One of his reporters on Skeptoid is Mike ‘Rothschld’ if that rings a bell with you…
Mike and I went toe to toe today…
Brian Dunning is an embarrassment, up, down, sideways, and on every level you can think to depict it. At every possible resolution, he is a massive embarrassment to the skeptical community. What’s exponentially more embarrassing, though, is that too many in the skeptical community refuse to acknowledge or recognize what an embarrassment he is. Thank you, Rebecca, for spelling it out in the detail that it deserves. If you can read what Rebecca has written and still defend the guy, you are an embarrassment, too.
You have no cause for embarrassment.
By even the most conservative estimates, the skeptical community contains many thousands of people. Anyone who thinks that the skeptical community (as well as ANY community of significant size) does not contain people who are involved in criminal activity are kidding themselves. Just because you are a skeptic does NOT mean you are required to take responsibility for the actions of thousands of people who happen to share that one trait.
There is virtually no chance that there aren’t many skeptics who’ve committed more serious crimes than Dunning, and unless you are one of them, you don’t need to be embarrassed about them either.
Dunning did something illegal, greedy and dishonest. He was caught and incarcerated as he should have been. I feel pride that the justice system worked this time, not embarrassment. I hope for his sake that he’s learned something from this about letting your greed overcome basic decency.
Good post Rebecca. Assuming his method of only installing the cookie on computers that did *not* already have an eBay affiliate id assigned worked as planned (this was likely done for self serving reasons to avoid detection it seems, not because of any regard for other affiliates), then it’s possible the one group of people that weren’t directly harmed by this crime were other honest affiliates.
In other words, he only took money from eBay’s pocket, not that of other affiliates. As you say though, this doesn’t have a material impact on the severity of the crime except people might sympathize less with the company than with honest affiliates.
According to the court documents, the cookie wouldn’t install only if there was another identical cookie with Dunning’s affiliate id, *not* any cookie with any id.
Of course, there are a lot of documents and I may have missed that, so if you read that somewhere, please let me know and I’ll make a correction.
I make a living from affiliate marketing. I can tell you that there is no way to know if another affiliate already placed an eBay cookie or not. It just doesn’t work this way. The cookie would indeed override a cookie placed by a honest affiliate. It’s next to impossible that Dunning wouldn’t know this, so by omitting this fact and claiming that he was “only” robbing eBay
(which is fallacious by itself, as you pointed out), Dunning’s message really shows itself to be the self-serving bollocks that it is. Fuck this guy, 15 months is too lenient to be honest.
As an aside, I thought the following link was hilarious after reading Dunning’s explanation about coming up with “interpretations” of the ebay rules. He blatantly violates ALL of the very first item of the very first section of the ePN Code of Conduct. Hahaha.
Just for the record, I am a web developer too, and I can confirm your technical explanation is accurate. ^^
What annoys me the most about his “explanation” is how blatantly insincere it is. I’d respect the guy a lot more if he just owned up to his crime and said “Yup, I got greedy and I fucked up”. But showing “look we rescued those tourists I’M A GOOD GUY REALLY” and then blatantly lying about the nature of his crime…. yeah, nice try.
“One of the reasons why I enjoy skepticism as a tool is because it does not (or should not) discriminate. I tend to be equally skeptical of things I like or agree with – sometimes more skeptical, because the things we want to believe are the easiest things to believe, regardless of whether they are true.”
Your integrity is what makes you credible, not merely giving lip service to skepticism. Like you, I have consistent values that I have spelled out repeatedly and have made enemies by refusing to sell myself out.
I was going to comment to say this very thing, but you put it very eloquently so I’ll just say “hear hear!!” I’ve had more than a couple people after I point them at SGU tell me that Rebecca is arrogant and whatnot. I don’t understand those people. I admire her for her consistent credibility and persistent skepticism. She’s even argued with Steve Novella on the show about animal rights and she’s one of the many voices that finally convinced my wife and I to be vegan (as difficult of a transition as that has been). She’s the skeptic I try to be every day.
For guest hosts I would suggest Ben Radford (he’s available), Michael Shermer (for the comparable smarm), and maybe Thunderf00t (because why the fuck not?).
No need dirtying any more skeptics.
It’ll be a circle jerk of Brian’s friends and the sycophants he’s gathered over the years. They’re going to keep isolating themselves in a nice protective bubble while they all pretend they’re smart and famous.
Sharon Hill would probably step up.
I used to be friends with her on Facebook, and she liked to defend the guilty, Dunning in particular.
This post really bothered me. The truth is like that, sometimes.
I contribute to many podcasts and websites that provide skeptical resources, but have been holding out on donating to Dunning until this issue was resolved. I thought there was a chance that he had a good explanation for everything but couldn’t reveal it until the court case was over.
Now that the case is over, I read his defense and thought it sounded really shaky. Not at all what I was hoping for. The fact that you not only saw all the problems I did but also pointed out many that I was unaware of only highlights the fact that Dunning not only was guilty but also doesn’t seem to be sincerely sorry for what he has done.
I really hoped that we wouldn’t lose another high-profile skeptic to evidence of massive moral failures. I also hoped that honest skeptics like you wouldn’t have to be put in the uncomfortable position of having to write posts like the above.
It’s not that hard to try and be a good person. You know what is hard? Finding someone worth admiring. Thank you, Rebecca, for being one of those people.
He is most definitely sorry… that he was caught.
Well stated. I had also hoped that Dunning was being mum about important stuff because of an ongoing legal proceeding, something I can understand. But nope. Like I said below, I feel like taking a long shower. Blech.
You both have my admiration for sticking with critical thinking even when it isn’t pleasant.
The content of the message seems like it’s just in accordance with his plea agreement. I don’t think he’d be saying the same thing if he wasn’t forced to do so. I also find it hard to take that apology seriously when it’s not linked from anywhere I can find on skeptoid.com or briandunning.com. I haven’t gone through every line on the site, but I expected at least to find a link on the about pages or something.
It was a single 1×1 pixel, you probably didn’t see it.
Wow, I can’t find anything either. His apology isn’t even up on the blog, and I can’t find references to his conviction or sentence anywhere in the news or recent pages. I don’t think that is a very credible way to handle it.
Dunning exhibits a sense of morality on a par with Rocket Raccoon. If you take something from someone because you want it more, it’s still theft.
Great post, Rebecca. I appreciate the time and effort required, and it has answered a lot of questions I was too lazy to pursue. I probably tend to err on the side of forgiveness and chalking something up to understanding too often, and yet, this doesn’t seem like a close case to me at all. I hope Brian returns to the word post-prison and can find some productive things to do with his time, but being a face or public representative of skepticism is just terrible.
Rebecca, if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t know about this and would still be supporting Skeptoid. I wish there were some tangible way I could tell you how grateful I am for that. I was betrayed by a friendly voice for years, and it troubles me that my trust can be so abused. I’m not sure I can put my trust in anyone, but for now I choose to trust you. Thank you for what you’ve done. Please continue being the skeptic we need.
Thanks for the excellent dissection, Rebecca. I knew things about it didn’t pass the sniff test, so I’m glad someone laid it all out there.
One additional thing that deserves to be pointed out: Dunning’s obfuscation about his business dealings didn’t stop with eliding how many employees KFC had. He says “Donations that support the Skeptoid podcast go only to support Skeptoid Media, a good cause,” the implication being that those donations don’t enrich him. Assuming he hasn’t been lying on the last few years of his podcast bumpers, running Skeptoid is now his full-time job. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who have full-time jobs that don’t pay them any money. So it seems likely that Dunning draws his paycheck now directly from Skeptoid Media. How much that paycheck is, I couldn’t find–Skeptoid Media, Inc. hasn’t filed any financial records or tax documents with the 501(c)3 information services I was able to track down. But that passage’s implication–that he’s somehow separate from Skeptoid Media–is ludicrous.
One other thing: it may be true that Skeptoid Media is all on the up-and-up, but it’s not a “conspiracy theory” to speculate that the rush to tax-exemption was an attempt to profit through less-than-legal means, any more than it’d be a “conspiracy theory” to speculate the same about Kevin Trudeau’s next project. When you’ve shown a propensity for fraud and for attempts to circumvent regulations in order to increase your own profits, it isn’t “conspiracy theory” to suggest you might do so again. It’s inductive reasoning.
Good point. Very good point.
I have only been a skeptic roughly two years. The interest was always there, but I didn’t know the community even existed or what it meant until turning on the SGU one day on a whim. Broadening my information base, I found Skeptoid and listened to every backlog episode, skipping only the musical ones, which are objectively horrifying.
I knew nothing about Dunning’s fraud until the article earlier this week regarding his sentencing. I was an hour away from posting an article on Grounded Parents linking to Skeptoid as a reference when I read it. I gave him the undue benefit of the doubt, reading multiple sources on the entire saga, and I remained on the fence until reading this article. His defense is inexcusably self-serving and blatantly hollow. I feel frustrated and betrayed, as I’m sure many do.
The thing that gets me, that I can’t believe Dunning’s defenders ignore, is the blatant way he defended cookie stuffing in Episode #17 way back in 2006.
On that transcript page you will see Stephanie Barnes comment in 2011 (after the federal indictment) on how this podcast and transcript had been altered to remove a passage excusing cookie stuffing. We will need to take her word for that because Brian (who, I’m sure has nothing to hide) disallows archieve.org (Internet Arcieves Wayback Machine) from crawling his sites, meaning we can’t look to see how it looked before the indictment.
If that doesn’t indicate knowledge of wrong-doing, I’m not sure what would.
I probably have an unedited copy of the episode on my old hard drive. I was a Skeptoid listener for a long time, so I probably downloaded it well before it was scrubbed.
I think there is something to the argument that this should have been a civil contract dispute, but that is a criticism of the government going out of it’s way to help eBay (when it likely would have ignored complaints from a smaller company), not a defense of Brian Dunning. What he did was clearly unethical and he does not deserve sympathy just because eBay got more help than most.
Nope, interstate commerce clearly falls within the purview of mail and wire fraud.
I am not saying that what he did should not be illegal. Rather, I am saying that the government only took this particular case because eBay has political capital. If the victim had been a small seller on Etsy, they would almost certainly have had to resort to the civil courts. Wire fraud, even on a fairly large scale, happens frequently and the feds can only prosecute a small percentage of cases. Most victims must pay a lawyer to sue the perpetrator and hope for relief, while a large, wealthy victim like eBay can get the government to get its money back. Again, not defending Dunning, I just wish some small-time victims could get the kind of government service that eBay got in this case.
I see what you are saying but I disagree that they took up the case because the victim was E-Bay. I think they took up the case because they felt they could prosecute it, because they had evidence that Dunning had coerced Shawn Hogan to help him hide his actions, and that Hogan was willing to work with them to help get Dunning.
Personally I see no reason to feel sorry for Dunning, he made his bed so to speak, I actually wish there was MORE prosecution of this sort of so-called victim-less crime. Money, despite what proponents of Bitcoin might tell you, does not spontaneously generate. If there is more money in the system something or someone is paying for that whether it’s E-Bay in this example, those further down the pyramid in Bitcoin’s example, or, as is often the case those workers who’s labor has lost value (stagnant wages, fewer benefits) by being sold down the river by decades of rolled back protections and graft.
In the political world, this is called “Spin.” It’s what you expect. He’s representing the facts and taking a few liberties to defend himself. It’s what people do in this situation. No real blatant lies, but possibly some omissions and so on.
I don’t know the truth because I can’t get inside his head. I know he is a superficially nice guy and writes an excellent blog and podcast, which is well researched and presented. Is he scum under it all? I don’t know. Would I trust him with my money? Probably not.
My guess is that he just thought he found a perfect way to game the system and probably didn’t think very much about the potential harm or consequences. But I don’t know.
I don’t like the meanspiritedness of the skeptic movement toward him or others in general, however.
By “others” do you mean people accused of taking upskirt photos of women at TAM, like you were? Because I disagree – I think the skeptic movement in general was pretty kind to you, considering, and you have a helluva lotta nerve commenting here. I wonder if my now-obvious disgust with you would change your mind over whether or not you’d like to “pork” me?
Drbuzz, run and get some aloe, cause you just got BURNED.
I will say that Brian Dunning built up quite a cult of personality. Actually, most of the skeptic community expressed denial for a long time.
And no, pointing out that someone who claims to be informing you about scams is, well, guilty of running a scam, is hardly mean-spirited. I want skeptic cons where the guy next to me isn’t a con artist or a pervert (In this case, ‘pervert’ being defined by lack of consent or the like.) Is that too much to ask for?
I read Rebecca’s post and was pretty confused about all this talk of upskirt photos and such. Then I look at who she’s replying to and say, “Oh, so *that’s* the DrBuzz0 I heard so much about a couple years ago.”
Well, sometimes. His episode about malaria and DDT was hilariously bad, to the point that he later claimed he hadn’t read any of the “sources and further reading” that he referenced. But that his conclusions were still valid, even though everyone working in malaria prevention thinought he was completely wrong; what do they know?
And then there was the time he reported on Sea Org (part of the scientologists) and basically said that some people like being slaves, so who are we to say that it shouldn’t happen?
When he’s talking about ghosts or bigfoot, he’s pretty solid, but for anything more complex than that, I wouldn’t trust Skeptoid.
A very thorough and commendable takedown of Dunning’s statement. Well put.
A few miscellaneous points:
People talk a lot about their feelings of betrayal now that Dunning has been sentenced. Obviously, this is a strange time to feel betrayed. No betrayal when he was raided in 2007? Or when he was charged in 2011? No betrayal when he plead guilty in 2013? I actually think this is the first time a lot of people are hearing about this. It’s certainly the first time I am hearing about it.
It’s weird. I listen to Skeptoid every week. Of course there’s no mention of it there. But I also listen to SGU, where Rebecca Watson, apparently among Dunning’s most outspoken critics, is a regular host. And there’s been no mention of his fraud there either, that I know of. In fact, Dunning was a guest host on SGU in January of 2013, an episode co-hosted by Watson.
Steven Novella: Two other people; Bernoulli’s brother was one.
Rebecca Watson: Right, who then created a harder problem just to one-up his brother. What was up with the Bernoullis? They were like the Olsen twins of the day.
Rebecca Watson: There were three of them though, I think. I can’t think of siblings of the day.
Brian Dunning: They were the Novellas of their day.
Rebecca Watson: Oh yeah, good one.
I’m legitimately confused. Was he not an untrustworthy sleazeball in 2013, more than two years after he was indicted for fraud and just months before he plead guilty? Why was this information distributed so selectively? Why was Dunning kept close to the skeptical community he is now so apparently toxic to? What was going on?
And if I gave money to someone the SGU was yucking it up with in 2013, post crime, post search warrant, post indictment, and barely pre-conviction, who is to blame? Me for not doing more research? Dunning for pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes? Other skeptics for covering for him?
I’m not accusing anyone of anything, I’m literally asking. I’m honestly very perplexed.
We believe he got what he deserved, so does that mean he should have been shunt before his plea? As much as I believe he was treated fairly, before he was convicted (or in this case plead guilty) he was, and should have been, considered innocent until proven. Or must we all be ahead of the court system least we lose our ability to express outrage without being questioned as to our motives?
well, he plead a year ago. so still plenty of time for an SGU mention. but anyway, it’s a false dilemma: you can let an indicted person work his way through the legal system without inviting him to guest host your podcast. assuming innocence need not equal actively offering a platform for a compromized person. or at least mentioning the controversy.
You cannot, on the one hand, pretend as though you’re Just Asking Questions, while on the other hand assuming that I and the rest of the SGU knew about Dunning’s case when he was asked to host the show.
(And, doublechecking my own notes, it looks like I learned about Dunning from Business Insider, in an article that was published 5 months after that episode of SGU: http://www.businessinsider.com/ebay-the-fbi-shawn-hogan-and-brian-dunning-2013-4 If you think I have a Google alert on Brian Dunning federal indictments, you are mistaken.)
I’m sorry you went to all that trouble to re-listen to the episode and transcribe an interaction I had with Dunning, but the simple truth is that I haven’t had anything to do with Dunning since learning about the case.
i didn’t transcribe it: SGU already does that. I just remembered him being on the show recently and looked it up. If you say you learned about this affair after that date, I’m perfectly willing to take you at your word. I was literally just asking a question, not JAQ’ing off. You have to admit, from the tone of your several articles, you don’t sound like someone who just started disliking dunning recently; your critiques of him reach back years. That suggested to me, wrongly apparently, that his criminal problems were widely known among colleague. I can accept being wrong on that guess.
In case you weren’t aware of the awesome transcriptions of the SGU that someone makes, the one I cited is here:
Rebecca, I have to contradict you on that. I looked in my own email archives. I learned of Dunning’s indictment on June 17, 2011 via a 2010 comment on one of his websites Web of Trust. I passed it along to several close friends including one member of the Skepchick team. The next day I learned from that member of the team that the news of the indictment had been sent to the Skepchick back channel by another member of your team, passing along an email from some California skeptics.
I find it hard to believe you don’t read your own back channel. Which means you knew of Dunning’s indictment 18 months before that SGU episode.
I posted a comment on the latest Skeptoid when the news of his sentencing broke, saying that the might be a hiatus for the next year or so, and people might want to re-evaluate their subscriptions in the light of that knowledge. It lasted about an hour before mysteriously vanishing.
It was mentioned briefly when he plead, but that is of course not what SGU focuses on. And do you really think that they were going to mention his legal troubles while he was on the show? Seriously? Or should he have been persona non grata before his plea? That seems to be what you are suggesting, but given how you are taking issue with our “glee” at his sentencing I can’t imagine what you would have thought if people refused to even talk to him before his conviction. Apparently there is no winning when dealing with an accused person.
Was it mentioned? If so, my point was entirely in error. I have no recollection of that at all, and it seems like something I would remember. Not that I doubt your assertion, but can you refer me to that?
But more broadly, I feel like you’re not trying very hard to understand what I’m asking. Let’s start over. I’m not some secret Brian Dunning agent. But I have been working with Brian, and Steve Novella, and actually Rebecca too (she probably doesn’t remember me), since something like 2007. I designed the logo for Skeptologists. I post on Neurologica. I mean, I’m interested in this community and invested in it. I gave money to SGU and Skeptoid and many others.
And here’s what I’m hearing:
Steve Novella, SGU in January 2013: “Welcome back, Brian.” BD: “Thank you very much; great to be here. I am Bob and Jay rolled into one.” Steve: “That’s right. Bob and Jay are on special assignment this week; I’ll just leave it at that. They are traveling so they cannot join us for the show today unfortunately. Brian will, I’m sure, fill their shoes nicely.”
i.e. everything’s GREAT!
Then, suddenly, Rebecca Watson in 2014: “this criminal’s continued popularity with skeptics is a fascinating study in human nature.” … [giving example of inexplicable popularity of Dunning] “he was a guest on The Skeptic Zone podcast in November of 2013” … “Again, just to be clear: Dunning is a rich, convicted fraud who may soon be facing up to 20 years in prison” … ” Remaining a prominent face of skepticism while awaiting sentencing for fraud is not the worst thing Brian Dunning has done for skepticism. And no, it’s not how he repeatedly gets the science wrong on his podcast, or his casual sexism.”
I mean, goodness gracious, that’s a profound turnaround. In January he’s a great replacement for the Novella brothers. In November he’s an obvious embarrassment to the movement.
Did we all just discover his sexism and bad science on the day he plead guilty? Am I missing something or is that profoundly weird? Can you understand why I’m legitimately confused?
Above, Rebecca says she only learned of his fraud after the guest host episode. I absolutely believe her. Which suggests that either she didn’t look at his earlier work critically until he was a known criminal (ok, fine, that’s not a big deal, we all trust people who turn out to suck), or that she sat on her criticisms until after he was convicted (ok, fine, sometimes we bite our tongues about people we know suck because, I dunno, politics).
But to act as though someone was always your enemy when you were recorded joking around on the radio 18 months ago is, I don’t know, STRANGE. It merits a few honest questions.
Look, what does skepticism have other than intellectual honesty? That’s all skepticism is, really: brutal honesty. I would like to better understand when members of the skeptical community realized Brian Dunning was a sexist, science-fabricating criminal. Did that all happen at once? Gradually? Starting the day after he and Steve Novella decided not to pursue Skeptologists together in 2008? Starting the day after he was last a guest on SGU?
I mean, I gave this guy quite a bit of donations, not to mention weeks of free graphic design work, and now I’m “a fascinating case study in human nature,” according to Rebecca, for having supported him for the past year. Well, I didn’t happen to know he was indicted. How should I have?
And why do people treat me as if I’m being disingenuous for asking? Or for feeling sad to see the community convulsed with hostility for one of its former stars? The entire situation is tragic, but because I’m not joining in the general pleasure in all this suffering, somehow I am feeling like a suspect. It’s very, very odd.
I’m really not understanding why you are having a problem with this timeline.
In January 2013 Brian Dunning appeared on the SGU, after his indictment but before his plea. At that time Rebecca had posted about issues that she had with Skeptoid, specifically the <a href=''http://skepchick.org/2010/11/brian-dunnings-ddt-fail/''DT episode and his sexist cover art, that were not so terrible as to merit never speaking again. I suspect if SGU were solely Rebecca’s podcast he would not have been on at that time but then I don’t know how cordial their relationship was at that time.
In April 2013 Dunning plead guilty, at that time Rebecca posted it here and I believe it was mentioned on the SGU in the episode or two following but quite frankly I am not going to sift through the episodes to find it, I listen to many podcasts and most mentioned it as a short blurb, that is part of what we are discussing here, and if the SGU wasn’t one to mention it (I remember Rebecca reading it, but memory being fallible and all) the big hairy-ass deal?
Now BD has plead guily and here we are. The point that is important here is April 2013, treating Brian as if he were a criminal before this point would have been unfair, this was a white-collar crime and not a violent or dangerous one, so caution was not necessary. But, why is it too much to believe that when he plead guilty to wire fraud (after actively saying he didn’t do anything wrong) that someone would want to have nothing more to do with him? Frankly it smacks of rendering our feeling invalid because you don’t like them, don’t do that.
You say that I am not trying hard enough to understand what you are asking, and I thank you for that by the way. I was trying to understand you despite the fact that you seemed to be trying to play a gotcha game in which we unfairly judged poor, poor Brian.
You seem to be looking for a way in which you can set this up as some sort of unfair turning against Brian Dunning, genuine nice guy instead of what it really is. Brian Dunning, nice guy or not, made a smartly produced and slick sounding podcast that was well received and then pissed away his credibility through a handful of poorly researched episodes and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge any errors that interfered with his worldview followed by the coup de grace of pleading guilty to fraud. I was an erosion of his credibility not some sort of single day event although there was a straw.
If you want to believe that there is some sort of unfair grudge the community holds against Brian “just because” he happened to commit wire fraud you go right ahead, I’m not sure how pointing out that nobody is talking about will prove your point.
Thanks for the extended engagement.
Your timeline is plausible, and I’m willing to accept it as the most likely explanation. I suppose it’s the rapid change in tone that baffles me, the sudden “discovery” of serious sins from the past. Honestly, if members of SGU knew Dunning was faking science or, in your words, “pissing away his credibility through poorly researched episodes and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge any errors” prior to his guilty plea, I would hope that they wouldn’t have asked him on. But sure, maybe you’re right and they just thought that the failures you’re describing were relatively minor, and as Rebecca said, they didn’t even know he was in legal trouble. I really can accept that.
I think people get used to the idea that, when someone posts “who knew what when”, they already have some sort of agenda. I really don’t; I didn’t know Brian Dunning was in trouble, then I read this blog and learned about it (and was admittedly distraught by the tone, as discussed previously), then I remembered Brian cohosting with Rebecca, and looked it up and was really confused as to what had changed her views on him so rapidly.
My experience was, literally:
Monday: Listen to Skeptoid! Awesome!
Tuesday: Listen to SGU! Awesome!
Wednesday: Read Skepchick! Awesome!
Wednesday+2 minutes: Who still listens to Skeptoid? Only lovers of sexist, fact-hating criminals! Ha! Burn!
Wednesday+15 minutes: “What is going on here? Weren’t you guys and Dunning buds just, like, a few months ago?”
Thursday: Why are you protecting Brian Dunning, you apologist? Why are you “pretending to ask questions?”
I mean, as a monetary contributor to both SGU and Skeptoid, I felt like I had a real stake in understanding what was going on.
I am not looking to portray Dunning as being unfairly attacked… although perhaps I should acknowledge a certain pre-existing bias: I live in Louisiana, the state with the highest prison population in the country with the highest prison population in the world, so I see first hand how incredibly aggressive prosecutions go after small and large offenders, destroying lives all across the country.
I have developed something of a disposition of sympathy for the victims of America’s massive prison complex. So when someone pleads guilty to a count of wire fraud and goes to federal prison for 15 months, that’s clearly bad, but some of the “hardened criminal facing 20 years” rhetoric Rebecca threw around in her earlier post really irked me. Prosecutors routinely throw around hugely exaggerated max sentences as a way of scaring defendants and listeners alike (recall that Aaron Swartz was facing, what, 35 years for downloading too many science papers when he committed suicide), and I consider the “facing 20 years” gambit to be something of a cheap rhetorical trick, so I’m willing to entertain the possibility that her “tough on the evil felon” rhetoric may have made me less sympathetic to her other points… many of which focused on rap, or Dunning’s personal failures, which in turn tripped my skeptical radar as non-sequiturs, ad hominems, and other non-arguments.
The post today really was much, much better (as I noted above), since it focuses on and dissects the facts of the case, which, as we’ve already established, I was totally unaware of. And want to learn about. Really.
But as a separate point, I continue to maintain that a podcast like the SGU, hosted by “movement” skeptics, that routinely spends 10-20 minutes talking about legal issues, and that takes down a fraudster literally every other week, could do more than briefly mention a major fraud by a very well-known person in the community: A crime that literally affects many of the listeners directly.
Right now, as far as I know, there was no mention at all. You assert there was some mention, but you can’t cite it. So this point will have to remain unresolved; if someone can point to the SGU or any other big group calling out Dunning when he plead, I’ll withdraw this separate criticism and go back to lurking.
Of course, it’s not your job to do so, mrmisconception; you’ve done quite enough.
PS: You made an error: The sexist cover art story was by Amy Roth, and the DDT criticism came from bug_girl; neither was actually written by Rebecca. I think I’d have been more likely to have seen them when they were published if Rebecca had written them, but who knows? It was a long time ago.
You’re absolutely correct re: if I ran SGU. I’ve always found Dunning to be a bit of a hack at best, and there’s no way I’d have him on any show I ran. I would also have an open discussion of Dunning’s crimes on the show. But, I don’t run SGU – Steve Novella does. If anyone has a problem with SGU not discussing the case, they should take it up with him.
It is blatantly obvious that neither of those things is true. Search this site for Brian Dunning’s name and you will find many posts prior to the news of his conviction breaking. Some recommend certain episodes of Skeptoid, while others criticize certain episodes and other actions by Brian himself (though I don’t think I had ever personally written a critical article about him, I agreed with my writers who did).
After the news of his conviction became public through outlets like Business Insider, I obviously did not hold my tongue and in fact Dunning came up frequently in online conversations on social media and, yes, here on Skepchick. I’m not sure what you find so confusing at this point.
So seriously, please either think critically about the assumptions you are continually making despite being corrected, or stop pretending to be an unbiased observer.
I don’t believe in “unbiased observers”, so I assure you I’m not “pretending” to be one. I’m exactly who I’ve said I am, I contribute to your site(s), I post under my real name, and your continued aspersions and innuendos against my motives are getting boring. Every one of my questions has been genuine, and I’ve accepted every fact you’ve stated, verbatim and without argument. So will you knock off the vitriol, already?
You say you didn’t hold your tongue on online conversations or social media; I guess I was just not part of that loop. I listen to about 20% of your YouTube videos, I read about 5% of all articles on Skepchick, and I listen to 100% of SGU. That’s my profile; I guess I didn’t get the memo.
You say “I don’t think I had ever personally written a critical article about him”, but you agreed with others who did. Ok, good. You also admit, above, that you wouldn’t have invited him on SGU because you’ve always found him to be “a hack, at best” but, fair enough, you don’t make that decision; Steve Novella does. I will reiterate: “Sometimes we bite our tongues about people we know suck because, I dunno, politics.” I do this for people at work every day. It’s not some dire accusation.
So you made nice with this hack on the radio because you don’t run the show. And you bashed him on platforms I don’t happen to encounter. Too bad I missed it.
My takeaway is: the answer for people like me, who supported him without knowing about any of this, is “you should read bug_girl and Amy Roth on Skepchick more, and listen to Steve Novella a little less.” That might be very good advice.
Am I making any new wrong assumptions here? Or do I have to sit through another round of accusations of “pretending”?
No, the answer for people like you is not that you should have known but rather that you shouldn’t be surprised that others who found out before you are in a different place. It’s a simple as that.
Trying to find out that what Rebecca knew and when to justify her opinions of Brian, even if it is not meant to be, comes across as accusatory. Rebecca, and all the Skepchicks are accused of hidden motives all the time so you will excuse her for seeing this as such.
We are humans and don’t have perfect memories, so trying to straighten out that timeline even to ourselves is not easy. @krelnik has pointed out that Rebecca had access to the information of Brian’s indictment before that podcast, okay that’s possible but I believe I heard about it before then as well and, until just before his plea, I still listened to Skeptiod but decided after I stopped laughing when he named Penn & Teller the number one pro-science celebrity that I couldn’t do it any more. That doesn’t mean that I thought Brian was a good source, or that I would trust him when it came to science topics, or that my distrust of him solidified overnight.
These things rarely work that way.
You are coming off extremely accusatory about something that seems rather unimportant. I don’t really understand it. It seems to me that you want a reason to be upset at Rebecca about this situation, but you don’t have anything solid to be upset about, so you’re upset and accusatory about … the timeline? Because she’s supposed to have a perfect memory?
Skepchick — meaning, Rebecca — was one of the few places reporting on this Dunning mess AT ALL. That and PZ Myers and a few other people on FTB.
You’re accusing Rebecca of something, but I don’t know what. It’s all so vague. Especially considering she’s one of the few who has been brave enough to speak out loudly against Dunning (and now she’s being called “vindictive” and “emotional” because of it).
mrmisconception, i really am sorry if i come across as accusatory. i don’t read any of my comments that way. i’m also sorry that rebecca gets a lot of flak, all i can say is, that’s not what i’m doing. or not intentionally at least. i am just trying to understand what happened. i’m actively disappointed i didn’t learn this from SGU, before i gave skeptoid money. blame me for careless listening, or steve for programming, whatever. i wish they had covered it agressively. maybe they still will. as for rebecca and exact dates, no, obviously it’s not some critical thing. i don’t care. but in the future i do hope she has more say in keeping hacks off SGU, if that’s how it went down last year.
I think that’s a perfectly fine takeaway. I don’t happen to harbor any ill will toward the people who supported Dunning without knowing anything about his criminal activity. As far as they were concerned, they were simply supporting science education. My ire has always been focused on Dunning, and those skeptics who were aware of his activities but continued to give him a platform as well as money and kudos.
Also, as an aside, I think it’s clearly wrong to say “this is not what SGU focuses on.” Talking about legal issues facing skeptics is a regular topic (i.e. the baseless lawsuit against Steve for critiquing a doctor, or Simon Singh’s harassment lawsuits for fighting homeopaths in England).
Moreover, revealing frauds is something the show spends an ENORMOUS amount of time on. In fact, it’s almost a regular segment. And rightly so: Skeptics should fight fraud by nature. Isn’t that why Dunning’s actions are so repugnant?
True, the frauds critiqued on SGU are rarely former guest rogues, but doesn’t that make the topic MORE urgent, since listeners might well be getting out their checkbooks to support a guy like Dunning? Shouldn’t blowing him out of the water, loud and clear, be a significant priority? I would think so.
SGU still links to Skeptoid as a skeptical reference, incidentally… some 10 months after the host plead guilty to defrauding his site visitors and eBay. No hurry taking that link down, I guess. [http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/links]
Just to be pedantic, Singh was sued by chiropractors, not homeopaths.
not pedantic, a significant correction. thanks!
Good distinction– homeopathic harassment refers to the inappropriate fondling of someone’s aura. Verrrry different crime.
I don’t see much value in Dunning – but I think that the type of frauds that they talk about on SGU, and to be fair, most other skeptical outlets – are a whole different animal from the type of wire fraud that Dunning is engaged in. I mean, we hear about homeopathy frauds, psychic frauds, woo-involved frauds of all sorts, etc., but not much in the realm of people just being sketchy with money. I think the closest the SGU gets would be criticisms of multi-level marketing, which doesn’t necessarily involve ‘woo’ per se, except that the phenomenon of multi-level marketing is pitched to the public as akin to a magic formula that will get them money, which is its own sort of woo.
This fraud case wasn’t really a case of consumer protection – Dunning was defrauding eBay, and to a lesser extent, honest people in the ad-clicking business. So, I don’t really see how it falls under the typical purview of something that the SGU would want to talk about extensively – except to the extent that they sometimes address controversies in skepticism itself.
Thank you for posting this Rebecca. I will be removing our link to skeptoid. I am disgusted with Dunning’s behavior and insincere attempt at an apology. I use to be a huge fan of his but i can’t get over his deception and greed.
Nice job, Ms Watson. I was a real fan of the Skeptoid podcast, used to rec it and share it a lot. Now I feel like taking a long shower. This is sleazy, dishonest conduct, and Dunning got off pretty light IMO. I hope for his own sake the time in stir will get him to reflect on his behavior and make some changes, but until I see something truly notable along those lines I will follow the advice of this podcast guy I used to think pretty highly of and Be Skeptical.
Having read all this, there’s actually a pretty simple reason how Dunning has been raking in millions and yet ebay ‘only’ complained about $200-400k.
The only way ebay gets defrauded is if someone buys something from ebay without there being ANY party that would receive the commission.
To ebay the loss of money when one commission taker defrauds another is ZERO.
So what Dunning really is saying here is that while he ‘only’ defrauded ebay for a maximum of 400k, that means that the other additional income he received was defrauded from other commission takers. Because people tend to visit similar websites that roughly $4 million was taken disproportionally from our skeptical community and from us, the visitors.
A visitor to skeptoid did not personally lose money buying from ebay, true.
But if he/she bought from ebay specifically with a referral from a website they wished to support, then Dunning stole their contribution to that website!
How much of a dupe must someone be to defend Dunning while he has actually pled guilty to defrauding exactly the people defending him!
Oh, wow, I hadn’t even considered that. I wouldn’t call this an out-and-out fact, but it’s a very, very good explanation. Thanks.
Well, ebay is suing him, so could these other parties start a class action? Meh, he’s probably uncollectible anyway, especially if he’s been transferring his assets or his company’s assets to family members (which is what it sounds like).
He’s the Kent Hovind of skepticism at this point. (Or he would be if he’d claimed the money all belonged to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and had pled “subornation of false muster” at his arraignment.)
Good analysis. But there’s one comment towards the end that I think is worth clarifying/correcting:
“By his own admission, Dunning did top a million dollars in income. Unless we’re splitting hairs here, that would make him a millionaire at that time, and he did have the gall to beg for donations, repeatedly, on his podcast, on his website, and in his multiple successful Kickstarter campaigns.”
The Skeptoid podcast began in October 2006, and based on the latest information, Dunning’s eBay affiliate marketing scheme ended in mid-2007. As I recall, in the early days of Skeptoid, Dunning was rather explicit about *not* having advertisements and *not* asking for donations from listeners; it seemed to be a point of pride that it was a free, non-commercial service.
At some point that attitude changed, and sometime on or before December 6, 2008, he began asking for donations. (It’s hard to tell *exactly* when this change happened without sampling a LOT of audio clips. But the 12/6/08 release was an announcement rather than a normal episode, so it was easy to find.)
Thus, given the dates, it would seem as if Dunning was never raking in big eBay dollars and asking for donations at the same time. Only after he stopped getting checks from eBay did he start asking listeners for money. I’m pointing this out only to establish the timeline, not to suggest that this is better or worse than the alternative. (One could argue it’s actually worse, since it might imply that the early days of Skeptoid were in fact *subsidized* by the eBay affiliate marketing money.)
Good points! I don’t listen to the show, so I didn’t realize he didn’t start asking for donations until after the FBI raid. That makes a lot of sense, actually, and you’ve done far more to debunk that myth than Dunning did in his defense.
Especially given that the FBI probably froze his assets pending investigation.
I never really realized what a tool Brian Dunning was until recently. I was even able to forgive his cringe-worthy rap and other odd “contributions” to the skeptical movement because I felt they were all in jest and just him having a bit of fun. Every time I would get a hint of a bit of arrogance from him it didn’t really phase me because tons of skeptics/atheists are extremely arrogant. A lot of his oddities are falling into place now as they paint a bigger picture of his character. I read that caption under the picture of his family the other day, even before you pointed it out here, and I had to do a double-take. Those couple of sentences really took the cake for me and sealed my opinion of Dunning. I had the exact same reaction, “What the hell does saving stranded tourists have to do with swindling ebay for 5 mil? How does one good deed cancel out a crime? #biblelogic”
Alex Ford… I got the same sense from Dunning. His contributions were often lame, but it was tough for me to criticize. If a person is being genuine and earnest I can’t really mock them too much because their product sucks. I appreciated most of Dunning’s content because the chosen subject matter was interesting. I couldn’t sit through his musical numbers because I like my ears too much, but still respected the balls it took for him to actually make such a video starring himself. I don’t even like my picture on the internet.
What’s changed for me in the last few days is now it’s clear Dunning is not a genuine and honest person. Suddenly all of his lame material looks like a hackneyed attempt to extort trusting skeptics. I no longer see any charm in the low-quality production values. I see a guy who probably knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t care if he made a shitty product. His audience would buy it anyway. As for the photo caption, it makes me wonder if he even learned what skepticism is. Does he really think people with strong bullshit detectors will fall for that?
Very good question. I don’t know if he genuinely supports the cause of skepticism and also just happens to be greedy, or if he only pretends to support the cause because he found a niche that would help contribute to his greed. The world may never know.
I suspect he genuinely supports the cause. My guess is that he saw an opportunity to steal, figured he could get away with it, and went for it.
The tl;dr for Brian Dunning’s apology is “Mea culpa, mea minima culpa.”
If anyone wants to copy & paste content from Brian’s post, I made a little bookmarklet that will enable it: http://codepen.io/Chevex/full/jpBfE/
Just so you know there aren’t any other shenanigans going on in the bookmarklet, here’s the source: http://codepen.io/Chevex/pen/jpBfE
Excellent analysis, although I do have one question about this line:
I suppose I’m a bad skeptic, because I don’t see the ad hom.
Seems more like a reverse ad hominem. Instead of “attacking the person and not the argument” it’s “focusing on the character instead of the arguments”. There’s probably a better fallacy for what he’s doing there though. A non-sequitur and strawman come to mind.
It looks more like the converse of “ad hominem”: you should believe person X because X is such a good person. E.g., you should believe in creationism because Mother Teresa said so, and since she was a saint, she must be right.
Is there a term for this sort of fallacy?
Using it in the case of a name like Mother Theresa would make it an argument from authority. I don’t know if there’s a special name for the fallacy that goes, “Joe Nobody is a real nice guy, so he must be right.” It is kinda the reverse of poisoning the well… sweetening the pot? If a random person is arguing a case based on their past good deeds, it’s certainly an appeal to emotion.
Actually Rebecca was right, it’s an ad hominem. We usually only see the negitive version, the attack, but the fallacy is really just a subsection of non sequitur where you focus on the arguer rather than the argument. It can be positive but is usually negative.
You beast me to it. Ad Hominem is actually a category of fallacies.
Poisoning the Well is an Ad Hominem. Insulting someone is an Abusive Ad Hominem. And so on.
I’ve heard the term ‘halo effect’ used for the ‘good’ side of ad hominem.
Ad hominem is everywhere. It’s just gotten worse with the internet.
My personal favorite ad hominem is, of course, the ad monsantum.
No it’s not an ad hom. It’s an attempt at an appeal to authority – he’s saying that because he has a family, and helped some other people out etc, he should be trusted.
The appeal to authority is really a reverse ad hom, which is perhaps where the confusion comes from.
Computer fraud is one of those crimes I can’t feel sympathy for. I mean, there are thieves I can sympathize with, but if you have a computer, you don’t need to resort to crime to survive.
I don’t know… If Brian Dunning and his family were living out of their station wagon and he was using a public library computer to defraud people out of just enough money to keep the car running so they could heat a can of soup on the engine block, I could sympathize a little.
Brian Dunning has a robots.txt on his web site that is telling the Wayback Machine at Archive.org not to archive his web site. I wonder why.
There’s a passage that Rebecca quoted above, but which she didn’t comment on specifically, that irks me the more I think about it:
“We put the money toward paying off our mortgage and opening college savings accounts for our kids. Then just as we were about to start saving, everything came to an abrupt end.”
This appears to have been offered up as a mitigating factor, with the implicit message being something like ‘I didn’t spend the money frivolously on hookers and blow; I spent it responsibly to better my family, and didn’t receive a windfall.’
But the fact remains that the money *DID* directly benefit him financially. He quickly retired the largest debt he had, i.e. his mortgage. He set up what were presumably large college savings accounts for his kids. If he’d stated that he spent all (or even most) of the money on charity, then maybe that could be sympathetic. But using a million in gross income for his own benefit, and then talking as if that somehow makes it *BETTER*, is bizarre in the context of a defense.
Thank you for the critical analysis. I listen to the SGU, Skeptoid and Skeptic Zone every week and never knew. I really hope the skeptic community does not gloss over Brian’s new title “convicted felon”, it makes us all look a little hypocritical.
Well written, Rebecca.
I was a donor to Skeptoid for years until I read the first mention of Dunning’s misdeeds on Skepchick some time ago.
I don’t understand why anyone bothers to defend Dunning or Radford at this stage. Or D.J. Groethe for that matter. While I’m strangely hesitant to throw James Randi under that bus, he lost me when he made his ridiculous post about climate science, which then resulted in the exit of the excellent Phil Plait from the JREF. Unless there’s something I know about Phil Plait.
As for the comments of some posters about the lack of coverage of this on the SGU, I’ve have also wondered at this (and commented on it when you first wrote about Dunning’s egregious behaviour a while back). I accept that SGU is Steve Novella’s own cult of personality, but it’d be nothing without the rest of you (in particular you, Jay and Evan – I can take or leave Bob as he has a special talent to make almost anything seem mind-numbingly tedious).
Thank you for this write-up. For all the years I listened to Skeptoid, there was always something wrong, something that bothered me about the show, and now I know that it was Brian Dunning.
The episodes that make fun of UFO events or supposed supernatural phenomena are entertaining and all, but you know I don’t think I ever heard him admit to a single factual mistake in any of the episodes where he supposedly “made corrections”. Small things yes; grammar, date confusions, mistaking a person for another person with a similar name, accidentally transposing two terms, etc. But never a meaningful mistake that could or would affect the conclusion of the episode, like accidentally using a fraudulent source, or leaving out information he should have included.
And that’s just not possible, everyone makes mistakes. I work in research, and if the auditors find no mistakes, they assume fraud.
His DDT episode really made me suspicious, so I stopped paying attention to him awhile ago. But I came across the information about his incarceration today, and I was shocked at first, but your analysis has been revelatory to me, and shows that his explanation was completely disingenuous. I think I’m done with Dunning.
Bless You Tenfold SkepChick For Staying Above!
I have been a subscriber to Skeptoid for at least four to five years now. I was all too often skeptical of his postings, yet there were very few that caught me eye. Today I played ring around the rosie with his reporter Mike ‘Rothschild’… It was clear to me they only want you to post comments that feeds their cause not TRUTH!
In my annoyance with him I went online to do some dirt digging and instantly found your post about Brian Dunning’s arrest!
My heartfelt appreciaiton for following this article to the bitter end all…
I did notice in his letter how he portrayed himself the loving family man who saved others…. EEESH!
Now that he has been released and put out a statement explaining that eBay new all along that he wasn’t directing people to their site but that the just paid him millions of dollars because they felt like it, that the person who could have told the truth was mysteriously transferred to Europe because reasons and that it was all a big conspiracy of the government and eBay, who both new the charges were false, perhaps Rebecca will retract her criticism.
Yes, conspiracy theories with no good proof always makes Rebecca apologize.
I would expect one any day now.
Neither Ashmanic’s comment nor your reply made any sense to me until I remembered to turn on my snark filter, which immediately highlighted “because they felt like it” and “because reasons”. Just a reminder to the inevitably sarcasm-challenged…
Sorry, forgot my s/ tag.
I was trying not to be hostile because I can’t frankly tell if @Ashamanic was being sincere or sarcastic themselves, can read it either way.
I know that sarcasm can be easy to miss, but I thought I had laid it on so thick it wouldn’t be possible to mistake my comment for someone who thought his defence was reasonable.
Oh, hey! Now we get to move into the “Restoring One’s Reputation via Popular Skeptical Podcast” phase of the story while the popular skeptical podcast hosts toss softballs to a convicted felon. Meanwhile, they also pretend to meaningfully address the whale in the room when actually they’re just begging him to give them legitimate cover for having him on the show, then let his word stand without an substantive pushback that might have included, oh, I dunno, maybe some of the pesky details Rebecca laid out for everyone above.
Worse than that, if it could be possible, the SGU gave the ever-heinous Emery Emery showtime to vigorously defend Dunning. There was not a single mention of how outrageously shitily this asshole treated you, Rebecca. Just a simple acknowledgement that he’s a shit individual would have been nice.
Boy, I can’t wait to donate to this documentary! It will show, I have no doubt, how so very morally superior skeptics are when compared to Christian documentarians who use underhanded tactics to edit their films. Skeptics would never be caught whitewashing history or facts! /snark
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