You may recall almost two years ago I posted about the indictment of Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, on charges of wire fraud. I actually signed up for a PACER account to follow the case, since no one else in the skeptical community seemed all that interested, but (like so many things) I never followed through with it since life got in the way.
I especially meant to write a follow-up after Dunning posted a form reply on that original post four months later, linking to his official statement on the matter. The way it tried to redefine and justify cookie stuffing in ways that a glimpse at Wikipedia could refute, and elided the way that the practice actually harms people trying to do business online, rang false and stank of guilt, but I never got around to actually posting about it.
Well, now, Brian Dunning has pled guilty. And to read what some people (like the blogger at the Skeptical Abyss) its as though Skepticism has lost its first martyr.
In the end, though, it is about a public figure in the skeptical community, and not just any public figure. It is, in fact, about a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason. The man of whom I write is all of that (and I say this without so much of a whiff of irony), and much more.
You have got to be fucking kidding me.
Look, I enjoy Skeptoid as a podcast. I disagree with some of the stances Dunning’s taken over the years, but I respect that he can at least make a show of correcting his mistakes. I like the wide variety of topics, and at one point, I liked the podcast enough to donate to it.
But Dunning is no luminary, no shining light, and I hesitate to associate with any “skeptic” that would so try to elevate a human being. Especially a human being who, you know, pled guilty to fraud.
This is, without any doubt, a horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large. One of our leaders has shown that he is not the man that many of us hoped that he would be.
What makes Dunning a “leader”? He heads no organization, he holds no elected or appointed position so far as I know. He talks for fifteen minutes each week about a topic in skepticism. Maybe the problem here isn’t that “one of our leaders” fell short of being the “luminary” and “shining light” that some wanted him to be. Maybe it’s that we conflate “popular speaker” with “leader” and further expect either one to have as much expertise in moral and ethical realms as scientific and skeptical ones.
It’s an ad hominem (or pro hominem) mistake. Being a good skeptical podcaster doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, or an ethical software designer. Each of those is a separate skill set. One would think that the Skeptical Abyss would be familiar with these basic cognitive biases.
Also, note here that it’s a “horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large.” I’m sure it is. You know who else it’s a tragedy for? The victims of fraud. Maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, it wouldn’t have been such a tragic loss if, you know, no one had broken the law.
All leading invariably to where we are now, because once the United States Attorney indicts you, you are pretty much done. The US Attorney, unlike state prosecutors, gets to pick and choose their cases, and they only indict people that they are sure of convicting.
That’s a fascinating claim that I would love to see the evidence for.
When someone does a podcast like Skeptoid, and they speak into our earbuds once a week, we start to think of them as a friend, even though we do no know them.
This is true. And I would kind of hope that a skeptical site would recognize that this is also a mistake. Brian Dunning is not my friend, I do not know him, he does not know me, and I should not assume that because I have fifteen minutes of one-way contact with him each week, that I can thus draw any valid conclusions about his character, his ethics, or any of his activities outside of producing a podcast. The sense of familiarity we feel with celebrities is an illusion, and the gushing laudatory comments throughout this piece are the result of confusing that illusion for reality.
Many of us have looked up to him, and considered him a beacon of reason. And yet, here we are. A hero has fallen.
I said this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating: how do you end up with such low standards of heroism that “guy who hosts a podcast I like” is worthy of the title? How, in the same week that saw marathon runners continuing past the finish line to donate blood at the hospital, do you arrive at “guy with a fun series of YouTube videos” as your standard for heroism? Do you consider “guy who can do that rubber pencil trick” the standard for a great magician? Is a Big Mac your go-to example of haute cuisine? Is “socks in the dryer” on your list of favorite movies?
This heroism nonsense ends up being a vicious cycle. The more we respond to talented people by placing them on pedestals, treating them like something higher and more-than normal people, the more shocked and disappointed we’re going to be when they fail to live up to the standards we unreasonably held them to. No one should have considered Brian Dunning anything more than a talented, bright guy with a good podcast in the first place, and responding to the revelation that, no, in fact, he’s really just a bright talented guy and also guilty of wire fraud with these fawning “hero” and “luminary” and “shining light” comments only perpetuates the problem. Because it’s likely to become “Brian Dunning is a hero who was persecuted by an unjust system” or “Brian Dunning wasn’t the shining beacon of pure reason that we thought he was, but all these other skeptical heroes surely are!”
Let’s learn from this mistake: having a good podcast does not make you a leader. It does not make you a good person. It does not make you a law-abiding citizen. It does not make you a hero or a shining beacon of reason or even correct.
It makes you a good podcaster.
Brian Dunning is a pretty good podcaster. He’s also someone who pled guilty to wire fraud. Anything else requires additional evidence.
Edit: There are lots of people in various comment sections saying we should be skeptical, that a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily mean that the person committed the crime, and so forth. I agree, but I also think it’s worthwhile to consider the evidence against that claim, too. Evidence like the statements he made to an FBI Special Agent. It’s damning, and further damning are the claims made in the suppression request that, were they the subject of one of the Skeptoid podcasts, would be among the things torn apart toward the middle.
You can be skeptical of Dunning’s guilt; you can believe his claims of feeling like he was under duress and disbelieve the counterclaims of the FBI agents, and that’s all well and good. But if you’re doing it out of loyalty or personal incredulity, you’re not really being skeptical.