The Indictment of Brian Dunning

I figured I’d write a quick post on this, since I haven’t seen much of anyone talking about it around the skeptical blogosphere. In case you missed it, Brian Dunning, of the Skeptoid podcast and Skepticblog, has been indicted for wire fraud, and potentially faces some huge fines and jail time as a result of it. The full text of Dunning’s indictment is here, and it sounds pretty damning. Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but I have a hard time believing that these kinds of charges could be filed without some pretty solid evidence to back them up. Then again, until this weekend I thought “cookie stuffing” was what I did with E.L. Fudges and my belly this past week, so take it with a grain of salt.

So, why should I blog about this? Obviously I don’t think that Dunning’s alleged crimes invalidate his arguments against homeopathy or conspiracy theories. The claims stand on their own, and so forth. But I do think it’s important to keep a clean house. If I call out fraudsters and charlatans like Kevin Trudeau and Andrew Wakefield, but give Brian Dunning a free pass because I subscribe to his podcast, then I’m treading quite close to hypocrisy. And I think it behooves the skeptical community to do the same. We’re a fairly small group with only a few media-prominent members; when one of them is (allegedly) committing fraud or making sexist remarks or spreading disinformation, then it’s our responsibility to call them out first. Again, it’s largely a matter of hypocrisy–if we’re going to criticize liberal Christians for giving a free pass to Rick Warren or Pat Robertson, then we shouldn’t be giving out free passes either.

There’s also an element of outrage-tinged schadenfreude. I like Skeptoid as a podcast, but there’s no denying that the same stripe of foot-in-mouth libertarian-themed stupidity runs through Dunning’s works as runs through Penn and Teller’s. His early “new bill of rights” episode was an unfunny screed, and more recently his episode on DDT–which earned him justified criticism from just about everyone–provided a serious hit to his credibility. Not to mention the way his run-ins with sexism and serious gadfly syndrome (an example) have made him look like a giant douchebag.

The outrage, however, comes from knowing that I enjoyed Skeptoid enough to do the $4/month donation for several months, finally caving to Dunning’s frequent postscript pleas for money. The donation requests were interesting, since Skeptoid once billed itself as “the only podcast that does not accept donations or sponsors,” which led gradually to ‘it’s easy to donate at 99 cents an episode,’ to the more recent “if 2% of Skeptoid listeners donated 99 cents per episode, I could do it full time.” If I’d known that Dunning’s company had made $5.3 million over the span of a year or so, possibly through wildly illegal and unethical practices, then I highly doubt I’d be sending him that donation. I don’t feel too bad about it–I keep buying seasons of “Bullshit,” even if each one has an episode or two that I have no desire to watch–but it’s still kind of bullshit to beg for money when most podcasters do it for free, and when you’re making even a fraction of that kind of bank at your real job. It makes me feel worse that I gave into his begging, but haven’t donated to other (better) podcasts like the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe or the Non-Prophets.

If I were to do some armchair psychoanalysis, I’d say that the problem with being a libertarian (or having some apparent libertarian leanings, since Dunning denies the label) skeptic is that, as a skeptic, you’re aware of lots of ways to fool people and scam them out of money, and as a libertarian, you don’t think you have any responsibility to keep those people from being scammed. I certainly don’t think it’s that simple, especially since it looks like the real victim here is eBay (and other affiliates, but they aren’t the ones being directly scammed, just stolen from by proxy), but I suspect that libertarian political leanings probably have the same kind of effect on moral behavior that they have on skepticism. And their effect on skepticism often seems to be to force logic, reason, and evidence into a subordinate position to political ideology.

In any case, watch this story. I certainly hope that this gets as much attention from the skeptical blogosphere as Bill Maher’s anti-medicine woo-woo or Randi’s global warming misinformation. It’s important that we call out our own luminaries, lest we foster an environment where unreason and corruption can grow unabated.

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19 Responses to The Indictment of Brian Dunning

  1. Techskeptic says:

    Are you sure this is the right Brian dunning?

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    "Briandunning.com," the personal/business website of the selfsame Dunning who runs Skeptoid (his image is on the site), is mentioned in the indictment. Unless there's another Brian Dunning in California in the tech industry, running Skeptoid!Brian Dunning's website, then it's the same guy.

  3. Doubting Tom says:

    As a further point, the indictment mentions "Thunderwood Holdings." Thunderwood College is the fake online university that Dunning created and maintains, which got mentioned in a Skeptoid episode at one point, and is linked in his bio at Skeptoid.com.

  4. Techskeptic says:

    Sometimes I think Me and my friends are the only ethical people on the planet. Wtf. It's not that hard.

  5. Don says:

    I think it's not that hard when one has no inclination to act unethically. I'm beginning to think of it similarly to my teetotaling: people sometimes say it must be hard not to drink, but it's not because I'm never inclined to do so. There's no impulse to control. Likewise I don't, and I bet you don't, tend to get impulses to rip people off just because we can.

  6. Will Staples says:

    as a libertarian, you don't think you have any responsibility to keep those people from being scammedI'm not sure about that; in the sense that libertarians are okay with laws against theft, I'm sure they'd feel the same about fraud. Of course, I'm sure they'd find a way to blame fraud on Big Government (TM).Randi's global warming misinformationRandi's on the climate denial bandwagon? Really? That makes me sad.

  7. Doubting Tom says:

    I'm not sure about that; in the sense that libertarians are okay with laws against theft, I'm sure they'd feel the same about fraud.I don't know; combating fraud implies regulation, and libertarians are often so anti-regulation.

  8. Doubting Tom says:

    As for Randi, it's not that he's a climate change denialist. He came out with a boneheaded statement about AGW a year or two ago, and was promptly schooled by smart folks like Phil Plait. His revised statement clarified not so much that he'd been mistaken, but that he has no idea what the mechanisms are behind global warming. He seemed to think it was due to excess heat coming from factories, or something really weird like that. It was not even wrong.

  9. Of course everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but if Brian Dunning is guilty of committing millions of dollars of wire fraud then we as skeptics shouldn't give him any sort of free pass. I find the idea of asking people for money whilst (essentially) stealing huge amounts of money to be unacceptable. It's a real shame, I do enjoy the Skeptoid podcasts.I don't think it's comparable to Randi's statement on global warming though.

  10. Doubting Tom says:

    I don't think it's comparable to Randi's statement on global warming though.Comparable only in that it's an instance where we should call out our own and not give them free passes. Otherwise, yes, completely different.

  11. craig phelps says:

    The indictment is 2010. Do we have any info on what has happened since?

  12. Don says:

    No. And nobody is talking about it.

  13. Anonymous says:

    According to PACER, the matter has been continued for discovery purposes until late October 2011. The last status hearing was in late June 2011.

  14. Doubting Tom says:

    The wheels of justice turn slowly. Thanks, Anonymous; I registered for a PACER account, but apparently they have to send me the username and password through snail mail, because they're still working on ARPAnet or something. Once I get the account, though, I'll keep an eye on this case when it starts back up in the Fall. Someone should be talking about it.

  15. Nathan says:

    I enjoyed my weekly Skeptoid a little less once I learned this.

  16. Here is what I'm able to say. My apologies for leaving people hanging for as long as I've been required to, my listeners certainly deserve to know as much as possible.http://skeptoid.com/blog/2011/10/05/a-partial-explanation/

  17. blaine says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. blaine says:

    Er, you mean your former listeners certainly deserve to know as much as possible, right? Thanks Dunning, we'll get it from more reputable sources.

  19. Pingback: A follow-up | Dubito Ergo Sum

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