“Believe that narrative, brah”

So, regarding the most recent development in the Stollznow/Radford harassment situation, Adam Lee noted how Hemant Mehta hadn’t contacted him (or, near as I can tell, any of the bloggers he mentions) before writing a post about the most recent developments in said situation, wherein he says those bloggers have an obligation to correct the record, make apologies, and blahdey blah.

I’ve been keeping up with the case on and off in my spare time, downloading court documents from PACER and mostly not having time to read through anything, but even a brief refresher on the matter showed that Mehta had gotten several things wrong in his post, not least of which was making insinuations and bloviating about journalistic responsibility when not actually bothering to talk to any of the people involved, though nearly all of them have publicly-available e-mail addresses, before insinuating that they’re being dishonest and have an agenda. Once again, we see that standards like “apply the principle of charity” and “pick up the phone” only go one way. So I said this:

@DaylightAtheism It’s okay, he didn’t bother to read Radford’s signed statement or look into the actual history of the matter either.

To which one of the atheoskeptic movement’s gaggle of assholes responded, a day later:

@Doubting_Tom Believe that narrative, brah. Believe until it becomes true.

So the SIWOTI syndrome hit, and now I’m writing this post instead of doing work. Thankfully, I’ve already hit most of the salient points in comments at various places. So, I’m pulling it all together here.

First, Hemant said:

Stollznow now says the allegations weren’t true.

We’ll leave aside the issue of believing wholeheartedly a statement released by one party in a case, especially when that party previously released a similar statement last year, falsely claiming it was signed and agreed upon by both parties. That event from last year is important, because despite linking to it in his post, Mehta seems to be unaware of what it said, and the key difference that makes that quote above such an egregious misrepresentation. To wit:

Karen Stollznow does not say the allegations weren’t true. An accurate description of what has happened is that Ben Radford released a statement that Karen Stollznow allegedly signed, and does not deny signing.

That statement does not say the allegations weren’t true. This is where it’s important to read things carefully, and especially important to consider what’s come before. The statement says “it would be wrong for anyone to believe” the allegations. This is weaselly wording, likely there as a result of a legal compromise. It would be much clearer, and would take far fewer words, to simply flat-out state that the allegations were untrue and are now retracted, which the statement from 2014 actually does:

These accusations and complaints against Benjamin Radford were false and Karen Stollznow retracts them. Radford was disciplined by the Center for Inquiry on the basis of them. One of Stollznow’s minor complaints (that Radford briefly stood in front of her during an argument when she wanted to walk past him) was the result of miscommunication during their relationship, but the accusations of sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, unwanted emails and the like were and are categorically false.

Emphasis mine. That’s a key difference between the statement that Stollznow did not sign and openly disavowed, and the new statement. It seems like a pretty relevant difference, too. There is no recanting, there is no retraction, there is no admission of dishonesty (or really, of anything, other than an acrimonious breakup and various unspecified misunderstandings) in the current signed statement. Mehta’s summary is a mischaracterization of what the statement says, especially in light of what has happened previously.

Mehta goes on to say this:

Radford has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

And this is false in nearly every possible way.

First, Radford hasn’t actually been cleared of any wrongdoing; CFI found sufficient cause to punish him for wrongdoing when the complaint was first made privately, and hasn’t (to my knowledge) since recanted or apologized or said they were wrong to do so.

Second, the court did not clear Radford of any wrongdoing, because the case was dismissed by consent of both parties. The court makes no statement regarding Radford’s wrongdoing, because the matter was settled out of court.

Third, no matter what the outcome of this case was, it couldn’t possibly clear Radford of any wrongdoing, because he was the plaintiff. The one accused of wrongdoing in this case was Karen Stollznow. At best, you could say that Karen Stollznow has been cleared of libel, assault, and slander1, but even that would be an overstatement since, again, they settled out of court.

So yes, I will continue to believe this narrative, brah, because it actually is true that Mehta has misrepresented various aspects of this case, whether through ignorance, incompetence, bias, or some combination of the three. The question remains, though: if you characterize a situation in a way that turns out to be false, don’t you have an obligation to correct it?

1. I took that phrasing of the parameters of the complaint from an earlier version, I think from the dismissed New Mexico case. Having looked through the more current documents, a more accurate version would be “defamation, fraud, and interference with beneficial contractual relations.” Either way, the point and outcome are the same. No matter what the actual complaint was, it was made against Stollznow and dismissed.

Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

[CW: Racism]

I used to be a big fan of “Family Guy.” I owned the first several seasons, and watched them repeatedly. I rejoiced when the show came back from its cancellation, even if the interim productions (A “live from Vegas” album and the direct-to-DVD Stewie movie) weren’t spectacular. I listened to the commentaries, which were often just as entertaining as the show itself. I loved how the show skewered right-wing religious fundamentalism, how frequently it crossed into the boundaries of bad taste for a laugh. Like, there was the bit where a JFK Pez dispenser got shot, or where Osama Bin Laden was trying to get past airport security by singing showtunes, and the whole “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode. The latter of those never made it to air; the former segments were even cut from the DVD sets. Family Guy was edgy.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator and significant part of the voice cast of the show, is decidedly liberal, and his politics have certainly informed the series. More and more as the show went on, we saw bits lampooning creationists and religion, promoting pot legalization and gay marriage and positive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as the show went on, we saw more and more of the stuff that eventually soured me on the series. That same “edginess,” that same intentionally-offensive philosophy of “we make fun of everyone,” meant more characters who were stereotype caricatures. Brian’s flamboyantly gay relative, the Asian reporter (voiced by a white woman) who occasionally slips into a “me ruv you rong time” accent for a laugh, the creepy old pedophile. And of course Quagmire, whose ’50s-throwback ladies-man character is eventually just a vehicle for relentless rape jokes.

Seth MacFarlane would probably tell you that he’s not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe. He would probably tell you that he’s very liberal, that the show constantly makes fun of right-wing ideologies and satirizes even his erstwhile employers at Fox. In satirical parlance, he’d probably argue that his show is “punching up.”

The problem is that, while doing all that punching, he’s not giving any thought to the splash damage toward people who might not be his actual targets. What about satirizing right-wingers necessitates rape jokes and racial stereotypes? Would his satire be as effective without those elements? Might it be better? I don’t think Seth MacFarlane cares much. They get laughs, and when it comes down to it, laughs matter more to guys like Seth MacFarlane than the targets of those laughs.

There are lots of people in similar boats, willing to throw anyone under the bus for a cheap laugh, then defend themselves by saying that they’re being satirical, that because they’re politically liberal, or because they satirize the powerful in addition to the powerless, that they can’t be bigots. They’re just equal-opportunity offenders, treating everyone the same, and you don’t see their powerful targets complaining.

Which, of course, misses the point. It misses the point like a white person saying “well how come it’s okay to say ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ but not the n-word?” It misses the point like a man saying “female comedians are always telling jokes about men, how come it’s only sexist when I tell jokes about chicks or rape?” It misses the point that when not all people are equal in society, mocking them equally does unequal harm. Author Saladin Ahmed put it best when he said “In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone serves the powerful. It is worth asking what pre-existing injuries we add our insults to.

It’s an important thing to remember when you’re a satirist. Who is your target? Who do you want to hurt, and who might get hurt in the crossfire? Is it necessary to your point for your target to have sex with an offensive transphobic caricature? Is it necessary to your point to dredge up stereotypical slurs against one minority to lampoon bigotry against another? Is it necessary in making fun of racists and homophobes to replicate racist and homophobic imagery?

“Satire” is not a shield that protects its creators from crticism. “Liberalism” is not an inoculation that prevents its bearers from committing bigoted acts. Punching down is a problem. Splash damage is a problem. Not all slights are covered by “but look at the larger context,” not when your “larger context” conveniently omits the context of centuries of caricatures with hook noses or big lips or fishnet stockings.

And, it should go without saying, “criticism” doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun.


Dear Muslimo

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you get stopped and harassed and interrogated and strip searched every time you try to travel . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you’re constantly judged based on superficial similarities to bad people, and you can’t live where you please without enduring rude questions and harassment from rubes who think you’re a terrorist or infiltrator, and the government is allowed to detain you indefinitely without trial if you behave suspiciously, and you’ll never be able to take a piloting class or run a marathon or buy fertilizer without ending up on a dozen watch lists. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor British brothers have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, he calls himself “Richard Dawkins,” and do you know what happened to him? A TSA security agent took away his jar of honey. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He took his jar of honey. Of course he protested, and of course he knew the preexisting security rules, but even so . . .

And you, Muslimo, think you have inconvenience, intrusion, and harassment to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


(Relevant History)

The Shocking Truth SHE Doesn’t Want You To Know About!!!1!

Yesterday, I introduced you to the kinds of laughable conspiracy theories that can result when, like Twitterer Atheismpluscrap, you choose comforting delusions over unpleasant realities.

But man, if you’re going to believe ridiculous things, you might as well go all-in, right? “Atheism plus is a covert religious group trying to discredit atheism by promoting fascist feminism” barely registers on the conspiracy theory wackyometer. Chart of conspiracy theories where craziness is on the x-axis going from less to more crazy as you go left to right, and where importance is on the y-axis, going from less to more important from bottom to top.It’s on the very bottom of this chart, and only slightly toward the right-hand side. So let’s help Atheismpluscrap out a bit by punching up their conspiracy.

It all starts in Atlantis, a perfect society built on MRA principles, where the social recognition of women as inferior emotional sperm-vampires led to the development of a technologically-advanced continent the likes of which have not been seen since. When men are not distracted by the needs of and endless competition for women, there is no need for war or hierarchy. There was no need for stifling government in Atlantis, for the perfect free market directed all things, unsullied by feminine influence.

This is not to say that women were mistreated in Atlantis; quite the contrary. They were well provided-for, never needing to work beyond mating. The lack of a system of marriage or paternity ensured that children would be raised by he community as a whole, without distracting men with the unnatural demands of monogamy and the so-called “nuclear family”–nuclear because it’s radioactive, causing a slow wasting-away death of both individual and society.

Of course this hyper-rational, enlightened culture was atheistic. The concept of gods never even occurred to a society without the feminine invention of “faith,” or knowledge derived from womanly “feelings” and “intuition.”

But then there were the Amazons, a warlike, man-hating, petty matriarchy living on the mainland. The influence of the Amazons on other cultures was what led to the development of most violence and disease in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and they pillaged technological advances from the men of those lands. They spread their philosophies of religion and feminism to indoctrinate women and enslave men to a system of faith-based “tradition,” installing an unachievable male ideal as the head of a system of gods which emphasized the notion that males and females could be equals.

Atlantis had the oceans and its technology to protect it from the toxic influence of fascist feminism, but eventually those barriers were breached, the Amazons wearing away at their defenses until they could no longer stand the assault. Once the women of Atlantis began to believe the comforting myths of the Amazons, they rose up and demanded male enslavement, or male extermination. Some enlightened men escaped, but the knowledge and technology of Atlantis was scattered to the winds, and the island itself was lost forever.

The Amazonian system of religion spread, changing here and there, but always holding men in an emasculating position subordinate to some greater man. This, along with the inventions of sex competition and marriage and paternity, created competition and hierarchy between men, and led to all wars and conflicts, all class stratification and government.

There have been men who stood up to this system, but the system endures, striking them down whenever possible. Abraham Lincoln was a strong red-pill man, who recognized that all men were equal, superior to women, and so the feminazi woman supremacists had him killed by an effeminate thespian. John F. Kennedy was a virile red-pill man, openly flaunting the oppression of marriage and selecting multiple mates as any alpha deserves, so the gynotalitarian femifascists had him killed by a simpering beta who bought into the feminine collectivist lie of Communism. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were fearless red-pill men who openly spoke about putting women in their rightful places, so with the help of manginas like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, they emasculated John with a forced feminazi marriage and killed and replaced Paul with a beta-male double. When John still wouldn’t cooperate, openly promoting the rational standards of world peace and atheism, compelling people to throw off the government shackles and make a new society, they had him killed by a beta who was infatuated with a book about a frustrated, emasculated mangina.

Whenever men have banded together to fight hysteroppresion, women have subverted their organizations. The Illuminati began as an enlightened male attempt to get back to the roots of rationalist male primacy, but was subverted from within by false doctrines about gender equality. Now, it’s another arm of the gynocracy, secretly manipulating subservient beta-males (e.g., Obama) into positions of world power, and opposing the alphas who make it there through sheer force of manliness (e.g., Putin, Clinton). Freemasonry was much the same, beginning as a masculine attempt to exalt manly physical labor and building things, but subverted by female-controlled betas into being obsessed with girly secrets and fashion accessories and hierarchies.

And now atheism has risen up to battle the evils of feminist religion, and it’s strengthened through alliances with Men’s Rights Advocates and libertarianism. Each of the three groups has a pillar of Atlantean social perfection, which is why feminists are so afraid of them. If they aren’t stopped, then Atlantis may rise again, and this time thanks to globalization and the Internet, the whole world would be part of the glorious Atlantean perfection.

With the control of the FemIlluminati, it’s easy to marginalize libertarians, because the few red-pill elected men like Ron Paul can’t get a foothold in the woman-defined system. With the power of Pussy Control over emasculated beta-men, it’s easy to marginalize MRAs as “misognynist” and “sexist” and creep shame them. But atheism isn’t so easy to marginalize, because it’s so obviously correct with its foundations in masculine science and reason. The enlightened red-pill men who reject feminine religion are too rational and intellectual to fall for the other lies of the hegematriachy. So feminists must resort to other methods to strangle the nascent Atlantean perfection before it leaves its crib.

And that method is Atheism Plus, atheism tainted with the lies of feminism and run by subservient lickspittle beta-males like P.Z. Mayers who are controlled by female supremacists and their fanatic religious adherence to feminist dogma. By insinuating themselves into atheism, they plan to subvert it just like 18th-century radfems subverted the Illuminati, by diverting its efforts and energy to hopeless, unrelated causes, and causing internecine strife by imposing a hysterical hierarchy and forcing inter-male competition for atheist female mates. If they succeed, the rational power of atheism will be scuttled, and the resources that remain will be redirected toward supporting the gynocratic rule of the shadow matriarchy, setting back the rebirth of the perfect Atlantean system, perhaps beyond reclamation.

This is why the alliance between atheists, MRAs, and libertarians is so vital, and why the feminarchist powers are so keen to silence liberated red-pill alpha-males like Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette and The Amazing Atheist. Their natural male power and charisma can’t help but convince people, even semi-rational women, and drive them toward the natural state of humanity, which is the restoration of the Atlantean standard. We need only protect, amplify, and follow these voices, and we can defeat hysteriarchical gynofascist tittytalitarianism forever!

There we go. That’s a ludicrous conspiracy theory. If you’re going to be so unrealistic and unreasonable as to believe in a comforting conspiracy theory, that’s a respectable theory to buy into. Anything else just makes it look like you’re sacrificing reason and evidence and skepticism for nothing.

An unsupportable claim

I just got an e-mail from the James Randi Educational Foundation, promoting this year’s Amaz!ng Meeting. There was a time when I might have wanted to go to TAM, but that time is long past, especially since this year’s speaker lineup is a veritable who’s who of people I have no desire to hear from or be around.

The reason I wouldn’t have gone to TAM in the past is mostly because of the cost. I go to comic and geek conventions pretty frequently, and I realize that TAM is a different sort of beast–more like a professional conference–but the difference in cost has always been kind of staggering to me. Just to attend TAM for the four-day event is $475 this year, without any of the workshops, dinners, or extra bells and whistles. If I wanted to spend the same amount of time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the “TAM” of the comic/geek culture world, I’d be spending $150. For a convention that’s closer to home (and likely closer to the attendance size of something like TAM) like the Chicago Comic-Con, I’d pay $90.

Comic conventions finance their tickets by having vendors pay to set up booths, and the goal is to have people come, see panels and presentations, and spend their money on the convention floor, and hopefully everyone makes a profit except the attendees, who leave with various goods that they didn’t have before. TAM, apparently, doesn’t work quite the same way. Certainly there’s a greater focus on panels and speeches, but one would think they could defray some of that $475 by having a few more vendor tables set up. Doesn’t everyone have a book to sell?

Again, I digress. It seems my perception of TAM’s cost as being excessive isn’t an uncommon one, hence at least one of the points in this e-mail, “Six Reasons Not to Miss TAM 2013.” To whit:

6. TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in. Hotel rates for similar conferences range from $150-200 per night, while our TAM group rates go as low as $45 a night! But the group rates end tomorrow, so book your hotel room right now with JREF’s group code AMA0707!

The thing that stuck out to me there is this claim: “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in.” I hope the JREF won’t mind when I say that I’m a bit skeptical about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such a claim is absolute, transparent, unsupportable bunk.

I immediately thought of Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference I actually do want to attend. Skepticon not only typically has speakers I want to hear and is within driving distance, but it’s also free to attend. The other costs to go would have to be pretty exorbitant to end up more than TAM’s $475+.

So I decided to do the skeptical thing: I crunched the numbers. All the information here is from quick searches of available websites, TAM’s information, and my situation. It’s going to be different for everyone, but they sent the claim to me, so it should be as true for me as for anyone else, right?

For TAM, I searched Hotwire.com for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I figured I’d give TAM the benefit of not including the cost for me to drive into O’Hare (I’d prefer Midway, but the prices were considerably higher). The cheapest ticket I could find for the duration of TAM was $372. Changing the dates around a little–leaving a day later, arriving a day earlier, etc.–didn’t produce much difference. No telling if that’s before tax or after, or whatever.

I’ll take JREF’s word on hotels, that I could find one for $45 per night. Assuming I stay three nights (11th, 12th, 13th) and leave from the convention on the 14th, that’s $135.

We’ll ignore food and other incidentals. I’m sure both Vegas and Springfield have their share of cheap eateries. The price to beat is…$982.

For Skepticon, it’s within driving distance for me, though it’s a long drive. Going by a very low estimate of my admittedly fairly efficient car’s gas mileage (35 mpg–it’s usually more like 37), and assuming a fairly high average fuel price of $4.00 per gallon, it’d cost me $54.29 to make the trip there, so about $108.57 round trip.

There are lots of lodging options in Springfield. The hotel associated with Skepticon’s convention center would be $139/night, and I’m still assuming 3 nights. That would put me at $417 for lodging, but I could probably do better. If I didn’t mind going someplace a little less fancy, and I don’t, I could get a room within five miles of the Expo Center for $53/night at the Days Inn, according to Expedia. That would translate to $159 total. Let’s split the difference, and say I wanted to get a room at the DoubleTree right near the convention center. $109/night translates to $327 total.

TAM Total: $982
Skepticon Total: $436 (rounded up)

Unless food and transportation around Vegas is dirt cheap compared to Springfield, MO, the claim is refuted, and exposed for the ridiculous bit of hyperbole it is.

Of course, I know what the JREF supporters will say. “Skepticon isn’t a skeptical conference, it’s an atheist conference! There’s no comparison!” It’s a dumb distinction, and one not entirely based in fact, but one we’ve run into before. So I checked out the upcoming CSI conference, The Skeptical Toolbox, explicitly and obviously a skeptical conference put on by the organization that used to be CSICOP. Even the most wallbuildery of skeptical wall-builders can’t claim that’s some atheist-in-skeptical-clothing conference.

CSI Total: $492 round trip airplane ticket + $245 room and board + $199 registration = $936

Almost $50 less than TAM, and that includes meals! Look, I know it’s a small thing, but I kind of think that making unsupportable claims in the service of advertising for a skeptics’ conference is counterproductive. We wouldn’t accept this kind of blatant dishonesty from other services or organizations, we sure as hell shouldn’t accept it from the JREF. For shame.

A follow-up

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.

America’s Increasingly Mementoesque Gun Conversation

Last year, after the tragic shooting of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there were a lot of conversations worth having. There was the conversation about how the increasingly divisive martial rhetoric of the conservatives–and in particular, the Tea Party, may have made the tragedy an inevitability. There was the conversation about what responsibilities the political parties have to try to defuse the more radical fringes of their movements. And there was the conversation about how Arizona’s lax gun laws might have contributed to the problem.

Unfortunately for the country as a whole, we couldn’t really have that conversation. Because every time anyone tries to have that conversation, conservatives and libertarians stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA LA LA GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE LA LA LA THE SOLUTION IS MORE GUNS LA LA LA!” And because those chickenhawk conservatives and libertarians are in the pockets of the NRA and the gun lobby, and because the liberals have no spines especially when it comes to gun control, no one ever tries to have the conversation anyway.

It might seem like a strawman argument to say that conservatives think “more guns” is the solution to gun violence, but every time one of these tragedies happens, some asshole comes out and says “this wouldn’t have happened if someone in the crowd had a concealed weapon!”1 Because conservatives live in a fantasy world where carrying a gun makes you a cool-headed sharpshooting superhero, capable in a moment of precisely evaluating a situation that would have anyone else pissing their pants, drawing a bead on the bad guy, and taking him down in a single shot, then probably saying something clever and manly right before the credits roll. This is the same ridiculous fantasy world in which torture is a reliable way of producing information and trickle-down economics works.

Which is why I was so interested in this article in the wake of the Tucson shooting. See, there was someone at the event with a firearm. Joe Zamudio rushed over from a nearby drug store and, gun at the ready, nearly shot an innocent man who’d taken the gun from the actual shooter. If he had been a little more trigger-happy, a little less cautious and thoughtful, one hero would have shot another, and Zamudio might have been mistaken for a second gunman.

So we have here a clear-cut situation where carrying a concealed weapon at the scene of a tragedy didn’t prevent the tragedy (in fact, the gunman was taken down mostly by unarmed people, unless you count the folding chair as “armed”). Not only that, but the guy carrying the weapon explains that it would have only made things worse. In the end, having a firearm didn’t make anyone a hero–there were heroes with and without guns–and discharging that firearm would have resulted in more innocent people being injured or killed. Any lingering belief I had in that conservative myth of the Civilian Hero Who Shoots Back was well and truly shattered.

Then, earlier this year, that myth took another blow when would-be civilian hero George Zimmerman followed unarmed youth Trayvon Martin, ignoring the warnings of police, and indefensibly shot him to death. Zimmerman’s history marks him as a wannabe vigilante, leading a Neighborhood Watch and frequently calling the police to report suspicious individuals. Zimmerman’s tale punches further holes in the myth of the Hero With a Gun, because it’s a textbook case of someone mistaking their own fear and prejudice (whether toward Martin’s race or his attire) for evidence of someone else’s criminality. Zimmerman lacked the plot-granted rightness that belongs to the hero vigilantes of fiction, but retained their dogged certainty and lack of faith in the law to do the right thing. As a result, he killed an unarmed teenager, whose crime (at most) was defending himself against an armed stalker. The Martin case shows us that owning a gun and carrying a gun does not grant a person magic insight into the level of danger presented by individuals, nor does it give them the abilities or authority of trained law enforcement officers. Owning a gun does not make a person better able to sort out good from evil, does not make its owner a virtuous hero.

But if the Gun-Toting Vigilante is in luck, they might just live in a state whose laws treat Gun-Toting Vigilantes like automatic heroes, where you can “stand your ground” if you so much as feel threatened (whether or not that feeling is justified) and kill the source of that threatening feeling. And, in the eyes of the law, go on as if no crime has occurred. It’s interesting; if we trust Zimmerman’s story, then the law seems to be that it’s okay to shoot someone if they make you feel threatened, but it’s not okay to assault them. Or maybe it’s just the might of a firearm makes right.

While we were still having the Trayvon Martin conversation, a similar incident occurred2, with even less pundit-exploitable gray area. 13-year-old Darius Simmons was moving garbage cans outside his house when his 75-year-old neighbor John Spooner confronted him with a handgun and accused him of committing a theft that he couldn’t have possibly been involved with. Spooner shot Simmons in the chest while his mother was watching. When the police arrived, they treated Simmons and his family as if they were the criminals, despite Spooner having apparently premeditated the crime.

The myth of the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero takes another blow, as it becomes obvious that not only does a gun grant magic insight into other people’s guilt, but it doesn’t even grant self-insight. There’s no way for the gun owner to know if their certainty and belief in their own virtuousness is accurate or delusional. In other words, there’s no way for the gun-owner to know if they’re the hero vigilante, or just a murderous asshole.

And so we come to the recent3 shooting in Aurora, CO, which by virtue of occurring at a screening of a Batman film, throws these myths of heroic vigilantes into the spotlight. The shooter in this case, James Holmes, apparently planned the attack for months. He came armed with canisters of tear gas, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock pistol, and a .223 Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic loaded with armor-piercing bullets in a high-capacity magazine. He was wearing body armor and a gas mask. He’d booby-trapped his apartment with bombs. And it looks, for all intents and purposes, that this guy didn’t want to be the courageous gun-toting hero vigilante, but a straight-up supervillain. Seventy people were shot. Twelve died.

Colorado is a concealed carry state, but there are no reports that I can find of anyone in the audience pulling a gun on Holmes. It’s certainly possible that no one else in that theater was armed. It’s also possible that someone was armed, but realized that additional gunfire wouldn’t help–because of the tear gas, because of the dark theater, because of the body armor, because of the crowd trying to get away. It’s also possible that someone was armed and just wanted to get out alive.

But no one stood up in that darkened theater and, squinting through the tear gas, drew a bead and fired a single shot at the weak spot in the shooter’s armor, taking him down. No one even (as in the Giffords shooting) rushed him to tackle him to the ground. Where was our Vigilante Hero?

Where he belonged: in the fictional film playing on the screen.

The worst part of all this is how easily it could have been ameliorated, if not prevented entirely, if our country had sensible gun laws. We accept, as a nation, that you can’t buy certain kinds of weapons. If I went searching online for places to purchase nuclear warheads, I think I’d have the Department of Homeland Security on my back pretty quickly. We accept, as a nation, truly ridiculous extremes of security theater at airports, submitting ourselves to X-Ray scanners and randomish searches and taking our shoes off and not carrying certain amounts of liquid, because some very small number of people have or might use those types of things to kill.

Remind me: how many shoe bombers have there been versus gun-toting killers?

We accept, as a nation, that because pseudoephedrine can be used to make methamphetamines, there should be limits on who can purchase it and how much they can purchase in a given time period. We accept that places selling pseudoephedrine must keep careful records on the names and addresses of people buying it, and that any suspicious activity be reported.

In 2009, all drug use (of which methamphetamine use is a subset) caused 37,485 deaths. Firearms caused 31,228.

There’s a major difference, of course, between guns and pseudoephedrine. Used as intended, pseudoephedrine can clear up congested sinuses without making one drowsy. Used as intended, guns can wound or kill. Using guns to wound or kill is not off-label use. It is the purpose of the device. The wounding or killing may be in service of some greater good (defending innocents, hunting for food). But a “greater good” was not served in all 31,228 cases in 2009. There was no “greater good” served by George Zimmerman or James Holmes or John Spooner. And unless you live in Kashmir or dine exclusively on utahraptors, there’s no “greater good” served by owning a semi-automatic assault weapon.

Can anyone give me a good reason why we can’t regulate guns at least as heavily as we do cough medicine? The best I’ve ever heard is “but the Second Amendment!” Take a look at the Second Amendment, kids:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The word “regulated” is right there. “Well regulated,” in fact. Was James Holmes part of a well-regulated militia? Does letting George Zimmerman or John Spooner carry guns contribute positively to “the security of a free state”? How many more shootings will it take before we realize that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give the NRA the finger and start working on more rational gun policy?

I know the response. It’s the response that Louie Gohmert gave: If someone in the theater had a gun, they could have taken the Aurora shooter down. Nevermind how many blows to the chin the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero Myth has taken in the past few years. Nevermind the specific circumstances of the Aurora shooting that made it highly unlikely for anyone, gun-toting or not, to have taken Holmes down. Conservatives cling to their myths while real people die.

The other response is that determined criminals will always find a way to get their hands on weaponry. I suspect that’s a bit facile (I wouldn’t know where to start looking for, say, enriched uranium or sarin gas, even if I had the desire to use such things), but yes, determined criminals would almost certainly find a way to obtain guns.

And if that were monitored like pseudoephedrine is monitored, like terrorists trying to purchase WMDs are monitored, the lone nut stocking up on assault weapons would trigger law enforcement alarms as surely as the secret cabals trying to obtain grenade launchers or bomb bridges. And, moreover, the police would have a crime to hold the criminal on, namely possession of (too many/concealed/the wrong kind of) firearms. It wouldn’t be “oh, you killed someone, but we can’t charge you with anything because you said you felt threatened.”

It’s true, the determined criminal will get his or her hands on firearms if they want them badly enough. But there’s a big difference between “I can get this if I want it bad enough and save up enough to buy it on a black market” and “I can get this with a quick trip to the gun show/sporting goods store/Wal-Mart.” A determined meth producer is going to get their hands on tons of Sudafed, but we still keep it locked up and scan their licenses if they try to buy it.

And, as one last blow to the Mythical Hero Who Shot Back, James Holmes takes that craftiness a step further. Not only will determined criminals get weapons if they want them bad enough, they’ll also choose to attack places (like a no-guns-allowed theater in a concealed-carry state) where people won’t have guns. They’ll armor up and throw gas bombs so that, even if someone did have a gun, it wouldn’t do any good.

It’s time to put away childish things, like readings of a Constitution that omit the uncomfortable bits and fairy tales of gallant heroes with perfect apprehension of chaotic situations. It’s time that we close the Big Book of Conservative Myths and turn our attention to saving real lives in the real world. It’s time that we stopped waiting for Batman or John McClane or Dirty Harry, and started working on making a safer reality.

1. Following the Giffords shooting, one of those assholes was Arizona state representative Jack Harper (Republican, of course), who said “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”

2. Sadly, I imagine that many such similar incidents occurred, but this is the one I read about at the time.

3. Since I started writing this post, the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin also occurred. So far, it looks like the shooter puts another few holes in that Conservative Hero Myth, namely that the hero of one story (say, the White Supremacist narrative about taking back the country for white folks) might be the villain of another (say, the American story of one peaceful nation coming together out of many diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and so forth).