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The virtual radio silence on Brian Dunning’s fraud

Today, Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast and brand, blogger at SkepticBlog, was sentenced to 15 months prison and three years supervised release.

Barely anyone’s talking about it, though (except, obviously, us Social Justice Bullies who will inevitably be accused of crowing about this news).

But that’s not honestly surprising — prior to today’s sentencing, almost nobody in the skeptical community was talking about it save for a few lone voices, except to defend Dunning’s actions in those few pockets of distress. So I honestly shouldn’t have been surprised by this comment by MarshallDog at Skepchick, but considering I’m one of those few people who’ve mentioned his fraud, his pleading guilty, and his sentencing for wire fraud that netted him $5,200,000, I can’t help but feel some measure of distress that this “hero’s” misdeeds have gone virtually unnoticed.

I am really shocked. I hadn’t heard anything about this before. I have been listening to Skeptoid for years, and made small donations to the podcast before. I need to make damn sure that those payments aren’t still being made, though I’m almost positive I stopped a year ago.

In any case, being a peripheral member of the skeptical community it’s not that surprising I hadn’t heard this was happening. Still I hope I just missed the bulk of reporting. I’d hate to think skeptics were avoiding the issue just because of Dunning’s place in the movement. I’m really shaken by this. I want to trust that the people I admire are at the very least decent human beings. Now a voice I regularly listened to turns out to come from a criminal.

I feel unclean. I feel a strange desire to wash my ipod, but I’ll settle for just deleting the skeptoid episodes still within.

Your analysis, despite being peripheral, is not incorrect. Skeptics are avoiding the issue. Only us “bullies” have been saying a damn thing about it.

I really wish the skeptical community had not repeatedly defended Dunning’s actions, as though some level of skeptical outreach excuses gross fraud. The Halo Effect has no place in our communities, and we should be especially leery of anyone who argues for this sort of con-artistry in a community that prides itself on teaching people about others’ fraudulent claims. All the shade you throw at someone like Uri Geller for lying and taking people’s money under false pretenses is suspect if you also support a skeptic who lies and takes people’s money under false pretenses. Skepticism is theoretically a social justice cause, and seeing it undermined by such self-interested, greedy, amoral and oftentimes IMmoral scumbags is disheartening.

The prosecutors actually successfully argued for a harsher punishment than he’d get if he’d committed a break-and-enter. That’s good, not just from the perspective of letting the punishment fit the magnitude of the crime (arguably, stealing MILLIONS should be worth more jail time than, say, getting caught with an ounce of pot!), but also from the perspective of letting the punishment fit the mitigating motivation. White collar crime done with zero material necessity outside of general greed is orders of magnitude less understandable, to me, than being motivated by a direct need. It’s well possible that some of the $5 million he got from eBay came from legitimate referrals from his own site.

But most galling is not that he took that money from eBay, though the majority of that money almost certainly came from eBay directly — it’s that other people’s referrals might have gotten squished by these stuffed cookies, resulting in Dunning stealing money from other people who rightfully deserved it. He mostly defrauded eBay but also secondarily defrauded potentially hundreds or thousands of other small marketplaces on the internet.

Remember, the Skeptoid brand still exists — it was converted to a non-profit organization sometime after Dunning realized the hammer was about to come down on him. He was not levied any sort of fine, though, considering eBay dropped the civil suit, so the money used to seed the Skeptoid brand is almost certainly all tainted. I do not know what will happen with that money, but it’s possible that despite his jail time and supervised release, he’s getting off practically scot-free.

We deserve better. Don’t we? Or is the community PRIMARILY made up of such immoral scumbags, and only SECONDARILY by people who give a damn about the social injustice of being defrauded by woo-peddlers?

Comments

  1. Daniel Schealler says

    To my way of thinking, the whole point of skepticism is that it should be a movement concerned primarily with critical reason. As such, we should hold ourselves and our representatives to a higher standard of behavior than we do everyone else.

    To someone deluded by faith and irrational thinking, it is possible that when they do something wrong that they didn’t know better.

    In Brian’s case, that doesn’t fly. He either did know better, or at the very least he should have known better.

  2. Stacy says

    We deserve better. Don’t we?

    This is why I no longer identify as a Skeptic. Given the number of dishonest and unethical people in positions of power in organized Skepticism, and the way they ignore or close ranks against criticism of their little tin heroes, they apparently don’t think they do deserve better.

  3. OpenMindedNotCredulous says

    This is why I no longer identify as a Skeptic. Given the number of dishonest and unethical people in positions of power in organized Skepticism, and the way they ignore or close ranks against criticism of their little tin heroes, they apparently don’t think they do deserve better.

    Really? You don’t see a difference when the skeptical community is compared to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC)? US evangelicals? Police and military in the US? The skeptical movement includes people with questionable and even awful ethics. It also includes sycophants willing to excuse the flaws of prominent members of the skeptical community. Yet it seems to me we’re far more likely to point out the problems with prominent members than other groups are inclined to do.

    There are horrible people in any group. Do you really believe the skeptical movement has a disproportionate number of such individuals? Or that we’re less likely than those groups to notice and highlight the problematic behavior of those individuals? If you do I think you’re not really paying attention.

  4. says

    This does not surprise me. At all. Although I still use the label of skeptic, I absolutely refuse to brand myself with the Skeptic title because of shit just like this. When big-name Skeptics fuck up, too many are either silent about it, try to white-wash it, or, as you’ve shown, Jason, try to excuse it.

    I remember this promise that has been made to the world about us: Good Without God. Is it really too much to ask that that be more than just some slogan? Is it really too much to ask that we actually try to live up to that fucking promise, instead of simply using it as a slogan to hide behind?

    As an atheist and a skeptic, even I’ve come to doubt that the promise, and that’s not a good thing.

  5. says

    Jason, one thing you didn’t mention that may deserve comment is the shear and utter gall Dunning had in his e-begging. Please for donations and patronage were used constantly. Now it is by no means a bad thing to request monetary support for a project, but Dunning has the audacity to present his podcast as being in constant need for listener support (taking the public broadcasting motto that it is made possible by listeners) while having millions in ill gained assets. His greed is so amazing he continued to aggressively court the skeptic community’s nickle and dime contributions from what I can only imagine was a Scrooge McDuck money pool. A lot of money went to that podcast, that people thought needed contributions both conning them and depriving more needy charities or projects. Like I said e-begging itself is not a great sin but the way he went about pleading for handouts while raking in cash is very distasteful.

    Also he said the line “For what you pay on I-tunes for a track of Lady Gaga…” which is a spiel so corny and stupid he should go to jail for that alone

  6. Mali says

    THANK YOU. my sentiments exactly. I had no idea this was happening and to think he was even at TAM this year really baffles me. How arrogant. How anyone can be ok with this, is beyond me.

  7. says

    When I volunteered at a public access station, I worked with a producer of a children’s program who was also a cartoonist. He was well liked at the station, and his show was popular. He was a very likable person. So our community, including me, were shocked when he was arrested for manslaughter. After he pled guilty, people still rallied around him. I didn’t because as a friend told me, if he committed the crime, he needed to be punished.

    Some in the skeptical community don’t seem to understand that lesson. Not only did Brian commit a crime, but he also betrayed what is supposed to be a basic principle of the skeptical movement. It is supposed to fight fraud. Sure he made a popular podcast, and built up a lot of good will in the community. He still committed fraud, and the skeptical community’s lack of a response is telling.

  8. plutosdad says

    I also liked the argument against lower punishment for white collar crime. My wife was a defense attorney, and most of her clients were generally screw-ups, people who did or sold drugs, people who could not make a good life choice, constantly wrecked their own lives and those around them. Most had almost no impulse control in any part of their life. (Granted she had the ability to only take cases she wanted so it was a selective sample)

    My wife has left that and lately has done a lot of work in real estate suits, and she has told me stories of what they see in discovery when looking through bank emails. The emails are frightening, portraying the entire upper echelon of banks and K-street lobbyists as flat out psychopaths, with no empathy or feeling for other humans at all, fully knowing they were conning/tricking both homeowners and smaller investors who were buying their products. The type of people who think there is no such thing as a “con game”, just good marketing and buyers who did not do their research.

    We both feel white collar crime is in many ways far worse than a lot of other crime, and the people perpetrating it far worse. White collar crime is nearly always premeditated and ongoing, these are people who had most things in life handed to them, children of privilege like me, yet still planned to harm others and benefit from it.

  9. Kevin Kehres says

    The term “skeptic” has been tainted for the past several years by its association with those who are more concerned about debunking the existence of Bigfoot than any real examination of any other issue. I call them Bigfoot Skeptics (or BSers, for short).

    BSers have co-opted the skeptic label. Their issues are frivolous, and their tactics reek of casual cruelty and smug lack of concern for their targets. It’s all just to get a chuckle and to demonstrate their (alleged) superiority over everyone else.

    Add to that their apparent unwillingness to examine critically their human rights record and practices, and you have a toxic stew.

    I certainly won’t give myself a label that aligns myself with them.

  10. Shawn Luke says

    What Brian Dunning did was wrong, but I don’t understand how this taints the entire skeptic community. I am unaware of any past prominent skeptics being involved in fraud so I don’t know where the past allegations are coming from. Also saying that the skeptic community is staying quiet about all this is wrong as well as proved by this article and others I’ve read on Skepchick. I’m sure there are others as well. If we are going to hold ourselves to such stringent standards let’s be totally honest. The fact is he produced a valuable resource and an excellent podcast. He did commit a crime and he will be punished. Is it for us to decide how and to what extent he should be punished or if he isn’t being punished enough?
    One thing that befuddles me about this whole thing though, is that I just finished reading Sam Harris’s Free Will…I think in light of what Brian Dunning did we could have a great community discussion about this case and the illusion of free will.

  11. Tim Miller says

    My Facebook and twitter were lighting up today from various skeptic outlets with news about this, I guess I’m not seeing the “radio silence” angle this piece begins with.

  12. Flip the second says

    This one frustrates me. When I first started needing podcasts to listen to over books, due to difficulties with reading comprehension, Skeptoid was my favourite. Short posts that didn’t require a huge amount of concentration, well written and clear explanations. I still listen to them, even after the initial announcement last year, just because they often provide quick insights into topics I might not normally have heard about. I never donated and don’t plan to. Every time I listen to one I make a mental note that I should stop supporting it and/or discount what he says a little because of Dunning’s failures. But I find it hard to stop listening to a good podcast where so many other skeptic casts end up being waffle for an hour or more about a topic before getting to a point. Sometimes I just need a quick fix.*

    I too am surprised it has been commented on less. I guess sexual harassment gets more traction than white collar crime, and so things like this get talked about less. But also I suspect that it could be a misunderstanding of what he did. Maybe people aren’t really aware of how click referrals work and how it is a breach of terms and conditions to abuse it, and how easily it is to abuse it.

    Or, more likely… it’s because we’re embarrassed that the skeptical community, who so often calls out against fraud, has a fraud in our midst. Very easy to rail against the Wakefields and Gellers of the world, much harder to do when it’s one of your own.

    From what I’ve read, he pleaded guilty but doesn’t believe he did anything wrong; rather he did it in order to get the process out of the way so he could move on. I’d have no trouble forgiving and forgetting but he seems to want to be seen as innocent and this is all just a technicality. But if I were a donor, I’d be worried about where that money was going: he seems to have specifically taken advantage of a loophole in order to exploit click referrals. At the time it was announced, it was clear from the description that the ‘widget’ was designed to do that. Maybe I should be more skeptical and say that I have only heard the prosecution’s evidence and there was no overt proof-beyond-doubt, but I think that if Dunning was unfairly accused it would be fair to say that he could expect a large contigency of support – financial and moral – to defend himself in court.

    Or is the community PRIMARILY made up of such immoral scumbags, and only SECONDARILY by people who give a damn about the social injustice of being defrauded by woo-peddlers?

    I think this falls under the category of “people of any community do this”. People see a way to game the rules, think it hurts no one but Big Corporation who has lots of bucks lying about, and then proceed to do it. I see this a lot when copyright discussion comes up: using someone else’s work without permission is ‘ok’ because no one will notice, or because no one ‘really’ gets hurt, or because no one really cares, or whatever. They never see themselves as thieves, just people who are happening to take advantage of a situation where no bad outcome can be seen from the thieves’ end. As such it’s not about out-and-out immorality, but people who think they’re doing something that’s morally grey, legally ok, and is ‘victimless’.

    Daniel above has it:

    In Brian’s case, that doesn’t fly. He either did know better, or at the very least he should have known better.

    I have seen people – and IIRC Dunning himself** – defend what he did by pointing out that the terms and conditions didn’t clearly prohibit what he did. However, terms and conditions are usually very clear when it comes to earning income through referrals, and even if it wasn’t explicitly clear I have a very hard time believing someone with his experience and knowledge wouldn’t realise that doing something like click-referral in a way not meant to be implemented would at the very least be unethical, if not outright fraud. Either he totally didn’t do what he’s accused of and plead guilty to get it over with, or he knew exactly what he was doing, or had a reasonable expectation of knowing.

    *If someone has a recommendation for a similar short skeptical podcast please let me know.
    ** The original explanation on Skeptoid has been pulled (“by agreement”), and the Wayback Machine has been prevented from indexing his site, so no backup. It would be useful if someone has a copy of what he has written to post it somewhere.

  13. Great American Satan says

    We deserve better. Don’t we? Or is the community PRIMARILY made up of such immoral scumbags, and only SECONDARILY by people who give a damn about the social injustice of being defrauded by woo-peddlers?

    The Skeptic (TM) movement is largely American, and that is a part of who we all are down here.

    We’re connivers because the American Dream of gettin all the monies is sold to us as a virtue, and we’re desperate as fuck because of the shift to basing the cost of everything on how much we’re willing to go into debt rather than on how much we can pay out of pocket. Says the Wu-Tang Clan, “You can’t just get by anymore, You gotta get over.” And that means “getting one over,” pulling the hot score, regardless of who it will burn.

    The strange flip-side of that coin is it’s made many of us very hard workers. We must bust our humps to hustle that last dolla. The debt never sleeps. I’m fortunately enough of an outsider I missed out on some of the programming, but that makes it all the more obvious when I see it in others. And even I tend to think of money first on any new project. Like I get an idea for a work of art and immediately I’m plotting how to market it. If that isn’t inherently wrong, it is at least a distraction from making art that stands on its own merits.

  14. Physics Police says

    I don’t think it’s true that “other people’s referrals might have gotten squished by these stuffed cookies” because the Set-Cookie HTTP header overwrites what was previously set. Any legitimate referral would be immediately prior to account creation and purchase.

  15. Flip the second says

    @Great American Satan

    The Skeptic (TM) movement is largely American, and that is a part of who we all are down here.

    Heh? There’s a strong skeptical movement in Australia, the UK, India and elsewhere. I think by and large the most prominent members and bloggers are American and that makes it seem like the community is made up mostly of Americans.

    Like I get an idea for a work of art and immediately I’m plotting how to market it. If that isn’t inherently wrong, it is at least a distraction from making art that stands on its own merits.

    I think that’s probably a good sign of being able to pay your bills doing art, than a sign of immorality and greed.

    … Anyway, I actually returned to say: I took a look at the Socratic Gadfly post and I’m glad I did. I was reminded of a lot of details that I had forgotten and now am even more annoyed at myself for continuing to listen to the podcast. It’s far more damning than I had remembered. I am going to unsubscribe now even though I’d really like another 10-min skeptical podcast to replace it. Damn… why is it every time I find a good resource the person involved seems to be doing bad things?

  16. Great American Satan says

    My art is never going to pay my bills, it’s just another get-rich-quick scheme of the type my fellow poor people are easily sucked into here. My dad’s schemes were always the worst, real painful to listen to. Like the kind of sucka who thinks he could make dough on Etsy. We wouldn’t be thinking like this if we weren’t desperate and weren’t encouraged to do so by a culture of greed.

    Skepticism (TM) mostly seems super-American to me because of TAM/Vegas/Penn&Teller/Maaaaaagic. It’s right next to the thriving pulse of organized crime and very comfortable there. Good people I’m sure.

  17. says

    Brian Dunning’s fraud does not make me think any less of him. I personally do not know him. I am a regular listener to his podcast and enjoy it. His podcast has made me think deeper about things.

    Being jailed for 15 months is not “getting off practically scot-free” and if e-bay are not chasing him for monies owed that’s there concern.

    I am sure in hindsight he would have made different decisions and he will have to live with what this has done to his reputation and his family.

    I will continue to listen to skeptoid because it is informative and enjoyable to listen to. I wish Brian well and hope he continues his podcast.

    I think there are more important things to get our knickers in a knot about.

  18. says

    Physics Police @19: the fraud comes from how he distributed the cookie-stuffing, via those two tools (website vanity widgets) that went viral and got used on who-knows-how-many websites. The affiliate links were embedded in those tools and configured to stomp anyone’s affiliate links on the page, and persist past the page view, such that if you clicked onto an eBay link on the page itself or any time thereafter in the browser session, it looked as though to eBay that it came from Dunning’s affiliate link.

    Sorry, but the facts behind this actually do bear out that Dunning did something dishonest, here. Something incredibly dishonest, which deprived untold numbers of eBay affiliates of their due earnings, as well as defrauding eBay by making non-affiliate-link traffic look to eBay as though it came from Dunning’s site.

  19. says

    Davb Bl @23:

    He got off virtually scot-free, because he actually stole upward of 5.2 million, but to get a conviction because it’s a fuzzy number, the government and Dunning’s lawyers mutually stipulated that they would guess at 400,000 as being illegitimate. This is not derived from any actual statistical analysis of his affiliate links, nor derived from the affiliate profits he was getting PRIOR to stuffing cookies. He was maybe making five orders of magnitude less money before pulling off his con.

    Nothing in his derivative podcast is, to my mind, original research. You can get all that information from other, less fraudulent sources.

    Maybe, one day, Skeptoid will toss Dunning under the bus and divest itself from its checkered founder’s past. At that point it has the right to try to make a fresh start. But in the meantime, who knows how much of the money that he made off this scheme, which is significantly more than what the government stipulated, actually went toward building the Skeptoid brand and the non-profit org that he’s converted it into?

  20. Stacy says

    Do you really believe the skeptical movement has a disproportionate number of such individuals? Or that we’re less likely than those groups to notice and highlight the problematic behavior of those individuals? If you do I think you’re not really paying attention

    “Disproportionate” is obviously a relative term. I have no way of knowing whether or not our small community has a larger proportion of unethical people than a huge community like, say, the Roman Catholic Church.

    I do know two things: 1) We’re supposed to understand fraud, lies, con games, and their rationalizations, and stand against them. That’s ‘sposed ta be our raison d’etre. And 2) Dunning isn’t the only unethical person in a position of power in this community, or the most prominent.

    And yes, I have been paying attention. Close attention. Have you?

  21. Stacy says

    Sorry. Let me try that again:

    Do you really believe the skeptical movement has a disproportionate number of such individuals? Or that we’re less likely than those groups to notice and highlight the problematic behavior of those individuals? If you do I think you’re not really paying attention

    “Disproportionate” is obviously a relative term. I have no way of knowing whether or not our small community has a larger proportion of unethical people than a huge community like, say, the Roman Catholic Church.

    I do know two things: 1) We’re supposed to understand fraud, lies, con games, and their rationalizations, and stand against them. That’s ‘sposed ta be our raison d’etre. And 2) Dunning isn’t the only unethical person in a position of power in this community, or the most prominent.

    And yes, I have been paying attention. Close attention. Have you

  22. Flip the second says

    This page is an interesting read:
    https://www.briandunning.com/message.html

    Note that there is javascript in place to prevent people from copying the text. Someone may want to save the html file in case it disappears… What I find interesting is that Dunning comes out and says “yes, it was against the terms and conditions”, but then excuses himself by doing two things: using an argument from popularity (everyone else was doing it), and suggesting that eBay staffers knew so it was ok. He does say that he should have known better and that he was wrong.

    He also answers a lot of criticisms made here and elsewhere.

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