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Apr 17 2013

Skeptoid slapped down

Brian Dunning, the voice behind the Skeptoid podcast, has pled guilty to wire fraud. In a clever scheme to essentially defraud eBay, visitors to his site had a cookie planted on their computers that did no harm to the visitors, but was recognized by eBay as a flag to credit Dunning as an affiliate referrer. When I’d first heard of this case, I thought it could be an innocent error — I have no idea about half the stuff this site is shuttling back and forth to you readers, for instance — but now it looks clear that this was intentionally programmed to game the system. The company in which Dunning was part owner, Kessler’s Flying Circus (KFC), was bringing in a rather noticeably large sum of money from this one little trick.

7. KFC was a member of the Affiliate Program. In 2006, KFC received approximately $2,000,000 in compensation from the eBay Affiliate Program in the United States. Between January and June 2007, KFC earned approximately $3,300,000 in compensation from the eBay Affiliate Program in the United States. As of approximately June 2007, KFC was the number-two producing account in the Affiliate Program. . . .

I’ve met Dunning, I’ve followed his podcast, and he’s a nice, personable fellow who actually has contributed useful information to the skeptical community…but this is a serious ethical lapse. It is criminal behavior. And now he faces possible penalties that include several years in prison.

Everyone seems to be regarding this as a great tragedy and the loss of a hero, and I agree that there is an element of that — it certainly is a personal tragedy for Dunning. But maybe we should also recognize it as a gain, the exposure of a criminal and the cessation of illegal activity. People aren’t one-dimensional heroes or villains, and Dunning, like everyone, is a bit of both.

Let’s hope he comes back from this with that little piece of a bad guy in him suitably chastised, and that he can resume his work as a better person for it all.


Whoa. I was directed to these documents by Melody Hensley: a summary of affiliate litigation which includes Dunning, and a legal motion to suppress evidence gained at the Dunning residence (pdf), which includes an interview in which Dunning admits that he split half the revenue from KFC with his brother, that he was making about $1.2 million/year, and that he was producing all kinds of apps and widgets to spread his criminal affiliate code everywhere.

Sympathy fading…fading…fading…gone.

170 comments

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  1. 1
    PZ Myers

    One of the comments at that link is this:

    I am deeply sorry that he got caught.

    I cannot share that sentiment, and I really don’t understand the logic behind it. The prosecution is arguing that Dunning cost eBay a million dollars (which lawyers may argue down to a smaller amount). How can you regret ending that kind of parasitic behavior?

  2. 2
    chigau (違う)

    To get it out of the way…
    He is a crook because he is an atheist.
    There.
    No one else needs to say it.

  3. 3
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    No idols.

  4. 4
    chigau (違う)

    PZ #1
    You know the answer.
    It’s OK to rob large corporations because they:
    a) are evil
    b) are large
    c) can afford it
    etc.

  5. 5
    PZ Myers

    All those ‘reasons’ are true, but they don’t justify me or anyone compromising our moral integrity.

  6. 6
    robro

    chigau —

    d) because they steal from us

    Because there’s a bit of Robin Hood romanticism in all of us, I’ve sometimes heard it as justification for petty thievery…taking a candy bar from Safeway, for example.

  7. 7
    michaeld

    And here I thought it’d be another badly researched episode.

  8. 8
    chigau (違う)

    True.
    At some point in our up-bringing most of us learned the lesson that “I want it” is not a good enough reason to just take something.

  9. 9
    Ing

    Even even EVEN If you justify the theft above, he was using his fans as accomplices without their knowledge or consent. that’s not just a laspe of ethics towards a faceless conglomco, its profound disrespect and casual abuse of other’s trust.

  10. 10
    lilandra

    I couldn’t agree with you more. No really I couldn’t. People are not one dimensional heroes or villains. There are no sterling exemplars of character in the secular movement. However most people have peccadilloes not major ethical flaws like basically embezzlement. I hope like you do that getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar is a good lesson to him that makes him better for it.

    It does make for interesting discussion of people that are idolized. He isn’t in the league of Franklin or Jefferson but they both had major character faults with infidelity. It was encouraged by the culture of the day, but still. I think it is more reasonable to admire people for what they have done, and allow room for error as no one is infallible. As long as they sincerely correct the error.

  11. 11
    Anthony K

    I take no joy in writing this. In fact, I thought long and hard about whether I should. Whether I should respect the privacy of the individual. Whether the wider community has a right to know. 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. He started one of the most popular skeptical podcasts out there, a podcast so influential that it has literally changed lives. He was instrumental in starting an important skeptical blog. He has even produced a couple of skeptically themed TV pilots. And yet, he has fallen. And because he has put himself out there as a public figure, the public should know about that fall.

    With the amount of ass-washing in this opening paragraph alone you’d think the article was written by a sentient bidet.

  12. 12
    hexidecima

    I think that this is beyond any ability to correct or apologize for. It was done intentionally to steal, using me and mine to do it. I find that this person deserves nothing but contempt.

  13. 13
    Ing

    Would it be in bad taste to bring up junkscience and scientology and all that?

  14. 14
    Dennis N

    Sad, I enjoyed the format of his podcast, quick and single topic. I didn’t always agree with his content (for example the DDT episode), but he did bring my attention to many interesting topics I’d never known about (like the Bloop). I always found him too defensive in his listener feedback shows.

  15. 15
    chigau (違う)

    Even even EVEN If you justify the theft above, he was using his fans as accomplices without their knowledge or consent. that’s not just a laspe of ethics towards a faceless conglomco, its profound disrespect and casual abuse of other’s trust.

    Worth repeating.

  16. 16
    ryancunningham

    The guy has always struck me as a sleazy self-promoter. He never could take criticism, and he was always trying to insert himself at the center of anything he did. Honestly, I’m not too surprised a narcissist got caught committing fraud.

  17. 17
    breaplum

    I’m a regular listener to the podcast and often considered donating to the “listener supported podcast”, many of which end with a request for donations to keep the podcast going because the only money available to pay for it was listener donations. So all the justifications, rationalizations, etcetera above?

    FAIL.

    He’s a con man. A fraud. I went back and reread three times to make sure I was reading correctly: millions of dollars? Going back to 2006?

    So glad I never clicked that button.

  18. 18
    gridironmonger

    Dunning has a lawyer-approved partial explanation at his blog from a little while back. Basically it boils down to
    a) cookie stuffing is common,
    b) ebay knew we were cookie stuffing and were fine with it,
    c) I’m only one of many people involved but was the only one prosecuted,
    d) it’s cost me more in lawyers than i ever got from ebay.

    Gotta love b), it’s libertarianism at its finest — it’s okay to screw people as long as their eyes are open.

  19. 19
    ihumanist

    #10 – “There are no sterling exemplars of character in the secular movement.”

    I wouldn’t say there are “no sterling exemplars of character in the secular movement,” unless you’re referring to people who are still alive. Carl Sagan was someone I’d consider to be a sterling exemplar of character, though he did smoke a little marijuana, but marijuana was also treated a lot differently a few decades ago.

    Also, I don’t know if we’d consider Stephen Hawking a member of the “secular movement,” but I doubt you could find any flaws in his character, especially given his condition.

    But yeah, I agree with PZ. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you do the crime, you should do the time.

  20. 20
    Emrysmyrddin

    The guy has always struck me as a sleazy self-promoter. He never could take criticism, and he was always trying to insert himself at the center of anything he did. Honestly, I’m not too surprised a narcissist got caught committing fraud.

    I have to QFT this; I used to sub to the podcast, but his personality started to turn my stomach, and I unsubbed about six months ago. Especially glad of it now.

  21. 21
    Sean Boyd

    @19,

    FWIW, and I don’t know that it applies to Hawking today, but he said of himself that he was a lazy student at Oxford, until faced with ALS and the possibility of losing his life at a young age.

  22. 22
    smhll

    Whether the wider community has a right to know. 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.

    I just had the fleeting yet disturbing vision of him going to prison, finding God there (like Chuck Colson), getting released early and selling his life story to the Hallmark channel for a movie of the week.

    Wanna debate the ethics of faking being religious to get out of jail sooner? The topic has potential.

  23. 23
    ryancunningham

    Would it be in bad taste to bring up junkscience and scientology and all that?

    Don’t forget this shit: http://skepchick.org/2011/04/photography-and-sexism-in-the-skeptical-movement/

  24. 24
    Ing

    If the worst you can say about Sagan is pot I think he’s clean

  25. 25
    lilandra

    @19 I don’t expect even Sagan to be a sterling exemplar of character. I think those people only exist in legends. Real people are fallible no matter how bright and well-intentioned they are. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admire people, who do admirable things. I am sure Sagan had his tiny flaws as any human being does. In total his contributions equaled more than most people will ever accomplish.

  26. 26
    Ing

    @photo

    Bwahahahahahahahahahahahaha

    Oh man…I love the all migthy man imparting knowledge to the naked vulnerable woman

  27. 27
    notsont

    I am disappointed, but I can’t honestly say I am surprised.

  28. 28
    Nemo

    @19 Smoking marijuana is not a character flaw, then or now. Even if you regard it as foolish, it doesn’t speak to character.

  29. 29
    Bryce Coutts

    This is so disappointing. I went out of my way to meet Brian at TAM a couple years ago, I’ve enjoyed his podcast and he seemed like a nice guy. I wish I’d known about this sooner, then I wouldn’t have subscribed to Skeptoid. Now I’ll have to cancel my subscription!

  30. 30
    michaeld

    @28

    Wouldn’t being a person who does foolish things speak to character?

  31. 31
    erikthebassist

    Wow I’m shocked. I went to probably about 10 ‘Skeptics in the Pub’s with Brian, hiked a supposedly haunted trail with him.

    That was all before the sexist photo ryancunningham linked above, which is when I stopped listening to his podcast or contributing money to it.

    I took him to be a bit of a douche, especially after that photo but not a crook. Wow.

  32. 32
    ihumanist

    @25 – By “sterling” I certainly do not mean perfect. Of course he had flaws as has every human being that ever lived, but I think sterling is a great word to describe Sagan’s character if you define sterling as I do, which is “conforming to the highest standard.” He was definitely among the highest standard of human being. (He is also the person I look to when I need a little kick in the pants!)

    But yeah, that’s not something worth arguing about, haha, so good day, sir. Hope the weather where you live isn’t as crappy as the weather where I live at the moment…

  33. 33
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    Chip Cherry at skepticalabyss.com wrote:

    People who are in the crosshairs of skepticism have been talking about these affairs for years when criticizing Brian and Skeptoid. Of course, they were ad hominems, but it makes me consider my intentions when I mention that Sylvia Browne and Kevin Trudeau are also convicted felons. The difference there would be that one must agree that Sylvia and Kevin are trustworthy to enjoy their offerings, whereas Brian would likely be the first to tell you not to trust him and do the research yourself.

    This is an interesting perspective. There certainly is legitimate criticism to be made in regards to Dunning, and it may well be that opponents to scepticism mainly use this case as part of a fallacious argument against Dunning and his podcast, but it’s definitely not out of line to question the trustworthiness of a person based on their actions. For the same reasons as person might use, as a strike against them, the criminal history of Sylvia Browne and Kevin Trudeau, one might assess (or reassess) Brian Dunning based on this case.

    I certainly will. It’s a damned shame and, while I appreciate that a person can be many things at once, this, to me, speaks to a specific and deep flaw, never mind the repulsive avarice Dunning’s actions reveal.

    Mark at scepticalabyss.com wrote:

    I have my own ignorant, half-baked opinions on this matter, and for now I’ll keep them to myself. But this might be a good time to remember that the value of skepticism, and science in general, is in reliance on evidence and critical thinking, and doesn’t rest on the veracity of any single authority. [bold added]

    The bolded part bothers me. The court is not a thing of science, but it does have authority and authority specifically in deciding the criminality of Dunnings actions. Is this commenter really suggesting that Dunning didn’t do something illegal or that the truth of his conviction should be judged by another authority (and what would that authority be)?

    Hyperscepticism is bad.

  34. 34
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Carl Sagan was someone I’d consider to be a sterling exemplar of character, though he did smoke a little marijuana

    …which isn’t even WRONG…

  35. 35
    Doug Greer

    This does not surprise me. The person who wrote: Sarah Palin Is Not Stupid
    Is an ad hominem attack really the best way to express disagreement?
    is happy to game a system for personal gain.

    I neither like eBay or most of the new Web companies out there. Most of them are not creating new technologies or anything deserving the huge profits they acculate. They do create new business opportunities which can be exploited, especially by the true believers in the “free” Market like Dunning.

  36. 36
    reinisivanovs

    His ex-wife said Sagan would never do the dishes, so this disqualifies him from being a sterling exemplar of character. Mentioning pot use as a character flaw is rather laughable, though, since it should be in the same category as having a drink.

  37. 37
    Anthony K

    …which isn’t even WRONG…

    Don’t look at me.

    [Shuffles feet, exhales a stream of acrid smoke.]

    Fuck, is anybody else super hungry? I could swear someone was talking about cookies upthread.

  38. 38
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    Oh, in addendum to my comment regarding Dunning’s repulsive avarice, it bears repeating that he used people in order to accomplish his massive theft. Avarice is one thing, awful as it is, but using unwitting fans to steal that kind of money is just bloody low.

    I also find it wryly amusing that, in defense of his actions, he claims that he had to spend more than his stolen cash earned him to defend himself in court. He’s not just a thief, he’s pompous and stupid.

  39. 39
    Ing

    I hope people do use this to reexamine his podcast. he was on occasion dismally wrong

  40. 40
    Denverly

    Wow. I’m more than a little disappointed. I don’t always agree with him, but this is nothing I ever would have expected.

  41. 41
    PZ Myers

    Perhaps it will come out in the sentencing. The blog post says he was charged with defrauding $1 million (out of a $2-3 million pie), but also says a much smaller number is more realistic. He argues that he was a bit player in a larger scheme (which makes it weird that he’s the only one charged). Even if it were $100,000, he’d have to know there was something funny going on…I get a tiny fraction of that for a relatively highly trafficked blog, and at that I’m told right up front what the going rate is per click, so I’d be sitting up abruptly if this blog were suddenly bringing in several times my yearly salary as a professor. I’d know there was something fishy going on.

    If he made a million off a podcast, I’m not going to have any sympathy to the argument that he didn’t know.

  42. 42
    Ing

    Side note while I admit being a little smug here I do feel for people who knew the guy begtter or where fans.m it is a betrayal

  43. 43
    pHred

    Dunning was one of the reasons that I never wanted much to do with the “skeptical community” – I guess it can seem kinda funny to be chill and ream out people for believing in ghosts or big foot, but the DDT episode and one about eating local, plus the absolutely horrible way he reacted to criticism – the DDT episode again comes to mind as well has his responding to mail episodes – really turned me off totally. Badly enough that I was briefly willing to reconsider the existence of big foot.

    Somehow, this just does not surprise me at all. Gotta work to avoid schadenfreude.

  44. 44
    WharGarbl

    @lilandra
    #10

    There are no sterling exemplars of character in the secular movement.

    Normally I would say Fred Roger, except that he’s a minister (hence not secular).
    I would argue that “sterling exemplars of character” are rare, so a combination of “sterling exemplars of character” + famous would be even more so.

  45. 45
    gridironmonger

    LOL, my twitter feed is blown up this AM with a) news and rumors about Boston suspect and B) atheists and skeptics talking about Dunning. And just a minute ago up pops a Dunning tweet about a UFO/ET documentary. I can almost hear him saying, “Nothing to see here. Move along. Please, move along. Pay no attention to the guilty plea behind the curtain.”

  46. 46
    barfy

    “Let’s hope he comes back…as a better person for it all.”

    One of my favorite PZ posts.
    I enjoyed Skeptoid very much, and am sad for everyone involved.
    People are complex, troubled, fascinating, sad and wonderful creatures. All of us.
    PZ gives some great advice.

  47. 47
    Sastra

    This is a shame. I don’t listen to podcasts but I have a few of Brian Dunning’s books, read his website on occasion, and have heard and enjoyed his talks at TAM. Let’s hope he does indeed come back a better person for this. After all, science is about learning from mistakes.

    @Thomathy #33:

    My guess is that the phrase in bold isn’t about the judge. It’s simply meant to indicate that there is no one authority in charge of ‘skepticism,’ including Brian Dunning. We do not rely on the truthful sincerity of those who recount their personal mystical experiences and put our trust in science in the reports of a leader.

  48. 48
    WharGarbl

    @Thomathy
    #33

    The bolded part bothers me. The court is not a thing of science, but it does have authority and authority specifically in deciding the criminality of Dunnings actions. Is this commenter really suggesting that Dunning didn’t do something illegal or that the truth of his conviction should be judged by another authority (and what would that authority be)?
    From my reading, I think he meant that skeptics shouldn’t rely on Brian Dunnings as the “authority” on all things skeptic.

  49. 49
    screechymonkey

    Thomathay@33:

    There certainly is legitimate criticism to be made in regards to Dunning, and it may well be that opponents to scepticism mainly use this case as part of a fallacious argument against Dunning and his podcast, but it’s definitely not out of line to question the trustworthiness of a person based on their actions. For the same reasons as person might use, as a strike against them, the criminal history of Sylvia Browne and Kevin Trudeau, one might assess (or reassess) Brian Dunning based on this case.

    Yeah, I’ve never had much time for the argument that a skeptic’s credibility doesn’t matter because you can check the evidence for yourself. It’s only valid if I’ve already decided to evaluate this particular claim, and am willing to track down every piece of evidence for myself. And in some instances I am, because it’s a sufficiently important subject to me.

    But we all have finite resources, especially time. I’m not going to read and exhaustively research everything that gets posted at, say, Answers in Genesis, or WorldNutDaily. When someone has a track record of presenting false or cherry-picked data, they go in the “ignore” box unless and until someone with some actual credibility says, “no, really, I think this one actually has some merit.” Conversely, when I’m reading someone who’s proven reputable, I don’t feel the need to click on every link or track down every piece of data — only the ones that are sufficiently important and/or appear to be in legitimate dispute. All of which, I’m sure, means I fail at being a (hyper)skeptic.

    Whether Dunning’s fraud reflects on his Skeptoid reporting is, I guess, a decision each of us has to make. I never really read or listened to him much to begin with.

  50. 50
    jesus

    I think the only thing I don’t agree with from PZ’s post (and I’m not even sure if PZ meant to say this exactly, so correct me if I’m wrong) is that I don’t think Dunning should go to prison for this. Prison functions to remove people who are a danger to society from that society. Dunning’s monetary crimes don’t make him a danger to society. The punishment should consist in essentially repairing the damage that was done. Specifically, eBay should be able to reclaim all the money that was stolen from it + court costs + maybe 5-10% or so for the inconvenience of being robbed. That money should come from the people who did the damage (Dunning included) proportional to their involvement, as determined by the court.

    Does that seem fair? Am I wrong about any of this? It seems to me we mis-use the prison system as either/both a deterrent and a retribution, but it doesn’t work as a deterrent and using it as a retribution is unnecessary and spiteful (plus it ends up costing everyone more, and victims who’s assailants are jailed or killed tend to report being unsatisfied by state retribution anyways).

    Any thoughts? I’d like to get some input before I go build a perfect society. ;p

  51. 51
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    And now he faces possible penalties that include several years in prison.

    It’s a statement of fact; Dunning faces possible prison time and that’s all that PZ said on the matter.

    You make a lot of ‘should’ statements, and perhaps he shouldn’t face prison time (I think it would be a ridiculous sentence, personally), but the reality of the law is that prison is a possible sentence.

    The amount that the defrauded party can recoup might not even be decided in the sentencing. This trial is about his culpability and the crime, and justice being served for that crime, either through prison time, some other restriction on his freedom, some sort of fine or a combination of any of those. It’s possible (I’m not familiar with the relevant American or local State law on this matter), that to recoup their legal fees and the stolen money, the defrauded party may have to take the matter to a kind of civil court. Of course, that may well be part of the sentencing.

    In any case, I don’t think you’re wrong in thinking that prison time would be a poor choice in punishment.

  52. 52
    ihumanist

    #36 – Normally I’d agree with you, but marijuana is and has been illegal for quite some time. I only brought it up since it was the only thing I could think of that some may consider a flaw in all my time researching Sagan. I don’t believe it to be wrong, and I actually wrote up in the original post that I believe smoking reasonable amounts of marijuana is equivalent to drinking socially, but I removed it as it really didn’t add to the discussion. Honestly, I could have cared less if smoked all the time! His contributions to society were far and above that of the average person.

    #21 – Thanks for that link about Hawking, I’d never seen that before. I can relate with him rather well in that regard, referring to being a lazy student (in high school). If he was anything like I was in high school, he probably just wasn’t challenged. I mean the guy can do astrophysics in his head, so I can’t imagine he finds much of anything mentally challenging! (And if you were thinking it, no, I’m nowhere near the intelligence of Hawking…)

  53. 53
    PZ Myers

    I didn’t say he should go to jail. I’m not much into retributive punishment for anyone.

  54. 54
    BrianX

    Here’s my thinking about fraud. It isn’t an exact fit to this situation, but I’m sure Pharyngulites will get my point.

    First off, I’m going to grant that some people deserve to be separated from their money. There are whole industries catering to people who have too much money for their own good; it was the Sharper Image’s whole reason for existence (or, as I used to say when the stores still existed, “yesterday’s tech at tomorrow’s bleeding-edge prices”). People who make their livings screwing other people over should expect to get screwed themselves, and suck it up when it happens. However…

    When you’re dealing in that sort of Veblen-ish market, you can’t ever be sure you’re going to hit your intended target and only them. Someone without enough money but a significant interest will see that $20 chocolate bar or $10,000 turntable and start saving up for it, on the assumption that it must be better than what they’re normally getting. While it’s generally true that you can’t scam the honest, that statement ignores people with good intentions and a lack of sense. The proper thing to do is to go to the person who can’t afford what you’re selling and tell them (sub rosa) how to get what they want for much cheaper, but they’ll probably blab, and you’ll get sued into the dirt by people richer and dumber than you.

    The lesson, of course, is that you either risk collateral damage (which is unethical, and means that you, too, are deserving of getting in trouble) or you don’t get involved in the whole mess in the first place, no matter how ironclad your reasoning for doing it is. In conclusion, if you get burned because you didn’t prepare for unintended consequences, you deserve it just as much as your mark did.

  55. 55
    jesus

    I didn’t say he should go to jail. I’m not much into retributive punishment for anyone.

    I apologize. I didn’t read carefully enough. Also, I probably should have known well enough to give you the benefit of the doubt here, ha!

  56. 56
    BrianX

    (And let’s be honest — isn’t it a characteristic of Libertarians, among others, to ignore the possibility of unintended consequences even when it’s staring them in the face and about to give them a swirlie?)

  57. 57
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    BrianX, really, a tu quo que? Or some kind of Robin Hood justice? I understand what you’re saying, but theft isn’t justice, collateral damage or not.

    Anyhow, as you say, it doesn’t fit to this situation, and even if it did (were it not illegal), there’s little ethical justification for this type of fraud.

  58. 58
    Shplane, Spess Alium

    There’s justification, to my mind, for individuals with next to nothing to take a little from the rest of society when society consistently refuses to give them anything. Stealing a candy bar? Pirating a movie? These are only “crimes” because rich assholes are greedy, and primarily serve to make life a little more bearable for people living in atrocious conditions.

    Defrauding a company of several million dollars is nowhere near the same thing.

  59. 59
    throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble

    jesus says:

    Dunning’s monetary crimes don’t make him a danger to society.

    They don’t? Why aren’t they a danger to society? Do corporations not count as part of society, or the workers who work for those corporations? If he was willing to fraudulently gain from a corporation what is to stop him from defrauding others? And what are the repercussions of his defrauding which are not so dangerous as to merit him being locked up and unable to commit any more fraud?

  60. 60
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    And what are the repercussions of his defrauding which are not so dangerous as to merit him being locked up and unable to commit any more fraud

    Honesty? Your imagination fails you. There are plenty of ways to prevent him from committing similar kinds of fraud without putting him in jail for his particular crime.

    I’m not excusing his crime or the severity, by the way; he was on trial for fraud, not his other ethical lapses.

    Also, I’m noting that there’s a possible conflation with one use of society and another. Are you sure that a corporation, rich and expansive as eBay (a company, frankly, with a bad track record ethically – see: outsourcing warehouse labour to suspect personnel companies and third-party distributors) is equivalent to a human person? I’m not.

  61. 61
    Muz

    How weird. I like Skeptoid but it’s true Brian does come off a bit prickly and aloof at times.
    The case does sound a bit odd though. I listened to a talk just the other day, by a guy who wrote software for a company who did exactly this sort of affiliate referral scam in the mid 2000s. It’s kinda complicated.
    He said the same thing; ebay and Amazon track this stuff and do little to stop it (in that case the sales sites got some benefit in that their ads were posted by the software, so they let it happen. Dunning’s seems slightly different). They also managed to stop any money from changing hands, which seems to have failed in this case and made the authorities more determined.
    The legality was thought to be a grey area since cookies and so forth were technically (ass)covered in the EULA, likewise any software you installed/ were made to install that performed similarly. This hadn’t been tested though. Plus I think the law has changed since then (which is why you see cookie notifications on a lot of sites now).

    It’s definitely ethically questionable at best, the way they make it sound. Strange that he’s the only one they could pin it on though.

  62. 62
    John Horstman

    The prosecution is arguing that Dunning cost eBay a million dollars (which lawyers may argue down to a smaller amount). How can you regret ending that kind of parasitic behavior?

    By viewing eBay itself as a parasite and their practice of buying endorsements as itself a scam?

  63. 63
    throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble

    Honesty? Your imagination fails you. There are plenty of ways to prevent him from committing similar kinds of fraud without putting him in jail for his particular crime.

    Imagine that my imagination has failed me and name something.

    Thomathy

    Also, I’m noting that there’s a possible conflation with one use of society and another. Are you sure that a corporation, rich and expansive as eBay (a company, frankly, with a bad track record ethically – see: outsourcing warehouse labour to suspect personnel companies and third-party distributors) is equivalent to a human person?

    Do you tend to note things which are not there? Well then, please, dismiss that as a possible conflation, because it was nowhere near being diverging definition. Corporations have an impact on society and society has an impact on corporations. That was the intent of mentioning workers in the same breath. Consider that I’m asking about it in the sense of an ‘ecosystem’ of society.

  64. 64
    Randomfactor

    Wow. Had heard Dunning at a couple conferences and quite enjoyed his talks, but I never heard any of his podcasts. Very sorry to hear this. I’d hoped the freethought movement could keep a cleaner house than that.

  65. 65
    WharGarbl

    @throwaway
    #63

    Imagine that my imagination has failed me and name something.

    Ban him from using computers and/or running a website for X years?

  66. 66
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    Imagine that my imagination has failed me and name something.

    Umm …no?

    Do you tend to note things which are not there?

    Condescension, cute.

    dismiss that as a possible conflation

    No, and I didn’t intimate that I was going to, nor would, dismiss it. I was asking a question and you’ve, in a way, provided an answer.

    Corporations have an impact on society and society has an impact on corporations. That was the intent of mentioning workers in the same breath. Consider that I’m asking about it in the sense of an ‘ecosystem’ of society.

    Sure they do and sure workers of corporations are part of society too. Dunnings actions seem very unlikely to affect the lives of people employed by the fantastically rich corporation he defrauded for, let’s face it, spare change from their perspective. I’m pretty sure jesus isn’t using society in the same way as you. I’m pretty sure that by ‘society’, jesus meant people and not corporations.

    In any case, it’s hyperbolic to suggest that by this act of fraud he is a danger to society. That’s not been shown. His ethical lapse (or perhaps it was no lapse) is clear, as is his culpability. He betrayed a trust and he broke a law; if he is to be seen as a danger to society because of this, I expect the sentencing guidelines for his particular crime need to be reviewed in order to keep so dangerous a person off the streets for good.

  67. 67
    BrianX

    Thomathy:

    I’m pretty sure you completely missed my point, which I thought I summed up pretty well at the end of my post — you can’t control for ripple effects that you don’t know about, which is what makes it unethical. And I’m not sure how you got a tu quoque out of that.

  68. 68
    ThorGoLucky

    His share was $1 million? If true, I’d feel like a schmuck for donating to him. I sent him $50 to help with disaster recovery of a hard drive, have been donating monthly to Skepoid.com, host his Wacko of the Week archive at gallery-of-wackos.com, and link to many of his Skeptoid episodes from my Debunkatron site.

  69. 69
    erikthebassist

    I’d hoped the freethought movement could keep a cleaner house than that.

    Yeah how the hell did we forget to make dunning turn over all his financials including those of his company before we let him become a popular skeptical podcaster?!?!?!?!?!?!?

    Get on the ball PZ! We need to clean up our house /sarcasm

    Randomfactor, did you think about that statement at all before you hit submit?

  70. 70
    Anthony K

    Randomfactor, did you think about that statement at all before you hit submit?

    Look, it’s not incorrect to look at the movement as a whole and ask just what it purports to provide people with? Critical thinking skills? Sure, I guess, as long as skeptics stick to bigfoot and UFOs, it seems. Ethicality? Ha!

    When critics, whether from within the movement or from without, point to these or other egregious violations of generally decent behaviour, what are we to tell them? Or should we just print up some bumper stickers that read “Skeptics aren’t perfect, just smarter than you, you dumb creationist/bigfoot believer”?

    On second thought, let’s do that thing. They’d probably sell well.

  71. 71
    throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble

    Whargarbl

    Ban him from using computers and/or running a website for X years?

    Prison will have the same effective outcome as well. Bonus that it doesn’t result in overreach, and it is actually enforceable when the perpetrator is in custody.

  72. 72
    imthegenieicandoanything

    I’m confused. Does his being “personable” and “nice” mean his being a thief and a liar in “our” cause less WRONG?

    So, Charles Keating gets a pass, as well. I mean, some tiny portion of his fraud actually helped people in need, as I recall.

    Are there really any excuses for his crime? I mean, besides, “I kind of liked him” and/or “ebay is no good, anyway”?

    I’m all for giving him another chance afterwards, but I just do not understand the tepidity of PZ’s initial post. And anybody who says it was cool is simply no human being I ever want to take seriously again, on any matters relating to truth or friendship. Fuck off.

    I’m stunned with disappointment at this reaction. I read it three times, and will come back later to see if I simply read the tome it conveys wrongly.

  73. 73
    erikthebassist

    Anthony K

    When critics, whether from within the movement or from without, point to these or other egregious violations of generally decent behaviour, what are we to tell them?

    We tell them that being a skeptic / free thinker / atheist doesn’t make people immune to being assholes. But we already know that.

    The question is, does skepticism actively work to promote or obfuscate unethical behavior? Is there any property the movement possesses that makes it more or less likely to harbor or root out corruption?

  74. 74
    Anthony K

    We tell them that being a skeptic / free thinker / atheist doesn’t make people immune to being assholes. But we already know that.

    Now we’re getting to the meat. What do we claim being a skeptic / free thinker / atheist does do for people? Besides shift their hero-worship onto an entirely new set of popes and saints?

    The question is, does skepticism actively work to promote or obfuscate unethical behavior?

    No. The question is, does skepticism do anything at all?

  75. 75
    Randomfactor

    Randomfactor, did you think about that statement at all before you hit submit

    Sure did. I see the skeptical community as often criticising religion for its ethical lapses. I ain’t perfect, but I certainly try to be better than the behavior I criticise.

    Sure, there ain’t no real “community.” A guy can dream.

  76. 76
    throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble

    In any case, it’s hyperbolic to suggest that by this act of fraud he is a danger to society.

    I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all to suggest that fraudsters are a danger to society. I think it can be clearly argued that such people are dangers to the stability of society since it betrays a pillar of society. That pillar being our desire for our trades and interactions be devoid of fraud by all parties. His actions prove he is a danger to that pillar, thus a danger to society.

  77. 77
    Anthony K

    In any case, it’s hyperbolic to suggest that by this act of fraud he is a danger to society.

    Yeah. So, what was OWS all about, anyway?

  78. 78
    meursalt

    This makes me very sad. Skeptoid was one of maybe two or three sites I’ve ever posted to non-anonymously over the last decade or more, and I did it reluctantly, but out of respect for Brian’s wish that everyone used their real name and location, in the interest of integrity or something along those lines.

    Since I conduct business entirely in cash whenever possible, I always felt a twinge of guilt when he’d solicit donations, since it was highly impractical for me to contribute.

    I haven’t kept up closely with Skeptoid in the last few years, but I was a devoted listener when the podcast was relatively new. There were times I’d disagree with him, but I really thought he had a high level of personal integrity. I was coming out of a difficult time in my life and trying to sharpen my critical thinking skills, and Brian was an inspiration in this respect.

    I guess it’s a good lesson. No idols, indeed. And remember, whenever blah blah blah, be skeptical. :(

  79. 79
    Anthony K

    but out of respect for Brian’s wish that everyone used their real name and location, in the interest of integrity or something along those lines

    Integrity? Holy shit, I finally done got broken, and it was Brian Dunning what did it.

  80. 80
    WharGarbl

    @Anthony K
    #79
    I think he meant that BEFORE he knew all this happened, he respected Brian.

  81. 81
    Anthony K

    I think he meant that BEFORE he knew all this happened, he respected Brian.

    Oh, I know. I probably wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to pick on meursalt, but Dunning’s holy-fuck-what-the-fucking-fuck level of hypocrisy.

  82. 82
    meursalt

    re: #78-80:

    WharGarbl has it right. This was a person whom I respected, who was putting his own personal information out on the Internet while promoting critical thinking. He requested that listeners do the same when engaging in dialogue with him, so, out of my sense of respect and consideration for Brian’s wishes, I compromised my values regarding privacy (which may tend towards an abundance of caution, I’ll freely admit).

    After the first year or two, when he began to solicit donations, Brian liked to make a big deal of the fact that he was supposedly doing the podcast at significant personal expense, thus the need for donations to defray his costs. I felt a bit guilty for not being able to contribute easily.

    Hearing about the conviction, in the light of these two facts, feels like a bit of a slap in the face to me personally, in much the same way earlier posters expressed frustration for being unwittingly recruited into the scam just by visiting the site.

  83. 83
    erikthebassist

    No. The question is, does skepticism do anything at all?

    I think it does, for me anyway. It helps me avoid shams and scams. It helps me make more informed medical choices, avoid quacks for doctors.

    It helps me evaluate claims made by MRA’s for instance, or NRA’s, or any other RA’s ftm, and determine if they are using reason and logic and good evidence or if they are generally full of shit.

  84. 84
    Anthony K

    It helps me avoid shams and scams.

    Looks like that effect is not universal. It did not stop people from donating to Skeptoid for instance.

    It helps me evaluate claims made by MRA’s for instance, or NRA’s, or any other RA’s ftm, and determine if they are using reason and logic and good evidence or if they are generally full of shit.

    It most certainly does not seem to have that effect universally (or even consistently), at least not among many professional skeptics.

  85. 85
    Sili

    I thought Hawking was supposed to have something of a god complex.

    And didn’t he treat his first wife like shit? – Hmm, whaddayaknow, she had a “strong Christian faith”. I had no idea.

  86. 86
    brive1987

    And eBay didn’t think as it handed over the cash to a micro site owner- despite a clear audit trail. And there was ambiguity over the legal status of cookies at the time? And the crims committed their crime using software that was distributed and remained on the victims computer? duh!

    Legally he may well be stuffed – but morally this is more nuanced than a standrd CAM purchase. As an aside what is the moral rather than legal case for continually consuming media where the clear author stated expectation is for a “buck a show”?

    Anyone counting how many of the “thousand lights” yet shine? And no, 999 is the obvious answer! :-)

  87. 87
    erikthebassist

    Randomfactor

    Sure did. I see the skeptical community as often criticising religion for its ethical lapses.

    There’s a huge difference between systematic ethical lapses, like the RCC and pedophilia, and a one off fraud getting caught. When shitty ethics are the doctrine of your organization, you have a problem. I don’t see this happening in the free thought movement.

  88. 88
    Ichthyic

    @Michaeld, #30:

    Wouldn’t being a person who does foolish things speak to character?

    ever jaywalked?

    much more foolish than smoking pot.

    your character must be flawed (don’t try to tell me you never have).

    see the utter and complete logic fail in your question now?

  89. 89
    erikthebassist

    Anthony K,

    Since when does something have to be universally effective to make it worthwhile?

  90. 90
    Anthony K

    When shitty ethics are the doctrine of your organization, you have a problem. I don’t see this happening in the free thought movement.

    Actually, when the heads and leaders of you organisation are generally thoughtless, entitled douchehats, you have a problem, regardless of whether or not there’s some dry, dead doctrine sitting on a piece of paper somewhere justifying it.

    Atheists really need to stop using “But we don’t have any doctrine, save not believing in gods” as a shield against criticism of the movement. It’s weak.

  91. 91
    Ichthyic

    I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all to suggest that fraudsters are a danger to society.

    it’s rather ignorant NOT to in fact.

    anyone thinking fraud does not harm society might want to fucking rattle their brain a bit, and recall Bernie Madoff.

    Anyone who thinks Ponzi Scheme are not a significant danger to society are either utterly ignorant, or participating in one.

    wow.

  92. 92
    Anthony K

    Since when does something have to be universally effective to make it worthwhile?

    About the same time that an anecdotal and unsupportable claim of personal effectiveness makes something worthwhile, as a movement.

  93. 93
    Ichthyic

    for those with short memories:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madoff_investment_scandal

  94. 94
    brive1987

    Hmm. On careful inspection it seems BDs software literally went out, “stole” affiliate cookies from eBay and secretly loaded them on his visitors machines in the hope they would subsequently use eBay and give him the credit. Maybe not so nuanced as I thought…….

  95. 95
    erikthebassist

    Anthony K,

    NM I reread and some how “or even consistently” evaded my sight the first time through. So you aren’t claiming it has to be universal, just consistent?

    Maybe it’s just my perception but the level of corruption and shitty ethics having I see going on in every walk of life, from corporate boardrooms to religion, to political parties is pretty damned universal while in the Movement™ it seems to be at least somewhat subdued. Sure we have the pit and some pretty asinine things coming out of the mouths of some of our “heroes”, but at least there’s some accountability.

  96. 96
    Ichthyic

    Wow. Had heard Dunning at a couple conferences and quite enjoyed his talks, but I never heard any of his podcasts. Very sorry to hear this. I’d hoped the freethought movement could keep a cleaner house than that.

    Reminds me a lot of Marc Hauser, who definitely contributed a lot to our understanding of the evolution of ethics and sociality, but was also found to have committed academic fraud by faking some of the data in a few of his papers.

    Most wanted to just forget everything about him, but really, while he deserved the exact punishment he got, and his academic career is now over, it doesn’t take away from the legitimate things he DID accomplish.

    so, yeah, Dunning is now a criminal, and likely deserves fines and punishment for participating in fraud. For those that got something out of his talks though, I don’t see how that should diminish what you got out of them.

    This idea that people as a whole only consist of the one thing that you decide to personally attribute to them, good or bad, seems a bit… two dimensional to my way of thinking.

  97. 97
    erikthebassist

    About the same time that an anecdotal and unsupportable claim of personal effectiveness makes something worthwhile, as a movement.

    So you don’t think it’s worthwhile to band together resources to do things like protect the separation of church and state, or campaign for the safety and efficacy of vaccines? I can keep going…

  98. 98
    Ichthyic

    I’d hoped the freethought movement could keep a cleaner house than that.

    …and that, especially, irritates the fuck out of me. Academia can’t even stop fraud within the ranks of practicing scientists. It simply is not possible to be a policeman AND a scientist, even though many of us end up catching the mistakes, deliberate or not, of our compatriots. And we have strict peer review, infrastructure to deal with things like fraud, etc.

    how in the living fuck do you expect a loose movement of individuals to “police” such a house?

    It’s simply not fair to ask such a thing.

  99. 99
    erik333

    @50 Our Lord And Savior

    Actually, prison probably works as a deterrant for “white collar crimes” as they are premeditated and have allow ample time for risk vs. reward assessment. Spur of the moment violent crimes are different, the only real benefit there (with prison sentences) is protecting the public.

    Whatever you might think about Ebay does in no way, shape or form mitigate the offense of a person defrauding them for personal gain. If you stole from them and gave all the money to some supposed vitim of their misbehavior, you *might* have some grounds for moral justification – but would still have no argument against being convicted to the full extent of the law.

  100. 100
    Anthony K

    Maybe it’s just my perception but the level of corruption and shitty ethics having I see going on in every walk of life, from corporate boardrooms to religion, to political parties is pretty damned universal while in the Movement™ it seems to be at least somewhat subdued.

    Yeah, that’s just your perception. It’s like every time there’s some sexist ass bullshit coming out of the movement, PZ claims that it’s not as bad as elsewhere, based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

    Wait until it gets bigger, and more entrenched, and with more money on the line, you’ll really see the shit fly.

    So you don’t think it’s worthwhile to band together resources to do things like protect the separation of church and state, or campaign for the safety and efficacy of vaccines? I can keep going..

    NO. Skeptics do NOT own vaccines. It’s not a skeptical issue, it’s a fucking public health issue. Skeptics are more than welcome to help out, but that’s it. You’re helpers on that one; you didn’t fucking invent vaccines, nor did you invent the public health push for them.

    I’m frankly fucking sick of skeptics trying to co-opt that one. You know what would happen if skeptics qua skeptics bowed out of the anti-vaccine fight? It would still go on, carried by the people I work with, in the field I work in. So, thanks for your help, but I’m not crediting skeptics with vaccines.

    And frankly, if all the libertarian skeptics like Shermer got hit by a fucking bus, or put their shit nmoney where their shit mouths were and moved to fucking Sealand already, the job of people like me would be a lot easier, but no…I gotta continually debate the motherfucking private healthcare fucks on a continuing basis because of skeptics.

    When it comes to public health, skeptics are part of the solution and the problem.

  101. 101
    Anthony K

    how in the living fuck do you expect a loose movement of individuals to “police” such a house?

    Then why have a loose movement at all? What does it do?

  102. 102
    brive1987

    Just a pity the law in gneral is often selective in its targeting with a loose correlation to justice. Still its all we have got.

  103. 103
    erik333

    101 Anthony K
    For exchanging ideas about how to combat the batshits?

  104. 104
    erikthebassist

    Anthony,

    I personally have set at least 10 or 15 well meaning parents traight on the vaccine issue who had gotten sucked in by AVN’s bullshit. Had they not had the conversation with ME, NOT YOU, ME, they would have forgone vaccination for their kids.

    I’m not asking for credit or a cookie, I’m doing what I know is the right thing to do.

    So I should just say fuck it and stop because you’re bitter about Shermer’s douchbaggery and the slymepit?

  105. 105
    meursalt

    @Icthyic:

    so, yeah, Dunning is now a criminal, and likely deserves fines and punishment for participating in fraud. For those that got something out of his talks though, I don’t see how that should diminish what you got out of them.

    Speaking for myself, it doesn’t. I got a lot of laughs out of Brian’s early podcasts, and I learned a lot. Sometimes he oversimplified issues, and sometimes he got things wrong, but the podcasts were always though-provoking, especially since they often addressed topics of woo that had fascinated me as a kid, but which I had not thought much about as an adult. I will always appreciate that he took the time to produce those podcasts.

    My main reaction is that of shock. Brian projected such a “boy scout” image (in the positive sense, not the hating-gays-and-atheists sense) that he was one of the last “movement” skeptics that I would have expected this from. One thing that sticks in my mind is that he would often exhort listeners to be skeptical of his own claims. Was this a guilty conscience speaking, or am I overthinking things? I can’t help but wonder what his thought process was while perpetrating the fraud, and whether he found some way to rationalize what he was doing, or just possesses a deeply cynical and deceptive side. Only Brian knows the answer.

  106. 106
    Ichthyic

    Then why have a loose movement at all? What does it do?

    act as a localized repository of information?

    work to help coordinate those with shared interests?

    work to help publicize concerns of those within the community?

    act as a love connection to help find the giant-gay-orgy-with-Brownian que?

    shall i go on?

  107. 107
    Anthony K

    For exchanging ideas about how to combat the batshits?

    Do skeptics know how to do that?

    I personally have set at least 10 or 15 well meaning parents traight on the vaccine issue who had gotten sucked in by AVN’s bullshit. Had they not had the conversation with ME, NOT YOU, ME, they would have forgone vaccination for their kids.

    I’m not asking for credit or a cookie, I’m doing what I know is the right thing to do.

    So I should just say fuck it and stop because you’re bitter about Shermer’s douchbaggery and the slymepit?

    Hey, I was fought the idiots long before I ever heard of Shermer and his little gang of mensa rejects, and I ain’t gonna stop.

    I’m just not going to allow the parasitic skeptics’ community to coast by coopting others’ work anymore.

    You’re glad some kids have vaccines? Me too. Great. You can thank public health for that.

  108. 108
    Ichthyic

    Was this a guilty conscience speaking, or am I overthinking things?

    most likely the latter.

  109. 109
    meursalt

    @Ichthyic

    most likely the latter.

    Yeah yeah, I know. I also caught my own false dichotomy in my last post, just after I submitted it:

    [...]whether he found some way to rationalize what he was doing, or just possesses a deeply cynical and deceptive side.

    The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and simple avarice probably played a bigger part than any such thought processes.

  110. 110
    Ichthyic

    The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle

    and yet, beware the fallacy of the middle ground.

  111. 111
    erikthebassist

    Anthony K

    You’re glad some kids have vaccines? Me too. Great. You can thank public health for that.

    I’ve never tried to take credit for the existence of vaccines, and I don’t know any skeptic that has. But we can take at least some credit for counteracting the bullshit coming out of groups like AVN.

    It’s important to have non-goverment, non-scientist voices supporting the good work that government and scientists do, if for no other reason than a lot of people don’t trust government or science. This might be due to their own ignorance, even willful ignorance, but it’s just the reality of the situation.

    If I get to have that conversation with them however, they might just trust me and listen to what I’m saying because they know me. Public health officials also aren’t going to debate on a forum or blog for days on end hoping lurkers will see the veracity of pro-vaccine arguments and the transparency of anti-vaccine arguments.

    I don’t see how you can say there is no value in increasing the number of people who learn how to think critically and properly evaluate scientific arguments, which to me is the core goal of the Movement™.

    I think you’re bitter about Deep Rifts, and so am I, but I’m not going to throw the baby out with bath water and abandon skepticism because a bunch of Vulcan Hyperskeptics are doing their best to destroy the movement from with in, I’m going to continue to support those skeptics that are doing good work and say fuck off to those who aren’t. It’s pretty simple.

  112. 112
    sheldonhelms

    Brian is a personal friend. This situation reminds me of a quote from Shimon Peres (reacting to President Reagan’s seemingly antisemitic statements): “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend is still a friend, and the mistake is still a mistake.”

  113. 113
    Adela Doiron

    Odd thing about Sagan, (I had the biggest 13 year old girl crush on that man back in the day), while he was still very much alive and with us is that I would have people tell me that he had affairs with his female students. I still wonder just how much of that was urban legend of the time or in death did his life get rewritten.

  114. 114
    screechymonkey

    Anthony K,

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines over the last few years. When I first discovered that there was a “skeptical movement/community/whatever,” I kind of went along with the party line that skepticism wasn’t about having a particular position on any specific issue, it’s about following the evidence, logic, etc.

    But as time goes on, I’ve found it harder to buy into that, and for reasons that have very little to do with the various sexism/Slymepit disputes.

    First, skeptics do have positions on particular issues. They/we have decided that, based on the currently available evidence, creationism is bullshit, Bigfoot doesn’t exist, Sylvia Browne doesn’t have psychic abilities, etc. It’s just plain disingenuous to pretend that we haven’t reached those conclusions, and frankly I don’t understand why anyone should want to pretend not to have reached a conclusion.

    This is where the skeptic party line kicks in to say “oh, but those are only tentative conclusions; we’re totally open to changing our minds based on new evidence, that’s what makes us skeptics and not just cynics!” To which I say: Big. Fucking. Deal. You and 99% of the population say that. It’s not like there’s a competing group of people out there proudly saying “no, I’m not open to any new evidence” (with one obvious exception I’ll come to).

    And that’s true of most of what skeptics claim for themselves. Oh, you think we should base our beliefs on evidence? You think we should avoid logical fallacies? You think we should be open to new evidence? Staking out a position in favor of reason, logic, and evidence doesn’t exactly make you special or even mildly controversial. Creationists, homeopaths, anti-vaxxers, et al. generally don’t argue that facts, evidence, logic, and reason don’t matter; instead, they claim (wrongly) that they favor their position. (Ironically, the one major exception to this, the one area that often tends to declare itself off-limits to logic and reason, is the one area that many skeptics want to stay away from: religion.)

    Being in favor of logic, reason, and evidence is like being in favor of happiness and sunshine. Or saying that you think we should reach correct conclusions rather than incorrect ones.

    Now, there might still be a point in treating skepticism as “defenders of reason” if they were really good at it. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. (I vaguely recall an actual scientific study on the issue.) Certainly the anecdotal evidence (yes, I’m aware of the irony of citing that) isn’t good.. It doesn’t take long before any argument on any skeptical forum turns into finger-pointing about who’s being a bad skeptic, whose arguments are fallacious, and so on. Whenever I’ve discussed any topic that isn’t core “Bigfoot skepticism” with self-identified skeptics, I can’t say that the quality of discussion is significantly higher.

    To paraphrase the old William F. Buckley line: on any randomly-selected topic, do you think that a group of self-identified skeptics would be more likely to reach the correct conclusion than a randomly cross-section of the population? I’m not sure that I would.

  115. 115
    John Morales

    sheldonhelms, fraud is not a mistake, it’s theft.

    (Your friend is a thief)

  116. 116
    carolineborduin

    Some of Dunning’s skepticism was actually libertarianism. He’s a Reason magazine skeptic.

  117. 117
    Ichthyic

    @Adele

    you might be interested in this take:

    http://www.onesadmonkey.com/blog/?tag=carl-sagan

  118. 118
    Ichthyic

    It’s not like there’s a competing group of people out there proudly saying “no, I’m not open to any new evidence”

    actually, this isn’t at all accurate. there are literally hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who indeed will refuse on any given issue to listen to new evidence.

    hell, we see it with climate deniers, creationists, moon landing deniers….

    the list is positively huge.

  119. 119
    John Morales

    [OT]

    screechymonkey:

    To paraphrase the old William F. Buckley line: on any randomly-selected topic, do you think that a group of self-identified skeptics would be more likely to reach the correct conclusion than a randomly cross-section of the population? I’m not sure that I would.

    Your qualification is revealing; on any randomly-selected topic, do you think that a group of self-identified skeptics would be more likely to reach the correct conclusion than a randomly [chosen] cross-section of the population?

  120. 120
    Ichthyic

    Being in favor of logic, reason, and evidence is like being in favor of happiness and sunshine. Or saying that you think we should reach correct conclusions rather than incorrect ones.

    go ahead and tell me how anti-materialists reach the same position.

    well?

    Now, there might still be a point in treating skepticism as “defenders of reason” if they were really good at it. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    your last rant being a great case in point!

    perhaps you’ve actually made the argument you intended, albeit unintentionally.

  121. 121
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    I don’t have any sympathy for him. I guess he’s one of those people who thinks it’s OK to steal if it’s from a large company. And not one million, but over five million. I suspect he was caught because his company got one of the biggest payouts.

  122. 122
    screechymonkey

    Ichtyic:

    actually, this isn’t at all accurate. there are literally hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who indeed will refuse on any given issue to listen to new evidence.

    Yes, but they don’t admit it. And that’s my point. Yes, I agree that not everyone actually is open to new evidence. But practically everyone claims to be. And so a group that champions the cause “let’s be open to new evidence” isn’t really accomplishing anything.

    go ahead and tell me how anti-materialists reach the same position

    I have no idea what you’re asking me here.

    your last rant being a great case in point!

    And fuck you very much, too.

  123. 123
    gridironmonger

    The documents in the addendum make his lawyer-approved sob story on his blog even more ridiculous and disgusting.

  124. 124
    PZ Myers

    Jebus. See the update to the article up top; I was passed along some of the legal documents in this case. Dunning bragged about exploiting eBay’s “stupid” code to the FBI. Openly, freely, while not under duress or arrest, during an interview with an agent.

    His share of the profits from this scheme was 50%, split with his brother.

  125. 125
    PZ Myers

    It’s like every time there’s some sexist ass bullshit coming out of the movement, PZ claims that it’s not as bad as elsewhere, based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

    I’m changing, though. There’s this heartsick little part of me that’s learning to be deeply disappointed.

    Maybe someday I’ll even be as cynical as you are. But it’s OK, as long as I’m learning the truth.

  126. 126
    erikthebassist

    It’s interesting to me that our so called skeptical and atheist “leaders” are dropping like flies, Dawkins “dear muslima”, Harris and racial profiling and nuking the brown people (somehow I’m imagining him combing Facebook for photos of brown people with back packs along with Alex Jones), Hitchens turned out to be a raging islamaphobe and sexist, now Dunning is an admitted wireline fraud….

    Out with it PZ, just tell us so we’re not shocked, is it going to be academic fraud? A sex scandal? How are you going to let us down? ;^]

  127. 127
    SallyStrange

    The problem with demanding perfection in your leaders is that you don’t get perfection, you get a bunch of really good liars.

  128. 128
    John Morales

    [OT]

    erikthebassist, as you imply, only followers have leaders.

  129. 129
    Anthony K

    Maybe someday I’ll even be as cynical as you are.

    Eh, naked bitter cynicism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    Thanks, Ichthyic, Mellow Monkey, and ericthebassist: those were all pretty good answers to my bitter ranting. I appreciate the straightening out.

  130. 130
    jacksonp

    If you’re versed in internet marketing and affiliate programs, and such, reading the complaint by eBay and the documents linked above by PZ, the case against Dunning is not so impressive. The FBI interview contains a lot of scary sounding words, without much actual substance.

    PZ, you said you didn’t understand all the data that gets flung back and forth, you should leave it at that, and consider that Dunning is the scapegoat for problems and practices at eBay. It’s hard to believe that eBay and Commission Junction didn’t know what was happening all along. Despite what eBay’s complaint said, it would be *easy* to detect what Dunning was doing because it’s not that complicated.

    You don’t have to like Dunning, but I’m a little surprised that so few people here considered that perhaps the billion dollar corporation with deep pockets was perhaps in the wrong here.

  131. 131
    SallyStrange

    There was some consideration of that topic early in the thread, but if you think there’s something missing from the discussion, feel free to chime in.

  132. 132
    PZ Myers

    Because they’re a billion dollar corporation with deep pockets does not justify, either ethically or legally, scamming them to make yourself a tidy income of 1 point freaking 2 million dollars a year.

    eBay may have sloppy practices. But if I leave my door unlocked, it doesn’t make it OK for someone to walk in and rob me.

  133. 133
    PZ Myers

    Out with it PZ, just tell us so we’re not shocked, is it going to be academic fraud? A sex scandal? How are you going to let us down? ;^]

    Nope, none of those have occurred, so not likely. Isn’t being a fat homely old geezer enough of a let-down for you?

  134. 134
    John Morales

    jacksonp:

    If you’re versed in internet marketing and affiliate programs, and such, reading the complaint by eBay and the documents linked above by PZ, the case against Dunning is not so impressive.

    But it’s undeniably impressive enough that he’s pled guilty.

    PZ, you said you didn’t understand all the data that gets flung back and forth, you should leave it at that, and consider that Dunning is the scapegoat for problems and practices at eBay. It’s hard to believe that eBay and Commission Junction didn’t know what was happening all along.

    Does the date June 18, 2007 mean anything to you?

    You don’t have to like Dunning, but I’m a little surprised that so few people here considered that perhaps the billion dollar corporation with deep pockets was perhaps in the wrong here.

    Well, clearly eBay was not legally wrong and Dunning was; so, to what kind of wrongness do you refer?

    (If someone who doesn’t have Dunning’s millions defrauded him, would you consider that perhaps Dunning would be in the wrong there?)

  135. 135
    John Morales

    [OT]

    So, PZ, you mean that when you deprecate yourself, you’re being truthful?

    (The disappointment would be unbearable!)

  136. 136
    Anthony K

    Nope, none of those have occurred, so not likely. Isn’t being a fat homely old geezer enough of a let-down for you?

    Should you ever feel ambivalent about cephalopods and adore kittehs, please take those secrets to your grave.

    Some truths would be too unbearable to face.

  137. 137
    lilandra

    I identify the idea that leaders should be perfect, a some sort of idea that culminated in the pop culture of the 1950s. An example of that ideal would be Superman, surpassed everyone at everything physical but then kind of boring. Anti-heroes like Batman the Dark Knight version are more interesting. I think they tried to make Captain Kirk more interesting in the new Star Trek. Not Mr. Perfect, he has demons and failed at things. So, PZ is human. I don’t see that as a let down.

    That is sort of off topic with Dunning though. His flaw doesn’t make him interesting; avarice is too common.

  138. 138
    Surly Amy

    So there is a bit more info on this case. Allegedly, Dunning did this with his brother and with a guy named Shawn Hogan. Together they allegedly made over 20 million dollars. 5.3 of that being Dunning’s take. Shawn the bigger bread winner of the crew (allegedly 15.5 mil) plead guilty about a month ago. There is also a pending civil case waiting on the results of the current Federal case. A quick Internet search comes up with some facts on the case: http://www.nickycakes.com/digital-point-owners-indicted-out-on-100k-bail/
    Here is a website with details on all current affiliate litigation, scroll down for info on the Dunning/Hogan cases: http://www.benedelman.org/affiliate-litigation/

  139. 139
    SallyStrange

    Whoa.

  140. 140
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    We already know PZ puts Catsup on his hotdogs. Isn’t that enough?

  141. 141
    Ichthyic

    I have no idea what you’re asking me here.

    do you even know what an antimaterialist is?

    if not, perhaps you should ask William Dembski.

    here’s the bottom line:

    you don’t know what you’re talking about here, if you think the utilization of reason and evidence is so self apparent. There are literally billions of people who think that evidence is not needed to make a sound conclusion about the world around them.

    so, when you say:

    Being in favor of logic, reason, and evidence is like being in favor of happiness and sunshine.

    no, it really isn’t. You seem to think this is the norm, when it is in fact far from it.

    and yes, fuck you too. don’t need you to try and tell us how obvious things are, when you apparently are completely clueless as to the reality of the fact that religion has driven people’s thinking on the value of evidence for eons, and materialism is the fight AGAINST that.

  142. 142
    Muz

    Reading more about it now, it’s interesting that the guy I was talking about earlier said their scheme didn’t make a dime, but this one is alleged to have done rather well (although Dunning talks like he never saw any of it and has been living on the bones of his arse for the longest time. I guess we’ll know more after the evidentiary hearing.)
    People coming along to say ‘oh this stuff happens all the time’ are correct for the mid 2000′s it seems. But it is as though they’re trying to clean all that up now. And really, does semi secretly installing redirects and piggy-backing functionality on free software to exploit a loophole that’s clearly not the intent or spirit of an arrangement really not sound at all questionable to people? Even if “everybody does it” or did it.

    Ebay and others might have been idiots for letting this stuff happen in the past, but per that other case, they managed to make sure it was innocuous (for them, if not the public at large). I’m not really surprised at them calling a halt to it all if these numbers are right though.

  143. 143
    erikthebassist

    Nope, none of those have occurred, so not likely. Isn’t being a fat homely old geezer enough of a let-down for you?

    Ha ha I know what it is, ur a femanist that’s wat u is… busted cretin…. warez mah photoshops?

  144. 144
    John Morales

    [meta]

    erikthebassist, Poeing is passé around here.

  145. 145
    erikthebassist

    [meta]

    so is putting [meta] in front of virtually everything you post

  146. 146
    andyo

    We already know PZ puts Catsup on his hotdogs. Isn’t that enough?

    Better than putting hotdogs in his cat soup, that’s for sure.

  147. 147
  148. 148
    erik333

    On the wider view, the implicit picture seems to be that people crave perfect heroes and champions of their causes, who never do something unethical or voice wrong opinion about anything. I have no idea how bad this “witch hunt” problem is in the US, but the prevailing media culture here in Sweden is, imo, pretty bad in this regard. Focusing solely on what people do that is “wrong” seems to be counter productive, do we really want completely bland figureheads who run everything by the PR department?

    Think what you want about Hitchens etc, and I’ll trust you have your reasons, but their good arguments remain good arguments all the same. I’ve seen Hitchens (and everyone else pointing out problems with Islam in general and islamism in particular) accused of being an islamophobe, but never seen a good case made to that effect in regard to Hitchens. But, sure, i’ve not read everything hes ever said or written, so perhaps at some point his phrasing was less than optimal so his facade slipped and revealed the oily blackness that was his soul… so what, in the grand scheme of things?

    Being sure you, yourself, represent Good is handy, that way you can afford to be just a little bit evil and still feel good about yourself.

  149. 149
    AJS

    When scum-sucking parasites attack other scum-sucking parasites, decent people benefit. The Internet was a lot better in the days when you had to pay for it — trying to make it advertising-funded has ruined it. It’s like trying to watch satellite TV without Sky Plus.

    I have my own nameserver, which is — shall we say — not entirely truthful about the IP addresses associated with certain domain names. Specifically, it refuses to resolve any site that has ever in the past tried to pollute my screen with advertisements or intrusive tracking measures.

  150. 150
    carlie

    I’m still confused – there were that many people who checked out his webpage and then bought something from ebay? I did not realize there was a) that much of an audience for his podcast and b) that much of an overlap of people who listen to skeptic podcasts and people who buy things on ebay.

  151. 151
    Lyra

    No hero loss for me here. I listened to skeptoid for a while a few years back, didn’t send him any money and quickly grew tired of his political biases and what came across to me as a cocky and dismissive attitude.

    Also, something that made me uncomfortable about Dunning was his clean-cut, nice-guy image. I may be biased but most people I know who have their heads on straight ethically are usually shaggy, bitter and suspicious of people in general.

    To the justifiers of Dunning all I can say is that if he was stealing the money from ebay and using it to feed starving children then yeah maybe I could get on your side but c’mon that isn’t what’s happened. He was trying to get rich off of defrauding a big evil company. If the roles were reversed and Dunning was ebay I would wager he would see himself as the hero and ebay as the evil parasite. I think the two wrongs don’t make a right rule applies here :P

  152. 152
    Ing

    For fuck sake people. no one is demanding “perfection” so drop that tired line. it’s obscene when the religious use that whine and it’s obscene now.

    Not being a massive unethical theif isn’t demanding perfection
    Asking people be willing to take criticism and examine privledge isn’t perfection
    Asking people not advocate racism is not demanding perfection

    This whine of “no ones perfect” is really a special plea to lower our standards.

  153. 153
    John Phillips, FCD

    @Carlie, he started out with ‘infecting’ web sites, and not just his own, so that anytime someone visited those sites a cookie was unknowingly loaded onto the visitors PC such that if that visitor ever used eBay for certain actions, Dunning would profit. He was warned by a friend that eBay was investigating him so he then moved on to releasing a couple of free apps for users to add to their page on MySpace, e.g. one allowed you to track your ‘friends’ location, and another was a ‘who is visiting me’ type app. Anyone who then visited those users’ MySpace pages got a cookie unknowingly installed on their PC by the app that, again, if the user carried out certain types of actions on ebay Dunning would profit. These apps with their hidden code apparently did the job far more efficiently than the ‘infected’ sites as the ‘income’ rose quite significantly after their release.

  154. 154
    chigau (違う)

    AJS #149
    Oh my.
    Aren’t you special!

  155. 155
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    For the record, I wasn’t suggesting that fraud and fraudsters in general aren’t necessarily dangers to society (there are many examples that prove they can be) but, that in this particular instance, I don’t think that the type of fraud that Dunning committed makes him dangerous. We have no idea what his chances of recidivism are and we only know of this one instance. It still seems silly to consider him a dangerous criminal, rather than merely a criminal (on top of whatever else he may be considered due to his crime, like a betrayer of trust) but, since I have no good reason (aside from principle) to defend a person who’s name I learned yesterday against being described as dangerous, I won’t argue the point further. It’s largely beside the point, anyhow, considering the implications of his crime beyond the injury to eBay.
    _____

    BrianX, I guess I did miss your point entirely.

  156. 156
    Steve Sirhan

    A hypercapitalist venture capitalist who allegedly made, along with Kessler’s Flying Circus, nearly $6 million in commissions, who was paying his wife $10K a month in salary off this, and in the process, was one of the types of people making the Internet a hypercapitalist, “monetized” cesspool finally gets slapped down? It’s a day for rejoicing.

    Let’s add that he was even worse than Michael Shermer in fusing libertarianism and skepticism, and had groupies enough he was charging nearly $30 a pop for Skeptoid T-shirts.

    Again, it’s a day for rejoicing.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/04/briandunning-guilty-and-not-sad-day.html

  157. 157
    anthropologistunderground

    You know the theory of Crank Magnetism? IIRC via PalMD? or maybe Orac… hold that in your mind for a sec while I ramble. It strikes me that, speaking only from the limited view here on the very periphery, that there is a pattern to this type of hubris for which we need a catchphrase. Like critical mass jerkiness or something. Here’s the typical trajectory as I see it.

    1. Someone relatively unknown in larger society gains status/power in the skeptical sphere.
    2. Status/power snowballs because more people in the skeptical subculture listen to, read, re tweet, etc about the Big Name. At the same time the skeptical subculture increases in population and Big Name’s status/power snowballs. (Or…at least… seems to be snowballing from the perspective of said Big Name from inside the subculture.)
    3. This reaches some sort of critical mass where Big Name publishes a book, or otherwise gains some level of prominence in larger society.
    4. Reinforcing Big Name’s perception of being a VERY AWESOME dude (usually. not always and not always a dude).
    5. More and more people are now watching/reading Big Name, and people begin noticing unsavory shit like misogyny or libertarianism, or what-have-you.
    6. This seems to occur just as Big Name is at the crescendo of status/power in the skeptical subculture, and the threat to that status/power triggers un-self-reflective nonsense to spew from Big Name.
    7. Big Name doubles down on ignoring criticism, acts more and more like a jerk.
    8. Larger society and skeptics alike back slowly away.

  158. 158
    Ace of Sevens

    Keep in mind he wasn’t just stealing from big, evil corporation eBay. A large portion of this money would have been stolen from other affiliate program members where he essentially got the payout they should have gotten. This is like altering time-cards to take credit for your co-workers hours, then arguing it’s OK to steal from your employer.

  159. 159
    Matrim

    I don’t really have anything substantative to add to the discussion…just want to voice my disappointment. I knew very little about Dunning as a person, I didn’t read his blog or interact with him in any way, I just knew him from Skeptoid. And while I did take issue with some of his conclusions, I respected the hell out of the format and what I saw as his ability to treat ridiculous claims with a sort of respect even as he cut the legs out from under them.

    I do think it’s a tragedy. Not that he got caught, he was engaging in criminal behavior and deserves to be brought to justice. It’s tragic that an entertaining and informative source is now tainted by this man’s unethical, manipulative, dishonest behavior. Obviously I don’t expect people to be perfect, but you don’t have to be…just be a decent human being. It’s not that hard to avoid being a shitheel.

    Man, now I’m all bummed. This plus the gun filabuster is just harshing my mellow.

    @ WharGarbl, #44

    Just wanted to point out that you can be religious AND secularist. Some of the biggest players in secularism have been religious. I don’t necessarily know that Mr. Rogers was, but I do know that in all the public speaking I’ve seen him do he never once forced his faith on to anyone else. Again, this doesn’t mean that he DIDN’T, I’m just entirely unaware of it having happened.

  160. 160
    lilandra

    I am just not surprised when someone isn’t perfect, because perfection is an unrealistic in a human being. Don’t know what to make of Dunning’s behavior, because it is criminal. If he owns it and improves, that would be nice for him like PZ said.

    I think it is admirable when people lead, despite their weaknesses. I takes courage to overcome obstacles, and a lot of people acquire that courage defeating their own demons.

  161. 161
    Holms

    I think the biggest damage done by this revelation is that many religion and woo-centric organisations will use this as some kind of attack on secularism / atheism. It is only a matter of time before they start with the “AHA! so much for your claims of morality without god! This just proves that atheists are all [insert utter idiocy here]!”

    It won’t even matter if he is determined to be innocent somehow, because chances are that will simply ‘prove’ that even the court system is falling prey to all this immoral gay agenda stuff, or similar rubbish.

    As for the “I am deeply sorry that he got caught” sentiment, fuck right off. If he did it, then it is absolutely right and proper that he take the proscribed penalty, whatever that is determined to be under American law; if not, then not. He gets no freebie just because he has done other, highly appreciated stuff.

  162. 162
    Steve Sirhan

    The man and his company allegedly raked nearly $6 million in commissions. He paid his wife $10K a month of salary, and more.

    Meanwhile, many of his libertarian defenders say its “drivel” to ask if his politics might have influenced his actions.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/04/briandunning-guilty-and-not-sad-day.html

  163. 163
    Steve Sirhan

    @Mersault 105: It was a sales pitch of Dunning’s, and you bought it.

  164. 164
    Steve Sirhan

    Meanwhile, a lot of Dunning’s libertarian friends are already claiming it’s “drivel” to ask whether his politics affected his decision making. He’s been a contributor, in a small way, to worsening some of the hypercapitalist slimepool issues of the Net, so, hellz yes, it’s legit:

    socraticgadfly DOT blogspot DOT com/2013/04/briandunning-guilty-and-not-sad-day.html

  165. 165
    Steve Sirhan

    @Ace of Sevens also nails it. Frankly, I don’t get why the feds didn’t also charge him with theft of services, or exactly whatever the appropriate federal statute would be.

    Meanwhile, between libertarians and groupies, he still has his defenders in spades.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/04/briandunning-guilty-and-not-sad-day.html

  166. 166
    Steve Sirhan

    @Ace of Sevens also nails it. Frankly, I don’t get why the feds didn’t also charge him with theft of services, or exactly whatever the appropriate federal statute would be.

    Meanwhile, between libertarians and groupies, he still has his defenders in spades.

  167. 167
    Chris Barry

    Brian is the lead speaker at the Australian Skeptics National Convention later this year….

    http://nationalskepticsconvention.org/speakers/

  168. 168
    John Morales

    Chris Barry, you mean he’s currently scheduled to be that. ;)

  169. 169
    jonathanabbey

    I’m most disappointed because I thought Brian Dunning was somewhat clever. It took no skill or imagination to do what he did. All it required was a great lack of morals and a taste for the grift. For shame.

  170. 170
    Didgya

    I have been critical of PZ in the past but his assessment is fair and unbiased as can be. No lame Libertarian shots or Bigfoot Skeptic quips. Cudos.

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