They left out an important detail about Brian Dunning… (non-fiction)

A few days ago, I was recovering from being under sedation and my wife was driving us home. During the drive, I decided to check my email, knowing it would be a bad idea to hit Reply, or make an impulse buy. To my surprise, I noticed an email from two men I knew from my time in organized skepticism. When I opened it, even in my altered state, I realized they weren’t emailing me, but spaming one of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s old email lists.

They started by writing about their fond memories of James Randi and The Amazing Meeting. I only attended two TAMs, but I still have fond memories of meeting Randi. I also loved the two TAMs I attended. Besides the speeches, I was fortunate enough to attend the last Skepchick TAM party, attend Penn Jillette’s first bacon and doughnuts party/concert, and perform at the talent show.

They eventually dropped out of the skeptical movement, like I did. But the letter goes on to say…

Meanwhile, the charlatans of the world have not gone away. Indeed, we see more pseudo-psychic nonsense than ever, with alleged psychics being only a phone call away, ready and eager to take money from grieving or worried people.

While I would have changed “phone call away” to “video chat away,” the paragraph seemed true.

Which brings us to why they were they spamming an old JREF mailing list? Were they announcing the creation of JREF 2.0? Were they announcing the return of TAM? Announcing the start of skeptics streaming service? How were they going to carry on Randi’s legacy of fighting fakers and debunking nonsense?

By joining forces with Brian Dunning, the host of Skeptoid podcast, of course. The authors revealed that were members of Skeptoid’s board and started their fund raising pitch. They mentioned his YouTube videos, documentaries, and speaking engagements. One author wrote, “Brian is, in many ways, the intellectual successor to Mr. Randi.”

Despite my state of mind, I knew the letter omitted some details. Like his attempts at rapping, and, more concerning, his felony wire fraud conviction. Dunning was a member of eBay’s affiliate program, and had the second highest revenue of all the affiliates. How did he do it? Cookie Stuffing! He used a web cookie to get credited for eBay transactions he had nothing to do with. Worse, if a user went to eBay from a legitimate affiliate’s link, Dunning’s code would overwrite the affiliate’s information, and replace it with his. So he gained a good part of his fortune by defrauding eBay and their affiliates. (Rebecca Watson and Ars Technica provided more detail into the scheme.)

A convicted fraudster leading an organization fighting fraud doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does sending out a fundraising email that doesn’t include an unsubscribe link or a physical mailing address. My author newsletter has both, despite not having access to the resources Dunning has.

As much as I admired Randi, the cult of personality around him was unhealthy. I have no desire to join another one. (That’s a subject for another post.)

I’ll stay on this side of the deep rifts instead.

PS: if you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll get a free eBook, God to Smite Bolingbrook, which includes a satirical article about a Brian Dunning reality TV show, “Behind Bars: With Brian Dunning.” I’ll also send updates about my Urban Fantasy Series, The Bolingbrook Babbler Stories

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