Even skeptics do them. Brian Dunning is out of prison, and he’s written a lengthy rationalization to explain that he wasn’t really a criminal. His excuses: he’d been suspicious, his partner in the scheme was the shady one, he hadn’t been scamming eBay at all, he was just a scapegoat, he was only sentenced to 29 months, not 20 years. He just explains that all he did was imbed 1×1 invisible pixels in his site that got eBay to willingly plant cookies on visitor’s sites, that allowed him then to reap rewards every time that visitor bought something through eBay. Not his fault!

Of course he also reveals that the 1×1 invisible pixel publishing business was astonishingly lucrative, bringing him an income of $1.1 million. But hey, that’s just about what a good corporate job would pay. So it must have been all right!

I make nowhere near that amount at the education business, and even less at the blogging game. Maybe my mistake is that I need to make my efforts very tiny and invisible, and then I’d get rich?


  1. says

    Tiny invisible things bringing great benefits? I guess homeopathy works after all.

    Seriously though, it is a black mark on the skeptical movement that this asshole is still producing content and still has loyal followers. And that he’s still begging for donations.

  2. zenlike says

    A good corporate job pays $1.1 million? Dang, I work in the wrong corporation, it appears.

    Also, this is not a rationalization, it is a big “I did nothing wrong, everybody else is to blame” screed by an (ex-)criminal who is clearly unrepentant of his crimes, Dunning has just the luck he is more articulate than the average excon ranting on the corner of the street.

  3. says

    Zenlike @ 3:

    Also, this is not a rationalization

    Yes, it is.

    Rationalize verb (used with object), rationalized, rationalizing.

    1. to ascribe (one’s acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that superficially seem reasonable and valid but that actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less creditable or agreeable causes.

    Usage note
    Although rationalize retains its principal 19th-century senses “to make conformable to reason” and “to treat in a rational manner,” 20th-century psychology has given it the now more common meaning “to ascribe (one’s acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that seem reasonable but actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious causes.” Although the possibility of ambiguity exists, the context will usually make clear which sense is intended.

  4. chrislawson says

    I read the whole thing. There’s a ton of extraordinary special pleading in there. I’m especially impressed by his argument that he was sued and then sent to jail for fraud despite eBay and the prosecutor not really thinking he’d done anything wrong!

  5. congaboy says

    The problem here is that atheism and skepticism, as movements, grew around ideologies that have no inherent moral or ethical codes. Yet, some members of these ideologies seem to believe that these labels carry some sort of special ethical expectation—they don’t. Really, no group needs any special moral or ethical code other than the morals and ethics expected of any decent member of any given society. So, it stands to reason (and it should not come as a surprise), that there is going to be a spectrum of behaviors exhibited by atheists and skeptics ranging from those who exhibit and live by high ethical standards to those who are sociopathic and even criminal. Brian Dunning appears to fall in the latter end of the spectrum. Simply calling oneself an atheist or skeptic does not mean that one is automatically or inherently more moral or ethical than those who don’t call themselves atheists or skeptics—just as calling oneself a Christian or whatever other religion doesn’t imbue an inherent moral or ethical behavior. We are all still human beings subject to all of the frailties to which all other human beings are subject. Living by high moral and ethical standards takes hard work and discipline no matter how we label ourselves. Humans tend to assign a fallacious expectation to group labels—a “no true Scotsman” type fallacy in which there is a belief that members of the group who act badly are not really members of that group. The truth is bad people can be atheists and skeptics too—just like bad people can be Christian, Jewish, etc. Brian Dunning is an unrepentant, unremorseful criminal who just happens to be a skeptic too.

  6. qwints says

    It’s certainly true that lots of people plead guilty to a federal indictment that haven’t done anything morally or even legally wrong. This isn’t a rationalization as much as it is a denial. There’s nothing criminal about using tracking pixels to track whether users have seen ads. The essential charge is that Dunning lied to eBay about causing people to go to their website. Specifically, the indictment said that Dunning (i) claimed credit for visitors to sites he didn’t control via a widget he distributed and (ii) lied about showing visitors ads. Dunning pled guilty to that, but says here that he showed an ad to every buyer he claimed credit for. If that were true, he’d have a valid defense to the criminal charge. The fact that using tracking pixels might have been a breach of contract doesn’t make it criminal.

    Ultimately, he’s right that things would have been very different without the power differential between him and eBay. If this was two huge companies or two small ones, it’s almost certain there would not have been a federal criminal charge.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    A good corporate job pays $1.1 million? Dang, I work in the wrong corporation, it appears.

    Probably not. My corporation has “good” jobs that pay that much or higher. Of course, I don’t have a “good” job myself, but that is totally my own fault, according to most Republicans.

  8. numerobis says

    C-level executives will make that much in a few years salary, plus stock options and bonus. Paying in stock is where people tend to really get rich: a million options priced at market value at grant time can become worth a ton of money if the stock price rises even just a bit.

  9. screechymonkey says

    The Irish Wanker’s Law of Hyperskepticism: “A sufficiently Famous Skeptic is never guilty of anything unless he (or she, ha ha, who are we kidding, it’s he) has been convicted of a criminal offense.”

    Dunning’s Addendum to the Irish Wanker’s Law: “And not even then.”

  10. chrislawson says

    qwints@8: not sure if you’re responding to me, but my point was not that the justice system always gets things right and that people don’t get wrongly convicted, sometimes even with a guilty plea. My point was that Dunning claimed that he had been sued and prosecuted despite the plaintiff and the prosecutor independently believing he hadn’t done anything wrong. That’s some high-grade self-delusion IMHO.

  11. says


    The problem here is that atheism and skepticism, as movements, grew around ideologies that have no inherent moral or ethical codes. Yet, some members of these ideologies seem to believe that these labels carry some sort of special ethical expectation—they don’t.

    Ain’t it the truth. I remember when the indictment (or was it conviction?) first came down, there were these fawning blog posts in various prominent portions of the skeptosphere about how Dunning was a hero and this was his fall from grace or some such nonsense. No, he wasn’t a hero, he was a reasonably competent podcaster who pretended not to have his obvious political slant, took years to start listing sources, and laid out the same basic cookie-stuffing plan that he was convicted of on the podcast.

  12. Intaglio says

    Reminds me of a scene from the Blues Brothers –

    No, I didn’t. Honest… I ran out of gas. I… I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!