Friday, April 19, 2013

On Dunning and Podcast listening

It is not my intent for this post to be read as piling onto the current predicament that Mr. Brian Dunning has now found himself.  However, for reasons that even I am not sure of, I do wish to share my thoughts on the situation at least as it might impact me as a podcast listener and a little bit on why.  For what little it might be worth to the listener:

As the reader is likely aware, noted skeptical podcast host Brian Dunning of the popular Skeptoid has pled guilty to wire fraud, and he is awaiting sentencing.  The particulars of this case as known and going back are documented elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, Dunning is no longer accused of criminal conduct, but is now a criminal.  The motivations of Dunning’s plea, whether he had comes to terms that he was indeed guilty, or that he has decided given the case against him that making a plea bargain despite his innocence was the best solution, I have no idea.  Dunning might be the only one who knows his motivations for pleading guilty.  However, Dunning in the eyes of the law, is guilty of a crime. 

I admit to being torn.  I have never met Dunning.  He has re-tweeted one or two of my tweets, which was a thrill for me.  I am a faithful listener of his podcast that I almost always enjoy save for a few nitpicky items here and there.  I view him as an asset to the skeptical community.  Obviously, I cannot help but feel for his family and loved ones who are caught up in this situation. The emotional part of me cannot help but make excuses for the guy.  Maybe, it was not his idea and instead some partner(s).  Perhaps, eBay thought it was okay, but then turned on Dunning and used its business influence and clout to bury the Dunning problem.  I am a tech fan, but not a techie.  I keep thinking there has got to be some angle of this cookie placing issue that I just do not understand. 

The rational part of me is aware that just because the messenger has some serious flaws, the message itself can still be perfectly valid and rational.  The back catalog of Dunning’s work regarding all those areas where he has focused his skeptical eye is no less valid than the day before he pled guilty.  

And yet, I also cannot help but think this is fraud.  Fraud.  It is the stock and trade of where many skeptics place their focus.  Skeptics uncover and expose fraudulent psychics, or selling dowsing bomb detectors, and miracle herbal supplements, or bogus miracle medical procedures.  Skeptics WE stop fraud.  We don’t engage upon fraud.  I guess that is what really bothers me.  If Dunning were found to have a shoebox full of unpaid parking tickets, was pulled over for driving under the influence or caught smoking cannabis, I would likely not give it a second thought.  Those may be mistakes or contravening arguably poor laws, but it is not fraud.  Skeptics of all people ought to be better than this. 

And still with the above noted, if Dunning after his sentencing is able to continue producing his podcast, I’ll still listen to him.  Others may not, but I probably will unless the show’s content suffers due to his change in circumstances.  Dunning, like all of us, is an imperfect man.  He has no doubt given a black eye to the skeptical community, and he has given ammunition to our cultural competitors to fire back at our activities.  Still, Dunning’s contributions should still be accepted as long as his work as a skeptic remains of quality. 

On a side note, this gives me flashbacks to an issue James Randi was involved with a few years back.  I am not talking about his recent interview regarding apparent support of Social Darwinism.  Rather, the issue surrounding Randi’s life partner’s criminal act of identity theft.  To me, this always struck me personally as worse than the Social Darwinism matter.  Not because I support Social Darwinism, but because identify theft is a crime of fraud.  I wrote a piece at the time that the skeptical community’s silence on this issue was odd.  I wish to make very clear I do not believe Randi should be ostracized or raked over the coals for what he may have known about his partner’s conduct.  However, after Randi’s partner was sentenced and the situation put more or less behind, my respect for Randi’s work has not diminished (at least that I can tell).  However, the pedestal I placed him upon dropped.  I suspect to a certain degree the same will happen with Dunning.  Perhaps that is wrong of me and I am being too hard, or I am giving both of them too much of a pass.  Then again, I am only human too. 

As noted by another skeptic (and Forrest Gump), that’s all I have to say about that.


  1. I concur. I also found it surprising how little Randi's partner's conviction was talked about in the skeptics community.

  2. I'm also going to concur. I still have all the downloaded podcasts from Skeptoid and what is going to be really annoying is having to deal with all the woo-peddlers who are going to use Dunnings fraud conviction to claim that what he said was false because of the conviction, I'm thinking here on the various episodes where he covered dubious health claims.

  3. To me "contravening arguably poor laws" is a mitigating factor in the Randi case. If gays could marry, Randi's partner would have had a clear and easy path to citizenship. That said, I believe the ID theft did hurt another party so to me that mitigates the mitigation.

    Many people do use Dunning as a go to source when arguing. How you use Dunning gets maybe a little more sticky. At some level you need to trust Dunning has properly interpreted his source material. One might be warranted in thinking "I'm going to check his sources."

    1. If it was just identity fraud with a made-up I.D. it would not be as bad with Randi. I.D. theft is a terrible thing. From all reports it was an act with good intentions, but some poor guy nearly had the IRS audit him over it.

      Even with traditional marriage having a partner gain legal status is not easy. Plus, I have no idea how this works, but if Randi was a Canadian Citizen at the time, it may have made the immigration process more complex too. (me speculating like I should not.)

      The sad thing with Dunning is that if his show must cease production, I'll miss it. Using Dunning as a source to a hostile opponent will be far, far less effective.

      Unfortunately, the world and the people on it are complex. I hope to be cautiously forgiving and understanding.


  5. You also forgot George Hrab, who made several songs about losing a court case to Nancy Clark. I think it's in the early Geologic Podcast episodes where he's successfully charged and pays some hundred thousand for making fun of his former boss. Skepticality talks about it in the first Skeptic interview with him.


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