No More Tears

The Plight of Skeptoid's Brian Dunning

by Arlo Eisenberg

Arlo with Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com at The Amazing Meeting 2013 in Las Vegas, NV.

Arlo with Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com at The Amazing Meeting 2013 in Las Vegas, NV.

The first Skeptical podcast that I ever listened to was Skeptoid. Along with The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid is among the most recognized and listened to podcasts within the fledgling Skeptical community.

Skeptoid was created in 2006 by its host and producer, Brian Dunning, a computer scientist by trade and intrepid Skeptical advocate by night (and sometime Rubik’s Cube hobbyist). A new Skeptoid episode is released every week and each episode usually lasts around 10-12 minutes.

After eight years Skeptoid’s library has surpassed 400 episodes (and counting!), covering all of the usual suspects, including, Bigfoot, UFOs, quack therapies and popular conspiracy theories, but also, as you might imagine with SO MANY episodes Skeptoid often surprises its listeners with obscure legends and hoaxes.

Podcasts like Skeptoid and The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe are rife with grist for Skeptical tattoo fodder. Whenever something catches my attention I will usually make a quick note of it, or draw a sketch, or at the very least add it to the running list of tattoo ideas in my head. What I am looking for in a good tattoo idea, typically, is more than just a subject with a scientific or Skeptical theme, I am looking for an interesting concept that can stand on its own, regardless of the back story. I am looking for ideas with aesthetic teeth! Some themes and/or ideas currently working their way up my list include: Alan Turing’s Apple, Bertrand Russell’s Teapot, Johannes Kepler’s Polyhydra, Martin Gardner’s Mobius Strip and Tycho Brahe’s Nose.

Different factors will influence how and when an idea will move to the top of the list and subsequently onto my body. Money is a big factor; bigger tattoos cost more money. Space is also a factor, typically the space I am trying to fill on my body will have a lot of influence over which tattoo I get next. Sometimes I am just waiting for a concept to fully crystallize in my head. This has been the case with a Skeptoid inspired tattoo I’ve been kicking around. I’ve had the idea for some time, I’ve just never felt like it was fully formed.

Skeptoid.com's logo, The Skeptical Eye.

Skeptoid.com's logo, The Skeptical Eye.

The Skeptoid logo, as seen on the Skeptoid website, is an eye and Brian Dunning will often begin a podcast by saying that he is “pointing the skeptical eye” at a claim. I have seen that eyes can make for cool and interesting tattoos and I happen to have a space on my elbow where I think it would fit perfectly. The only thing that has been holding me back has been the feeling that there was something missing. I really like the idea of “the skeptical eye,” but just getting an eye, no matter how well executed, didn’t seem like enough. There needed to be more.

I had a friend, whom I used to work with in an art department for a clothing company, and he used to talk about the “zag.” He would say that a good graphic needed to have a zag.  If you were taking a viewer in one direction, he explained, there needed to be a hook, or a gimmick, or something that would surprise them and take them in another direction, a zag to their zig. The zag is what made the graphic interesting.

My concept for the “skeptical eye” tattoo was missing a zag. I couldn’t figure out what would make the eye special or unique to Skepticism. Should I put an “S” in the pupil or write “Skeptic” underneath the eye? Lame. I couldn’t come up with any good ideas and so the idea was kind of languishing.

Until this week.

On August 4th Brian Dunning, the host and creator of Skeptoid was sentenced to 15 months incarceration for of all things…fraud!

One of the primary goals of Skepticism is to protect people against fraud. And here was a Skeptic convicted of doing the very thing he was allegedly committed to fighting against. And not just any Skeptic, but Brian Dunning, one of the most prominent figures in all of Skepticism with an award winning podcast that gets nearly 200,000 downloads a week!

For many this represented a precipitous fall from grace. It was a blight on the Skeptical community and the rebukes started raining down from the blogosphere.

Regarding Dunning’s 15 month sentence Rebecca Watson, one of the hosts of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, wrote on her blog:

This is great news for the skeptic community at large, since it may be a long enough sentence for Dunning to fade from memory and stop publicly representing the very people who are supposedly trying to stop people from defrauding others.

And on Free Thought Blogs Jason Thibeault warned:

I do not consent to the skeptical “brand”, insofar as there is one, being represented by malicious con-men and other ne’er-do-wells.

And further admonished his readers:

Speak up. Repudiate any efforts to resurrect the Skeptoid brand. Dissociate yourselves from it if you have ties. Dunning is an unrepentant con-man and none of us need to go down with his ship.

It is worth pointing out here that what Dunning was convicted of was a “cookie-stuffing” scheme whereby he received kickbacks from eBay purchases that he was not entitled to. Dunning (and his associates, presumably) ran an eBay affiliate program and gamed the system to defraud eBay of $200,000 to $400,000.

Whatever you think of Dunning’s crime, and bear in mind that he has already been convicted, plead guilty and been sentenced to 15 months incarceration AND already made a confidential settlement with eBay, so he is paying his debt, but whatever you think of his crime I am not sure that it warrants the level of vitriol that has been leveled against him.

“This is great news for the skeptic community,” really? “Repudiate any efforts to resurrect the Skeptoid brand,” wow, okay.

The only victim in Dunning’s scheme was eBay, they paid out unearned commissions to Dunning’s company. You can decide where this falls on your moral-outrage-meter, but it is not the same as other white-collar crimes where individuals are bilked of their savings and it is certainly not even in the same universe as crimes involving physical abuse, rape or murder.

At the risk of appearing insensitive and perhaps a bit petty, I will mention here that Dunning’s misfortune did provide me with an opportunity; an inspiration. I mentioned that I’d been wanting to get a “skeptical eye” tattoo, but that the idea was incomplete and now, incredibly, here was the host of Skeptoid, one of the preeminent voices in the Skeptical community and the inspiration for my “skeptical eye” tattoo, convicted of fraud and going to jail for it. Finally! The zag I had been looking for!

"Skeptical Eye" tattoo concept.

"Skeptical Eye" tattoo concept.

It was so simple, but it made the tattoo concept so much more interesting. I would add a teardrop coming from the “skeptical eye.” The tattooed teardrop has been alleged to represent everything from murder, to rape, to the loss of a loved one, but for my purposes it was sufficient that the tattooed teardrop is associated with prison. Furthermore, the teardrop evokes a kind of sadness, befitting a loss of innocence, or perhaps a fall from grace. I toyed around with the idea of writing something underneath the eye like “Fraud” or “Fallible” but decided, in light of the circumstances, that came off a bit more heavy handed or cynical than I was comfortable with.

Brian Dunning committed a crime and he is being punished for it, but should we revel in his undoing? The concern has been raised that the Skeptical cause is compromised when Skeptics engage in the same type of predatory behavior as the people they endeavor to expose. Brian Dunning is no better, it has been suggested than the shameless, predatory “psychic” performer Sylvia Browne (RIP) or the late-night-infomercial-snake-oil-salesman and convicted felon, Kevin Trudeau.

Brian Dunning’s “criminal operation” spanned one year, from 2006 to 2007 before it was ended in an FBI raid. There is not a pattern of criminal behavior here. His cookie-stuffing scheme may have been brazen and opportunistic, but it would be quite a leap to consider it predatory. Furthermore, there is a major difference between the type of anonymous, impersonal, zeroes and ones wire fraud that Dunning was convicted of and the unambiguous exploitation of people’s weaknesses and desperation that the likes of Browne and Trudeau have engaged in.

Brian Dunning’s “scam” did not trade on his personality or his credibility. There was no overlap between his electronic criminal dalliances as an eBay affiliate and his career as the personable host and producer of Skeptoid. His stolen eBay commissions in no way invalidate the work he has done or the people he has reached through his podcast. The veracity of his work stands on its own (and speaks for itself).

Compare this to psychics like Browne and scam-artists like Trudeau who are inseparable from their fraud. Their entire personalities and careers are staked on their fraudulent behavior. They trade on their charm and credibility to fleece their audiences. This bears NO resemblance to what Brian Dunning was guilty of.

The plight of Brian Dunning is unfortunate. It is unfortunate for his listeners and it is unfortunate for his family. He has not hurt anyone but himself and the burden of his shame is his alone to bear. Brian Dunning has not damaged the Skeptical cause and he has not betrayed the Skeptical community. Brian Dunning committed a crime and he is being punished for it.

There is nothing to cry about.

Save your tears.