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Posted by on Apr 18, 2013 in Philosophy, Secularism | 16 comments

On Brian Dunning and the relevance of moral failings

Kent Hovind has been in jail since 2007 for tax evasion and other crimes, and is expected to serve a ten year sentence. You know Hovind, I imagine, as the young Earth creationist who offers arguments implausible enough that he even invites dissent from Ken Ham. But when Hovind comes up in conversation, it’s fairly frequently the case – at least in my experience – that people mention the fact that he’s in jail.

Two questions come to mind: First, how often have you heard skeptics respond by asserting that his criminal record is irrelevant to the falsity of his claims; and second, is his criminal record in fact irrelevant to the respect that those who regard him as a spokesperson have, or used to have, for him?

Both of these questions are immediately relevant to the skeptic community, thanks to Brian Dunning having entered a guilty plea following charges of wire fraud. The backstory is detailed here, under what I think the hyperbolic headline (for reasons I’ll go into later) of “A Skeptical Tragedy”, but the simple summary is this: Dunning defrauded eBay through manipulating browser cookies, leading eBay to pay his company millions of Dollars in affiliate fees.

If you don’t know Brian Dunning, he’s been the host of Skeptoid podcast for the last 8 or so years. Skeptoid consists of short weekly examinations of claims related to pseudoscience and the paranormal, and serves as a very handy resource for teaching critical thinking. The podcast is tremendously successful – in the top 50 on the iTunes charts with 175 000 downloads weekly, with Dunning being rewarded for all this skeptical activism through various awards and prominent speaking gigs, including a handful of TAM! appearances.

So, that’s one thing – the work Dunning has done for many years in promoting the skeptic viewpoint, and the valuable resources he has created for the skeptical community in doing so. But all the while, he was creating a valuable resource for himself and his business partners – their company, Kessler’s Flying Circus (KFC), was bringing in millions of dollars per year through devious means, while Dunning continued to solicit donations to support the podcast.

Many folk who have donated to Skeptoid would feel somewhat aggrieved, I’d wager. There’s an implicit understanding when giving donations that the funds will go to the thing you’re intending to support – and while they might well have done so, suspicion is merited when you find out that the recipient of the donation has been engaging in fraud. And if you’re inclined to write this off as a misunderstanding or mistake of some sort, dig into the documents halfway down this page linked to from a Melody Hensley tweet – you’ll find evidence of this fraud going back five years, alongside evidence of Dunning trying to suppress knowledge of the fraud.

Back to the two questions. The first is easy to answer – we should always have regarded it as ad hominem to dismiss Hovind’s claims on the basis that he was a criminal, whether we did in fact treat those claims as ad hominem or not. Likewise, if some Bigfoot-advocate wants to now say that Dunning’s debunking of Bigfoot counts for nothing, we can likewise assert that the factual claims are unrelated to the criminality of the person making those claims. At worst, we’d be exposed as inconsistent or hypocritical if we were to attempt to discredit Hovind for criminal activity while asserting that Dunning’s crimes are irrelevant.

The more interesting and difficult claim for me is the second one, namely the extent to which Dunning should now lose our respect, be considered discredited, or the extend to which we should stop engaging with his output, historical or future. This does bring to mind difficult conversations regarding “shunning”, which themselves bring up issues related to atheism+, but please don’t go there in the comments, if you choose to comment? The idea here is of someone deceiving a loyal support base, and perhaps indirectly defrauding them, though taking monies he didn’t in fact need to support his activities (worse, you could argue a further deception, namely in pretending to need support for the podcast in the first place) – and this is a qualitatively different issue to that of differences of opinion regarding the intersections of social justice and atheism.

Of course, the two questions I’ve raised are related. Our respect for someone is related to things they have done, or been accused of, and we sometimes fail in separating what’s relevant to our respect for someone versus what is not, or what shouldn’t be. To go back to an example I used to use in class, whether you think it relevant that President Clinton was a philanderer isn’t easily answered, because the answer depends crucially not only on what you thought his job was, but more subtly on whether you think his job involved either being a certain sort of person, or at least appearing to be a certain sort of person. That sort of person is (loosely defined) a trustworthy one – and then you can ask well, does he have to be trustworthy only in public affairs, or in both public and private affairs? You could ask, for the President, is anything a truly private affair. And so forth and so on.

In the case of Dunning, I’m fairly conflicted. While his work can stand alone as useful aids to critical thinking, and pithy rebuttals of some outlandish claims, the question is whether it should do so – in other words, whether we should pass up opportunities to make the moral stand of saying that we will no longer support Dunning’s work (easy to do, because as useful as it was, there are plenty of alternatives. Dunning is not offering a commodity that’s particularly scarce).

The reason I’m conflicted is simply this: skepticism deals specifically with truth claims and the methods for investigating them. When a prominent advocate for the skeptical viewpoint is found to have built his financial life around not only falsehoods, but an elaborate scheme for obscuring those falsehoods from view, then his commitment to the skeptical cause can’t help but be cast into doubt. Defenders might cite cognitive dissonance here, but I’d be unsympathetic given how long both the fraud and the skeptical activism had been going on.

This episode reminded me of a literary studies paper I wrote 20 years ago now, about whether we could separate the artistic merit of an artwork from the attitudes of the artist. In that paper, I took issue with a claim made by Malcolm Budd that artistic merit depended on having moral sympathy with the artist (so in his view, for example, Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – made to serve as Nazi propaganda – could never be regarded as good art. If I recall correctly (there’s no way I’m going to deal with the embarrassment of re-reading a 20 year-old paper), I  disagreed mostly because I was trying to avoid a relativistic – or instrumentalist – view of artistic merit.

But I’m not sure if I’d agree with myself, 20 years later. To my mind, skeptical activism is all about instrumental readings, about achieving certain goals such as minimising the uptake of pseudoscience. So, if you do things, or “are the sort of person who” undermines those goals, you are doing the cause a disservice, and that does need to be signalled in some fashion. On the other hand, there’s little I detest more than moral grandstanding and holier-than-thou’ness. Your thoughts?