In mid-January prominent ‘skeptic’ Brian Dunning was a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. If you can spare the time, it is a 3-hour education in how *not* to do science and skepticism outreach.
There’s sponsor messages and the like at the beginning, so hang in there – the interview starts 3:48 in (some NSFW language):
Now firstly, I have to say I was surprised that Joe Rogan had Dunning on his show. In fact, I’m amazed Brian Dunning is still even relevant in skeptical circles given that he plead guilty to fraud last year, for his part in a scheme to ‘hack’ eBay’s affiliate marketing program – a scheme which netted his company some $5.2million.
That doesn’t mean that Brian Dunning hasn’t made positive contributions to skepticism, but to me, a fraud conviction – especially one based on the abuse of the trust of his readers and users of his software, should at the very least put him ‘off-limits’ for a while until he’s served some penance or shown some contrition (he is awaiting sentencing). Instead, he retains a large fanbase, one which contributed $15,000 to a Kickstarter campaign he ran just a few months back.
Dunning however has also made some very sorry contributions to skepticism, such as this blog post in which he suggested that Stanton Friedman was the author of the MJ-12 documents, and that Philip Klass flushed him out with a genius plan. That particular blog is either written from a complete lack of familiarity with the case, or is a bunch of misinformation meant to smear Friedman’s name (or maybe Dunning was just trolling for extra hits on his blog post). To compound the idiocy of his post, Dunning then went on to berate me in the comments after I tried to point out his errors, suggesting that I may have “clinically crossed the line to a diagnosable, treatable mental illness”. It is this aspect of his character that has dominated most of the articles and presentations of his that I’ve come across. It’s for that reason mainly that I’m surprised Joe had him on the show.
As the old saying goes though, give a man enough rope…and Joe Rogan handed out 3 hours of it, during which Dunning came across as arrogant, unwilling to concede points, and keen to ‘get’ Joe.
Make no mistake, this was a fantastic opportunity to spread some good thoughts about critical thinking. Joe Rogan has 1.25 million Twitter followers, and a huge audience for his podcast. He’s a guy who is curious about lots of things, loves science and is (as far as I’ve seen) always a gracious and polite host to his guests, whether he agrees with them or not. But that curiosity has also led Joe to contemplate the type of things we discuss here on The Daily Grail regularly, and for that, Brian Dunning had previously put Joe on a list of “Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience“. So, you can imagine where Joe started. And for most of the next 3 hours, Joe and Brian Dunning were at odds – but with Joe remaining calm, polite and self-deprecating, while Dunning had to continually defend indefensible statements, unwilling to concede points to Joe. A number of these exchanges offered some fascinating insights though.
At one point during the debate over Joe Rogan’s inclusion on Brian Dunning’s ‘naughty list’, Dunning brought up Joe’s statements that the collapse of one of the buildings on 9-11 looked like a controlled demolition, intimating that it was reckless of him to do so unless he framed it as an example of how easy it is to be mistaken. Joe’s response was spot on: “Why do I have to do that, to observe something that’s fascinating? Dunning goes on a few minutes later to read through his ‘rap sheet’ of Joe Rogan’s promotion of pseudoscience, and after reading it out loud is moved himself to note, “God this makes me sound like an asshole“. Joe responds: “Well it’s just factually inaccurate on so many different levels, I don’t understand why you wrote it”. He goes on to point out a key part of being a true explorer of knowledge – willing to look foolish exploring and debating strange areas:
There’s things that you said I believe that I don’t, and I’ve never said that I do. What I’m willing to do is look stupid. And by talking about things and saying “that looks like a controlled demolition”, I know that puts you in the nutter camp. But I’m not saying it’s a controlled demolition. But…not being willing to debate it and being too insecure to discuss the reality of what you’re viewing is silly, it’s preposterous. It doesn’t mean I’m promoting the idea that 9-11 was an inside job or that it was a plot by the government. I don’t think that, I’ve never thought that. But I do think that building looks like a controlled demolition. That’s all. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that.
Given the length of the interview, I won’t post excerpts from the entire conversation – please do take a listen if you can spare the time though. If you want to get a feel for how the audience felt about Brian Dunning’s appearance on the JRE podcast, I dare you to look in the comments thread on YouTube (NSFW). Yowzers…
To his credit, after the interview, Joe asked people not to post angry diatribes towards Brian Dunning, saying he was a good guy and deserved some respect. Dunning’s response today left a fair bit to be desired: to update his list saying “Joe did not convince me that he should be removed from this list. Indeed he certified it stronger than ever… Joe did deny that he ever believed 9/11 was a conspiracy, but then spent half an hour convincing me that it was.” This appears to have been the final straw for Joe Rogan – understandably, given the discussions about his 9/11 views during the show – with the stand-up comedian calling out Dunning on the updated list (his follow-up tweet, not reproduced here, has more…colourful language):
Maybe Brian Dunning is just trolling for hits to his website, looking after his own finances, I don’t know. All I can say is that in terms of promoting skepticism, he failed epically. I’m sure many ‘skeptics’ will blame the irrational hordes of JRE listeners for not getting what Brian Dunning was saying, but they would be fooling themselves. They should pay attention to how Dunning himself realized, when reading his criticism out loud, that he sounded “like an asshole”. Talking down to people, and telling them that they need to be saved from their own irrationality/stupidity, doesn’t tend to work so well. Try and be a little more relaxed, have some fun…and don’t fear the woo.
Update: Brian Dunning has now posted a long and detailed blog post with his reasoning for not taking Joe Rogan off his list. Oh and he also posted this ‘music video’ of himself rapping about science. I don’t even…