Mark Oppenheimer has a long piece at the Tablet about someone I don’t think I’d heard of before, Al Seckel.
In the early 1980s, freethought was especially hot in L.A. The city has always appealed to land’s-end, far-horizon dreamers: sci-fi aficionados, futurists, quick-buck schemers (L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology in L.A., was all three). But others take the same tendency toward the extreme and flip it around, into a radically skeptical, debunking mindset. Many magicians—James Randi, Penn and Teller, the sleight-of-hand master Jamy Ian Swiss—are committed atheists and scientific skeptics. And as the home of the postwar defense and aerospace industries, Southern California also attracted legions of scientists who were alarmed by the region’s growing influence in the evangelical movement. Illusionists and scientists, while unalike in many respects, shared a keen interest in how the mind works, and in how this understanding can be used for good and for ill.
While famous scientists like Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman were happy to lend their names to skeptical groups, to appear on the letterheads, they weren’t stuffing the envelopes. The organizing fell to worker bees like Seckel, who founded at least two skeptical groups and belonged to a third and possibly a fourth. He arranged meetings, managed mailing lists, contributed money of his own, did what had to be done. He also had a hand in one of the great publicity coups of freethought, the “Darwin fish” bumper sticker ubiquitous in the 1980s. John Edwards, the engineer and future competitive dancer who came to Seckel’s parties, had come up with an idea for a riff on the Jesus fish symbol: a fish with legs, to connote evolution, with the word “Darwin” inside. According to Edwards, Seckel helped him refine the final design.
But he implied credentials he didn’t actually have, and he owed a lot of people a lot of money. It’s a complicated story, and interesting.
Mark Oppenheimer’s long-awaited exposé on Al Seckel, “The Illusionist,” has now been published and I urge all skeptics to read it. Seckel, the former head of the Southern California Skeptics and a CSICOP Scientific and Technical Consultant who was listed as a “physicist” in every issue of the Skeptical Inquirer from vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 1987-88) to vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter 1991) despite having no degree in physics, has long been known among skeptical insiders as a person who was misrepresenting himself and taking advantage of others. Most have remained silent over fear of litigation, which Seckel has engaged in successfully in the past.
As an example of Seckel’s legal threats, Jim shares an email Seckel sent him a year ago. A long email.
So why should anyone care? Who is Al Seckel, and what was he worried that I might be saying about him? This is mostly answered by the Oppenheimer article, but there is quite a bit more that could be said, and more than what I will say here to complement “The Illusionist.”
Al Seckel was the founder and executive director of the Southern California Skeptics, a Los Angeles area skeptics group that met at Caltech. This was one of the earliest local skeptical groups, with a large membership and prominent scientists on its advisory board. Seckel has published numerous works including editing two collections of Bertrand Russell’s writings for Prometheus Books (both reviewed negatively in the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, see here and here). He has given a TED talk on optical illusions and authored a book with the interesting title, Masters of Deception, which has a forward by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Seckel was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and developed an association with a couple of cognitive psychology labs at Caltech–in 1998 the New York Times referred to him as a “research associate at the Shimojo Psychophysics Laboratory.” His author bios have described him as author of the monthly Neuroquest column at Discover magazine (“About the Author” onMasters of Deception; Seckel has never written that column), as “a physicist and molecular biologist” (first page of Seckel’s contribution, “A New Age of Obfuscation and Manipulation” in Robert Basil, editor, Not Necessarily the New Age, 1988, Prometheus Books, pp. 386-395; Seckel is neither a physicist nor a molecular biologist), and, in his TED talk bio, as having left Caltech to continue his work “in spatial imagery with psychology researchers as Harvard” (see Oppenheimer’s exchanges with Kosslyn, who has never met or spoken with him and Ganis, who says he has exchanged email with him but not worked with him).
There’s more, a lot more. Readthewholething.
But, but, but…..he was a good skeptic! He made money for himself.
/Brian Dunning Defense
AJ Milne says
I must confess people like this hold a sort of can’t-look-away-from-the-trainwreck fascination for me.
I suspect it’s partly (a maybe slightly overactive) guilty conscience. As, sure, I’ve told a few fish tales here and there, plumped up achievements a bit (on a vastly smaller scale), or just tried to make a story a little more interesting than it really was. It’s never so much planned; you get into a story, want to make it interesting, want to impress… Anyway, I figure that’s still probably why I find myself looking at someone like that and wondering: is there some trajectory by which I become that? How does that happen, how do people get there?
… granted, like I said, probably a bit overactive in the guilt department. It’s kinda hard to picture going from making the fish an inch longer than it was when chatting at a party and somehow ending up inventing for yourself several fictional advanced degrees. I always feel a bit ick after even small exaggerations; like why did I do that, that’s just not honest, hardly necessary, besides asking for trouble if they, say, meet someone else who was there, tells a different version, or what have you. Can’t really imagine how someone could go so far, kinda figure it has to be a lot more calculated.
It is kinda interesting to me Lippard mentions Hubbard. Seems to me we know of at least two religions that got going due to specific figures being fabulists/fantasists/serial liars on grand scales, these being Hubbard’s outfit and Joseph Smith’s. I’ve always suspected the trend is more general: that if you could get a close enough look at a lot of figures behind a lot of the sects we know and love, you’d find some people who’d been lying so long they hardly knew what was real anymore. That you find what look like a closely related phenomenon oddly enough within organizations theoretically dedicated to root out such filmflammery is perhaps instructive. It’s a surprisingly ubiquitous thing, and such figures really will do it anywhere. Or perhaps sense, accurately enough, that people saying they are ‘skeptical’ isn’t that much a guarantee they’re going to be systematically so or alertly enough to catch you. Or perhaps just can’t help themselves, regardless.
Barb B. says
He invented more than advanced degrees… heck, he invented an undergrad degree. After reading the original article it became clear he had absolutely NO degrees…. just 3 semesters of University. Amazing liar and quite the narcissist!
AJ Milne says
Geez, true, that last.
(And correction: It’s Oppenheimer who mentions Hubbard.)
L. A. Julian says
Hubbard, and the California aerospace/science culture, were heavily involved in woo from the beginning — Aleister Crowley and the JPL are less than six degrees apart:
Hmmm. Has he been tried in a court of law? Isn’t this just hearsay – ruining a good man’s reputation?
Tom McIver says
No, this isn’t just hearsay. Lippard and Oppenheimer provide some of the incontrovertible documentation. The Ensign case Oppenheimer discusses was a federal case, so records are available to the public through Pacer.gov. Seckel v. McIver was also a federal case, so (some) documents are also available to the public through Pacer.gov. He has also been involved in dozens of other court cases (26 in Los Angeles Superior Court alone). Many newspaper and magazine articles reported on his claimed credentials which Cornell and Caltech have officially declared to be false in court and other documents. And there is much, much more.