Trust no one


Jim Lippard brings up an example of a difficult phenomenon we’ve all encountered with increasing frequency in recent years, as atheism/skepticism have become ‘cool’ and more people jump on the bandwagon…but the problem has been here for a long time.

This is, I think, a good case study in how the problem of “affiliate fraud”–being taken in by deception by a member of a group you self-identify with–can be possible for skeptics, scientists, and other educated people, just as it is for the more commonly publicized cases of affiliate fraud within religious organizations.

The case is the story of Al Seckel, self-proclaimed physicist, molecular biologist, cognitive neuroscientist, research associate, colleague of Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann, and who was none of those things, but managed to schmooze his way into persuading the skeptic community that he was all of them.

He sounds like a very interesting person, but not at all trustworthy. In the words of his second wife (maybe his current wife…it seems he’s always been a bit dodgy about these marriage and divorce things, too):

“And he was really sweet, and I enjoyed talking with him a lot. He’s really intelligent. He’s just a liar.”

Well worth a read, as a warning to us all.


  1. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    He’s really intelligent. He’s just a liar.

    These two sentences out of context, and there’s suddenly a wealth of people in the atheoskeptical sphere this could be about.

  2. Dark Jaguar says

    What a scum bag.

    But, I have to say “trust no one” isn’t a very good creed for humanity to live by. We have to have a certain level of trust just to function, and frankly living a life of complete distrust of everyone I see (trying to figure out their “angle”) would be worse than death to me.

  3. latveriandiplomat says

    Another example of how skepticism is a toolbox, not a lifestyle. Nobody is “on” all the time. We can all be taken in at some point, in some way. That’s why skepticism without humility doesn’t work. That’s why seeing oneself as a fallible human being has to be part of one’s world view. Nobody is an infallible skepitcal superhero, and it’s folly for people to view or even market themselves as such.

  4. screechymonkey says

    From the article:

    In 2004, Seckel gave an early TED talk, on optical illusions. . . . On TED’s website, Seckel is identified as a “cognitive neuroscientist.”

    Why am I not surprised. And hey, there’s a Jeffrey Epstein connection!

  5. zenlike says

    He’s really intelligent. He’s just a liar.

    It would not surprise me if there is a positive correlation between being intelligent and being a (successful) liar. Especially in this case, you have to have some intelligence to spin the web of lies, to keep them going, and to trap other intelligent people in them.

    Also, if measuring the trustworthiness of a person, I don’t think it is unfair to deduct some points if the person has ever given a TED talk. Sorry TED, you have only yourselves to blame.

  6. Numenaster says

    @zenlike #7:

    Telling ONE lie and sticking with it isn’t difficult, and that would qualify one as a successful liar. What you’re describing with your “web of lies” is being a successful con artist. And that does indeed require intelligence, and good record-keeping so you know what story has to be upheld for whom.

    Seckel seems to have been masterful at implying many untrue things and letting his audience assemble the hints into an untrue picture. This is actually better than outright lying, because the listeners will defend their own interpretation more vigorously than they will defend someone else’s words. I suspect it requires less maintenance as well: you can just let the listeners adjust their own thinking to accomodate the interpretation that they themselves invented.

    It’s possible I’ve given this more thought than is really healthy.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    The case is the story of Al Seckel, self-proclaimed physicist, molecular biologist, cognitive neuroscientist, research associate, colleague of Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann, and who was none of those things…

    Yeah, maybe it’s just my cynical nature, but when someone starts to make such an extraordinary list of credentials and claims of expertise, I really start getting suspicious.

    World renowned Rocket scientist, brain surgeon, rock stars only exist in Peter Weller cult movies.

  8. komarov says

    Maybe someone could assemble a helpful chart or lookup-table where you can cross-check credentials people throw around against their typical failings. E.g.:

    – noble prize winners: really good at one little bit of science but terrible role models in any other field of human endeavour
    – Atheist thought leaders(TM): believe everyone and everything should be subjected to criticism but really hate being criticised and seem impervious to reason
    And our newest addition:
    – prodigies with more than one PhD in wildly different fields, who have pulled the wool so far over your eyes it’ll make a nice shawl. Well done, sir.

    It might not apply to everyone but it would lower expectations and might soften the blow of disillusionment somewhat. For those who still suffer from vague optimism with regard to their fellow (hu)man, that is.

  9. Numenaster says

    @komarov #12:

    Don’t forget “served in some branch of Special Forces”. Not so common in the skeptical community, but lamentably so in the public at large.

  10. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    synchronicity: Slate directed me to this Noodle site that posted a remembrance of Carl Sagan. Listing his “Rules for critical Thinking”
    Rule #3 seemed appropriate to repost here:

    Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

    [emphasis added – slithey tove]

  11. Emptyell says

    Trust is the foundation of social behavior and, thus, of civilization. It is also tremendously advantageous personally.

    So I trust everyone.

    To be themselves.

    So I have to trust myself to figure out whom I am dealing with.