When I was in graduate school, magician James Randi gave a performance for the university and then he gave another performance to just the physics department and I attended both. They were both fun to watch, especially the second since I was able to see him in action up close. At the end of his physics department show and after he had pulled off a lot of tricks to the amazement of the audience, he said that scientists were the easiest people to fool because they thought they were so smart that they easily fell prey to the most basic of misdirection techniques. There was some embarrassed laughter from the audience of physicists.
As further evidence of Randi’s assertion, we have of course Jeffrey Epstein who seemed to be able to con prominent scientists that he was a deep intellect with scientific insights even though there was nothing to support that claim. Many of those scientists are now distancing themselves from him, saying that they really did not know him that well and were merely attending events sponsored by him or simply had projects funded by him.
An even better example of how easily scientists can be conned is that provided by Al Seckel. In an earlier post, I linked to an article by Dana Kennedy about the strange family of Ghislaine Maxwell, the person identified as Jeffrey Epstein’s pimp. I then received from Tom McIver, a reference librarian in Cleveland whom I had met at area gatherings of skeptics, this article by Mark Oppenheimer about Al Seckel who was married to Isabel Maxwell, the sister of Ghislaine Maxwell.
Seckel did not have the kind of Epstein money with which to seduce scientists but managed to become a collector of sorts of scientists, using vague claims of scientific expertise. His only scientific training came from two years at Cornell as a ‘special student’ (i.e. not actually enrolled for a degree) in which he got an F in physics, before moving to the Los Angeles area and hanging out on the Caltech campus to ingratiate himself with a few scientists (notably Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann), and then using those names as leverage to get more contacts and so on, until he was moving around in eminent scientific circles in which each person thought that others had vetted him. It was a kind of Ponzi scheme involving people and not money. He also used the burgeoning interest in atheism and skepticism to make contacts in skeptics circles, using the same techniques.
For a 30-year stretch beginning in the early 1980s, one of Los Angeles County’s great hosts was a man called Al Seckel.
Seckel’s unique genius was his catholicity of taste. Milling around his parties were not only the B- and C-list celebrities requisite in L.A. but Nobel Prize-winning physicists, MacArthur “genius prize” winners, tech entrepreneurs, oddball futurists, and magicians. There were actors, musicians, and fringe entertainment types, plus academics associated with nearby Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Catherine Mohr, a noted innovator in surgical robotics and a longtime friend of Seckel’s, met the Nobel laureates Murray Gell-Mann and Francis Crick at Seckel’s parties. “He loves bringing together people of interesting backgrounds and seeing the chemistry of them,” Mohr told me.
Seckel was never enrolled at Caltech, but he hung out in the labs and had lunch with professors and students, and some people around campus assumed he was a graduate student or a post-doctoral researcher. The myths of his Cornell and Caltech credentials has been persistent; they have trailed him, like toilet paper on a shoe. People I spoke with, former friends and business partners, cited them as one of the reasons they trusted him. The Los Angeles Times referred to Seckel’s Cornell degree at least twice, first in 1985 and again in a 1987 article about the local skeptic community. Seckel, the paper reported, was “an intense graduate of Cornell in physics and math, who took leave from Caltech, where he was a candidate for doctoral degrees” in two fields. Seckel never tried to tell me that he had attended either school, but Denice Lewis, Seckel’s second wife, who sounded as if she loathed him, didn’t believe me when I told her that he had never graduated from Cornell.
At Caltech, Seckel cultivated Richard Feynman, in particular; he told me that Feynman gave him permission to audit one of his classes. Even before the 1985 publication of his mega-selling memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, which made him the most famous physicist in the world, Feynman, who died in 1988, had a high profile at the school. So when he and Seckel grew close, people noticed.
Seckel also invited Feynman to dinner parties at his house, precursors to the blowouts he would soon be hosting. “They started as small gatherings,” Seckel remembered. “[Feynman] would come with his wife, Gweneth. Murray would be there”—Murray Gell-Mann, who proposed the idea of the quark, and who had a legendarily competitive relationship with Feynman—“and they’d be sitting on a couch.”
From there it was off to the races. He managed to use his scientific ‘credentials’ and contacts to con many people, including scientists, out of money because he was charming and seemed to be so well connected. In an odd twist, one of the people he conned into thinking he was a scientist was Epstein and another was Randi himself and members of the skeptical community and Michael Shermer. The infamous scientific conference hosted on Epstein’s island in 2011 was arranged by Seckel.
The twists and turns of Seckel’s story as told by Oppenheimer are fascinating and too long to excerpt but this comprehensive timeline of his life prepared by McIver is an invaluable aid. Seckel’s backstory began to unravel after McIver raised questions about it and Seckel sued him for libel. Seckel died in 2015 in a hiking accident or suicide (it is not clear which or whether his death was even a hoax) soon after the Oppenheimer piece appeared.
I think that Randi was right about the ease with which scientists can be conned but now I think we should add skeptics as another group that can be easily conned by those who also claim to be skeptics. There is nothing more dangerous than to think one is too smart to be taken in by magicians and conmen. They know how to exploit that belief.