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.
An example of a legal threat from Seckel is this email he sent to me on May 27, 2014:
News has once again reached me that you are acting as Tom McIver's proxy in
spreading misinformation and disinformation about me. Please be aware that
I sued McIver in a Court of Law for Defamation and Slander, and after a
very lengthy discovery process, which involved showing that he fabricated
letters from my old professors (who provided notarized statements that they
did not ever state nor write the letters that McIver circulated, and the
various treasures who were in control of the financial books of the
skeptics, also came forth and testified that no money was taken, and McIver
was unable to prove any of his allegations. The presiding Judge stated that
this was the "worst case of slander and defamation" that he had ever seen.
Nevertheless, even with such a Court Order he is persisting, and using (and
I mean the term "using") you to further propagate erroneous misinformation.
Lately, he has been making his defamatory comments again various people,
and posting links to a news release article by the Courthouse News (a press
release service) that reports the allegations set forth in complaints. Just
because something is "alleged" does not mean it is True. It has to be
proven in a Court of Law. In this case, after a lengthy discovery process
(and I keep excellent records) the opposite of what was alleged was
discovered, and the opposing counsel "amicably" dismissed their charges
against me. The case was officially dismissed. In fact, the opposing
counsel has been active in trying to get the Courthouse News to actively
remove the entire article, and not just add a footnote at the end.
I note that you have been trying to add this link to my wikipedia page. I
have never met you, and am not interested in fighting with you. I am
attaching the official Court document that this case was filed for
dismissal by the opposing counsel. You can verify yourself that this is an
accurate document with the Court. So, once again, McIver has used you.
My attorneys are now preparing a Criminal Complaint against McIver for so
openly violating the Court Order (it is now a criminal offense), and will
once again open the floodgates of a slander and defamation lawsuit against
him and his family, and anyone else, who aids him willing in this process.
This time he will not have his insurance company cover his defense. This
time that axe will come down hard on him.
For now, I will just think you are victim, but please remove any and all
references to me on any of your websites, and that will be the end of it.
You don't want to be caught in the crossfire.
Yours sincerely,Contrary to what Seckel writes, we have, in fact, met--I believe it was during the CSICOP conference, April 3-4, 1987, in Pasadena, California. I am not an agent of Tom McIver, the anthropologist, librarian, and author of the wonderful reference book cataloging anti-evolution materials, Anti-Evolution, who Seckel sued for defamation in 2007, in a case that was settled out of court (see Oppenheimer's article). I have never met Tom McIver, though I hope I will be able to do so someday--he seems to me to be a man of good character, integrity, and honesty.
Cognitive neuroscientist, author, speaker
The news release Seckel mentions is regarding a lawsuit filed by Ensign Consulting Ltd. in 2011 against Seckel charging him with fraud, which is summarized online on the Courthouse News Service website. I wrote a brief account of the case based on that news article on Seckel's Wikipedia page in an edit on March 13, 2011, but it was deleted by another editor in less than an hour. Seckel is correct that just because something is alleged does not mean that it is true; my summary was clear that these were accusations made in a legal filing.
Seckel and his wife, Isabel Maxwell (daughter of the deceased British-Czech media mogul, Robert Maxwell), rather than fighting the suit or showing up for depositions, filed for bankruptcy. Ensign filed a motion in their bankruptcy case on December 2, 2011, repeating the fraud allegations. But as Seckel notes, Ensign did dismiss their case in 2014 prior to his sending me the above 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" on Masters 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).
At Cornell, Seckel associated with L. Pearce Williams, a professor of history of science, who had interesting things to say when McIver asked him about their relationship. While in at least one conference bio, Seckel is listed as having been Carl Sagan's teaching assistant, I do not believe that was the case. The Cornell registrar reported in 1991 in response to a query from Pat Linse that Seckel only attended for two semesters and a summer session, though a few places on the web list him as a Cornell alumnus.
Seckel used to hang out at Caltech with Richard Feynman. As the late Helen Tuck, Feyman's administrative assistant, wrote in 1991, Seckel "latched on to Feynman like a leach [sic]." Tuck wrote that she became suspicious of Seckel, and contacted Cornell to find that he did not have a degree from that institution. You can see her full letter, written in response to a query from Tom McIver, here.
As the head of the Southern California Skeptics, Seckel managed to get a column in the Los Angeles Times, titled "Skeptical Eye." Most of his columns were at least partially plagiarized from the work of others, including his column on Sunny the counting dalmation (plagiarized from Robert Sheaffer), his column on tabloid psychics' predictions for 1987 (also plagiarized from Sheaffer), and his column about Martin Reiser's tests of psychic detectives (plagiarized directly from Reiser's work). When Seckel plagiarized Sheaffer, it was brought to the attention of Kent Harker, editor of the Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet (BASIS), who contacted Seckel about it. Seckel apparently told Harker that Sheaffer had given his permission to allow publication of his work under Seckel's name, which Sheaffer denied when Harker asked. This led to Harker writing to Seckel in 1988 to tell him about Sheaffer's denial, and and inform him that he, Seckel, was no longer welcome to reprint any material from BASIS in LASER, the Southern California Skeptics' newsletter. While most skeptical groups gave each other blanket permission to reprint each others' material with attribution, Harker explicitly retracted this permission for Seckel.
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.
This just scratches the surface of the Seckel story. I hope that those who have been fearful of litigation from Seckel will realize that, given the Oppenheimer story, now is an opportune time for multiple people to come forward and offer each other mutual support that was unhappily unavailable for Tom McIver eight years ago.
(BTW, one apparent error in the Oppenheimer piece--I am unaware of Richard Feynman lending his name for use by a skeptical group. He was never, for example, a CSICOP Fellow, though I'm sure they asked him just as they asked Murray Gell-Mann, who has been listed as a CSICOP Fellow since Skeptical Inquirer vol. 9, no. 3, Spring 1985.)
"Oh, like everyone else, I used to parrot, and on occasion, still do." -- Al Seckel (interview with Jeffrey Epstein)
Corrected 22 July 2015--original mistakenly said Maxwell was Australian.
Update 22 September 2015--an obituary has been published for Al Seckel, stating that he died in France on an unspecified date earlier this year, but there are as yet no online French death records nor French news stories reporting his death. The obituary largely mirrors content put up on alseckel.net, a domain that was registered on September 18 by a user using Perfect Privacy LLC (domaindiscreet.com) to hide their information. (That in itself is not suspicious, it is generally a good practice for individuals who own domain names to protect their privacy with such mechanisms and I do it myself.)
Update 24 September 2015: French police, via the U.S. consulate, confirmed the death of Al Seckel on July 1, 2015. His body was found at the bottom of a cliff in the village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie.