The Strange Life and Death (?) of Al Seckel (Part 1)

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The Strange Life and Death (?) of Al Seckel (Part 1)


This article veers just a bit from our usual dose of UFOlogy to talk
about a man who was both a skeptical activist and a con-man, whose
exploits sound like the script of an implausible movie – except it
all really happened. Al Seckel was (or perhaps still is?) a very strange
and interesting character. He founded the Southern California
Skeptics in 1985, as a local affiliate of CSICOP (Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now just
“CSI”). He claimed to be a “physicist,” sometimes a
“cognitive neuroscientist,” but never completed even a year of
college. He claimed to be a graduate student working on a PhD in
physics (and History of Science) at Cal Tech in Pasadena, but had actually just been ‘hanging around’ there (during which time he
became friends with the famous physicist Richard Feynman, and
arranged lectures for the Southern California Skeptics at Cal Tech).
Soon accusations of financial improprieties were swirling around
Seckel, although CSICOP didn’t pay much attention, and reflexively
defended ‘their guy’ from attacks. The attacks mostly came from
critics of CSICOP – Erik Beckjord, James Moseley, George Hansen – but in this case the critics were correct. When
Seckel’s deceptions finally led to the collapse of the Southern
California Skeptics, he disappeared from sight (supposedly because he
was dying of leukemia, or else cancer). Seckel did actually have leukemia, although
his illness didn’t occur until after SCS had already collapsed. He later
made a complete recovery.

Seckel surfaced again a few years later as a TED talker and a famous
scholar of optical illusions, writing (and
sometimes plagiarizing) books and articles, again claiming bogus
degrees and affiliations. He rubbed shoulders with many famous
people, and after two divorces Seckel (somehow!) married supermodel
Denice D. Lewis, who previously had dated George Hamilton, Dodi Fayed,
and Pierce Brosnan, among others. (The marriage only lasted a few
months.) Later Seckel married Isabel Maxwell, the daughter of the billionaire media mogul (and disgraced fraudster) Robert Maxwell, who has a more famous
sister named Ghislaine. Seckel became an associate of the notorious sex offender Jeffrey
Epstein, in 2011 organizing a science-related conference on Epstein’s
(in)famous private island (although no sexual improprieties have been
alleged concerning this conference). About 2011 Seckel and Isabel moved from
California to France, apparently to
better escape
creditors and avoid testifying for their pending bankruptcy. Then in September, 2015,
Isabel publicly announces that her husband Al Seckel was dead, having
fallen off a cliff in France two months earlier. (Why she would wait
two months to announce his death has never been explained.) However,
no documentary evidence of Seckel’s reported
death was then produced – although we may have something like that now.

And that, in a nutshell, is the crazy story of Al Seckel. Skeptic Tom McIver,
who had been sued and harassed by Seckel’s lawyers for exposing
Seckel’s
frauds, maintains a complete chronology of Seckel-related events at
https://undeceive.weebly.com/,
from
which much of this information is taken.

I first met Al Seckel at the 1984 CSICOP Conference, held at Stanford
University. He was then an enthusiastic young man of twenty-six,
claiming to be a graduate student in “physics” and “history of
science” at Cal Tech. He sought me out because I had
been a co-founder of the Bay Area Skeptics
(along with magician Bob Steiner) just two years earlier. Seckel
explained that he was in the process of founding a similar group in
Southern California, and wanted to discuss our experiences, and
get my advice. Soon afterward, he invited me to
come down to Pasadena (I was then living in San Jose) to deliver the
very first lecture for Southern California Skeptics, held at Baxter
Auditorium on the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena. To motivate me, Seckel
told
me that his friend Richard Feynman was very
interested in hearing what I had to say about UFOs! I certainly could
not turn down such an opportunity. My
talk was well-received, but there was no sign of Feynman. Oh,
something came up, Feynman couldn’t make it, Seckel said.

The flyer Seckel made to promote my inaugural talk for the Southern California Skeptics

On a
later trip that I made to Los Angeles, I visited Seckel in his home,
in Pasadena or thereabouts. It looked ordinary from the outside.
However, the inside was filled with a dazzling assortment of valuable
antiques. Not 1920s furniture, or anything like that. Instead,
furniture pieces that were apparently hundreds of years old, looking
like they were imported from castles and estates
in Europe. I had not seen anything like that before (or since!).
Seckel explained that he was an antiques broker, buying and selling
such pieces for clients. Of course I was impressed.  Later it turned out that Seckel was embroiled in many lawsuits concerning ownership of these valuable antiques.

I was among the many people plagiarized by Seckel. I wrote an account of a “clever dog” tested by the Bay Area Skeptics, published in their July, 1987 newsletter.  “Clever animals” – a horse, or a dog – can supposedly do arithmetic and answer questions far beyond the mental ability of any animal. But invariably, they can only perform when in sight of their trainer, as we found was the case with the Clever Dog Sunny. Seckel called me, saying he wanted to use that story in the newspaper column he was than writing for the Los Angeles Times. I agreed, but I had no idea that he was going to write me out of the story completely, presenting it as his own (which was impossible, since he was not there). Seckel also appears to have appropriated a story from James “The Amazing” Randi, published without attribution. I also understand that Seckel swindled Randi out of a sum of money, although I never inquired about the details.

One of Seckel’s articles in CSICOP’s Skeptical Inquirer. He claimed credit for organizing this statement of Nobel Laureates.  

For several years Southern California Skeptics (SCS) seemed to be a
big success story, and CSICOP gladly trumpeted Seckel’s
apparent successes. Seckel publicly debated creationist Duane Gish,
and claimed to have soundly boxed his ears. He claimed to be the
inventor (later, claimed co-inventor) of the Darwin Fish (like the
Christian fish symbol, but sprouting legs). But soon problems became
evident. In December, 1987 the State of California revoked SCS’s
nonprofit status because Seckel had failed to file the required
financial forms. Nonetheless, Seckel continued to represent SCS as a
“nonprofit” organization for years. SCS’s checks bounced, and
money disappeared. Pat Linse (1947-2021) was a volunteer with SCS,
later working as an artist and editor for Skeptic magazine.
She warned CSICOP about Seckel’s shenanigans, but was largely
ignored. After SCS had collapsed in 1990, two years later Michael
Shermer founded the Skeptics Society, based at that time in Pasadena,
and bringing in many of the same people who had been part of SCS,
even continuing the monthly lectures in Baxter Hall originally
organized by Seckel. However, by this time Seckel had moved on from
skeptics’ organizations, finding bigger fish to fry. Seckel had
nothing to do with Skeptic magazine or with Shermer, who has
always run the Skeptics Society as a proper organization.

Soon, Seckel had re-branded himself as the “world’s leading authority
on visual and other types of sensory illusions”, claiming, at
various times, academic affiliations with Cal Tech, or Harvard. He
founded IllusionWorks, and later EyeWonder publishing. During
his career as an expert on visual illusions,
Seckel wrote (or plagiarized) many articles and books, gave many
lectures, and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, including
Murray Gell-Mann, Marvin Minsky, Nathan Myhrvold, Larry Page, Arno
Penzias, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking, Matt Groening, Mike Farrell,
Arianna Huffington, Paul MacCready, Burt Rutan, Craig Venter, Richard
Branson, Robin Williams, Sergey Brin, Peter Diamandis, James Cameron,
among others.

Famous guests at a party in Seckel’s home

About this gathering in his
home, Seckel wrote,

This was one of the great intellectual gatherings that I held
in my home in Pasadena in the 80s. In the back row (starting from the
left) was the distinguished microbiologist Dr. Elie Shneour, then
Manny Delbruck (wife of Max Delbruck, the “father of molecular
biology”) and noted comedian and former late night television
host Steve Allen. Bottom: Legendary engineer Paul Macready, myself, Nobel Laureate
Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) and my friend
John Edwards.

I knew Elie Shneour
(1925-2015) from skeptic meetings in San Diego and elsewhere. He was
obviously a very brilliant man. Yet he defended Seckel’s reputation
until his death. And he was not the only one – several other
skeptics have somehow continued to defended Seckel’s reputation.
The Dean of UFO skeptics, Philip J. Klass, defended Seckel almost reflexively, until finally
admitting in 1994 that Seckel had lied about his academic background. Michael Shermer had written to Klass, “If I never hear from him or about him again it
will be too soon. I have never met anyone who can evoke such venom
from so many people. A week does not go by that someone doesn’t tell
me another horrible Seckel story.”

Seckel leased a Ferrari (but ended up owing $70,000, which was never paid). He rented expensive houses in Pasadena, Malibu and elsewhere, and ending up owing $100,000 for the one in Malibu. The list of people suing Seckel for non-payment was quite long. One of Seckel’s biggest legal battles was with Ensign Consulting Ltd., in which an investment fund claims it was conned by a self-described “master illusionist” who persuaded it to invest in rare books and art—including a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton—and then absconded with more than $543,000 and a bunch of the loot.

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