All entries for October 2009

October 28, 2009

Norman Levitt RIP

Writing about web page http://skepticblog.org/author/shermer/

Norman Levitt has died, aged 66, of heart failure. He was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton at age 24 in 1967 but his fame rests mainly on having been one of the great ‘Science Warriors’, especially via the book he co-authored with biologist Paul Gross, Higher Superstition (Johns Hopkins, 1994). I put the point this way because I imagine that Levitt as someone of great unfulfilled promise -- mathematicians typically fulfil their promise much earlier than other academics – who then decided that he would defend the scientific establishment from those who questioned its legitimacy. Why? Well, one reason would be to render his own sense of failure intelligible. All of the ‘postmodernists’ that Levitt hated so much – myself included -- appeared to be arguing that his aspirations were illusory in one way or another. This is an obvious personal insult to those who define their lives in such ‘illusory’ terms. And yes, what I am offering is an ad hominem argument, but ad hominem arguments are fallacies only when they are used indiscriminately. In this case, it helps to explain – and perhaps even excuse – Levitt’s evolution into a minor science fascist.

As time marches on, it is easy to forget that before Alan Sokal’s notorious hoax, whereby the editors of the leading US cultural studies journal were duped into publishing a politically correct piece of scientific gibberish, Gross and Levitt had already launched a major frontal assault on a broad range of ‘academic leftists’ who were criticising science in the name of some multicultural democratic future. Sokal acknowledged his debt to them. Levitt was clearly in on Sokal’s joke, since Levitt contacted me prior to its publication, in response to which I said that Sokal was toadying unnecessarily to the Social Text editors, without catching the specific errors that Sokal had planted in the aritcle. I had an article in the same issue, which served as Levitt’s launch pad for criticising me over the next decade and a half.

I wish I could say that I learned a lot from my encounters with Levitt, but in fact I learned only a little. His anger truly obscured whatever vision he might have been advancing. To be sure, he did point up a few errors of expression and fact, which I acknowledged at the time and corrected in subsequent publications. But Levitt’s general take on me and my work was so badly off the mark that I never deemed it appropriate to respond formally. (And I am not normally shy when it comes to responding to critics.) In this respect, it is striking that none of his widely publicised criticisms ever passed academic peer review, yet they are enshrined in the internet, not least my own Wikipedia entry. And to be honest, this is the main reason why I am writing this obituary. Seemingly serious people have taken Levitt seriously.

I believe that Levitt’s ultimate claim to fame may rest on his having been as a pioneer of cyber-fascism, whereby a certain well-educated but (for whatever reason) academically disenfranchised group of people have managed to create their own parallel universe of what is right and wrong in matters of science, which is backed up (at least at the moment) by nothing more than a steady stream of invective. Their resentment demands a scapegoat -- and 'postmodernists' function as Jews had previously. My guess is that very few academically successful people have ever thought about – let alone supported -- what Levitt touted as “science’s side” in the Science Wars. Nevertheless, I am sure that a strong constituency for Levitt’s message has long existed amongst science’s many failed aspirants. This alienation of the scientifically literate yet undervalued in society will pose an increasingly painful reality check for policymakers who think that we are easing our way into a global ‘knowledge society’.


October 09, 2009

Congratulations Obama! The Postmodern Presidency Comes to Oslo

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has just been awarded to US President Barack Obama for his efforts at improving international diplomacy on many fronts, especially his attempts at reducing nuclear proliferation. Singling out this specific contribution, which may well stand the test of time (especially vis-à-vis Russia), reflects the Cold War vintage of the committee, since it is not clear to me that people born after, say, 1980 see nuclear annihilation as quite the global threat that older generations did – and the youngsters may be right on this point.

I say ‘postmodern presidency’ because the late Jean Baudrillard would relish the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to someone who really hasn’t brokered any peace at all – though Obama has certainly tried on many fronts and acted like a man of peace. Perhaps he is the 'anticipatory peacemaker'! The politician as simulacrum! Peace never looked so good – so maybe the look will do as grounds for prize-worthiness when the reality is way too grim! Sitting here in Boston, I learn that in a CNN-commissioned poll of viewers, Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader of Zimbabwe, had been the preferred choice for the prize. Given Tsvangirai’s actual record to date, I can see why Obama’s potential might appear more attractive.

But there is also comic timing in Obama’s award. This week’s New Statesman, the UK’s historic centre-left weekly magazine of politics and ideas sports a cover containing a photograph of Obama morphing into GW Bush, reflecting its dismay at Obama’s apparent, albeit dithering, willingness to commit more troops into Afghanistan, even though the war there appears both endless and pointless. Generally speaking, UK military commitments mirror US ones these days, so we tend to treat the US President as our own Commander-in-Chief. Whether the New Statesman is ultimately proved prescient or cheap will probably not hurt sales, since they’ve now unwittingly turned themselves into a talking point.

Of course, Obama is being assaulted, in an increasingly vicious way, over his national health plan. I very much support the plan – as I did when Hilary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and countless others have proposed it before him. The hostility to the plan – which must rank as amongst the most mystifying features of US politics to foreigners – reflects the extent to which ‘Live Free or Die’ is really ingrained in the American psyche. At one level, it reflects a very positive view of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘self-reliance’ that is predicated on the view that the US is the ultimate Land of Opportunity, in which health and wealth await those willing to put in a bit of effort. Unfortunately, this normative vision – however attractive – is never subject to a reality check from those who now worry that their taxes might benefit scroungers.

In all this, Obama is mainly saved by the fact that his opponents don’t have their act together – and Obama is the master of grace under pressure. This, I believe, reflects a larger background point: Because it is far from clear what really drives Obama’s political ambition, it is hard to find a way of getting him to sell out. ‘Selling out’ is always about finding the point when your mark distinguishes his own personal interests from those on whose behalf he would presume to speak, and then discreetly appealing to the personal interests alone. If they last long enough, politicians normally sell out because their vanity blows their cover – they are made to reveal that their own interests are really more important than those they’re speaking for – and they’ve become tired of maintaining the deception: Selling out = Cashing out.

Here’s a homework assignment: Given this definition of ‘selling out’, what sort of people will never sell out? Hint: Hegel would love them. And if Obama turns out to be one of them, then he definitely deserves the Nobel Prize!

As far as the Nobel Prize Committee is concerned, it would be a mistake to think that it is any more prone to wishful thinking these days than in the past. Its awards over the past century are strewn with purveyors of wishful thinking who at the time appeared quite plausible candidates for the ‘wave of the future’. Consider the last sitting US President to receive the award, Woodrow Wilson. He was praised for brokering the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War and helping to establish the League of Nations. All of this was done against the backdrop of a US that Wilson had to drag into that war kicking and screaming, which then rewarded him by failing to join to the League, once established, and booting the Democrats out of office until FDR – a dozen years and a Great Depression later. Let’s hope that Obama’s prize doesn’t follow that precedent! But no denying it: Wilson was a well-spoken man of good intentions much more popular abroad than at home.

Come to think of it: Didn’t Jimmy Carter get the Nobel Peace Prize too?


October 08, 2009

The debate over the desirability of ‘pointless’ research continues to rage.

Follow-up to Draft David Mitchell for Board Membership in a UK Research Council from Making the university safe for intellectual life in the 21st century -- by Steve Fuller

The context, you may recall, is that the UK’s new ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) aims to measure research ‘impact’ in ways that appears to favour economic relevance. The Times Higher last week covered my campaign to draft the comedian David Mitchell into membership of a research council because of his wise objections to this proposal. In fact, that issue of the Higher was full of like-minded sentiments.

In this week's Times Higher, Adam Corner, a psychologist at Cardiff, has written in defense of relevance measures, employing two arguments. First:

Their [i.e. mine and others’] arguments are couched in anti-establishment language and position academics as the guardians of truth-seeking. But the golden age of academia they long for was far from a meritocracy where independent inquiry ruled. Their desire to see research prised away from pragmatic objectives risks a return to intellectual elitism.

In response, first it’s worth pointing out that ‘impact’ is being proposed as a replacement of ‘esteem’ in previous research assessment exercises. No more coasting on reputations made twenty years ago! For younger researchers like Corner, this is potentially good news, at least in terms of levelling the playing field of merit. In this context, measurement of ‘impact’ might appear to be a step in the right direction.

But, speaking for myself, whatever intellctual elitism may have existed when academia was essentially a self-appointed club funded by the taxpayers has long disappeared. Certainly ideals of ‘social relevance’ (which Corner himself prefers to ‘economic relevance’) are strongly embedded in today’s academia, which is larger and more diverse than ever in its history – even without explicit steering in specific ‘policy relevant’ directions. The only question is whether academia should be somehow brought more into line with state policy concerns. My answer is no.

Corner then concludes:

we must not forget that the purpose of our research should be the advancement of socially useful knowledge - not simply the satisfaction of our own curiosity.

A false dichotomy often made in this debate. (Actually I hate the word ‘curiosity’: It makes intellectual work sound like a species of attention deficit disorder!) Luckily comedian Mitchell got the right end of the stick, when he observed various research endeavours that appeared pointless in the short term but turned out to be quite relevant and useful in the long term. In other words, the real enemy here is not the fixation on ‘impact’ per se but short-termist thinking about research impact. We need a smarter economics of research that thinks in terms of capital investments, product life cycles and multiplier effects, within which the return on ‘pointless’ research would be obvious and manageable.


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