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October 28, 2009

Norman Levitt RIP

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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’.

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