It is with much sadness that we report the death of Norman Jay Levitt on Saturday, October 24, 2009, due to heart failure. His wife of 38 years, Renee Greene Levitt, reported the news to friends and colleagues of Norman, and announced that a memorial service will be held on Sunday, November 1 at 1:30 PM at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Avenue at 91 St. She also asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be sent to the National Center for Science Education, 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609. Our deepest condolences to Renee and to Norman’s family and extended family.
Norman Levitt received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1967 and taught mathematics, specializing in topology, for forty years at Rutgers before retirement. He was a frequent contributor on public attitudes toward science, as well as the follies of academic life that arise in connection with misunderstanding of science, regularly contributing review essays for Skeptic, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. His books include Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (with Paul R. Gross) in 1994, The Flight from Science and Reason in 1997, and Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture in 1999. In 1989 he published a technical work entitled Grassmannians and the Gauss Maps in Piecewise-Linear Topology.
Norman was best known, however, for his relentless defense of science, particularly against those in the academy — generally labeled as social constructivists, deconstructionists, or postmodernists — who tended to lump science in with other cultural traditions as “just another way of knowing” that is no better than any other tradition, and thereby reduce the scientific enterprise to little more than culturally-determined guess work at best and hegemonic power mongering at worst. In the pages of Skeptic, for example, he reviewed a number of books by such academics, most recently tearing into the British sociologist of science Steve Fuller for his expert testimony at the Dover trial in which Fuller defended Intelligent Design creationism as a legitimate science that deserves equal treatment with evolutionary theory. Already schedule for publication in the next issue of Skeptic was Dr. Levitt’s review essay entitled “Science: A Four Hundred Page Hissy-Fit,” a review of Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara, which we have pre-published in eSkeptic in tribute to one of the finest writers to ever grace the pages of Skeptic. Editing Norman Levitt was unlike editing any other author in the 17-year history of the magazine. His vocabulary was unparalleled and his command of literature, history, and culture was second to none in the sciences. I give you just one typical example, from the aforementioned essay. As you can see, Norm did not suffer foolish authors gladly:
Mutatis mutandis, the British historian of science Patricia Fara has written a book that treats its own vast subject — science and the history of its development — in a similarly contemptuous and condescending way. Fara’s case reposes on the twin shaky pillars of epistemological relativism and self-ascribed political righteousness. It is outlandishly Pecksniffian in tone and substance. She has an appallingly cavalier attitude toward evidence and documentation. She argues by means of flat assertion and unsupported generalization, sins, one assumes, she would never let her callowest undergraduates get away with. When I read a book, however closely, my marginal notations are usually brief and infrequent. Not so in the case of Science: A Four Thousand Year History; my copy is crammed with notes to myself, most of them pointing out the author’s grotesque gaffes. Imprecision reigns on every page; inaccuracies, irrelevancies, omissions, anachronisms, errors, and outright howlers go galumphing through the text with the author’s blithe acquiescence.
Norm, we shall miss you terribly. Your literal voice may be gone, but your literary voice will live on forever.
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