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Farewell to Norman Jay Levitt (1943-2009)

by Michael Shermer, Oct 27 2009

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.


7 Responses to “Farewell to Norman Jay Levitt (1943-2009)”

  1. Kitapsiz says:

    Anyone, with that caliber of linguistic acumen, is not only someone to be listened to, but to be honored for their efforts in avoiding the banal and mundane.

    Although I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him in the same fashion as the Skeptics, yes, his voice will be missed.

    Hail the honored dead.

  2. Anthony O'Neal says:

    I’ve never read an article of his before, but the one you just posted was absolutely brilliant.

  3. MadScientist says:

    I’ve enjoyed Norm Levitt’s reviews for as long as I can remember. I’ve also torn into Fara for her idiocy and rank revisionism when her book came out, but I love Norm’s version.

    • Graham Lyons says:

      What can we do about Fara?

      I went to one of her popular lectures and was amazed first at her distortions (or perhaps, ignorance) of well attested facts and secondly that she was a senior lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge. I was glad to see my opinion of her confirmed in this review by someone with vastly more knowledge of science and history than I have. Dr Levitt’s review needs to be easily accessible on the web and, if this is possible, his marginal notations to Fara’s book appended.

      Graham Lyons

  4. says:

    Fitting indeed to fearlessly rend literary flesh thus; more so when the author is little more than a politician masquerading as a pseudo-intellectual. So few like Diogenes, so many charlatans to expose.
    Norman, may your spirit forever enlighten.

  5. Steve Jones says:

    Whatever Steven Fuller is (and I’m thinking he’s an ego-driven peddler of twaddle masquerading as some form of intellectual endeavour), he is not British. Now I’m not sure that providing an academic home for the guy is something my country should be proud of, but we wouldn’t want to claim all the credit.

    But back to Norman Levitt. I only fairly recently read A Higher Superstition, and I enjoyed it greatly, albeit it with a certain amount of guilt as it sometimes seemed almost cruel to bring such withering attention to the more inane outpourings of the likes of Steven Fuller. I was brought up on thinking such as that of the late Jacob Bronowski’s, whose “The Ascent of Man”, lauded the understanding brought about through the enlightenment and it’s flowering into an age or rationalism. He would have been truly appalled by the “other ways of understanding” folk who would seek to position all attempts at the rational understanding of the universe as no more than a social construct. He was also a man that understood the true nature of fascism, which clearly Steven Fuller does not.

    I wouldn’t care too much for the fulminations of Steven Fuller if it wasn’t for the fact that I see sinister shadows of its influence in the actions of governments.

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