Norman Jay Levitt, R.I.P.

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I want to take a moment to note with sadness the recent death of a remarkable man, Norman Jay Levitt (1943-2009).

Levitt was a brilliant mathematician. He received his doctorate from Princeton when he was 24, then stayed on there, doing first-rate work, especially in topology. Outside the world of mathematics he was known for his defense of science and its method against postmodernism and other trendy doctrines emanating from the academic world. He wrote for the New York Review of Books and especially for Skeptic magazine, a publication I never miss.

Now, people who defend science from the pseudoscientific and political attacks mounted by ordinary people are common enough. There is no end to exposes of such nonsense as ESP, flying saucers, creationism, numerology, and astrology. The Skeptic Society, of which I am a proud member, has done great work in this area.

But I am convinced that the silly beliefs held by ordinary folk do nowhere near as much damage to society as the intellectual crap that is accepted by large numbers of academics, especially leftist ones. (And these days, there are hardly any other kinds of academics.) For example, outside of a few Latin American dystopias, where in the hell is Marxism still considered scientific economics? Only in certain departments of American universities.

This is where Levitt was so outstanding. An eminent academic and self-described leftist, he defended science from leftist academic attacks. This took unusual guts.

He wrote or co-wrote a number of books in this vein, such as “Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science” (co-authored with biologist Paul Gross in 1994), “The Flightfrom Science and Reason” (1997), and “Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture” (1999). It was in “Higher Superstition,” in particular, that he took on postmodernist critiques of science. That book in turn inspired physicist Alan Sokal to write his brilliant parody of po-mo nonsense, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (1996) in the journal Social Text – a send-up that did much to discredit postmodernist pretense.

Levitt was a rare combination of brilliance and intellectual honesty. His death is a great loss.

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