Farewell, Norman Levitt

With the passing of Norman Levitt, a rigorous defender of scientific truth against the relativism and cowardice of the ‘academic left’, we have lost a modern Enlightenment hero.

Stuart Derbyshire

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Norman Levitt died from complications related to heart failure this past weekend (24 October). He was professor of mathematics at Rutgers University and a friend of spiked. He wrote some excellent articles and essays for spiked and some angry letters, too – which is just the kind of friend spiked welcomes.

His 1994 book, Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, co-authored with Paul Gross, caused a minor sensation (1). Levitt and Gross noted the disconcerting rise of what they called the ‘academic left’ and particularly the hatred that the academic left directed against science. They saw the hatred of the academic left as not just stemming from a distrust of how science has been abused – to justify the Holocaust, build nuclear weapons and so forth – but also from hostility towards the very structure of how science is done and communicated. Thus the academic left openly attack the content of science and question the very foundation of scientific belief.

Under the banner of feminism and anti-racism the academic left attack science for being poisoned by sexism, racism and a vicious cultural imperialism. The very pursuit of scientific knowledge is a form of aggression against minorities and other cultures, they believe. Handily, having adopted this highly dubious and negative stance against science, the academic left is liberated from the grubby and difficult task of actual scientific study. Scientific knowledge must be wrong and can thus be discarded without any further study. Any attack on the academic left for their determined self-imposed ignorance is brushed off by their presumed moral authority that guarantees the validity of their critique. As Levitt and Gross wrote:

‘Thus we encounter books that pontificate about the intellectual crisis of contemporary physics, whose authors have never troubled themselves with a simple problem in static; essays that make knowing reference to chaos theory, from writers who could not recognise, much less solve, a first-order linear differential equation; tirades about the semiotic tyranny of DNA and molecular biology, from scholars who have never been inside a real laboratory, or asked how the drug they take lowers blood pressure.’ (Higher Superstition)

The hostility and ignorance of the academic left were an enormous irritation to Levitt because he viewed science as the crowning glory of intellectual endeavour and the only means by which we can properly interrogate and understand the world around us. Abandoning science, and maybe giving it a good hiding to boot, doesn’t just desecrate a technical exercise in understanding; it also undermines the possibility of human freedom. Science increases the scope for human action because it makes new things possible. Science gives us new options to solve problems. Of course, we may use science to create rather than solve problems, since how we use science is political not scientific – but to condemn the entire exercise is to condemn humanity. Without science we are condemned to continued ignorance and mysticism.

Most famously, the publication of Higher Superstition triggered Alan Sokal to submit his joke paper, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, to the journal Social Text. The paper was published despite, or maybe because of, its call to end ‘the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarised briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.’ (2)

The publication of Sokal’s paper – which came to be known as ‘the Sokal hoax’ – caused an international storm. More importantly, it provided a punctuation mark for Levitt’s argument regarding the sheer audacity of the academic left and their tendency to go along with any pitiful drivel so long as science was admonished. It also earned Levitt some prestigious enemies amongst the social constructionists, including Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick in England, who just happened to have an article in the same edition of Social Text as Sokal… Fuller has not forgiven Levitt even in death (3). Levitt, I’m sure, would not care less.

Levitt was brilliant at uncovering attacks on science made under the guise of ‘democratisation’. He rightly pointed to the absurdity of advocating teaching intelligent design or creationism alongside evolution in American schools. Many on the academic left, and Steve Fuller, support this campaign on ‘democratic’ grounds. Levitt correctly observed that teaching creation as science whitewashes the rigours of science and threatens to reduce science to a popularity contest about belief.

His distaste for the use and abuse of populism by the academic left possibly explains why Levitt was keen on the idea of insulating science from the influence of public opinion. That, I believe, was an error. Only by engaging schools, and the public, on the need for teaching evolution as a science can the argument against creationism in schools be won. If Levitt were alive today he would doubtless now be typing an angry letter to spiked explaining his public engagements promoting the teaching of evolution in schools. The world has lost a fierce defender of science and a modern Enlightenment hero.

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham. He will be speaking in the debate Nudge Nudge, Nag Nag: the New Politics of Behaviour at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 1 November at the Royal College of Art in London.

(1) Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, Paul Gross & Norman Levitt, John Hopkins University Press, 1994

(2) Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, Alan D Sokal, Social Text, Spring/Summer 1996

(3) Norman Levitt RIP, Steve Fuller, 28 October 2009

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