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Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture Hardcover – June 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A self-proclaimed socialist and "unabashed Whig," Rutgers mathematician Levitt (Higher Superstition) believes that history is "a march of progress, leading steadily to a more enlightened social order and to an increasingly accurate grasp of the principles underlying the natural world." Here, he analyzes the role that science plays in American society. Taking particular aim at postmodernists and proponents of "science studies"Awho, he claims, believe that science offers no more insight than any other belief systemALevitt attempts to assert the primacy and value of the scientific method. While he articulates superbly the importance of science and makes critical distinctions between science and pseudoscience, especially in chapters focused on health and journalism, his attack on postmodernism falls short of the mark because of his overblown style and his refusal to present more than a caricature of his intellectual opponents (postmodernism "seems to provoke its adherents to the most galling kind of snobberyAobnoxious, self-infatuated, and comically hierophantic"). Nonetheless, there is a great deal of thoughtful material here addressing the tension between democratic principles and a scientific worldview. In the end, however, Levitt provides many more questions than answers. (July)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"An eminently readable and even exciting contribution to a topic that seems ever more intensely active, in and beyond academe." -- Gerald Holton, Harvard University

"Norman Levitt is a new enlightenment hero, a post-postmodern Prometheus bringing fire to the bellies of scholars and students intimidated by obscurantist intellectual bullies and needing encouragement to fight back. There is a real world, we live in it, true and false things can be said about it, science is how we find out about it, and it really matters." -- Richard Dawkins, author, The Selfish Gene and Unweaving the Rainbow

"Since we live in the Age of Science, of all the burning issues in our culture today none stands out in scope and magnitude more than the 'science wars,' and no one has been in the thick of the fight more than Norman Levitt. Prometheus Bedeviled cuts to the heart of the issue like no other book before. Levitt has taken the debate to a new level and Prometheus Bedeviled will become a watershed work that forces fence-sitting science critics to get off the fence." -- Michael Schermer, publisher, Skeptic Magazine, and author Why People Believe Weird Things

"What is the role of science in a wise democracy? That goes awry when empirical values are disprized? In Prometheus Bedeviled, Norman Levitt joins common sense to passion. In the process, he shows himself to be an exemplary scholar-citizen." -- Frederick Crews, author, The Memory Wars, and editor Unauthorized Freud

Levitt is particularly good in dismantling the arguments of those who wish to "democratise science". There is currently a debate in America about the teaching of evolutionary science in schools. Christian fundamentalists demand that the Biblical account of Creation be taught as an equally valid theory of the origins of life. Astonishingly, many radicals support them on "democratic" grounds.

What such radicals propose, Levitt points out, "is not so much the democratisation of science as the supplanting of science by a melange of viewpoints in which populist enthusiasm or even quasi- religious dogma will be anointed with the cultural authority of the 'scientific'."

Levitt's is a brilliant polemic, both thought-provoking and entertaining. I am deeply sympathetic to his main arguments about the nature of scientific knowledge and to his claims for a privileged role for science. I also agree that the general "dumbing-down" of society has had a disastrous impact both on science and on perceptions of science. -- Kenan Malik, The Independent, July 11, 1999


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 430 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813526523
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813526522
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 7 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,096,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Sebastian Thaler on July 1, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Norman Levitt's name will be familiar to anyone following the so-called "Science Wars." It was, after all, his (and coauthor Paul Gross') earlier book, "Higher Superstition," that sparked the most recent slew of battles in this war, and inspired Alan Sokal to write his notorious hoax article for Social Text. For those who appreciated Sokal's own recent book, "Fashionable Nonsense," but found the pacing a bit sluggish, rest assured: Levitt is a better writer than Sokal, and even wittier. Also, with only a single author, this book is more focused than other recent volumes on the topic, such as Koertge's "A House Built on Sand." Levitt is not afraid to tread on sensitive toes: already in the Introduction, he's put forward his compelling case that nonscientists are almost humorously unqualified to pass judgment on the validity and veracity of the conclusions drawn by mainstream, traditional, objective scientific programs. If you still think, despite all you've heard and read, that all scientific conclusions are socially conditioned, why not give this volume a spin and try to rebut Levitt's arguments.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
For most of the time I was reading _Prometheus Bedeviled_, I was planning to give it a 5-star rating. The author, Norman Levitt, has many valuable insights, and he is an extraordinarily eloquent writer. I share the author's profession (mathematics) and much of his disdain for social constructivism. Although I am a conservative, believing Christian and Levitt is an outspoken atheist, I thought that his, sometimes pointed, criticism of believers was generally tolerable. He discusses the teleological presuppositions of the irreligious as well and is willing to spread the blame around for what he perceives as the devaluation of science in modern society.
My enthusiasm for _Prometheus Bedeviled_ began to wane towards the end of the book. Levitt's thesaurus seemed to run dry, as we read about the "clotted" prose of the postmodernists for the nth time. I also began to notice how often Levitt resorted to labeling the arguments of his opponents as "rants" or "raves" as a means of dismissing them without, I think, giving them the attention they deserve. That is a rhetorical device I don't care for. Some cheap shots Levitt apparently couldn't resist. Consider, for example, his observation that "the core ideology of the Republican party is essentially plutocratic, that the central aim of the party is to preserve and advance the interests of a rather small fraction of wealthy Americans." Even setting aside the questionable accuracy of his analysis of Republican economic policy, Levitt conveniently understates the influence of social conservatism in the GOP. In any case, these are the words of a polemicist, not a scientist.
Rather than a full-fledged argument, Levitt presents an intriguing sketch of an argument.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Frank Paris on January 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I really have mixed feelings about this book. It is a joy to read for its writing style alone. But quite aside from the brilliant writing (that just makes it so you can't put it down), it is crammed with deadly accurate characterizations of contemporary culture's ambivalence towards science and the sorry prospects of the majority of educated non-scientists ever really coming to grips with its findings (because the subject matter has become so difficult). Nevertheless, the general, educated populace coming to grips with the PROBLEMS Levitt so lucidly explicates could go a long way towards solving those very problems. There is just one minor flaw in this book that stands in the way of letting this happen, a flaw that will loom all-important in the minds of the majority of readers (if we pick the readers at random from the educated public). Levitt argues, correctly, that science is the most, perhaps even the only, reliable method of obtaining accurate knowledge of the way things really are in the world we live in, and that therefore science ought (somehow) to be given a privileged "say" when it comes to determining public policies that depend on understanding the true nature of this world. So far, so good. The problem is that Levitt argues that if you really understand what science is saying about the world, you HAVE to be an atheist. Right there, he is going to lose 90% of the audience that SHOULD be reading this book and taking it to heart. In my view, these claims of atheism are entirely gratuitous, and the book could have had far more ethical appeal if these religious beliefs of his would have been kept to himself. And make no mistake about it: his atheism IS based on religious belief, no matter how much he denies it.Read more ›
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