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Sharon Begley

Science journalism has changed a lot in the past thirty years. In the old days, the top science writers (with the exception of Martin Gardner, I guess), were explainers whose job was to report the breakthroughs or purported breakthroughs by purportedly brilliant scientists. There’s still room for this sort of science writing—for example, we want descriptions of how the new coronavirus vaccine works—but there are also two new kinds of science writers. I’m thinking of the data journalists like Felix Salmon or Nate Silver who perform their own analyses, and investigative journalists such as Stephanie Lee or Ed Yong who interview people and sift through the evidence. These categories overlap, of course.

I did not know Sharon Begley well—we met only once, and we had a few email exchanges over the years, the first time being a question she asked me about the voodoo correlations paper by Vul et al. I guess I’d characterize Begley as doing traditional science writing but with some of the attitude of the investigative journalist. Science communication is important and so I thought Begley should be recognized, not because she did one big thing but because she was a valuable contributor to the journalistic enterprise. Her life story is here.

3 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    A huge loss to science journalism.

    She’d know how to make this segue, but I don’t. What’s up with this?:

    “She was rumored to carry in her backpack a small doorstop — “shaped like a Russell terrier, about the size of a grapefruit, maybe 3-4 pounds,” according to her son, Dan Begley-Groth — so that she could whack the fender of New York taxis that came too close to clipping her as she walked to and from Grand Central Station. “No one would ever suspect the little old lady,” Sharon would say to her family, though it’s hard to say if this actually ever took place, and her husband said her “rock-in-the-sock kind of thing” may not have been a doorstop.”

    So her son gives a very specific description, but the journalist says it may not even have happened, and her husband has yet another take on it? Actually it’s the journalist’s (Eric Boodman’s) comment that seems like the inconsistent one here. The son describes the object, husband says it may not have been a doorstop but doesn’t dispute that there _was_ an object…so why does Boodman say it may not have existed at all? Inquiring minds want to know!

    • I read it that the journalist is saying that there was definitely something carried in the backpack, and it may or may not have been the doorstop, but it’s hard to say whether she ever actually whacked a taxi with it.

      • Phil says:

        Yeah, OK, but how much proof do we need? According to her family, she says she used it that way. Her son describes the object in some detail. Her husband agrees she carried an object. Perhaps the implication is that she carried the object with the intent of using it to whack errant cabs, but that there are no known cases of her doing so. OK, I’ll buy that.

        But if that’s the case, I think the entire weasel phrase “though it’s hard to say if this actually ever took place” could be cut: the rest of the paragraph does not claim she whacked any cabs, it says she carried something “so that she could whack the fender…”. That’s like saying that when I go backpacking I carry bear spray so that I can deter charging bears; there’s no need to point out that I have not necessarily done so. That said, if she carried it with that intent, it’s hard to believe she never used it. I have never been charged by a bear, but even in my few and short visits to Manhattan I would have had some taxi-whacking opportunities, had I been carrying a bag with a 3-pound doorstop.

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