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Science Communication and the Understatement of Findings or How the BBC only had one sciencey article in their science and environment section when i checked

Palm trees on a beach

Key findings of paper

In a paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, a study of 1,889 palm species from the Arecaeae plant family was conducted. The authors combine machine learning predictions with published predictions, where available, and have determined that over a thousand palm species (56% of all palm species) are threatened. The study also looked at the potential for replacement species to take the place of endangered ones, with an extra focus on those trees which have significant cultural, medical or technological uses. The key findings from this part of the study showed that 16 threatened species have no potential replacements and that a total of 30 regions globally do not have suitable replacement species for one or more of their endangered palms.

Presentation in media

A BBC Science and Environment article published on the 27th of September summarizes the main findings of the paper but stays at very much a surface level explanation of the paper. It doesn’t delve any deeper than the abstract. To the author’s credit, however, they do expand upon the importance of palm species globally and their multitude of uses.

As a brief overview of the results, the journalist, Helen Briggs, has done a good job, maintaining a good level of accuracy and representing the key findings as they are laid out in the paper, without any exaggeration or apparent click-chasing.

Where the article perhaps does its readers a disservice is in glossing over the ecological and cultural importance of palm species. Choosing instead to focus on the economic significance. And while this element cannot be overstated, it is disheartening, particularly in a ‘Science and Environment’ section, for these elements to be overlooked. We are increasingly aware of how significant individual species are to the wider ecological system they inhabit and the disruption that can be caused by the removal of even one of these can have long lasting and serious implications for the entire system.

Points that should have been covered

Briggs doesn’t mention that a number of these species do not have any potential replacements that we are currently aware of. And though she does emphasise the papers finding that at least 185 species that do have a significant economic use are threatened, this is a point that only comes at the very end of the article.

Another point that Briggs could have focused more on is the huge discrepancy between this study and other published studies. Many of these other papers have looked closely at either a single species or a couple of species  as opposed to the total evidence-based approach and machine learning of the Bellot et al. paper. The most accurate model from Bellot et al. classified 703 species as threatened, 56% of all species studied. Whereas in summaries of other recently published studies, 69-80% of species appear threatened. Bellot et al. briefly dive into the problematic tendency of leaning towards red-listing species almost by default rather than taking a more measured approach.

The question that comes to mind when reading this though is that the machine learning method may in fact be underestimating the apparent threat. The paper’s authors push back on this idea however, claiming that evolving guidelines and the relative old age of other papers is to blame for the discrepancy and that their results are indeed reliable.


Overall, the BBC article does a good job of outlining the key findings of the paper albeit without going into much detail on several interesting discrepancies between this paper and much of the established research. Briggs emphasises the importance of the species economically and touches on the ecological importance and notes that the loss of these species would be of serious detriment to countless people.


Links to articles:


Paper: Bellot, S., Lu, Y., Antonelli, A., Baker, W.J., Dransfield, J., Forest, F., Kissling, W.D., Leitch, I.J., Nic Lughadha, E., Ondo, I. and Pironon, S., 2022. The likely extinction of hundreds of palm species threatens their contributions to people and ecosystems. Nature Ecology & Evolution6(11), pp.1710-1722.


(Image 'Palm trees' by Robert Young is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )

(Image 'Palm trees' by Robert Young is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )

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