The Papers 005: Misinformation, Cycling in Dublin, Apologies

In this episode

A fast-paced round-up of recent vulnerability research. We cover: susceptibility to misinformation, vulnerable cycling in Dublin, and the apology to the Tasmanian Aboriginal People by the Royal Society of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.


Hello and welcome to Vulnerable By Design with me, Chris Onrust. Today we have a new installment of The Papers, a fast-paced round-up of some of the recent and most interesting vulnerability research. We begin—please trust me on this one—with a paper on misinformation.


If you’ve ever spent some time on the internet, or let’s be honest, spent some time with people, then you may have noticed that not all of the things that people say are actually properly true. Shocking, isn’t it?

Our first paper published in the journal Information and Learning Sciences by the researchers Tara Zimmerman, Millicent Njeri, Malak Khader and Jeff Allen. This paper asks: How do people deal with this? How do people handle all of the false information thrown at them? And how do they distinguish misinformation from the useful stuff, that’s actually true?

The (to my mind, rather sad) story that this paper proposes is that, by default, people just tend to believe whatever information they encounter. And only when there are really way too many alarm bells going off, such that it can’t really any longer be ignored. only then do we start questioning things. So for example, when the Flat Earth Society tells you that it has members from all over the globe, then you may start wondering, hmm, maybe there’s something not quite right there. And this is what the researchers of this paper call ‘The Truth Default Framework’. So by default, we treat information that we get as true. And only when we’ve got strong indication that things are otherwise, then we start questioning things.

Now, a point of caution: This paper is not an empirical study. So the authors didn’t sit around and watch actual people, feed them falsehoods, and then see what happens. No, what they did was more of a translation. So the researchers took a theory that was already well established and well known within social psychology, which is called the truth default theory. And this says: “… when humans communicate with others, they tend to ‘operate on a default presumption that what the other person says is basically honest’.”

But only when and as long as there aren’t huge warning signs. Because after that point, then doubt kicks in and the trust is gone. Now, this paper suggests: hey, couldn’t something similar be going on not specifically just with other people, but when people engage with information generally? Namely, that when humans interact with information sources, they just standardly presume the information they encounter to be true, unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary? In other words, couldn’t it be the case that we are pretty gullible?

That picture, that way of thinking about how people might handle fresh, incoming information, that is what this paper offers. So they’ve only formulated the idea. But once it’s formulated, this now can get empirically tested, to see whether this theory actually holds in the real world. Speaking personally, if any such empirical study were to have any persecution maniacs like me among its participants, whose brains basically continuously tell them: ‘something’s off …’, ‘something’s off…’, ‘I can’t tell you what, but surely, something’s off …’ all the bloody time (sorry for swearing) then, well, who knows whether the investigators will actually stick to their conclusion? This is our first paper, it’s titled: ‘Default to truth in information behavior: a proposed framework for understanding vulnerability to deceptive information’.

Cycling in Dublin

Speaking of defaults, another thing that many humans—or at least humans in my block—default to as a means of transportation is the bicycle. Which brings us to our second paper, namely a paper about cycling in the city of Dublin. This paper is written by researcher Robert Egan, and it came out last month in the journal Mobilities.

The main claim of this paper is that cyclists in the Irish capital are quite vulnerable on the road. For example, there might not always be designated space for them to cycle. Roads can be poorly maintained. Sometimes roads get blocked, or a cyclist might not be properly seen or given space by other road users. The paper claims that cyclists internalize, or as the author said, ‘privatize’ this experience of road vulnerability. What that means is that cyclists anticipate that there won’t be dedicated road space for them, that they won’t be properly seen by other road users. It also means that they tolerate it if other road users don’t respect them being there. And they might even themselves start cycling dangerously, for example, on the footpath, because that makes them feel safer. (I assume that this doesn’t hold for the pedestrians who are experiencing cyclists on their path.)

Basically, the idea is that cyclists pragmatically adapt their own behaviour on the Dublin roads. Roads that they are entitled to use, but it’s not always doable for them in practice. Now, this paper is empirical. It is based on sets of interviews that the author did with Dublin cyclists. We can know that this is actually happening.

What is interesting to me was that the author puts their observations and their analysis in terms of mobility justice. ‘Justice’ here means having to do with what is morally right or fair. The author says that technically, cyclists are just as entitled to use public roads as anybody else. But in practice, they’re actually relinquishing some of what they’re entitled to, because of concerns about their own safety, or self-preservation. As some might say: That’s unfair!

It seems to me that not only does this give insight into Dublin cycling culture, but it should also be a point on the plate of Dublin City Council. For example, the author compares Dublin with the relatively cycle friendly city of Copenhagen, which they say has far more high quality cycling infrastructure than Dublin. And I can also mention, for example, countries such as The Netherlands, where people are practically born on bike lanes. So people in Dublin City Council, and planners of infrastructure for Dublin, or really for any country where cycling is not super standard: If you’re listening, maybe give those bike lanes some love? This paper is titled: ‘Sacrificing entitlement for self-preservation: ‘privatizing vulnerability as a cyclist in Dublin’.


The final document that we’ll be looking at today is not a research paper. It is an apology. But please hear me out on this. It is an apology that did appear in a scientific journal.

Just a caution: The following section refers to acts of cultural genocide that some people may find disturbing. If that’s you, feel free to skip ahead straight to the end of this episode.

Apologies. What is an apology doing in a scientific journal? What could we learn from people apologizing? Well, if there’s anything that we have learnt from aeons of research ethics, then it is that some awful, dreadful things have been done in the name of science.

The document titled ‘Apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal People’ appears in the journal Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. And the apology was issued by the Royal Society of Tasmania, and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The apology relates precisely to such atrocious actions. Now, just for context, the Royal Society of Tasmania is a scientific society, which was founded in 1843 by European colonizers of the island of Tasmania, or ‘lutruwita’, for “the advancement of knowledge”. And the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery similarly has its roots in the 1840s.

What did these organizations apologize for? Well, in the case of the Royal Society of Tasmania, they apologized to the Aboriginal people of lutruwita (Tasmania), because

“… it has been responsible for negative impacts on Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the past and that these impacts contribute to the disadvantage, injustice and intergenerational trauma suffered today.”

Some of the actions that they admit to include: exhuming human remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people for scientific study; sending human remains abroad; mistreating ancestral human remains, also when this went against the expressed wish of the person concerned; treating these human remains without care or respect, and without permission from Aboriginal community members; contributing to misleading and destructive beliefs about Tasmanian Aboriginal people and our culture; facilitating and legitimizing the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and their culture; and actively opposing steps to correct past mistakes.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery admitted that it and its predecessor had:

“… participated in practices including the digging up and removal, the collection and a trade of ancestral remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people (or respectfully, the Old People.) This was done largely in the name of racial sciences — practices of ethnography and anthropology, which were racist, discriminatory, and have long been entirely discredited. These practices showed profound disrespect for Aboriginal people, their families and communities, and their vital spiritual and cultural practices. (…) There is ample, undisputed evidence of this.”

Okay, that is pretty serious. Hence, an apology. Now, you might wonder how could saying “we are sorry”, or even “[we] are truly and completely sorry”, make any difference on this point? It is, after all just words, isn’t it? It doesn’t restore any of the things that happened. The remains of a person named Trukanini, who lived from about 1812 to 1867, who was a Tasmanian Aboriginal person whose body was taken from the earth and cremated against their expressed wishes … that happening is irreversible. One can never get that back.

But I think there are two points that make an apology like this matter. First, acknowledgement. Admitting that something was done, that was not okay. So for example, if somebody did something that really hurt you, and you see them again the next day, and they just pretend that nothing happened, and they want you to play along and also pretend that nothing happened … Then you might think: Hey, but no, you did that thing? And that wasn’t cool at all? Am I making this up? This is not okay, is it? And the pain just festers on like a pus-secreting wound. At least an apology puts things on the record. No, that was not okay. We admit that it was not okay.

A second reason why apologies might matter is the future. If someone apologized and the apology is accepted, then the wish might be that, at the very least, those bad practices will not continue. And possibly that actions may even take a turn for the better. That dream also shows from the two joint apologies issued here. We will do better in the future. They say: we’ll consult collaborate, work more ethically, and show respect for Tasmanian Aboriginal people’s values and traditions. But the thing with apologizing though, it is not mechanical. It is not a switch that you can flip and just assume that all will be fine. It is not a given at all, that an apology offered will also be accepted.

For example, if someone really hurt you, you are not obliged to accept anything. You might just say: “sod you!” and never want to see that person ever again. Now the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is clear that they realize this. They say:

“We know we have caused heartbreak, and we acknowledged this honestly. We understand that some Tasmanian Aboriginal people may not wish to accept our apology. Indeed, some may reject it.”

Two replies to the apologies coming from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are also contained in this journal. Rodney Gibbins, who is a Tasmanian Aboriginal Elder, replied that they will consider the apologies with open hearts and minds. But they also note elsewhere:

“A heartfelt apology is not the be-all and end-all of anything, particularly with our kind of history, but it is a promising pointer to the future. (…) It is a recognition that there were wrongs and they have to be held accountable for them. This shows a way that government and other organizations as well as the broader community can look at in the future, about gaining the trust of the Aboriginal community as a whole.”

And the Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mannsell, while they called a promise to do better an important part of any apology, they also caution that in earlier times in the 19th, and in the 20th century, promises to the Aboriginal people of Tasmania have been broken over and over again and they were not always followed through. So what we can say is: Yes, words are just words. But words matter, because humans use them to do things. And it is this action, this following through, that we might all want to be keeping an eye on.

Thank you for joining us at Vulnerable By Design this week. If you have a suggestion for vulnerability research papers that you think we should cover, please do get in touch. You’ll find all our episodes and information on I am Chris Onrust. Thank you for listening and bye for now.

See also