Mathematically Speaking, Conspiracies Couldn’t Be Kept Quiet

January 29, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Woman with her finger in front of her lips. Shhhhh
Photo credit: LaVladina/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We did really go to the moon!

Although often absurd, conspiracy theories can be hard to debunk. Dr. David Robert Grimes, a physicist and cancer researcher at Oxford University says that he’s found a way to do it.

He’s modeled the probability that a conspiracy will succeed — that people “in the know” will be able to stay quiet for long enough periods of time — and has calculated how long huge secrets could stay under wraps.

Some of the variables that his model takes into account are the number of conspirators, the length of time since the conspiracy took place, how likely a leak is, and even when the conspirators might die and take the secret to their grave.

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Why bother trying to change people’s minds? “While daft notions on moon landings may be harmless, with climate change it can mean we sleepwalk into damaging inertia,” he said in his paper published in Plos One.

Some of the conspiracies he looked at were: the moon landings (410,000 people), climate change (405,000 people), vaccinations (22,000 people) and a suppressed cancer cure (714,000 people). Given all of the factors, each of these would have been revealed in under four years, with the vaccination conspiracy as the quickest — at three years and two months.

People just aren’t very good at keeping secrets: “My results suggest that any conspiracy with over a few hundred people rapidly collapses, and big science conspiracies would not be sustainable,” he said.

Working backwards, Grimes was also able to figure out what the maximum number of people a conspiracy could involve to survive for a certain amount of time. Want something to stay quiet for five years? You’ll have to limit yourself to 2,521 people. How about a century? No more than 125 people will be able to do it.

“It is common to dismiss conspiracy theories and their proponents out of hand, but I wanted to take the opposite approach, to see how these conspiracies might be possible,” Grimes said. “To do that, I looked at the vital requirement for a viable conspiracy — secrecy.”

Grimes admits that his model won’t change everyone’s beliefs. A single individual can’t convince hard-core conspiracy theorists because, who knows, maybe they’re part of the conspiracy.

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