People can’t keep secrets: Oxford study uses math to show most conspiracy theories untrue

© Nacho Doce
An Oxford scientist has used mathematics to make the claim that certain conspiracy theories - like that the manned moon-landing was faked - would have been exposed by now, owing simply to the number of people believing in them.

This has to do with the simple fact that a certain number of people can only keep a secret for a set amount of time.

Dr. David Grimes believes his formula for figuring this out works, and is basically this: a secret that would last over a century can be kept by no more than 125 people. By contrast, one involving 2,521 people would hardly last longer than five years.

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By these calculations, the US moon landing of 1969 would long have been exposed, as it involved a whopping 411,000 NASA employees. And given that all it took was one Edward Snowden to expose NSA’s worldwide data-mining practices, the math doesn’t look to be far off.

Grimes assures that his interest is in giving conspiracy theorists a fighting chance against the naysayers who readily dismiss anything offered up as an alternative to the official truth.

"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. To do that, I looked at the vital requirement for a viable conspiracy-secrecy,” he says

His work begins with an equation to test the probability of a conspiracy being either deliberately revealed by a whistleblower, or inadvertently, as a result of a mistake. The length of time and number of conspirators are entered, including various other factors, such as the conspirators being reduced in number due to things like death - both, accidental and intended. Grimes even ensured a best-case scenario for the conspirators.

For his study he took four alleged conspiracies with a more or less predictable number of conspirators and timeframes: the moon landing, with its 411,000 NASA employees; the Climate Change ‘truthers’, with 405,000 people; the anti-vaccination movement, comprising some 22,000 if only the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control are accounted for - a figure that grows to 736,000 if you include Big Pharma. And finally, there are an estimated 711,000 people who believe the cure for cancer is being covered up.

The results were as follows: three years and eight months for the moon landing; three years and nine months for climate change to be proven a hoax; three years and two months to reveal the conspiracy that the US public is being duped on the benefits of vaccinations; and three years and three months for the cancer cure to be revealed to the world.

So the math is clear on the issue. But don’t fret, Grimes says.

“Not everyone who believes in a conspiracy is unreasonable or unthinking. I hope that by showing how eye-wateringly unlikely some alleged conspiracies are, some people will reconsider their anti-science beliefs,” he says.

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He wants to urge the reader to consider looking at what we are as a species more responsibly, because embracing reality could be obscured by “ideologically-motivated fictions. To this end, we need to better understand how and why some ideas are entrenched and persistent among certain groups despite the evidence, and how we might counteract this.”

Grimes used two other US-based conspiracies to assist baseline date.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.