The Truth is Right Here: Scientist Finds Large-Scale Conspiracies Are Unsustainable

Tuesday, 26 January 2016 - 5:25PM
Weird Science
Tuesday, 26 January 2016 - 5:25PM
The Truth is Right Here: Scientist Finds Large-Scale Conspiracies Are Unsustainable

Sorry anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, and X-Files fans, science has just figured out that wide-ranging conspiracies are all but impossible to maintain over any significant period of time.

Dr. David Robert Grimes of University of Oxford, who conducted the study, is a cancer researcher as well as a science writer and broadcaster. As a result, he receives many questions from readers and listeners about ill-conceived conspiracy theories about scientific topics, such as the belief that vaccines are harmful and/or cause autism. 

Opening quote
"A number of conspiracy theories revolve around science. While believing the moon landings were faked may not be harmful, believing misinformation about vaccines can be fatal. However, not every belief in a conspiracy is necessarily wrong - for example, the Snowden revelations confirmed some theories about the activities of the US National Security Agency.
Closing quote

As a result, he decided to genuinely examine whether it would be possible for the government, or some other entity, to perpetrate a long-term, large-scale conspiracy. He found that it would be untenable the vast majority of the time, if only because eventually, there would be a Snowden (although usually, it wouldn't even get that far.)

Opening quote
"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."
Closing quote

For the study, he created an equation that calculated the amount of time it would take for someone within the conspiracy to reveal the secret activities, either by whistleblowing or blabbing. The factors in the equation included the number of co-conspirators, the length of time, and other factors that arise from the amount of time passed, such as how many deaths would occur in the population. In order to solve the equation for any particular number of conspirators, he used an estimation of the likelihood of any one person revealing the conspiracy. He based this number- approximately four in a million- on three real-life conspiracies, including the NSA surveillance revealed by Snowden. 

He then estimated the number of people that would be required to sustain several well-known conspiracies, such as the moon landings (411,000 people); global warming (405,000 people), and vaccinations (22,000). He found that a moon landing hoax would have been revealed in 3 years and 8 months, false climate change in 3 years and 9 months, and a vaccination conspiracy in 3 years and 2 months. So this type of deception would only be possible with a very, very small group of people.

Opening quote
"Even for a relatively short time of 5 years, the limit is hit with only 2521 agents. To sustain it for more than 10 years, less than 1000 people can be involved," he wrote in his paper.
Closing quote

As a result, he found that a century-long conspiracy would only be possible with fewer than 125 collaborators. Even if it was only a cover-up of a single event, rather than a sustained lie about multiple events, it would likely not be possible with more than 650 people.

This is actually good news for X-Files fans, as the Syndicate seemed to be made up of fewer than 125 people (although it was, predictably, never entirely clear how far it reached). But for any real-life conspiracy, you would need more than a couple thousand people to convince the world that vaccines were perfectly safe, or that climate change is occurring as a result of human activities.

Opening quote
"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."
Closing quote

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