Countless people around the world believe in conspiracies, secret agendas and large-scale cover-ups. While some of these are largely benign (and some even turn out to be true), others, such as misinformation about vaccines, can be fatal.
To find out how likely these conspiratorial activities are, Dr David Robert Grimes, Oxford Physicist and Science Writer, came up with a special mathematical equation.
“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,” said Grimes.
The equation he used to estimate the probability of a large-scale conspiracy being “outed” by a whistle-blower or inadvertently revealed by a bungler was modelled after three genuine conspiracies, including the NSA Prism project revealed by Edward Snowden.
This factors in the number of conspirators, the length of time, and even the effects of conspirators dying, whether of old age or more nefarious means, for those conspiracies that do not require active maintenance.
In each case, the number of conspirators and the time before the conspiracy was revealed were over-estimated to ensure that the odds of a leak happening were a “best case scenario” for the conspirators – around a four in one million chance of deliberate or accidental exposure.
With the algorithm in place, Dr Grimes then looked at several alleged plots and estimated the maximum number of people required to be in on the conspiracy to see how viable it really is.
For instance, the theory that the US moon landings were a hoax would require roughly 411,000 people to keep their mouths shut; covering up climate change fraud would involve 405,000 people, and suppressing a cancer cure (usually thought to be perpetrated by pharmaceutical companies) would require the silence of 714,000 conspirators.
Using the equation, Dr Grimes calculated that hoax moon landings would have been revealed in 3 years 8 months, a climate change fraud in 3 years 9 months, and a suppressed cancer cure in 3 years 3 months. In simple terms, any one of the four conspiracies would have been exposed long before now.
“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,” concluded Grimes.