Major conspiracy 'impossible to keep under wraps for long'
Published 26/01/2016 | 19:11
Secrets have a way of escaping that makes it impossible to keep a major conspiracy under wraps for long, a study has found.
British physicist Dr David Grimes worked out a mathematical way to calculate the chances of a plot being deliberately leaked by a whistle-blower or accidentally uncovered.
He was able to show that the more people share in a conspiracy, the shorter its lifespan is likely to be.
For a plot to last five years, the maximum number of plotters turned out to be 2,521. To keep a scheme operating undetected for more than a decade, fewer than 1,000 people could be involved, while a century-long deception had to include fewer than 125 collaborators.
Applying the technique to four real-life scenarios showed that had the moon landings been a hoax - involving an estimated 411,000 people - it would have been found out in three years and eight months.
A climate change conspiracy with 405,000 conspirators would have lasted just three years and nine months, an unsafe vaccination plot (22,000 or 736,000 conspirators, depending on whether pharmaceutical companies were involved in the cover-up) three years and two months, and a secretly suppressed cancer cure (714,000 conspirators) three years and three months.
Dr Grimes, from Oxford University, who also works as a science writer and broadcaster, said: "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 (NSA).
"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 said he was inspired to carry out the research by the numerous communications he receives from people who believe in science-related conspiracies.
Dr Grimes developed an equation to express the probability of a conspiracy being either deliberately uncovered by a whistle-blower or inadvertently revealed.
It factored in conspirator numbers, length of time, and even the effects of conspirators dying, whether of old age or non-natural causes.
Also required was a realistic estimation of any one individual disclosing a conspiracy. This was based on three genuine conspiracies, including the NSA Prism project revealed by Edward Snowden.
Dr Grimes, whose research appears in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, added: "'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.
"This will of course not convince everyone; there's ample evidence that belief in conspiracy is often ideological rather than rational, and that conspiracy theories thrive in an echo chamber. This makes challenging the more odious narratives much more difficult.
"If we are to address the multitudinous difficulties facing us as a species, from climate change to geopolitics, then we need to embrace reality over 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."