Conspiracy theories range from the relatively harmless (that the moon landings were faked, or that Avril Lavigne really died in 2007) to the genuinely dangerous (denying climate change or the value of vaccines). Dr David Grimes at the University of Oxford has created a model to describe how long such cover ups could be sustained.
Dr Grimes predicts how long something can remain a secret for, as well as the maximum number of people involved. This takes into account the probability of leaks, general human ineptitude, and even the deaths of conspiracy theorists. For example, a maximum number of 2,521 conspirators is allowed to achieve a five year cover up. Based on this, a faked moon landing would have been revealed sometime in the early 1970s.
Dr Grimes describes the motivation for his research as being frustrated by a relatively small minority of evidence deniers whose voices are amplified on the internet. He is quoted as having said: “I hope that by showing how eye-wateringly unlikely some alleged conspiracies are, some people will change their anti-science beliefs”, expressing the frustration of many in the scientific community when their evidence is dismissed in favour of ideological beliefs.
The existence of a confirmation bias is not restricted to those wearing hats made of tinfoil. To some degree, each of us tends to accept evidence that correlates with previously held ideas or theories. What Dr Grimes is describing is a section of modern society that would prefer to risk their own lives based on their mistrust of institutions, governments and companies.
Grimes acknowledges that some conspiracies are not always untrue, by referring to cases such as the Edward Snowden data collection, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and, that old classic, Watergate. These examples support his theory because the truth was, in fact, unveiled.
He also describes how scientific studies have a peer review process that would mean the number of conspirators involved in a cover up would merely grow. The world over, scientists try to repeat each other’s experiments, and so a large majority of the global science community would need to be involved. Although science is not without its dissenters: the campaign to stop the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider had the backing of professors and doctors from a range of fields. Said parties are now ridiculed by various online communities. Speaking of which, rapper B.o.B’s most recent claim that the world is flat falls foul of this model. The conspiracy would have gone back several hundred years and survived changes such as the advent of satellites and telescopes – Neil deGrasse Tyson was quick with a rebuttal.
This is of course all based on statistical modelling, Grimes could probably have had more fun testing this mechanistically. All he would have to do is invent an imaginary cover up plot and gradually involve more people and see how long it lasted. After all, people get away with a lot in the name of social experiments these days.
So there we have it, conspiracy modelling points to little truth in most. Of course, that is exactly what they want you to think. What better way to say it than with numbers? Avril Lavigne’s music really did change in the late Noughties. Wake up, sheeple.