In this day and digital age, it is believed by most that the world runs mostly on autopilot. If you spend any time on Facebook and other social media you will soon believe that the world runs on half-baked conspiracy theories. Be it the JFK Assassination, 9/11 Cover-Up, Area 51, Project Blue Beam, The Flat Earth, Secret Societies Control the World, The Moon Landings Were Faked, The CIA and AIDS, or even the Reptilian Elite. For the uninitiated, the reptilian elite is the idea that shape-shifting humanoid reptilian aliens have infiltrated all levels of government. They walk among us. They look like us (which is really convenient) and they drink our adrenochrome for a lizardy lust enhancer. And those are not even the really crazy ones.
These range from the absurd to the hard facepalm, but these conspiracy theories have proved remarkably resilient, some of them for decades. Regardless of their improbability, they provide an unsettling glimpse of human curiosity and gullibility – and, paradoxically, our reluctance to trust authority.
If you’re thinking of creating a massive conspiracy, you may be better scaling back your plans, according to an Oxford University researcher.
While we can all keep a secret, a study by Dr David Robert Grimes suggests that large groups of people sharing in a conspiracy will very quickly give themselves away. Dr Grimes, a physicist working in cancer research, is also a science writer and broadcaster. His profile means that he receives many communications from people who believe in science-related conspiracies. Those messages prompted him to look at whether large-scale conspiracies were actually tenable.
He explained: ‘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.
It is common to dismiss conspiracy theories and their proponents out of hand but he wanted to take the opposite approach, to see how these conspiracies might be possible. To do that, he looked at the vital requirement for a viable conspiracy – secrecy.’
Dr Grimes initially created an equation to express the probability of a conspiracy being either deliberately uncovered by a whistle-blower or inadvertently revealed by a bungler. 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.
However, the equation required a realistic estimation of the chances of any one individual revealing a conspiracy. Three genuine conspiracies were used to provide this – including the NSA Prism project revealed by Edward Snowden.
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.
Dr Grimes then looked at four alleged plots, estimating the maximum number of people required to be in on the conspiracy, in order to see how viable these conspiracies could be.
These include: the theory that the US moon landings were a hoax (411,000 people); that Climate Change is a fraud (405,000 people); that unsafe vaccinations are being covered up (22,000 people assuming that only the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control are conspirators and that others involved in advocating, producing, distributing and using vaccines are dupes. 736,000 people if, as would be more likely, pharmaceutical companies were included); that the cure for Cancer is being suppressed by the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms (714,000 people).
Using the equation, Dr Grimes calculated that hoax moon landing would have been revealed in 3 years 8 months, a climate change fraud in 3 years 9 months, a vaccination conspiracy in 3 years 2 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.
He then looked at the maximum number of people who could take part in an intrigue in order to maintain it. For a plot to last five years, the maximum was 2521 people. To keep a scheme operating undetected for more than a decade, fewer than 1000 people can be involved. A century-long deception should ideally include fewer than 125 collaborators. Even a straightforward cover-up of a single event, requiring no more complex machinations than everyone keeping their mouth shut, is likely to be blown if more than 650 people are accomplices.
Dr Grimes said: ‘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, does 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 most 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 fiction. 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.
What cannot be underestimated in the making of a large-scale conspiracy is how people digest information. The media is the prime source of most people’s information. All media packages and writes for a 4th or 5th grade level of understanding. Newspapers, magazines, and now in the digital age news television shows are designed to be understood by a 10-year-old. When all the information you are exposed to is written on a child’s level it is no wonder that conspiracies are born. The world and its varying politics are not compressible down to a 4th-grade level of understanding. In almost all cases an advanced education is required to truly understand a complex situation like the ones you find on the world stage.
The woeful state of science education is also one of the causes of this rampant blight of conspiracies. In most cases, a true understanding and appreciation of the scientific method would be enough to straighten things out on the side of rationality. Yet again this kind of appreciation can only arise from attending a faculty of higher education. This may never happen in a field where even its name is logically inconsistent. It should be called a conspiracy hypothesis, not a conspiracy theory. A hypothesis is an attempt to explain phenomena. It is a proposal, a guess used to understand and/or predict something. A theory is a result of testing a hypothesis and developing an explanation that is assumed to be true about something. A theory replaces the hypothesis after testing confirms the hypothesis or the hypothesis is modified and tested again until predictable results occur.
There is no doubt that horrible and heinous acts go on behind closed doors. Humans will go human when push comes to shove. Evil people are in power all over the globe. Evil exists in the hearts of men… but people are more dedicated to gossip and running their tongues at every opportunity. Add a bottle of Tequila to the mix and the truth will be known. Large scale conspiracies will have their contents spilt for all to see…that is just human nature.
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