Conspiracy Theories Mathematically Impossible, Says Oxford University Physicist Who Actually Did The Math

We’ve all heard of some popular conspiracy theories, like the idea that the moon landing was faked, scientists are hiding the cure for cancer to make more money, or, in the case of rapper Bobby Ray Simmon Jr. (aka BoB) who published a series of tweets on the subject this week, that the Earth is, in fact, flat. While the vast majority of people around the world don’t believe in these, and other, conspiracy theories, there will always be those who hold fast to their beliefs despite science proving them false time and time again.

Wanting to find out the statistical probability of the likelihood of some of the world’s most famous conspiracy theories, Dr. David Robert Grimes — an Oxford University physicist and cancer researcher — published a paper earlier this week in which he worked out a mathematical equation that proves the gross improbability of the more large-scale conspiracy theories that seem to gain popularity as the years go by, reports the Guardian.

The four conspiracy theories that Dr. Grimes decided to use for his equation are some of the most popular out there, and are, by choice rather than happenstance, “anti-science narratives” — particularly because he believes that such large-scale science conspiracy theories “would not be sustainable.” He opted to use his equation on the conspiracy theories involving the 1969 moon landing being faked by NASA, the climate change conspiracy, the idea that vaccines are unsafe for children, and the belief that a cure for cancer has already been found but is being withheld in the interest of money.

Dr. Grimes admits that there are some conspiracy theories that have turned out to be real, such as the NSA PRISM affair that was ultimately revealed by Edward Snowden; the 1932 The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which penicillin as a treatment for syphilis was withheld from African-American men and was finally exposed in 1972 by Dr. Peter Buxtun; and, finally, an FBI scandal that was revealed in 1998 by Dr. Frederic Whitehurst that exposed the agency’s forensic testing as fraudulent and led to the incarceration and deaths of many falsely imprisoned inmates. Dr. Grimes used these three “true” conspiracy theories in his equation in order to determine the time it took from inception to exposure and how many people were involved in the conspiracy.

According to his calculations, says the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Grimes figured that the moon landing hoax and the climate change conspiracy would have required roughly 400,000 secret-keepers each, while the vaccination conspiracy would require 22,000 people to keep it a secret, and the cure for cancer conspiracy would have to involve upwards of 710,000 people. The more people involved in any given conspiracy, posits Dr. Grimes, the more difficult it becomes to keep said secret from the public. Additionally, the equation also states that the longer a conspiracy goes on for, the greater the chance of public exposure.

For example, according to BBC News, the NSA PRISM affair involved roughly 36,000 people, Dr. Grimes estimates, and was revealed by Snowden after about six years. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment likely involved up to 6,700 and was finally exposed by Dr. Buxtun 25 years after inception, and finally, the FBI’s fraudulent forensic testing probably only involved about 500 people and took roughly six years to be brought to public attention.

Using these numbers as a control for his conspiracy theories equation, Dr. Grimes calculated that moon landing hoax would have been exposed in roughly three years and eight months, the climate change conspiracy in three years and nine months, the unsafe vaccinations fraud in three years and two months, and the withheld cure for cancer in three years and three months.

“My results suggest that any conspiracy with over a few hundred people rapidly collapses, and big science conspiracies would not be sustainable.”

Dr. Grimes also calculated the rough number of who could be involved in a conspiracy in order to keep it going for a certain amount of years. For a conspiracy to last five years, he says, the maximum number of people involved could not exceed 2,521. For a decade-long conspiracy, less than 1,000 could be involved. And for a century-long plot, Dr. Grimes said the conspiracy would have to involve fewer than 125 people.

Dr. Grimes also admits that there will, of course, always be conspiracy theories, and there will always be those die-hard adherents to their belief in certain conspiracy theories, despite any mathematical or scientific evidence to the contrary. What he hopes, however, is that his equation may nudge those who find themselves on the fence in the right direction.

“While I think it’s difficult to impossible to sway those with a conviction, I would hope this paper is useful to those more in the middle ground who might wonder whether scientists could perpetuate a hoax or not.”

Do you believe in any conspiracy theories? Sound off below.

[Image via NASA/Liaison]