People who believe in mass-scale conspiracy theories simply suck at math

While all of us can keep a secret individually, a study by Dr. David Robert Grimes published in the online journal PLOS ONE suggests that this ability does not translate well to large groups. Simply put, large groups participating in a conspiracy will quickly expose themselves.

Dr. Grimes is a physicist, cancer researcher, science writer, and broadcaster. His work often brings him into contact with conspiracists, which compelled him to look into whether or not large scale conspiracies were feasible:

‘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 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.’

An equation created by Grimes factors in the number of believers in any given conspiracy theory, the length of time, and even the effects of those who were responsible for the plot dying. It accounts for both death by old age and far more sinister means. Grimes then took a realistic estimation of any one individual revealing the conspiracy from three real life instances, including the NSA Prism project revealed by Edward Snowden.

In each case, the number of conspirators and the time before the conspiracy was brought to light were overestimated to ensure that the odds of a leak were on the side of the conspirators. This ended in a four-in-one million chance of deliberate or accidental exposure.

In other words, the more people required to be complicit in a plot over time, the faster it would theoretically fall apart.

According to the equation, popular conspiracies such as the moon landing being a hoax and a suppressed “cancer cure” would have been discovered in roughly 3 years. A coverup of a single event is likely to be blown if more than 650 accomplices are involved, while a century-long scheme requires fewer than 125 collaborators in order to maintain secrecy, making the probability of successful large-scale conspiracies nearly impossible.

But since math is logic, don’t expect to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind anytime soon.

Isadora Teich

Isadora Teich is a freelance writer and digital nomad who has worked in web marketing, digital branding, entertainment, and news. When not writing or traveling she is probably doing yoga, learning Spanish, or experimenting in the kitchen.

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