Large-scale conspiracies would quickly reveal themselves, Oxford researchers show

Jan 27, 2016

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. The study is published online by journal PLOS ONE.

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 collusions 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 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.’

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.

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30 comments on “Large-scale conspiracies would quickly reveal themselves, Oxford researchers show

  • So, if I think “they” are out to get me, only two of us need to keep the secret. But I don’t trust that other guy. Or is the whole world in on the fiendish plot? If they were, somebody would have blabbed by now. I guess I’ll just have accept that it’s true: they are out to get me! By the way, moon landing, schmoon landing.



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  • @OP – However, the equation required a realistic estimation of the chances of any one individual revealing a conspiracy.

    Mmmmmm!! Conspiracies!!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35419762

    Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi have been fined €137.8m (£105m) by European Union regulators for price fixing.

    The penalty is for fixing the price of car alternators and starters.

    Denso, the world’s second biggest car parts maker, avoided a fine for telling the authorities about the existence of the cartel.

    According to Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, the companies met at each other’s offices and restaurants to skew prices between 2004 and 2010.



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  • To any one who knows The Lord Jesus and the Holy Bible, it’s quite obvious that Dr Grimes is part of the international conspiracy by godless so-called scientists, inspired by the Devil, against the eternal truths of Christian religion.



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  • I am baffled that anyone could believe all scientists are in on a giant conspiracy with fake data on climate change, fake findings, all for the purpose of attracting grant money. How would they organise it? How would they prevent whistle blowers?. Why would they go to all that work for such a paltry prize?



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  • Roedy
    Jan 27, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    I am baffled that anyone could believe all scientists are in on a giant conspiracy with fake data on climate change, fake findings, all for the purpose of attracting grant money.

    For someone who thinks that Ken Ham and Co, are a real scientific research team, doing real scientific research, this kind of thinking, should not be too difficult.



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  • Now! I wonder who is going to come up with the better conspiracy theory????

    [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35422552}(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35422552)

    Fox News has fired back at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his refusal to participate in their debate on Thursday night.

    The network said in a statement that Mr Trump’s decision is “unprecedented” and accused him of “terrorising” debate host Megyn Kelly.

    Mr Trump clashed with Ms Kelly at a Fox News debate last year and had demanded she be removed from Thursday’s panel.

    His decision to pull out has been mocked by his Republican rivals.

    “Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats,” the Fox News network said in a statement.

    It’s just as well we have Fox to remind us and Trump of journalistic standards!!



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  • As one who worked in the conspiracy industry for many years, I think Dr Grimes results may be too conservative. In my experience with the best conspirators on the planet, Chinese Organized Crime, the moment a hint of a conspiracy was identified, it was only a matter of time before one of the conspirators would act in self interest over loyalty, and spill the beans. You just had to keep rattling the cages.

    I use the analogy of spot lighting rabbits in a paddock. (A powerful spot light shines up the pink eyes of the rabbit enabling the feral animals to be shot) In any given paddock, there will be lots of rabbits. The ones that get shot, are the ones the spot light happens to shine on. So when looking for conspiracies, once the spot light is shone, the conspiracy is dead. The spot light has been shone on global warming and the other favourites and no conspiracy has been found. Those that still believe the conspiracy don’t know the discipline required to maintain secrecy, which for our self interested species, is almost impossible to achieve.

    ‘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.

    This has given me an insight. For my sins, I hunt global warming deniers across forums. I see global warming denial as a clear and present danger to my grand children and I show no mercy going after these people who may cause the death of my favourite human beings. Instead of tackling a denier on the evidence they present, which is easy, I should go for their ideology, which is almost always right wing, conservative, free market, anti communist, anti world government and often with a Bearnaise sauce of religious fundamentalism sprayed on top. It doesn’t matter how much science I present, they never, ever change their mind. Truly dangerous people.

    p.s. In country Australia, we have a problem with feral cats, foxes and rabbits. (Lot’s more) I lived out in the country, and did spot lighting for many years helping the farmers. The colour of animals eyes at night identified the animal. Lots of good animals out their, so with experience, we knew from the colour of the eye reflection, what was feral and what was native. A cat from a kangaroo. A fox from a owl. A sheep from a rabbit. Fascinating. I wonder why eyes reflect different colours. Probably a scientific paper in this.



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  • How long did the Manhattan Project last?
    How many participants?
    Does this fit, or is a Top Secret Government Project in Wartime not counted as a “consipiracy”?
    (and as they say in Parliamentary Questions, “if not why not?”)

    Also, the cell structure of spies and terrorists doesn’t seem to be considered. Compartmentalisation, Need To Know, to limit damage to the whole network if one cell is compromised.

    On spotlighting, David, have you any comment on the 2010 incident in New Zealand where a person on a campsite was killed by a “spotlighter” illegally seeking deer, the shooter allegedly mistaking her LED head-lamp for the reflection from a deer’s eye. Unfortunately he was an accurate shot. Penalty was 10 months jail, as I recall.



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  • How long did the Manhattan Project last?

    Good test. How would this conspiracy differ from say, all the world’s scientists falsifying data to prove global warming, so they could drive later model second hand Camry’s.

    I speculate that people working on the Manhattan project were all highly motivated to maintain a high level of secrecy. That is, they all had a strong commitment to the conspiracy. The conspiracies cited by the researcher were all of the anti vaccination, / global warming / no moon landing type, where the conspirators were from a broad and diverse group of agencies and structures and had no Life and Death commitment to the project. Thus, should leak like a sieve.

    Of note was the eventual betrayal of the Manhattan project by a number of spies (whistle blowers? Assange’s of there day?)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_and_Ethel_Rosenberg

    Also your observation of the structure of spy networks is spot on. Cellular structure and Need to Know policy and disciplined members to prevent exposure of the conspiracy.

    I suspect the research was aimed at the flat earthers, world government, jet vapour trails, 9/11 type conspiracy nuts.



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  • What defines “conspiracy revealed”? B/c one person, or a small group, knows about something the conspiracy is ruined? A handful of spies learned of the Manhattan Project and it still continued; the vast majority of people knew nothing about it. The Holocaust was considered crazy rantings of radicals, or just ignored for many years. Successful crime gangs have been around for quite a while. We know about them, yet they still operate – are they “failed” conspiracies just b/c they aren’t 100% secret? It took about 100 years to prove the Lusitania conspiracy. For those around at the time, it was a successful.

    This type of research is very dangerous. It will provide those with ill intent – Holocaust deniers, deniers of institutional racism, etc. – “science” to prove they are right. Wonder how long until it hits a courtroom as “evidence”? All this research does is tell us what we already know: the absurd – Global Warming Conspiracies, etc – aren’t real.



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  • It will provide those with ill intent – Holocaust deniers, deniers of institutional racism, etc. – “science” to prove they are right.

    Confused. How will research that proves conspiracy theorists are nutters, that is, conspiracies will be exposed, help in court cases. The opposite would be true. The fact that a conspiracy to falsify global warming hasn’t been revealed thus far, would suggest there is no conspiracy.



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  • Careful on the usual throwaway line linking 9/11 to (say) flat-earthers. Jury would still be out on that, if ever there had been a jury. Some are still agitating for a real investigation, though I don’t expect they’ll ever get one. I’ve seen enough Official Inquiries turn out to be whitewashes to remain sceptical on this one. (Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough, to name 2)



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  • I thought it was giving estimates on how long a conspiracy of a specific size could expect to stay un-compromised.

    Which could be a handy rule-of-thumb when setting up one, nothing remains secret forever, but nothing needs to. But each conspiracy would have a useful-lifetime, after which compromise would be a lot less important.

    Manhattan Project secrecy only had to last until Japan’s surrender.

    WMD allegations only had to last until the Iraq invasion started.



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  • David R Allen
    Jan 27, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    As one who worked in the conspiracy industry for many years, I think Dr Grimes results may be too conservative. In my experience with the best conspirators on the planet, Chinese Organized Crime, the moment a hint of a conspiracy was identified, it was only a matter of time before one of the conspirators would act in self interest over loyalty, and spill the beans.

    Where there are reprisals or sanctions involved, conspirators, (who think in conspiratorial terms), – will be thinking about who is conspiring to seek amnesty, or who is conspiring to fit up a scapegoat if the secrecy starts to come unravelled!
    Even openly acknowledged conspiracies, like the cartel to hike up oil prices in previous years, have an element of playing chicken to see whose nerve breaks first when conflicts of interest arise!



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  • There are so many errors in the “logic” behind this “study” that I don’t even know where to start. If the average person really believes this kind of tripe, then it’s no wonder why a conspiracy would succeed.



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  • This kind of “research” seems a bit too well laced with assumptions. Surely it depends on how motivated the individuals are to keep the secret?

    And while some conspiracies are genuine conspiracies (that is to say, the people perpetuating the myth are fully aware that it’s a myth), the issue at the centre of other so-called conspiracies is one of confirmation bias, rather than conscious deception. Climate change is one such. While some nutters may believe that the climate change is a genuine conspiracy, a more reasonable “conspiracy” argument is that the data is being interpreted (in good faith) through a confirmation-bias lens, created by self-interest.

    I find it hard to believe that that are 400,000 people who are perfectly aware that climate change will destroy the earth, but who have such vested interests that they are knowingly lying to perpetuate a myth that it’s not happening! Istn’t it far more likely that the vast majority of those people are simply suffering confirmation bias, in favour of their preferred beliefs?



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  • Istn’t it far more likely that the vast majority of those people are simply suffering confirmation bias, in favour of their preferred beliefs?

    Indeed. Confirmation bias in favour of their favourite version of confirmation bias. It’s like the old media observation. If the journalist disagrees with your position, they are biased. If they agree with your position, they are a great journalist.

    So how to know the right decision on anything. A rational and unbiased assessment of evidence. Very hard unless you are Mr Spock. But a goal worthy of the attempt. So I try like the failed sinner I am, to base my position on a rational assessment of the available evidence, with the not negotiable condition, that if the evidence changes, then so does my position. You can’t have a hissy fit if you don’t like where the evidence leads. That’s when your confirmation bias kicks in, and you only seek out and cite material that agrees with your position, with the rest being biased or conspiratorial rubbish.

    So evidence, passed through the filter morality and ethics. On the capital punishment thread, you could argue there is good evidence that an executed murder will not murder again, but that requires an argument that it is moral for a state to empower itself to kill another person, which fails.

    I oft quote Bertrand Russell on this. “Most people would rather die than think. And most people do.” I think that sums up the species Homo Sapiens.



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  • Mmm, but my comment was specifically a criticsim of the article’s claim to have somehow quantified the (un)likeliness of a conspiracy being successfully maintained.

    I outlined one major weakness in their “research”, and that was that I think they fail to distinguish between a genuine conspiracy which requires secrecy on behalf of people who are lying, and faux conspiracies, which are nothing more than certain people disagreeing with what appears to be clear-cut evidence. Would it really take 400,000 people to be deliberately lying, to have maintained off the fake moon-landing conspiracy, had it actually been fake? Surely most of those are just misled by the central few (or few hundred, even)?

    Another weakness of Dr Grimes’ claim to have quantified the problem, is that it’s not possible to say whether a conspiracy has been debunked. A whistleblower may convince some, but not all of the public. Even the best documented evidence of a conspiracy can be discredited.

    I think Dr Grimes has added nothing to our knowledeg of conspiracies or how to asses their credibility (either way).



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  • So, it lasted a bit longer than absolutely necessary.
    Which rates is as a Successful Conspiracy, doesn’t it?
    Of course, the conspirators would prefer it to last even longer, but nothing lasts forever.
    I don’t think we’re in disagreement, are we?



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  • I try … to base my position on a rational assessment of the available evidence

    Laudable. Absolutely right. Which is why it’s important to note that Vested Interests don’t want anyone seeing evidence that might undermine their position. Here’s an example I just found. If I’d said the US Administration had been covering up evidence of climate change, I might be called a Conspiracy Theorist.

    What about sabotaging the collection of evidence in the first place?

    http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2011-03/lost-satellite



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  • 27
    hisxmark says:

    “Poe’s law
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Poe’s law is an Internet adage which states that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, parodies of extreme views will be mistaken by some readers or viewers for sincere expressions of the parodied views.”

    If you are only kidding, headswapboy, then kudos, but if you are serious…facepalm!



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  • OHooligan
    Jan 28, 2016 at 12:32 am

    I’ve seen enough Official Inquiries turn out to be whitewashes to remain sceptical on this one. (Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough, to name 2)

    Conspiring officials????



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  • On “conspiring officials”, Alan: Is this a Conspiracy Theory you’re proposing? Can you, in fact, have a Whitewash without a Conspiracy?

    Here’s a Thought Experiment:

    How many conspirators would it take to keep something out of the mainstream English language news media (press, TV, where the vast majority of the populace gets its news)?

    Assume you can pick and choose your conspirators for the minimum number needed, for example selected bosses, not all front-line reporters.

    How long would a conspiracy of this size be predicted to last?



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  • Technical tip: How to use the new @ function

    The new @ function allows you to address specific users, but you do need to be a little careful with it.

    It works here the same way as on Twitter, i.e. you need to use the person’s user name, which may not be the same as the display name.

    To find the user name, let your cursor hover over the name displayed beside any comment by the user in question. A long link like this will appear at the bottom of your screen:

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/members/[USER NAME]/
    

    For the @ function you just need the final bit of the link, i.e. the user name – without the / before and after.

    It is important to get it right, as otherwise the notification of your comment will be sent to the wrong person, which they will obviously find annoying!

    The mods



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