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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