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Scientist develops math model to test conspiracy theories

Had the moon landing actually been faked, David Grime's model suggests the conspiracy would have been revealed within four years.
By Brooks Hays   |   Jan. 27, 2016 at 3:08 PM

OXFORD, England, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- A new math model promises to determine the viability of conspiracy theories.

The model was developed by David Grimes, a physicist at Oxford University. The model doesn't give a true-false output, but estimates how long a conspiracy could be kept secret given the number of people involved.

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Conspiracies -- and the misinformation many conspiracy theorists traffic in -- can make it difficult for researchers and policy makers to convince the general public of facts and theories largely settled within the scientific community.

The problem inspired Grimes, but his model is based on the reality that conspiracies do exist, and have been revealed throughout history.

"A number of conspiracy theories revolve around science," Grimes told The Telegraph. "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, NSA."

Using a combination of mathematical logic and knowledge of past conspiracies, Grimes built a model to determine how long a systematic secret could successfully remain hidden from the general public. The model analyzes two main factors -- number of parties involved and length of time -- to estimate the likelihood that a conspiracy would be uncovered by a whistleblower or inadvertently revealed.

Grimes then used his model to analyze some of the most popular conspiracy theories.

"Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants," Grimes wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

Had the moon landing actually been faked, Grime's model suggests the conspiracy would have been revealed within 3.68 years. Grimes also applied his model to common conspiracy theories that climate change is a hoax, vaccines are unsafe, and that drug companies have a cure for cancer they aren't releasing.

For a conspiracy to last five years, Grimes found, there would have to be 2,521 or fewer conspirators. To last 100 years, there would have to be fewer than 125 conspirators.

Grimes said there is more work to be done in order to determine why conspiracies persist and how to best combat naysayers and skeptics.

"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 fictions.

"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," he said.

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