The Mathematics of Conspiracy
This interesting study tries to build a mathematical model for the continued secrecy of conspiracies, and tries to predict how long before they will be revealed to the general public, either wittingly or unwittingly.
The equation developed by Dr Grimes, a post-doctoral physicist at Oxford, relied upon three factors: the number of conspirators involved, the amount of time that has passed, and the intrinsic probability of a conspiracy failing.
He then applied his equation to four famous conspiracy theories: The belief that the Moon landing was faked, the belief that climate change is a fraud, the belief that vaccines cause autism, and the belief that pharmaceutical companies have suppressed a cure for cancer.
Dr Grimes's analysis suggests that if these four conspiracies were real, most are very likely to have been revealed as such by now.
Specifically, the Moon landing "hoax" would have been revealed in 3.7 years, the climate change "fraud" in 3.7 to 26.8 years, the vaccine-autism "conspiracy" in 3.2 to 34.8 years, and the cancer "conspiracy" in 3.2 years.
He also ran the model against two actual conspiracies: the NSA's PRISM program and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
From the paper:
Abstract: Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established. Conversely, historical examples of exposed conspiracies do exist and it may be difficult for people to differentiate between reasonable and dubious assertions. In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals, and the factors influencing conspiracy success and failure are explored. The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. 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 -- the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure. The theory presented here might be useful in counteracting the potentially deleterious consequences of bogus and anti-science narratives, and examining the hypothetical conditions under which sustainable conspiracy might be possible.
Lots on the psychology of conspiracy theories here.
EDITED TO ADD (3/12): This essay debunks the above research.
Posted on March 2, 2016 at 12:39 PM • 60 Comments