How To Separate Conspiracy Fiction From Fact, According To Science

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The online warring between renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Atlanta rapper Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., who goes by the stage name B.o.B, has taken on a life of its own, escalating into a full-blown rap battle. B.o.B isn’t alone in his conviction of the Flat Earth conspiracy theory, one that asserts that common-held or scientifically disproved beliefs are part of a global ruse spanning decades or — in the case of the Flat Earth theory — centuries.

But is there some scientific truth behind some conspiracy theories? University of Oxford cancer researcher David Robert Grimes developed a test that can separate conspiracy fact from fiction.

“The charge that there is a scientific conspiracy afoot is a common one and almost inevitably those making these charges will descend into accusing one of shilling or being an agent of some malignant entity,” Grimes told LiveScience.

History has proven that some conspiracies do exist — think Watergate — and have been exposed. But their existence can blur the line between reasonable doubt and baseless claims, Grimes wrote in the study. To tell the difference between the two, Grimes developed a mathematical model to estimate the chances common conspiracy theories could be true without being exposed.

The study focused on four common conspiracies that often blame scientists for aiding in a mass cover-up: NASA didn’t really send a man to the Moon, climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism, and that the cure for cancer exists but is a closely guarded secret. Grimes then developed a formula to see how long these large-scale conspiracies, which would require the cooperation of at least 1,000 people, could stay under wraps.

To determine that, he looked at three “confirmed” conspiracies: the NSA’s surveillance programs exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013, the Tuskegee experiment in which the U.S. Public Health Service withheld treatment from African-American men who contracted syphilis, and the FBI using questionable forensic techniques and court testimony that led to hundreds of wrongful convictions and imprisonment. Then Grimes estimated the lifespan of the conspiracies before they were exposed.

The study found that even with the most generous assumptions conspiracies last longer when fewer people are involved, but the truth eventually comes out. For example, if the moon-landing was faked, it would have been exposed in less than four years. Climate change as a hoax, however, would have been exposed either inadvertently or purposefully within 27 years if all climate scientists were party to the cover-up. That number drops to 3.7 years once scientific bodies and agencies are also roped in to guard the conspiracy.

For a conspiracy to last five years, just over 2,500 people could actively know the truth before it’s revealed. Fewer than 1,000 people can know about it to keep the conspiracy alive for 10 years, and only 125 people could be involved to keep a conspiracy going for a century, the study found.

“Even if there was a concerted effort, the sheer number of people required for the sheer scale of hypothetical scientific deceptions would inextricably undermine these nascent conspiracies,” Grimes wrote, emphasizing that the study looks at the chances a conspiracy will be leaked either by mistake or a whistleblower. “For a conspiracy of even only a few thousand actors, intrinsic failure would arise within decades. For hundreds of thousands, such failure would be assured within less than half a decade.”

Past research has shown that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to believe in others. Research also suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is eroded by analytical thinking, which forces an individual to consider multiple outcomes. But people have a tendency to over-rely on their intuition, opting not to think about things more critically. That habit can have potentially hazardous consequences, like when people refuse potentially life-saving treatment.

“I think true believers will never change their views,” Grimes told LiveScience. “While these people are ideologically deeply invested in a given narrative, I would hope that this paper might help the more rational people who have maybe heard some claims and want to ascertain if they’re probable or not.”